Coachella: Musical Oasis in the California Desert

Beck, Morrissey, Rage and a phalanx of DJs turned up the three-digit heat at Coachella

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If you only know the music played on commercial radio, most of the acts at the Coachella Music and Art Festival 1999 would strike you as obscure. That's because artists at the two-day festival were chosen more on the basis of musical credibility than their sales figures. So Coachella was able to avoid the Limp Bizkits and Korns who might sell millions of copies, but whose amped-up audiences have helped turn recent music festivals into something akin to fraternity hazing rituals.

Instead, you had the ecstatic goofiness of the rave-goer. If nothing else, Saturday night at Coachella announced that electronic dance music has moved fully into the mainstream. As the sun went down, the glow sticks rose and electronic music swept the festival, with the big beat imperatives of the Chemical Brothers on the main stage, Underworld slamming away on the second stage and DJ Rap working the turntable in the largest of the three rave tents. And other techno acts won converts as the day went on, with Breakbeat Era, Roni Size's latest project, turning the most heads. "This song is about the death of the new party in England. It's about politics." The idea that a jungle group might proselytize about politics was a concept as unlikely three months ago as "President Bill Bradley." Early DJs were not forgotten, as house music pioneers like Juan Atkins and Derrick May spun. In the world of hip-hop, young Los Angeles rappers Jurassic 5 brought back memories of early, pre-gangsta rap, with their good-natured boasts and messages of respect and self-reliance.

Beck, who headlined Saturday, has connections to DJ and hip-hop culture, going so far as to use DJ Swamp for his live shows. But he leaves them behind with Midnite Vultures, his next album, due this November. As the millennium ends it would seem that Beck just wants to party like he wrote 1999. The album is an R&B-styled workout, inspired rock/soul fusion that evokes the hybridizing talents of Prince. At Coachella, a warm-up for his tour, Beck seemed to conceive the music as being half Vegas, half church, placing the preacher persona seen during the Odelay tour in front of a Stax/Volt horn section and wailing background singers. Whipping the stage with James Brown dance moves as he got down to his groove, Beck spoke to his congregation of "Hollywood Freaks," and shows off a keening falsetto on "Debra (I Want to Get With You and Your Sister)." Even older numbers got a soulful retrofitting, with the countryish "Sissyneck" becoming his "Dead Flowers" and "Beercan" popping into a funky lope.

Morrissey, who actually outdrew the headliner, chose to stay on safe ground, offering no real surprises. With three guitarists (none of them Johnny Marr, proving the pre-festival rumors wrong), he was trying for a thick Bowie-esque sound that didn't quite work for him. And he matched the music with his movements, swanning around the stage, striking poses, quickly becoming the Norma Desmond of rock, an overly dramatic self-parody.

Perry Farrell on the other hand, couldn't help but to be a surprise. No one had any idea what he'd be doing, so when he showed up on stage leading a conga line of scantily clad belly dancers (with two taking the place on either side of the sound and light scaffolding, much to the delight of the crew) some people were bound to wonder just what was going on. With snaky lubricious rhythms and chanted vocals, the music was a logical extension of the more tranced-out Porno for Pyros material, but there was a world music element at work as well, which is best described as Martin Denny exotica in Vegas.

There was a different feel to Sunday's crowd even in the parking lot. They were younger, more predominantly male and, judging from the number of tailgate parties featuring cases of beer, drunker. And, because that night's headliners were Rage and Tool, there were simply many more of them. Many ticket holders showed up later in the day, which was too bad for them, as they missed some of the most memorable music of the weekend.

The second stage emphasized rap and hip-hop. Ugly Duckling is a white and Hispanic rap duo, and, like Jurassic 5, they proved that everything old is new again, as their old-school raps charmed the crowd. Gil Scott-Heron's style has been cannibalized by many DJs, so it only made sense he was next up. His two-song, forty-five-minute set showed he has not lost a step since his classic Seventies albums. The Roots' Razhel was equally commanding, but his talents have less to do with words than the sounds that come out of his mouth. He also showed up on-stage with Mix Master Mike, the two of them (aided by a second DJ, Q-Bert) engaging in the kind of jaw dropping improvisation some would claim for jam bands. In a surprise last-minute performance, Kool Keith took the stage at the Gobi tent. Appearing in his Black Elvis guise he performed in a plastic Elvis wig (and occasionally, in a space helmet), tossing out bags of fried chicken to the crowd and energetically prancing around the stage.

DJs aren't usually known for their stage presence, but on Sunday many of them made an impression. 60 Channels, the latest project from Los Angeles DJ the Angel, augmented her skittish noir with singer/rappers DJ Navigator (who contributed Jamaican styled toasting), Frente's Angie Hart and R&B diva Jody Watley. BT (best known for his score to Go) followed, spinning his sprightly, buzzily romantic soundscapes, while Autechre's angular set had a skin-piercing intensity. DJ Shadow prefaced his performance by saying the audience didn't need to look at him on-stage. Though the visuals weren't all that engaging, his high-octane scratches and cuts caught the audience's ears and didn't let them go until forty-five minutes later, when the turntables stopped.

The main stage was given over to alternative rock, in all its permutations. Money Mark exemplified his genre's goofy side with his off-center samples. Cibo Matto was easily the day's most summery band, their lilting samba-inflected tunes floating above the crowd. Ben Harper, who had the unenviable position of taking the stage before Rage, ended up being the perfect transition between the indie bands and Rage's thrash. His firm grasp of rhythm endeared him to the crowd while his love for dense classic guitar sounds spoke to Rage partisans.

But it was Rage who made the largest single audience of the festival. The fans were so enthusiastic they nearly toppled the crowd barrier. Rage did not disappoint them -- even though singer Zach de la Rocha was suffering from laryngitis. That's not a bad thing, really. For although Rage is probably the most sophisticated musically of the thrash bands, their politics are a blunt instrument. For all the work that goes into crafting their guitar sounds, they lyrics rarely rise above simple pamphleteering. Combined with their thick, roughly textured guitar sound and obvious love of Seventies blues rockers, too often they come across as the Socialist Worker interpreted by Foghat.

Not that Tool were any more original. Their amalgam of sludgy riffs borders on Seventies progressive rock -- albeit a more industrial version. For all the passion and intensity, you often wonder why singer Maynard Keenan is so damned upset. They were also responsible for the weekend's only naked bodies: a couple hanging from the rigging uncurling from a fetal position. They looked so damned uncomfortable that no one dared follow their lead. In the scheme of Coachella they weren't so much anomalous as anti-climatic.