The Coachella Arts and Music Festival was started in 1999 by Southern California promoters Goldenvoice. Patterned after European summer festivals, the event was intended to celebrate the eclecticism of music through a diverse, left-of-center lineup. The tricky part, of course, is that the event still needed to make money. So, when this year's talent roster was announced, and such mainstream acts as the Foo Fighters, current it-band the Strokes, Prodigy, Oasis, Cake, fashionable singer-songwriter Pete Yorn and electronic favorites the Chemical Brothers (who've played all three years) were among those included, former attendees of the festival publicly worried about the integrity of what Goldenvoice originally intended.
But it was Saturday's low-key lineup, which featured the Chems and Bjork headlining, that outsold Sunday's Foos/Strokes/Oasis triple bill. Such is the weird world of Coachella, where Bjork was treated as an icon under a starry Saturday night sky and atmospheric jam band Zero 7 could pilfer fans from the much-anticipated return of the Prodigy on day two.
Much of the festival's appeal is the smorgasbord of styles and acts it offers the discerning music fan. Everyone knows that the Strokes (who were probably the second biggest draw, after Bjork), are going to be solid, and that the Foos and Oasis would play a bunch of hits, but it's the little discoveries in the surrounding tents that make Coachella memorable.
Saturday's prime discovery was U.K. drum-and-bass band Kosheen, who were making their first Los Angeles-area appearance. Expanding from a trio to a quintet for the live show, Kosheen dazzled with an hour-long set of material from its debut, Resist. The hit "Hide U" took on an almost anthemic quality in the live setting, while the soulful "I Want it All" showed a depth to the group's songwriting and sound. What was so interesting though -- and the band seemed surprised by this backstage afterwards -- was that the fans knew every word and note. For the small but devoted throng who packed the Mojave tent for Kosheen's set, the group's appearance was unquestionably the weekend's highlight.
But then Coachella is different in the way it celebrates the electronic scene. No other American rock festival would have a dance act (the Chemical Brothers) headline, and the duo proved up to the task, following Bjork's set with a lively set composed primarily of material from the new Come With Us CD.
If the sight of fans dancing around a large grassy field was impressive, it still paled in comparison to the dedication shown by the dance enthusiasts who packed the makeshift Delta Heavy tent. Fans literally danced all day to the warm, sunny grooves of Miguel Migs, the rising trance hooks of Lee Burridge (who had to go it alone when mate Jimmy Van M took ill) and the tent's main draw, the incomparable Sasha and Digweed. The dynamic duo of DJs obliterated the tent with a roof-raising blend of percussive beats, and synthesizer-heavy rises.
To remind fans that there was a reward for venturing from the main stage, Beck made an unscheduled appearance with DJ Z-Trip in the afternoon hours to provide live vocals to "Where It's At."
Other Day One highlights included rapper KRS-One, LA jam band Forest for the Trees, who set themselves apart from the other bands of that ilk with rap vocals and Bjork, whose haunting, intimate music carried surprisingly well in the wide-open Polo Field.
Day Two again found highlights off the beaten path, but much of the excitement stemmed from the appearance of the Strokes. That the Strokes are a great live band is proven, but being a great live band in a small, sweaty club where one can be five feet away is a much easier feat than succeeding in such a vast venue.
Even if the band did lose a little of its luster, there was still plenty of shine left. The accessibility of the band's neo-Velvet Underground hooks translated well to the sunlight, and lead singer Julian Casablancas embraced the crowd in his own unique way. At one point he thanked them for their applause, saying, "This means more to us than you'll ever know." But against the backdrop though of the Stooges-esque beat of "Is This It," no one was going to accuse the Strokes of going soft.
Perhaps it was the influence of Tenacious D, who joined the Foos for two songs in another surprise appearance, but contrary to Casablancas' charm, Foos frontman Dave Grohl (who did double duty over the weekend, drumming for Queens of the Stone Age Saturday) decided to go the testosterone route, at least with his between-song banter.
"As soon as we start to play the VH1 shit, women start to take off their shirts," he joked at one point. "It never fails." Then he added, "My mom's here -- fucking be cool. This is a new one. We're going to play it for her tits. Maybe we'll play it twice, one for each tit." Unfortunately, the jokes were more memorable though than the Foos' new songs.
The same can be said of main-stage co-headliners Oasis, who lacked the command to keep an exhausted audience from packing it in early. Tracks like "Don't Look Back in Anger" still sound appealing, but the band did nothing to prove it can regain its former status. Prodigy, on the other hand, at least did that, even if the on-stage vitriol of Keith Flint threatened to overshadow the band. Still, the crowd-pleasing energy of "Firestarter," "Smack My Bitch Up," and the new "Nuclear" compensated for such idiotic lines as, "I didn't come here to play. I came here to fucking feel pain." Whatever, dude.
Other Sunday highlights included Paul Oakenfold, who rebounded from a disappointing performance last year with a monster set, and Belle and Sebastian, whose engaging pop/folk tunes delighted the crowd.
Mostly, Coachella again proved that music fans will endure two exhausting days under the California desert to see a diverse lineup. Are you listening, promoters?