The first weekend of Coachella 2013 ended with an anticlimactic super bummer when the weather deteriorated into a blinding sandstorm by the time the Red Hot Chili Peppers started their headline set to close the festival yesterday.
“California, show your teeth,” singer Anthony Kiedis sang during the band’s second song, “Dani California.” By then, the elements had indeed revealed their fangs, with brutal, freezing winds. “I feel like I’m in Lawrence of Arabia,” Kiedis cracked. “I feel like I’m in the Dust Bowl with Woody Guthrie,” RHCP bass guru Flea retorted.
The Chili Peppers attempted to make the best of the bad situation. Drummer Chad Smith pounded the skins with primal fury; a shirtless Flea proved as gonzo as ever on his virtuoso funk-bass workouts; newish guitarist Josh Klinghoffer ripped run after run of atmospheric Hendrix-esque psychedelia; Kiedis, to his credit, even did a handstand during the band’s crowd-pleasing, hit-heavy set (which included an inevitable mass singalong to “Under the Bridge).
They were the capper on a Sunday lineup that provided an ideal microcosm of the ongoing allure of Coachella, even as the weather made clear the potential challenges of the festival’s desert location: By the end of the day, it was hard to enjoy anything with a mouthful of sand, burning eyes and numb extremities.
“We didn’t expect a motherfuckin’ sandstorm,” marveled Wu-Tang Clan leader RZA, as high winds whipped up the desert and clouded the skies – the perfect backdrop for a Killa Bees reunion. Though the Clan performed as a whole unit as recently as since 2010, this occasion was special: they’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of their game-changing debut LP, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), a record that turned millions of kids on to grittier street rap and brought hip-hop’s center of gravity squarely back to the East Coast.
In honor of the occasion, Wu-Tang Clan charged through hit after menacing hit, from “Protect Ya Neck” to “C.R.E.A.M.,” and sandwiched individual members’ solo joints, like Method Man’s “Bring the Pain” and the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” in between. Sound issues bogged down the first few tracks, but RZA quickly came to the rescue, asking fans to help him call on the soundboard guy to turn it up. By the time Wu-Tang brought out their pal Redman for “Da Rockwilder” and ended the night with their 1997 epic, “Triumph,” visibly overcome with pride, there were no complaints – just hundreds of “W” hand signs up in the air and building anticipation for a reunion album that’s said to be coming this summer.
The Chili Peppers and Wu-Tang Clan helped reaffirm Coachella’s status as a sort of deli tray for the current state of popular music, where nostalgia and futurism battle for dominance. In Groundhog Day fashion, Coachella will repeat its three-day program again this coming weekend, hosting another 90,000-some attendees with most of the same artists reprising their slots in nearly the exact same schedule.
The first week has come to serve as a kind of tastemaker beta for the next round: new artists that barely filled their tents but rocked their sets the first week will find themselves the recipients of significant buzz and full venues. (Case in point: Savages’ brilliant breakthrough set on Saturday was only half full of hipsters, but next week it’s almost certain to be packed now that word is out.) Meanwhile, sacred cows that didn’t deliver the first time around will see their cool cred (and attendance) diminish significantly.
While there were accepted must-sees at Coachella 2013 v. 1.0, the best experiences often came through sets you stumbled into, by artists you’d never heard of, hailing from genres you don’t usually follow. That intentional heterogeneity – a Coachella trademark – is unmistakable when moving between stages: inevitably, sounds coming from all of them coalesce in the middle, a slurry of raved-out bass beats, alt-rock guitar scree and disembodied vocals. As such, it was possible yesterday to move from watching the original lineup of Dinosaur Jr. to the postmodern tropical electronic pop of Tanlines to the dance-floor thump of tastemaker U.K. DJ Maya Jane Coles.
In addition to undiscovered artists, there were also new venues to discover. This year Coachella added the Yuma Tent, an enclosed nightclub with a wooden floor on the festival grounds that serves as a kind of corrective for the overabundance of EDM at Coachella last year. Traditionally, dance-music culture at Coachella has been housed at its enormous Sahara venue – affectionately referred to as the “rave tent”; this year, those appearing at the Sahara included “Harlem Shake” trap-music hitmaker Baauer, pop-house megastars Fedde Le Grand and Eric Prydz, and Dog Blood, an electro-flavored collaboration between Skrillex and Boys Noize.
But if the Sahara tends toward the fromage, the Yuma proves a temple of cool (and not just because it’s air-conditioned): genre-expanding spinners Richie Hawtin, DJ Harvey, Four Tet, Cassy and Jamie Jones all played the Yuma’s dark, intimate space, which evokes cutting-edge European clubs like Frankfurt’s Robert Johnson and Ibiza’s Cocoon over, well, massive rave tents. Continually packed throughout Coachella’s first weekend, Yuma provided a haven that was all about the music, not the size of your LEDs. Maya Jane Coles’ amazing afternoon set on Sunday exemplified this philosophy: soulful and deep but hard jacking, it proved more about taste than tripping balls (although that probably would have been pretty fun, too, if you’re into that kind of thing).
Coachella indeed makes for an interesting petri dish of music trends: it’s intriguing to see how what’s expected to work in theory actually flies in practice. Trad indie rock, long a Coachella mainstay, wasn’t always well served – often through no fault of the artists, however. Kurt Vile’s artfully psychedelic country-folk musings during his Sunday set at the Outdoor Theatre were overwhelmed by less subtle sounds intruding from other stages and tents. “The Boss sounds good over there, doesn’t he?” Vile cracked between songs, referring to the earnest anthems of the (Springsteen-approved) Gaslight Anthem creeping over from the main stage. The typically volcanic power of Dinosaur Jr. also seemed diffused at the Outdoor Theatre: While guitarist J. Mascis stood in front of an intimidating trio of Marshall stacks, the heft of his unhinged soloing on classic Dinosaur Jr. tracks like “The Lung” dissipated in the open air and bright sunshine.
Major main-stage acts also continued to suffer from attendance anemia. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ evening set there rocked with both tortured abandon and expansive grandeur (he was backed up by a string section and children’s choir on tracks like the lush title track from his new album, Push the Sky Away) – yet hardly anyone was there to notice. Vampire Weekend fared better in the slot before Cave. The New York rockers are nothing if not poised, shifting from surf-rock guitar surges to ethereal slow jams and African-tinged pop with nary a stain of exertion. Vampire Weekend neatly delivered on expectations with their evening set, barreling right through “Cousins” and setting off a ripple of fans boogying down to “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” as Ezra Koenig kept banter to a minimum. They tread only a little less sure-footedly through new tunes “Diane Young” and “Step,” and fans seemed to dig them equally whether they were familiar or not.
More awestruck over their main-stage slot were the Lumineers, who took full advantage of the moment by playing the majority of their breakout debut LP for a big Sunday afternoon crowd in search of hearty folk tunes. “This is the biggest crowd we’ve ever played for,” said humbled singer Wesley Schultz, who will probably be getting used to that kind of reception once festival season is in full swing.
The rise of the sensitive troubadour was a dominant meme for Coachella 2013. James Blake’s early evening set was one of the most exciting of the entire festival – yet one of the most subtle. Blake used stillness as a weapon in a performance that drew from his acclaimed new album Overgrown and his 2011 debut, balancing singer-songwriter confessionals with complex electronica that could even teach Skrillex a thing or two about bass drops. Just sitting at a keyboard accompanied by guitar and drums, Blake wasn’t much to watch; the combination of his seductive voice and quietly iconoclastic arrangements, however, ratcheted up tension to glorious heights, bringing down the house with his signature rendition of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love.”
Just across the way in the Gobi tent, meanwhile, Searching for Sugar Man star Rodriguez was making his Coachella debut. Calm and intense, Rodriguez exuded a commanding charisma in his trademark black hat, shades, and leather pants; his presence proved overwhelming in the flesh, yet he remained a cryptic figure, almost shy, onstage. Disarmingly human and intimate, his performance moved in and out of focus, but when it landed, nothing could be more powerful. Rodriguez sometimes appeared to be teaching his backing band the material between songs; at times, his voice didn’t rise above a murmur, but then suddenly his singing would fill the room. Many in attendance wept openly at Rodriguez’s devastating performance of “Sugar Man”: opening the song with a virtuoso flamenco flourish on guitar, he soon had the entire audience enraptured, chanting along loudly to its indelible chorus. It was just like the movie, but better.
The last day of Coachella is always abuzz with debate about the best shows of the festival, and Rodriguez’s was one of the most discussed. Grimes’ Sunday set in the Gobi Tent also enjoyed one of the warmest receptions of the entire weekend. She never stopped working, looping vocals, cueing up samples and synths, layering effects over her own disarming shrieks, dancing jerkily to “Oblivion” and “Genesis” alongside her butterfly-sleeve-and-walrus-helmet-clad backup dancers, and plainly winning over fans who couldn’t help but sense her deep investment. They returned the favor by sticking around for the freakier digressions, a rarity at a fest where everyone’s plagued with an attention deficit, the result of having too many options.
Tame Impala’s evening set at the Outdoor Theatre showcasing their ambitious psychedelia had the cognoscenti cheering its virtues as well, as did Savages’ viscerally exciting set the day before in the Mojave. Blur’s performance Friday, the band’s first U.S. performance since 2009, was another highlight, a magical experience that kept the crowd moving from start to finish.
Saturday appeared to have the strongest showing, when Bat for Lashes’ Natasha Khan offered a standout set: after overcoming early sound problems, she played a rhythmically assured set that traded in her darker mysticism for a white-magic celebration of life and love (a feeling enhanced by her skin-baring, kaleidoscopic belly dancer outfit). Enhanced club beats enlivened Bat for Lashes songs like “All Your Gold” and “Daniel,” but when Khan stripped the sounds down to just piano and voice for the haunting ballad “Laura,” the naked emotion was heartbreaking: even though most of the audience was standing, the reaction still qualified as an ovation.
New Order’s triumphant Saturday performance remained a point of discussion for much of Sunday: The Manchester dance-rock gods proved without question that they could still rock the party without founding member Peter Hook (whose presence remained by way of his iconic basslines, played a bit too perfectly by stand-ins). New Order’s set proved possibly Coachella 2013’s most powerful emotional experience, moving from wistful dance-floor smashes like “Perfect Kiss” and “Blue Monday” into an encore of Joy Division classics that put the band’s legacy into galvanizing perspective.
An unexpected success came from another group of English Eighties tastemakers, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. The Sunday night set from the pioneering synth-pop duo – a clear influence on the Postal Service, who’d performed the day before – might have been the most shamelessly exuberant and festive happening at this edition of Coachella. OMD drove an audience comprised of both young and old wild with greed-decade faves like “If You Leave,” the band’s smash from the soundtrack of Pretty In Pink; the performance went to the next level, though, thanks to the infectious manic energy of frontman Andy McClusky, a walking encyclopedia of New Wave dance moves. “I’m 53 and I can still dance like that!,” McCluskey marveled between songs after one particularly sweaty, dramatically angular workout.
All in all, consensus suggested that Coachella 2013 provided a sweeping survey of the music that mattered from the past year (Baauer, Rodriguez), years past (New Order) and the year to come (Phoenix, James Blake, Savages). Coachella will give it another go with this weekend’s edition – just hope the only thing that doesn’t repeat is the weather.