Here are two skewed views of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, which opened its three-session 2008 cavalcade at Empire Polo Field in Indio, California Friday (just minutes away from where the late Merv Griffin once held court as the cardiganed billionaire pasha of this desert resort-village refuge, as the sultan of streets named after legendary golfers -- Nicklaus, Palmer, even Weiskopf!). Both vantage points are equally "authentic" and "representative" and both are completely willful and distorted, serving wholly different cultural agendas.
1) So who's that that grim, weird old drag queen with the streaky make-up and pulled-and-yanked facelift and black cowboy hat who sorta looks like Jane Fonda in Georgia Rule, parked at a picnic table in the VIP area? And why is he/she surrounded by two HGH-casualty bodyguards? Oh, shit, it's Steven Tyler! Wonder who he's here to see (besides himself)? Maybe the Raconteurs, especially after Keith Richards officially knighted Jack White as a new-school classic-rock icon on the cover of Rolling Stone ("It's heartening to see these kids today who genuinely respect the blues, ya know?")? Wonder if he'll actually move from that table or will he just peer at the jumbo screens in the distance while his hardened party-hoss courtesans try to act like they're better than Ambre and Daisy on Rock of Love. Is this what Coachella's become? Can this oasis of semi-alternative greenery no longer even draw A-list nubile celebs who can feign a decent level ofdebauched "rock'n'roll" haughtiness? Truly sad.
2) "We cannot do anything without something making it more awesome than ever," says Black Kids singer-guitarist Reggie Youngblood with a wry smile, as he frustratedly futzed with a glitchy amp in the middle of the Jacksonville, Florida band's afternoon set in the Mojave tent. As perhaps the most prematurely hyped underground rock band of the past year (Pitchfork's Marc Hogan gave them the biggest boost, but NME and others, SPIN included, joined in). Their most high-profile show -- at CMJ in October of last year -- was basically a brick, with folks walking out not just unconvinced, but openly hostile that this promising bunch of preternaturally hip, but musically flimsy, Cure fans were catching such an industry buzz.
Black Kids / Photo by Lucy Hamblin
But in the Coachella steam-heat, before a half-rabid, half-skeptical throng, Black Kids almost became the heroic little-band-that-could that a smattering of tastemakers have professed them to be. With influences ranging from '60s girl group to '80s new wave and synth pop, '90s indie rock and riot grrrl, a tinge of clubby hip-hop panache, plus that good ol' universal alternative-rock yearning to testify about your geeky outsider journey to people who beat you up in high school, the It Kid quintet, led by Youngblood and his sister Ali on keyboards/vocals (the group's two actual "black kids"), literally put a lump in our collective throats several times during their 40-minute set.
Black Kids / Photo by Lucy Hamblin
In a sleeveless pink shirt, with his distinctive tangle of hair, Reggie passionately yelped his alternately hilarious and poignant lyrics ("Abracadabra! / Every summer you disappear / Cos it's so sticky in the Dirty South / It's hot as balls / Hey now, watch your mouth!" from "Hit the Heartbrakes"), while Ali and keyboard partner Dawn Watley chimed in with an irresistible mix of deadpan cool attitude, goofy rah-rah chants, and coy come-ons. Virtually every Black Kids song has a potentially heart-rending and/or punch-line chorus: "Love love love me already!" "I wanna be your limousine" and, of course, the pick hit, "I'm not Gonna Teach Him How to Dance with You" (which riotously tells the story of a cool nerd's unrequited crush on a girl who's blinded by the second-hand moves of a jerk with "two left feet").
Now it's undeniable that the occasional synth-funk breakdowns (which sounds lifted straight off a Human League 12-inch remix) are more endearing than successful, but the thing is, they're so masterfully situated, just at the exact moment when the audience is dying to reach full giddiness, that you don't mind so much when the band (often) stumbles, or the song unravels. You just know they're onto something you really wanna hear, you're just not sure what it is. In just six months of practicing and touring Europe since CMJ, they've gotten miles more stylish and proficient and, at times, I was thinking, "They could be on the cover of SPIN in a year and a half." Or, "They could still be thrashing their way through yet another endless, tragically inconsequential Vice clusterfuck on a nameless rooftop in Bushwick." Regardless, watching them at this moment when talent is in the process of eroding hype's suspicions is a treat, and a hundred times more thrilling than watching, say, Death Cab for Cutie efficiently essay their tidily rendered modern-rock vignettes of romantic woe.
So, which scenario would you rather choose as your true Coachella experience? Obviously, I'll take the latter. And when, a few hours later, a buoyant, supremely confident Santogold dazzled the Gobi tent with her anthemic new-wave hip-hop pep rally, wearing a light-blue patterned pant suit, shaking a pink tambourine, and eagerly commanding, "I wanna see some asses shakin'!" it was possible to imagine that there really is some sort of multi-culti, mixed-gender, indie-rock/hip-hop/club-music new-guard movement just now cresting that began back sometime around the time that M.I.A. (who's playing the Sahara tent Saturday) dropped that first mixtape with Diplo (who played the Sahara tent Friday) and Danger Mouse concocted The Grey Album and hooked up with Cee-Lo through TV on the Radio and Bloc Party and Spank Rock (who played the Gobi tent Friday) and Battles (who also rocked the Gobi tent Friday), etc. It may not sell many records, but maybe it could actually project and signify beyond the Fader/Pitchfork/Brooklyn media nexus. Maybe.
Santogold / Photo by Mark C. Austin
The other major highlight of the first day was the Breeders main-stage set in the late afternoon, as Kim Deal proved again why she is truly the godmother of anything about alternative-rock that possesses genuine creative integrity, natural eccentricity, and ballsy honesty. In her full truck-driver gear -- black t-shirt, lumpy jeans, and baseball cap -- she opened with the stunning "Overglazed" from Mountain Battles, her voice reverbed crazily, as she wailed "Can you feel it?" before the song barreled off-course and out of sync, and Kim waved everything off, smiling and quipping, "We just couldn't feel it." Starting over, they revved back up and went on to wrestle the rest of their set to the ground with surges of noise and beauty and humor and clunky bumbling.
Breeders' Kim Deal / Photo by Mark C. Austin
On "Bang On," Kim and sister Kelley sang the cutting childlike mantra, "I love no one, and no one loves me," and played the nifty little guitar figure in unison, a charming sibling moment. Of course, later, Kelley exclaimed: "Everybody's always yelling at me all the time!" And when Kim delivered a sideways critique of something Kelley just played, she then immediately blurted, "I like you, though!" There was Kelley's sweetly demented coo on "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" and the sisters' duet on "Here No More" (from Mountain Battles), which is so eerily timeless that it could be a early-20th Century hillbilly murder ballad, and recalls Kim's tales of her early years playing Hank Williams covers for drunk dudes at the Ground Round in Dayton.
Other assorted first-day moments:
West Coast DJ lifer Sandra Collins banging the Cube Guys' epic techno riff on the Who's "Baba O'Riley," pumping up the whiplash bass line, scattering synth flutters and squiggles galore, letting the "teenage wasteland" chorus soar out into the desert haze. And yes, there was a ridiculously overblown piano breakdown that you might've thought was cheesy if you weren't too busy trying to dance and move and stay out of the way of that beat that was punching a hole in your chest.
The National's Matt Berninger, with pink lights aglow at sunset and a backdrop of palm trees, proclaiming: "Raise our heavenly glasses to the heavens! Squalor Victoria! Squalor Victoria!" as the horn section blared and the violin wailed and a smoke machine (!) spewed. Majestic.
The National / Photo by Mark C. Austin
Aphex Twin exploring every nuance and texture and beat niche of Strafe's "Set It Off" during his rare DJ set, until the crowd began looking around and openly wondering if this was really Richard James and whether he was going to play any of his own music. About 15 minutes later, when the acid techno gnarl was corkscrewing into our skulls, followed by daybreak ambient dewdrops, and god knows what else, thousands of eyes were rolled back in the heads of kids who'd likely only heard rumors of this beardie '90s oracle. Now they knew.
Sentimental Irish Oscar fave Glen Hansard, a.k.a. Swell Season, covering the Pixies' "Cactus" both acoustic and electric (after he bashed his acoustic guitar's strings into submission), and dedicating it to Kim Deal. He followed by a remarkably spooky, dark Americana goof on Kraftwerk's "The Model."
Redd Kross's ageless McDonald Bros. bashing through their early-80s punk classic "I Hate My School" with Jemina Pearl of Be Your Own Pet -- dressed like Lil' Abner's Daisy Mae in short-shorts and tied-off top and tennis shoes -- go-going herself into a frenzy.
Battles' setting off massive, rumbling bass-frequency loops that shifted into synth squalls and chicken-scratch guitar and stuttering feedback, as the three guitarist-keyboardist-gizmo twiddlers gathered around drummer John Stanier's brute robo-funk beat-ballet. The most amazing thing was that no matter how micro-complex the groove got it never felt "experimental" or "electronic" or "math-rock" or like some sort of MIT soundlab. It basically sounded like Gang of Four if they'd formed in 2003, a rigorous punk-funk throwdown cranked with Marxist precision.
The Verve, reuniting after a 10-year absence, erecting a blank-faced edifice of Self-Important Rock Transcendence on the enormous main stage, digging into their atmospheric post-shoegaze anthems with a rock-historical seriousness that literally seemed to turn the black sky sepia. "Drugs Don't Work"; "Lucky Man"; "Weeping Willow." Richard Ashcroft and mates parsed out the melodies soberly -- like Oasis with all their bloke-ish humor and hooks and, well, fun surgically removed. But the Verve aren't about fun and Ashcroft isn't about personality. The Verve are here to provide you with an immaculately calibrated rock experience that will change your life forever, even though it may be hard to remember much about it afterwards.
The Verve / Photo by Mark C. Austin
Ashcroft, your Barefoot Vessel, lurks about with an odd blur of self-satisfaction and reticence. He sorta wants to be a shaman, but he knows he can't really summon Jim Morrison's perverted extroversion (as he probably once dreamed of doing), so he pulls back and grimly serves the song. Whenever he tries to open his mouth outside the context of a "performance" -- chatting about backed-up toilets and road-tripping to Las Vegas -- his charisma evaporates and the entire mood crumbles and you almost feel sorry for him. His idea of a stage move is to unbutton his shirt too far and upturn his palms. Needless to say, "Bittersweet Symphony" (dedicated to Hunter S. Thompson?) was the climax that brought the rather sedate crowd rushing forward. It may be the band's only real "hit," but it's also just another in a long line of Verve songs that celebrate the well-meaning individual's struggle against the forces of a brutalizing world. Ashcroft as pro forma burden-bearer.
God bless his presumptuous ass. Steven Tyler probably could relate. Black Kids probably couldn't. Kim Deal probably would tell him to shut the fuck up. And others of us just took what we needed and moved it along. As Deal sings in "Saints": Summer is ready when you are.