This Year’s Guide to Coachella Music

By Dan MacIntosh

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Posted April 11, 2013 in Music
(WEB)coverIf you’re planning to attend America’s greatest modern musical spectacle, the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in mid-April, you may wonder inwardly if a few more holograms, like that memorable one of Tupac Shakur, will again make ghostly appearances there on its stages. But seriously, you should to be far more excited about actual live performances. This is, after all, the mother of all live concerts, right?

Las Vegas doesn’t (yet) weigh on such things, but if it did, bookmakers would gladly tell you, and for a price, that anglophiles will be seriously angling for Friday’s bill, where the Stone Roses will reunite while Blur will also play the crowned role of a Britpop survivor. Those that go for slightly more aggressive sounds will likely struggle to wait it out until Sunday finally rolls around to hear Red Hot Chili Peppers wow their home state crowd on the same date Nick Cave sweats it out with his Bad Seeds and Social Distortion (yet another Southern California favorite) play the big stages. In between, on Saturday, Phoenix will headline.  This French band still seems a little too green to be honored as top dog, so we’ll watch and see if they can actually pull it off.

In addition to simply ‘knowing your headliners,’ you need also be aware of a few potential once in a lifetime Coachella experiences. On Friday, for starters, you’d be a fool to miss an opportunity to check out what Trent Reznor is up to with Destroy Angels, while Johnny Marr — without some old depressed former singing partner or other—is almost certain to fill these polo grounds with guitar thrills. Then again, if you’ve never experienced reggae dub, by all means make time for the legendary Lee Scratch Perry. And speaking of legends not dressed in their original uniforms, just what is Jello (former Dead Kennedy) Biafra up to with Guantanamo School? Might he be up to revising “Holiday in Cambodia” to “Holiday in Coachella” just for this special occasion?

Continuing with our survey of likely Mount Everest high highlights, nobody knows how long New Order will be carrying on, which makes them a must-see on Saturday. Similarly, the next Postal Service tour might be as endangered as the actual postal service. You never know.

If you make room for Wu-Tang Clan on Sunday, this wise act will be the hip-hop educational equivalent to TV series binge watching as these important rappers truly comprise an all-star unit, and are beautiful to behold all in one place. Those that fondly recall 4 AD records need to prioritize Dead Can Dance’s set, and lastly, if that vintage paisley still fits, the Three O’Clock may well provide plenty of good, local nostalgia.

Although there is much that is praiseworthy about this year’s aural feast, one area Coachella falls short in 2013 is its obvious lack of any seriously historical rock icons. Where’s the Paul McCartney, Prince or Madonna? There were rumors that The Rolling Stones would make their first Indio festival appearance, but that turned out to be nothing more than wishful thinking. File it under the category: You can’t always get what you want. But adding insult to injury, even Lou Reed, the mastermind behind The Velvet Underground, dropped out at the last minute. Suffice to say, if you’re hoping to hear a little classic rock live at this year’s event, you’re going to be out of luck.

Now that you have a high level overview of the festival, which is better than Christmas morning with every item on Santa’s list checked off for music lovers, let’s take a closer look at a few bands almost certain to create some wonderful, dusty desert memories this spring.

It’s been far too long—going all the way back to 2009—since Yeah Yeah Yeah’s released It’s Blitz, the adventurous New York band’s last full length album.  The fact that both Spin Magazine and NME put it in 2009’s top ten list was apparently not motivation enough to get the group back into the studio again quickly. It’s cruel to make fans wait so long to hear Karen O — a singer that can walk the razor’s edge one minute, and purr a lullaby the next — not to mention Nick Zinner’s endless electric guitar inventiveness. Thankfully, Yeah Yeah Yeahs just said ‘yes’ to new recorded material and created Mosquito, which should be released right in time for Coachella. Let’s also hope and pray this band, which made such a huge impact with “Maps,” will arrive in California with plenty of new musical material to gift us with. We sincerely love them, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Yeasayer may share an American coast with Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but this quirky dance-pop band shares very little else with their regional neighbors, at least musically. Perhaps the two alternative bands that fit closest together alphabetically will find a little time to socialize together.

“At these larger festivals, I mostly look forward to seeing all my buddies in one place and in one shot,” says bassist Ira Wolf Tuton of Yeasayer. “A lot of my friends that are in other bands, we’re all kind of in pursuit of being on the road all the time. Even for people that all live in Brooklyn, we still don’t get to see each other that much because people travel at different times, and then when you’re home, you go back to your personal life.  It’s the social aspect I look forward to the most because I get to see a lot of good friends and these larger festivals are larger reunions.”

While it’s great to see so many favorite artists at a festival like Coachella, audiences must realize, however, these appearances are significantly different from a band or performer’s usual headlining date.

“Right off the bat, your set lists are shorter,” Tuton elaborates, “so you’re trying to consulate those highs and lows, the extremes you have an hour and a half to do in a regular live setting, into an hour or whatever it may be. And then you’re outside, and that’s a totally different emotional space. But for festivals, and a festival like Coachella, we’re bringing a pretty overwhelming light show and we try and give our hype-est performance. And just the hits.”

For clarification, when Tuton mentions how Yeasayer must do “just the hits,” he’s not using the term ‘hit’ in the same context as, say, Taylor Swift or Bruno Mars might mean ‘hit.’ Instead, Tuton is referring to the sounds that get immediate physical and verbal responses from the audience.

“The songs that get people moving,” is how Tuton describes these set list choices, “even if they don’t know ‘em; the heavier material and all that stuff that gets the butts shaking. Things that are enjoyable, not only to listen to, but also to feel in a multisensory way—combined with the lightshow and visuals we’re doing. “

Surprisingly, Tuton doesn’t feel any special pressure to do their very best at such a high profile event. “I kind of feel like I should be at my best no matter where I am,” he says, bluntly. “The people that are coming to see us at Coachella are just as valuable as the people that are coming to see us in Des Moines. I think it can sometimes be a challenge to do it in smaller venues; to keep that energy up. You know, fans are fans.” Perhaps, there’s even less pressure at Coachella. “I think it’s a lot easier at a place like Coachella, actually, because there’s such a communal feeling of losing your mind. And we immediately feed off that energy. “

Yeasayer music, in case you haven’t noticed lately, has begun to become more and more danceable over the years—particularly many of the tracks off last year’s Fragrant World full-length release. “I think it’s been a natural progression,” Tuton agrees. “I think over time there’s been a lot of dance music production that’s been a lot more forward-thinking, I think, in terms of being the first to utilize newer technologies and techniques and tones. In that way, I think we’re trying to do the same thing. Hopefully, we’re attempting to incorporate other genres and traditions along with that so that we’re not just playing four to the floor electronic music all the time, but still within a pop framework with our hats tipped to all of the things in that tradition that came before.”

Yes, expect Yeasayer to go heavy on booty-shaking indie rock, but don’t hold your breath for a lot of new and untried material on the big stage at Coachella. Instead, Yeasayer’s set will be much closer to a sort of grand summarization of what they’re created over their most recent touring ventures. “We don’t really run an improvisational outfit,” Tuton deadpans, “because the visual side of it is so important and the people running the visuals need to be so in tune with what we’re doing on stage and all of our changes. Coachella is basically a product of what we’ve been doing for the past year. In a lot of ways, it’s kind of the culmination of that, with this whole tour and artistic statement.”

Even those that wouldn’t give a moment’s consideration to wandering around the desert and watching music—like you and I—are still somewhat familiar with Major Lazer, whether they even realize it or not. Major Lazer, scheduled to appear at Coachella on Saturday, is a Jamaican dancehall project created by superstar DJ Diplo, who has worked with A-list pop stars like Beyonce, No Doubt and Usher. Diplo’s partner in musical crime is the DJ Switch, whose resume is equally impressive, having collaborated with Christiana Aguilera, Brandy and Santigold. Major Lazer is so respected for their dancehall grooves, Snoop Lion (you now, Snoop Dogg in another life) even asked them to produce a few tracks on his upcoming reggae project.

One of Coachella’s big X factors involves English band The XX. Music on this act’s latest release, Coexist, is so quiet and intimate at times, one has to wonder just how these musical conversations will come off in front of a massive sea of people. And if there’s some sort of secret for presenting bedroom thoughts and feelings before a crowded field of festival-goers, The XX haven’t discovered that one yet.

“I don’t know if we know the secret,” laughs guitarist/vocalist Romy Madley Croft. “I think we’re still trying to figure that out and we’re hoping to achieve that. And I think we’ve played a lot of shows since the new album (Coexist) came out, and played before some of the biggest audiences we could ever imagine. We don’t ever want anyone to lose that sort of intimate connection, but we’ve spent a lot of time trying to make our live show more of a show. We’ve put a lot of emphasis into our lights and into making it a really beautiful visual experience. Our live show is different; our songs are slightly adapted from the way you might hear them on the album. Some of them are extended, certainly more upbeat at times.”

Without question, Croft has become more comfortable with the art of playing live. “I couldn’t even look up when we first started out,” Croft admits. “I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. None of us were natural born performers.”

Many times, increased comfort level grows in proportion to accumulated confidence.

“A lot of that comes with watching Oliver (Sim) on stage,” Croft explains. “I’ve seen his confidence grow and that’s kind of inspired me.”

Although they’re not your typical legacy act, American punk rock band the Descendents  formed way back in 1978, in Manhattan Beach. This unique band somehow mixed Devo-esque 80s pop-rock with more surf-y Dick Dale-like material, to spit in the face of typical punk rock sonic expectations. Much like the aforementioned Lou Reed and his pioneering band The Velvet Underground, the Descendents probably legacy will forever be associated with the various bands they influenced that came after them. That list, which includes huge commercial bands, like Green Day and Blink 182, reads like a who’s who of modern punk. Therefore, If you want to go straight to one of punk’s root sources, follow these ‘descendents’ straight back to the Descendents on Saturday night.

The Descendents, as with every other artist scheduled to appear at Coachella 2013, are worth seeing because this is, by far, so much more than just another radio station playlist-generated, predictable bill. Instead, it’s as though the artists chosen were gathered together and specially prepared by the all-knowing, all-seeing collective mind of good taste. Even the festival’s most commercial bands, like Red Hot Chili Peppers, are also respected for their art. You can’t please everyone, of course, and even if you completely satisfied even one singular fan with a particular lineup, you’d probably have at least another whole throng completely disgusted. Every year, you’re guaranteed to love a lot of it. That’s simply fact.

Holograms may make periodic appearances in the Indio desert now and again, but go ahead and press the Coachella flesh. Then you will know without the shadow of a doubt, it’s the real deal.

Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, 81-800 Avenue 51, Indio, (323) 930-5700. www.coachella.com. April 12-14, 19-21.


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