Feature: Coachella 2008 - 10 Abiding Memories
Fri, 02 May 2008 11:21:04
1. Coachella is a completely different experience for every person that attends.
With more than 125 bands scattered over the course of three 12-hour days, that mathematically breaks down to having to see nearly 3 ½ bands per hour if you wanted to see them all. But once you take into account the number of stages that open or close earlier than others, you're looking at having to see at least four bands an hour, which equates to getting, approximately, 15 minutes per band. And that's assuming you could see them all, which in itself is logistically impossible given the near 100 acres that the Empire Polo Fields cover, the distance between stages, and the reality that more than a small handful of bands throw even the most fastidious schedule off by going on considerably late (this year, Fatboy Slim, Scars On Broadway and Prince jump to mind).
My point is simple, and became even clearer to me this year–no two Coachella experiences are ever exactly the same. We all have varying tastes, we all make different decisions, we all have vast external (and, err, other) influences that impact who (and what) we see (and for how long), and we all can't be everywhere at once. There's no right or wrong band to see at any given time, and it’s that power and freedom of choice that makes Coachella such a brilliant experience, no matter how you slice it. That said, everything that follows is based on my Coachella experience, as well as, in part, that of those that I attended the festival with. Many will agree with me. Many more will disagree with me. Nobody is right and nobody is wrong. That is the beauty of Coachella.
2. Roger Waters delivered my defining Coachella experience.
Without Pink Floyd, would there even be Coachella? So much of the Coachella experience is rooted in the psychedelic, from the harmonious union that exists between all the concertgoers over the course of the weekend, to the acid-bath of imagery and art throughout the grounds, and through the activist mentality that is pervasive throughout all of the festival. Coachella is the spirit, energy and aura that defined Woodstock, sustaining and thriving with a modern twist more than a quarter-century later. And nobody, but nobody, defines that better today than Roger Waters. If you experienced that genius as the penultimate act at this year's Coachella, you know exactly what I'm speaking of. If you didn't, I hope you found what you were looking for elsewhere. From the anti-war sentiments that stoked the fires of Waters' first set, to the hope, passion and eternal quest for answers that defined his brilliant translation of the epic Dark Side Of The Moon, and into the five-song closing encore from The Wall that built into the magnificent finale of "Comfortably Numb," not a single second of the 150-minute performance failed to reverberate within the heart, soul and psyche of a spellbound crowd. Make no mistake, the performance was just as brilliant at the Hollywood Bowl last summer, and probably so on every other stop on Waters' ongoing tour. But in bleeding into the Coachella experience, the April 27, 2008 performance was nothing short of divine.
There's something magical about Coachella, and it reverberated through the more than 30,000 fans crowded in front of the festival’s main stage, which was pitched in darkness and framed by a perfectly lit arc of silhouetted palm trees. Turning away from the stage, the mushroom-like caps of The Do Lab peaked over the outstretched sea of heads and arms, expansive spotlights crossed the starry night sky and came to a perfect point over the field, and from within the crowd, Waters' masterfully pinpointed 360-degree quadraphonic sound system delivered a pitch-perfect and mind-rattling sonic experience. For this music fan, it was the culmination of a lifetime of concerts and a revitalizing experience that renewed my faith in the therapeutic strength and impacting power of music. The fact that I got to share that with so many fans of Pink Floyd, Coachella, and music in general, only made the experience all the stronger.
3. Prince was my crowning disappointment of the 2008 festival.
I've yet to read a review of Coachella that does anything but cast diamond and pearl-laden accolades all over Prince and his artistic genius, leading me to believe that I was either watching the wrong Prince show, or I forgot to drink the Kool-Aid beforehand, because the recaps I've been reading have had some particularly clouded views of Saturday night’s headlining set. Yes, Prince is a gifted musical genius, and that is a fact that nobody can argue. Some (myself included), might also argue that Prince is the single greatest guitar player to ever grace a Coachella stage. That said, while attendance figures have yet to be finalized, preliminary reports indicate that Saturday was the highest attended day of this year’s festival, with unofficial numbers estimated at slightly more than 40,000 (which, it is worth noting, is a figure that is significantly less than any of last year’s day counts). Let's be generous and assume that there were, say, 35,000 people watching Prince when he took the stage at 11:11pm. From my elevated vantage point in the VIP section, I was able to see the crowd in all its resplendent glory, stretching out from the stage and far past the VIP grass. By midnight, more noticeable than the mass of people watching the show was the stream of bodies exiting the grounds. By 12:15am, the VIP area was a veritable wasteland, with even the tumbleweeds blowing towards the doors. And by the time my party finally grew so disenfranchised with Prince's self-absorbed set that we chose to head for the doors ourselves shortly after 12:30am, there was little more than a third of the original crowd that remained from the start of the set, which had degenerated from Morris Day and the Time and Sheila E starting the performance, to a few token rearranged Prince tracks scattered amidst cover songs from the likes of Radiohead, Sarah McLachlan and The Beatles. I love Prince. But this isn't what I, or clearly a lot of the crowd, wanted to see. Hence, the exodus.
Yes, there were a lot of people that found Prince's set to be the highlight of the weekend. But the reality is, there were many more of us that weren't interested enough in his performance to stay. Does that mean Prince stunk? No, not at all. But it does mean that he didn't deliver what the bulk of his audience wanted to hear, which resulted in a retention rate far less than any of the acts that shared headlining spots on the Coachella Stage over the festival’s three days. Adding insult to injury, I left an impressive Sahara Tent set by Sasha & John Digweed early to assure that I didn't miss any of Prince, and when his purple majesty finally did start, pompously announcing, "Coachella, I am here…" he didn't seem to be utilizing any the speakers beyond the front of the stage, resulting in a show that was hardly audible over the bored chatter taking place around us. Brilliant musician? Yes. Brilliant performance? Maybe. Too bad the most memorable aspect of the set, for me and many others, was its disconnect with the audience.
4. There’s a difference between being innovative and being engaging.
On one hand there was the disconnect I felt with Prince. On the other hand, there was the connection I felt with Adam Freeland, Fatboy Slim, Junkie XL and Justice. I am the first to admit, Prince is an innovator in a world of imitators. To that end, Justice have taken the art of imitation to impressive new heights, not particularly bringing anything new to the world of electronic music, but repackaging their metal riffs and big beats for a new audience that hears them as fresh and invigorating. None of the four DJs I mentioned above are likely to be uttered in the same breath as Portishead, Kraftwerk or Aphex Twin, but there's more to music than defining the cutting edge, as there are countless fans out there who just want to cut their teeth on something that sounds good, and often more importantly, simply feels good to listen to.
Despite the fact that Adam Freeland interjected his own version of the Village People's "Y.M.C.A." dance to the tune of "O.B.A.M.A.," I still found his set to be one of my highlights of the weekend. I was looking forward to Fatboy Slim, but never could have imagined I’d have enjoyed his set as much as I did. Junkie XL delivered every bit of the energy and excitement that I remembered from two years ago, and then some. And as much as I was unimpressed by Justice last year and was counting on being equally unimpressed this year, they delivered a set that kept me moving from top-to-bottom. As much as I enjoyed the portion of the Aphex Twin set that I saw, I can’t help but think of how much more I’d have enjoyed his set if it inspired me to dance more than it inspired me to stand with my mouth agape. It was great to see Kraftwerk, they’re living legends and true innovators that deserved every bit of the spotlight that was cast on this year’s performance, but before long I felt like I was watching a movie.
And Portishead? What can I say… I tried. But not being a fan of their music heading in, it was a bit overwhelming to try and comprehend in the live setting. I'm not disputing their talent, just being honest enough to admit that it just wasn't my thing that night. While it sure is nice to have the chance to witness the legends live in a setting like Coachella, sometimes it can be just as nice to discover something new and inspiring. Just think of it this way: The hard rock fans that Justice can win over today just might be the newfound dance fans that give the scene a jolt of fresh blood tomorrow. We all need to start somewhere...
5. Dance music isn’t an acquired taste, it’s an innate connection.
It was somewhere in the midst of Fatboy Slim’s Friday night set in the Sahara Tent that everything I love about dance music totally crystallized into one concise nugget of realization. It goes something like this… As a lifelong fan of bands, I have come to realize that, at least for me, very often it becomes more about the messenger and the message than it is the music they are delivering. The artists are larger than life, and the songs take on a life of their own when they are attached to a certain time, place or event in our lives. The songs and their interpretations become static, and our enjoyment of those songs becomes based on a mood or response to the memory they trigger. And when you hear a song for the first time, how often do the lyrics have a bearing on whether you ultimately like the song or not? In my case, very often; I'm a writer, so consider it an occupational hazard. But with dance music, it's not about the lyrics, and it's not about the band that is delivering the song. It is about the energy that is transferred between the artist and the person hearing and processing the music and sounds. It is about the translation of that sound into a kinetic reaction, dancing. It's a primal reaction that is based on nothing more than our instinct when we hear the sounds that are delivered to us. It’s pure, unadulterated and the absolute enjoyment of music in its minimalistic sense. It is a rush in both the physical and spiritual sense of the word. The bond is profound, and the reaction is immediate.
That doesn't mean that the same connection can't happen with bands (case in point, Roger Waters' Coachella set), and that doesn't mean that the connection always happens with dance (Tiesto boasts that he's the biggest DJ in the world, yet I've failed to ever feel that connection at one of his shows). When I witness a good set performed by a band, I walk out of the concert feeling that I’ve experienced something special. When I experience a good set from a DJ or electronic artist, I have the more profound feeling that I've actually participated in and played an integral role in sharing something even more special. Make no mistake, it's a much harder bond to realize, but when you do, it only makes the reward that much more gratifying.
6. Coachella etiquette.
This was my fourth (consecutive) Coachella, and year after year it never fails to astound me how many people enter a packed tent in the middle of a set and proceed to interrupt everyone else's enjoyment by pushing their way to the front of the stage. And more often than not, it's not just one person, it's three or four—holding hands and pulling each other. And without fail, the same people usually leave (in the same manner) five or ten minutes later. If you want to be in front, get there early; if you can't get their early, stand where there's room. Another thing: Is it really necessary to have mosh pits at Coachella? It just seems so contrary to the whole experience… On a completely unrelated note, in the "off-the-wall things you overhear" category: As I was entering the Sahara Tent Saturday afternoon to get a spot for Junkie XL, I heard a girl who was leaving after Hot Chip say, "So far, Justice will be the best…" Uhm, okay.
7. Legends of the big screen.
My letdown on Saturday didn't start and stop with Prince. Ultimately, the entire night left me feeling like there was something lacking. To no fault of Coachella, of course, sometimes that's just the way things unravel. In my case, I think it was largely due to the fact that I am neither a Portishead fan, or obsessed with Kraftwerk. That's not to say that I don't appreciate Kraftwerk and all of their contributions to music, or fail to understand that (as can also be said of Roger Waters) a significant percentage of Coachella acts might not even exist were it not for the innovations the German pioneers brought to the table long before many of today’s rising stars were even born. Having the opportunity to see them was a highlight heading into the festival, but didn’t have the enduring impact of so many other acts on the bill. I attribute that to the fact that they were so robotic in their presentation, I felt as if I was watching a movie more than be a part of a performance. It was nice to watch, but I didn't find it particularly engaging to experience (there's that word again).
As for Portishead, not being a fan of the band heading into Coachella, I can only equate watching their show with asking a third grade student to read Of Mice And Men. They may understand the words, but the bigger picture is going to get lost in the translation. Again, nothing against either of the acts, they just didn't hit the mark with me like they did with so many others that were at the festival. Looking back, maybe I should have left mid-set from Kraftwerk and caught Animal Collectiveand Sasha & John Digweed, but I have no regrets… The choices we make are all just part of painting the entire Coachella picture.
8. Fifteen sets I wish I saw...
Animal Collective. Aphex Twin (in its entirety). Battles. Black Mountain. Booka Shade. Boys Noize. Carbon/Silicon. Perry Farrell. Holy Fuck. Kavinsky. Midnight Juggernauts. Sasha & John Digweed (in its entirety). Simian Mobile Disco. VHS or Beta. James Zabiela.
9. Fifteen sets I am glad I saw…
120 Days. Aphex Twin. dan le sac vs Scroobius Pip. Does It Offend You, Yeah? Fatboy Slim. Adam Freeland. Gogol Bordello. Junkie XL. Justice. Kraftwerk. Love and Rockets. Pendulum. Portishead. Scars On Broadway. Roger Waters.
10. The best Coachella ever?
I definitely thought it had the potential to be heading in, and looking back, can honestly say that I think it was. But not for the reasons I was expecting. As a whole, I found the talent in the Sahara Tent to be better this year, while I thought last year's Coachella Stage triple-billing of Bjork/Red Hot Chili Peppers/Rage Against The Machine outmuscled this year's Jack Johnson/Prince/Roger Waters composite. That said, this year had the highlights, and on a strictly personal level, was much more enjoyable as a whole. It may never get any better than Roger Waters, and Prince's set was bolstered by a surreal exchange with Steven Tyler, as well as David Hasselhoff grabbing me in a place that was a little too close for comfort while trying to maintain his balance. So maybe the little red corvette didn't rev the way I hoped it would, but add a little sweet emotion and the squeal of Knight Rider's tires to the mix, and you're talking about a big picture that might be real hard to beat…