Two days of wandering in the searing desert sun can give you wild visions. But even though it was hot enough to warp time itself at this year's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on May 1 and 2, sets by legendary indie pioneers The Pixies, Kraftwerk and The Cure were no mere hallucinations. Actually, the music was soul-quenching, sparking reminiscence about the days when alternative music was still limited to college radio and 120 Minutes, "Gen X" was a buzz word, and we all wore a lot more black.
Some attendees took the spirit of the '80s literally (but a little misguidedly), donning kooky sunglasses, slogan tee shirts and neon accessories that would've made more sense at a Cyndi Lauper show than a Kraftwerk concert, back in the day.
Yet the biggest surprise of the weekend was just how relevant and powerful the comeback performances sounded. As thousands of fans sang along to favorite hits like The Pixies' "Wave of Mutilation" or The Cure's "Fascination Street," the music made perfect sense in the context of scores of newer groups that had played earlier. Nostalgic? Yes. Dated? No.
Since 1999, Coachella's gained a reputation as the Southwest's biggest, best music event (outside of Austin's South by Southwest, which is geared more to industry insiders). Instead of defining a musical before-and-after, its formidable 82-artist lineup for 2004 was the ultimate mash-up, seamlessly mixing old and new, acoustic and digital, disco funk and emo-core, personal and political. And these headlining acts not only reminded fans why they were cutting-edge to begin with, but also why they're still so influential.
Maybe it was the sweltering sun that melted everything into a sonic stew. Sprawling across the emerald grass of the Empire Polo Field in Indio, California, each day 50,000 people wandered among five stages to see 12 hours of music, despite daytime temperatures that hovered around a brutal 100 degrees.
For the thousands of Arizonans who made the three-and-a-half-hour trek to Coachella -- now an annual tradition -- the heat was no less exhausting, but it was at least predicable. Familiar, too, was the desert setting: dramatic, dust-colored mountains all around, and rows of skinny palm trees reaching into a bright blue sky.
Musical offerings ranged from sophisticated emo (Cursive, Bright Eyes, Thursday) to innovative hip-hop (MF Doom, Eyedea & Abilities, Dizzee Rascal, Hieroglyphics) to artsy post-punk (The Rapture, Broken Social Scene, !!!, Elefant, stellastarr*). Performers' commentaries often turned into political pleas to "Stop Bush," as the Flaming Lips put it, and to register to vote right there on the spot, at the Plea for Peace booth.
On both days, the afternoon vibe was subdued, thanks to a combination of blinding sunlight, too many bodies, and loud music coming from competing directions.
Dancing was restrained, except in the huge, all-DJ Sahara Tent, where it felt like a nightclub at any time of the day. Flushed girls in bikini tops and shirtless guys in shorts submitted to irresistible trance and house music from Seb Fontaine, 2 Many DJs and Danny Howells, plus a dozen other acts that included the Crystal Method and Paul Van Dyk.
Meanwhile, the VIP area, with its cool water fountain, ample shade and short drink lines, was an oasis. A DJ spun N.W.A as Kinky's Latin rhythms filtered up from the main stage nearby, and celebs like Sean Lennon, Tommy Lee, Alicia Silverstone or Giovanni Ribisi could be spotted chatting or strolling by.
Coachella felt completely different at night, when the air became blessedly balmy. The beauty of it all was how the spectrum of genres blurred into the sunset, capped off by dreamy sets by Radiohead and Air. Once darkness set in, at least a dozen spotlights around the edges of the field pointed toward the sky, creating a luminous canopy. Visitors clustered around a fenced-in area where remote-control robots battled, or near enormous sculptures of insects that emitted light and cool mist.
All told, the weekend held only minor disappointments. On Saturday afternoon, Beck played a solo acoustic set in the Gobi Tent, which had the smallest stage at the festival. Granted, Beck was a last-minute addition. For those lucky folks who made it inside, it was probably one of the event's biggest highlights, not letdowns. But thousands of unfortunate others tried to converge on the area at once, creating such sweaty human gridlock for hundreds of yards around the tent that it was impossible to see Beck, hear him, or move in any direction except away from it all. The consolation prizes, though, were satisfying. Concurrent sets by Junior Senior, . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Danny Howells, and the (International) Noise Conspiracy helped ease the heartache.
On Sunday, the bummer came at the end of the Flaming Lips' show, which just felt too short. The band was off to a colorful start, with wild lights, balloons (including a huge one that singer Wayne Coyne stepped into to bounce over the crowd) and trademark costumed furry animals onstage. Fans sang along to "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots," and even joined in a rendition of "Happy Birthday," dedicated to Beck and his wife Marissa's soon-to-be-born child. But Coyne's exhortations to get political started to take up a lot of time, and the band was done before the crowd was even really warmed up.
Still, the fans looked happy as they hiked back to their cars. For the first time in the festival's five-year history, both days completely sold out, which comes as no surprise. "I think the success of this year's Coachella comes down to a particularly great lineup of strong artists and an audience whose tastes have become even more diverse," said the event's promoter, Paul Tollett of Goldenvoice.
Just don't chalk up this year's triumph to retro appeal. A band's past popularity is no guarantee that it'll find fans -- new or old -- in the present. The real reason? Good music never goes out of style.
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