The Skinny @ Coachella 2008

A festival in the Californian sun starring Prince, Portishead and 'Dark Side of the Moon' in full, you say? Ally Brown takes one for the team at Coachella 2008...

Feature by Ally Brown | 12 May 2008

Los Angeles is a huge metropolis uneasily plonked onto a desert, a vast city built around the film-set for an old Wild West epic. Without the Pacific coast it would be inhospitably hot, and a few hours inland the less built-on desert explains the need for coastal breezes. In the Indio Valley, surrounded by hotels that are cheapest in the summer, and mile-high palm tree-lined avenues, the Coachella Music and Arts Festival is hosted on a polo field, in late April. Any later would be at best torturous, and at worst seriously dangerous. The weather causes all the biggest differences between Coachella and UK-based festivals. Firstly, it's really difficult to get drunk without ruining your health or missing the music - gallons of water are needed just to stay upright, and you're not allowed to take alcohol out of the cordoned-off bar areas. Secondly, because there's no rain or mud, and not even any threat of rain or mud, it's a really clean site with really clean toilets; the white cabin loos were astonishing luxury for a festival, with paper provided, art on the walls, and subtly-lit mirrors. The chemical toilets were fine too, because there are far less drunks about and no rain or mud to get confused with poorly aimed bodily fluids. And finally, the weather causes people to walk around with barely any clothes on. It really is a toughie, this job.

The Skinny's first taste of the real desert heat came on Friday afternoon at the smaller outdoor stage, the Outdoor Theatre, for Pixies-aping New Yorkers Les Savy Fav (****). Last year's Let's Stay Friends was a fun record, but nothing to prepare for this outrageous show: frontman Tim Harrington would've been arrested a generation ago for this wild performance. The chubby, bald and ZZ Top-bearded singer stripped down to nothing more than tight red pants, before jumping into the crowd, sticking his mic down a fan's trousers, and pretending to give him a blowjob. He launches further through the crowd, steals a film crew's camera and waves it around his head, ties up a stage-side onlooker with his mic-lead and slurpily kisses him, climbs under the stage, moonwalks across the amp stack, sticks his hand down his pants and wiggles a finger out the front, and finally, in an act that reminded me of those health adverts that warn against climbing scaffolding whilst drunk, he did exactly that and emerged at the top, unscathed and still angry, commanding the crowd from the roof of the stage. Incredible.

At the Mojave tent, Jens Lekman (****) has to contend with myriad sound problems but does so with the grace and wit expected from his lyrics. As effeminate in person as on record, he's all delicate hand gestures and distance-gazing introspection as he savours every a capella note, and there are many of those. But it's the string section which inserts 'Give Me Just A Little More Time' into 'Opposite of Hallelujah' - further demonstrating Lekman's wholly un-rock-like predilection for playing with samples - and the horns that give exuberant swing to 'A Sweet Summer's Night on Hammer Hill' that put the icing on the cake. All around us girls are yelling "I love you Jens!"; he's coming to Glasgow this month, so fathers - lock up your daughters.

We leave in time to catch a bit of The Breeders (***) on the main outdoor stage. But here, lying on the grass under gorgeous sunshine, surrounded by palm trees and beautiful people, with not a cloud in the sky, the sludginess of new album Mountain Battles isn't really appropriate. 'Cannonball' is great of course, but in this environment The Breeders generally sound like the sight of a distant rain cloud.

There's a massive crowd back at the Outdoor Theatre for Vampire Weekend (***), whose bright Afro-bopping should be perfectly suited for an afternoon like this. The singer hops and side-steps and flicks his head in time to the syncopating rhythms, like a bird of paradise on display, and it's all fairly minimal, with narrow stop-start melodies replicated in the vocal ticks; a new song seems to feature a sneeze as the hook. Despite all the hype, Vampire Weekend don't entirely win me over on this performance - the guitar and keyboard tones are irritatingly tinny. It's all impeccably mannered and I can't help but feel their attempts at playfulness are forced; perhaps they could do with loosening their ties a little.

The National (****) provide a soft rock extravaganza on the same stage as the sun goes down, and they're at their best when the drummer gets militaristic with tat-t-t-tat rhythms, as on 'Squalor Victoria'. Matt Berninger really strangles his voice on 'Mr. November', when perhaps he should've strangled his backing singer for being alternately too loud or too flat. But that's a minor complaint: Alligator and Boxer are two of the finest indie-rock albums of the last few years, and the fanfare that rounds out the 'Fake Empire' outro is just another great moment in a set which confirms The National as big league players.

On the way to Aphex Twin, we're sucked into the Gobi tent by the thunderous electro basslines coming from inside. Here, Miss Santi White is creeping around the stage like Tina Turner, excitedly screeching while two petite dancers play musical statues at her side. Santogold (****) has been most commonly aligned with M.I.A. for fairly obvious reasons when you hear her, but she's far from a copycat - at times Santogold reminds me of the garage baladeering of Karen O, while at others she evokes Blondie's glamourous new wave pop. Then, when a deep dub bassline reverberates through my body, we decide to stay for one more; six songs in, we hot-foot it to Aphex, without really knowing why.

The Sahara tent is the largest of the three covered stages, being half as long as the other two again, and is at the far end of the site. Richard D. James can just be seen above the speakers, fiddling with a laptop, playing a subtle game: when we walk in he's playing 4/4, almost-funky techno, and every sweaty attendant is dancing. But gradually the breaks are getting longer and the beats tougher, and dancers are dropping out one-by-one, looking slightly bewildered and embarrassed for losing the groove. Halfway into the set there's no more than heads bobbing to unpredictable beats... and then he starts again with the 4/4 and the whole crowd gets moving, visibly relieved. It's amusing, and also slightly worrying - when Aphex Twin (****) claps his hands, we're all going to start barking like dogs, aren't we?

That's not for us, so we boost back to the main stage to catch The Verve (***), who front-load their set with Urban Hymns album tracks like 'Sonnet' and 'Space and Time'. It's our first look at a night-time gig on the main stage, and it's quite spectacular with the huge screens and lights. The Verve themselves aren’t quite so spectacular, though they do remind the audience that their roots lay in reverb by hazing and swirling the guitars whenever possible. There’s a strong nostalgic appeal in hearing these songs which years ago first got the people in this crowd excited about music. But tastes change as people get older, and it’s only now that I can bring myself to think that ‘Sonnet’ and ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ are actually quite dirgeful. It’s hard to imagine that The Verve have much to offer 2008 more than nostalgia; I won’t exactly be queuing up for their mooted comeback album.

Troubled by this conflicted reaction to a former favourite band, we trek back across the site one last time tonight to catch Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings (****), arriving in time to see the title track from recent LP 100 Days, 100 Nights. She must have shorter heels on than Santogold, because her careful creep is more stable and allows the middle-aged soul diva a lot more scope for dancing – and boy does she use it. She absolutely belts through these songs, ably backed by the most in-demand funk band in the world. The climax, built from a groove based on swinging horns and a classic James Brown motif, brings a thrilling end to a wonderful first day. Though we’ve seen lots of good performances already, it’s the two tottering Tinas whose shows we want to see again, immediately – or, next time they come to Scotland, at least.

Coachella's campsite is a place for sleeping, not for partying. It's a completely different environment from British festival campsites, which seem in comparison like 72-hour party venues which luckily happen to be adjacent to live music. While in the UK the only alcohol limit is how much campers can bear to carry in, alcohol is banned at the Coachella campsite other than in the bar, which closes at midnight. Though some booze and drugs do sneak past the thorough bag searches on entry, even those who do want to party all night are collared by golf-buggied security staff if they make too much noise past 2am. It's an attitude shift British festival-goers will find hard to adjust to, but there's something to be said for this paternal approach to camper well-being after long days traipsing around in the roasting sun - and the last thing you want as you wake up in a cooking tent is a hangover. The extra capacity for sleep, plus the complete lack of rain or mud, meant Coachella's campsite offered the most comfortable - if not the most fun - camping experience we've ever had at a festival.

Saturday is even hotter than the day before: the temperature today gets to 110ºF, we hear, and our water is warm enough to cook rice in. By mid-afternoon the heat is almost unbearable, but that ‘almost’ is all the leeway we need to stand outside for DeVotchKa (***), a Denver band who’ve just released an excellent sixth album in A Mad And Faithful Telling. Despite being American, their sound is wholly European: just as Beirut and Gogol Bordello mine Eastern European and Jewish musics, as do Devotchka, but I also hear Spanish and French sounds in here too. Two curtain-climbing acrobats appear for two songs, but the gig is cut short after just half-an-hour when instrumentalist Jeanie Schroder has to be helped off stage. Not only was the heat sweltering, but she had also been carrying a huge chrome sousaphone horn around her shoulders – in hindsight, perhaps wearing silver in this sunlight wasn’t a good idea.

Despite best intentions to see Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks’ entire set, you know how it goes at festivals – friends get lost, new friends get made, people need to meet and shop and eat and drink and pee. Sorry pal, I don’t know what the SPL scores were today, I’m actually trying to get to… so we only catch 15 minutes, most of it taken up by the epic title track of the former Pavement man’s new Real Emotional Trash. And it’s good, really good, an awesome rolling juggernaught that squeezes in and then spews everything forth in Malkmus’ trademark ramshackle way. Damn people, ruining my festival - who needs friends anyway? (I'd give Malky's set *** - Ed)

Hot Chip (****) at the Sahara tent were a hot ticket in this boiling weather. I’d never been a huge fan, but notice the past tense: the way these four head-banging nerds got the whole sweaty tent going completely won me over. Leading by example instead of hiding behind a laptop, the highly excitable quartet on-stage gave it their all, segued songs with shifting rhythms to keep the grooves fresh, and gave ‘Over and Over’ a crunchier extended workout. But to call that a highlight might reinforce what had been my previous perception - that this group were one-song-wonders. That’s certainly not the case – the ones that go “out and out and out”, “a web a web a web” and “so outside, outside” were great too. The ending, the “do it do it do it now” one, seemed entirely appropriate for what was to follow – who knows if it was deliberate, but the binary synths were a clear borrow from the electronic four-piece about to take the main stage.

Kraftwerk (****) are probably up there with James Brown and The Beatles in terms of influence, having lead the way for electronic music since about 1971. If there was no Kraftwerk, there'd be no Hot Chip, and no Sahara, Slam, Glade or Dance festival tents at all frankly. Unlike Hot Chip, Kraftwerk were determinedly immobile, standing almost completely still behind laptop stands, with only the occasional mouse movement confirming that we were looking at humans after all. But if the start is a little lifeless, it dramatically improves halfway through with the terrifying ‘Radio-Activity’. Performed with giant nuclear warning signs on-screen, sweeping synths and dramatic choral aaahhs, it’s also now clear that Hutter is indeed singing, and an extra jittery rhythm towards the end is a welcome deviation from the original version. It’s the song of the festival so far. During a lights-out, the group is replaced by four mannequins who then “perform” ‘We Are The Robots’ with more mechanical mobility than their human counterparts could muster. The humans return for the climactic ‘Music Non-Stop’ – and then the music stops.

Kraftwerk’s influence shone through again, earlier, when ‘Trans-Europe Express’ reminded me that Portishead (****) were due up next. Their first single off new album Third was what it brought to mind, and ‘Machine Gun’ was as extraordinary in the setting of a vast festival stage as I had hoped. It sounded like war – well, obviously, but it sounded like real war, like helmets and bunkers and squeaky bums time, like it was a good idea to duck and cover if you valued your life. An eye-roller on the grass was freaking out, but so were the sober fans, awed and petrified by the sheer drama and size of it. Elsewhere, it was just another brilliant Portishead gig, with the astonishing ending to ‘Threads’, the noisy and distorted breakdown in ‘Glory Box’, and Beth Gibbons’ wicked witch impression during 'Cowboy' being highlights.

When Prince (*****) finally takes the stage, it's only to introduce another act: former protégés Morris Day and The Time take centre-stage while the main man stands stage-side, and then drummer Sheila E gets a chance to shine with her own song ‘The Glamorous Life’. It's actually really fucking good, but with the clock eeking past half-11, the sore-footed audience are wondering if we're actually going to see any Prince, mindful that Jack Johnson had referred to a midnight curfew the night before. Thankfully, he finally finds the spotlight and whips out the big guns: '1999', followed by 'Controversy', 'Little Red Corvette', 'Cream', and 'U Got The Look'. At almost 50 years old, but looking younger than he did when he was 30, Prince is surely now the greatest live performer in the world. His 30-year career has spawned countless classics, but his live shows are infinitely more fun than any 'Best Of' disc could suggest because of his extraordinary musicianship - highlighted here by repeated Hendrix-esque solo guitar runs - his conductor's command of the audience, swaggering stage presence and dance moves, and even the slapstick comic timing of his facial expressions. There's nowhere else in the world this crowd would rather be.

On Saturday night, a small bunch of campers staged a half-hearted rebellion against bed-time. Following a clutch of drummers banging on wheelie bins, about a hundred excitable kids congregated outside our tent to whoop, yell and chant: "Coachella! Coachella!"; "Fuck yeah!"; "aawooo!"; and so on. "This happened last year" we were told by an onlooker, "they had to get a police helicopter in to clear it". No choppers this year, leaving policemen to zoom around on their buggies to chase everyone away (remember, Californian police are armed with guns and batons). Returning to the campsite on Sunday night, we knew there would be no repeat: the shitty smell as we got back was explained by the police horses strutting between tents, checking for trouble.

Sunday’s line-up turned out to be rather lacking when we got there, especially when Swedish techno maestro The Field cancelled at the last minute because of Visa problems. So we sauntered about, looked at all the shops and stalls, and visited the various art installations that peppered the field. In mid-afternoon we paid a visit to the Sahara tent for Deadmau5, but he appeared to be sustaining cheap tech-house beats with a looped Daft Punk vocal sample for about 10 minutes. The skinny white boy behind the decks took off his freaky giant red mask to reveal John Smeaton – does this man’s talent have no end? – or at least someone similar, but with no sign of progress past endless calls of “Stronger, Harder, Faster, Bigger”, we decided to move on.

In the next tent we thought to give Swervedriver (**) a go, but it was so loud that the guitar mix was difficult to make out – and that seemed to be what they were relying on for melody. Sludgy and thick, several songs initially reminded me of the stultifying scurge of naïve local grunge bands, though Swervedriver did build most into burning grooves that prompted a degree of visceral thrill. But by the end this seemed to be a formula, other than the final song, which I had originally jotted down as being “slow-burning”; now I know what I really meant was “boring” (I'll lend you a copy of Mezcal Head, then we'll talk - Ed).

Spiritualized (***) were much better, despite early sound problems that frequently interrupted a minimal Jason Pierce set-up with unwelcome feedback. These disturbed songs were mostly taken from forthcoming album Songs in A&E, so the sleepy crowd weren’t really able to take to what they didn’t know, and for my money it seemed fairly hit and miss. Finally Pierce woke us all up with a languid and beautiful 'Ladies & Gentlemen...'. ‘Lord I Have A Broken Heart’ is sung so achingly slow it sounds like respiratory depression, but there was no danger of us going under again – the climax, ‘I Think I’m In Love’, was the most energetic song of the whole set, yet still clocked in at a gentle crawl.

Even if Pierce was lazing on a Sunday afternoon, this was no time for The Skinny to sit about – despite increasing claims from US critics that My Morning Jacket are among the best live bands in America, we elected to see the re-formed Love And Rockets (****) instead. Consisting of two former Bauhaus members, on stage they seem like the missing link between the glam-punk of the New York Dolls and Jane’s Addiction’s kooky alt-rock, but they’re also very English, with Buzzcocks and Disintegration-era Cure also influencing their sound. ‘It Could Be Sunshine' and ‘An American Dream’ both burst with swagger, but it’s a wonderfully sleazy ‘Kundalini Express’, which they dedicate to Syd Barrett, which really brings the hypothetical house down. (P.S MMJ were average anyway - Ed)

The big event for most people we talked to over the weekend was not Prince, but Roger Waters (*****), especially as he was slated to perform Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety. This was an extraordinary set, as he and Pink Floyd are famous for, which showcased both the best and the worst of prog-rock. Pink Floyd haven’t been ‘cool’ since punk aligned them with beard-stroking dads and declared that youth preferred musical modesty to grand ambition, and Roger Waters himself makes me want to reassert that conviction; on-stage he seems as conceited and out-of-touch as a 64-year old billionaire rock star must be. Plus, he looks like a lizard, and that’s troubling for anyone who knows the theories of David Icke. But, ultimately, I can cope with a bit of all that. It comes with the territory. Despite its terribleness, this show was one of the greatest things I have ever seen.

The first half of the set was completely over the top. ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’, ‘Have a Cigar’ and ‘Wish You Were Here’ suggested he might play that entire album too, but there were also songs from The Final Cut, The Wall and Animals. Forty minutes in, Waters performed a bizarre new anti-war song called ‘Leaving Beirut’, complete with unintentionally hilarious comic strip on the screens. Then came the most expensive single song performance, em, ever: during a guitar breakdown, a giant pig covered in scrawled political slogans inflated behind the stage, circled above the crowd, and then flew away. Later Waters paid over $10,000 for its return. Meanwhile, an aeroplane – that is, a fully-sized (not model) piloted plane! - criss-crossed overhead, spurting out clouds of glittery powder which were lit up by searchlights. There were explosions on-stage, and then, at the climax, two giant jets of fire were shot up from the side of the stage, almost enough to char my eyebrows off from 50 yards. I cannot remember what song he was playing.

That was the cue for a half-hour break, before Waters and his band returned for Dark Side of the Moon, Floyd’s 1973 opus that represents an unparalleled combination of genuine innovation and commercial success. Enough has been written about it already; suffice to say it’s one of the best (a.k.a. “my favourite”) albums ever made, regardless of what punk had to say three years after its release. And here, Roger Waters performed it live, in full, with a giant revolving prism emerging at the end, complete with jutting laser spectrum. Wow.