Music: Meet Coachella

The festival in the desert turns seven years old

What has 94 bands, temperatures in the upper 90s (if your lucky), and about 120,000 people?

I'll give you a hint: it's seven years old, lives in the California desert and its friends call it "Coachella," although you might want to call it the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

Concert promoter Goldenvoice once again managed to assemble a five-stage mix of what's going on in music today: Kanye, Madonna, Daft Punk, Scissor Sisters, Matisyahu, Massive Attack, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, to drop some of the big names.

The first of my two-days of soaking in music in the desert began with ... a forgotten ticket. Just as my friend and I approached the parking lot, I noticed a scalper with a sign and, UGGGHH, my stomach turned inside out as I realized I had just added a three-hour round trip to my day and pushed my first concert back to 4 p.m. Sorry, Walkmen. Too bad, Wolfmother. Next time, Hybrid featuring Perry Farrell.

OK, so there weren't too many bands I was crazy about in those first few hours. But I would have much rather checked out some new-to-me acts then aggressively passed seniors in Cadillacs as I made my way back to my friend's place in Palm Springs and back to Indio.

My day began with Animal Collective, the Brooklyn foursome whose online samples promised a mix of genre-defying sounds and ambient-leaning songs — some of which might rock. In reality, the foursome was a screaming mess. Maybe they thought they had to make an impression at the Outdoor theater. But at one point their singer yelled something that sounded like "This is torture!" repeatedly while storming around.

Enough said.

Rapper Common picked up the slack over at the Coachella stage, the largest venue. Common (aka Chicago's Rasheed Lynn) worked the very-white crowd as best he could, at one point inviting "H.G." a bikini-topped audience member to be his on-stage girl for a song. Common break danced (or is it broke danced?) in a hoodie, an act of courage in the Indio heat, offered songs from Be, his latest (including "Faithful"). DJ Dummy cut the hell out of "It Takes Two," the classic Hip Hop song. In all, Common distinguished himself.

But he was no match for Kanye West, a last-minute addition who ended up with just 35 minutes sandwiched between Common and Sigur Ros. To be fair to Common, Kanye simply had better ammunition. He tossed out "Diamonds from Sierra Leone," "Heard 'Em Say" and "Touch the Sky," all with the help of a small string section, the violin player of which danced as hard as anyone else on stage.

West delivered the quote of the day in the middle of "Gold Digger": "White people, this is your only chance to say 'nigga.' Take advantage of it." Kanye also played and danced to snippets from a few of his favorite songs: Al Green's "Still In Love With You," Michael Jackson's "Rock With You" and a-ha's "Take On Me." "Don't be surprised," West said before dancing just like lead singer Morten Harket in the 1985 video. Unlike most of the other artists, West never asked the crowd to put its hands in the air. He didn't have to.

Crowds this large force difficult decisions. Get to your stage early, or risk watching your favorite artist with a telescope. So I suffered through the last several songs of Ladytron's passionless '80s Technopop to get a good look at how Cat Power was doing. Apparently quite well, despite canceling her U.S. tour.

Cat Power (aka Chan Marshall) has a reputation for being the most fragile female singer-songwriter out there. However, her Mojave tent performance, if repeated often enough, could put that to rest for good. Backed by a full band and then some (including two backup singers), Marshall sauntered through songs from The Greatest, which is a lot warmer and more Country than her somber breakthrough, You Are Free. Marshall, in white sneakers, moon-walked, swayed and kicked though her set, showing only hints of the lack of confidence that oozed from her during a 2003 South By SouthWest set.

Freed from her piano and most of her guitar duties and buoyed by shouts from the crowd, such as "We love you Chan!," Marshall even made her older material sound less barren. Marshall repaid the love by tossing a (costume?) pearl necklace and other jewelry into the crowd at the end of her set.

Meanwhile, my friend, a local reporter, was at the simultaneous show by the Eagles of Death Metal, featuring local hero Josh Homme (Mr. Queens of the Stone Age). She gave them high marks. And while she would soon wander into the Depeche Mode crowd at the Coachella stage for 90 minutes of mostly new songs, I snuck my way to the front of the Sahara stage to see a rare 80-minute set by Daft Punk.

For that privilege I suffered through at least 30 minutes of Britain's Audio Bullys, who rivaled Animal Collective in pointlessness. I lost track of how many times Simon Franks asked the crowd, "Are you ready for the bass?," before launching into mediocre Techno. Their best song sampled Nancy Sinatra's "Shot You Down." I wonder where they got the idea for that mix.

But it was all worth it when the French duo took the stage for their simple but conceptually-perfect show. It was like this: two guys dressed like robots sat atop a pyramid made of video screens surrounded by lots of other triangle-shaped lighting, and flat-out rocked the house with mixes of their best songs from Homework, Discovery and Human After All. It all began with indistinguishable beats that slowly morphed into two alternating words: "human ... robot ... human ... robot."

Thomas Bangalter and Guy Manuel de Homem-Christo didn't move much, except for regular head-bobbing and manipulating the controls of what seemed like several machines atop their pyramid.

The duo's eye candy started slowly, using one piece of lighting to build on the next until late in the set during "One More Time," when most of the stage was a rainbow of colors exploding to the beat. The pyramid began projecting solid colors, moved to Tron-like line drawings, and finished with full-color realistic pictures, all coordinated with the rest of the stage. Can't picture it? Buy Coachella's DVD next year. It's worth seeing. Or fly to Europe or Japan for their six-date summer tour.

After a nearly three-hour ride back to Palm Springs Saturday night, neither my friend nor I were eager to be the last ones out on Sunday. Further motivating us were closing sets by Tool, the Scissor Sisters and others we couldn't imagine sticking around to see. Sorry, fans.

Earlier in the day was another matter. While I had to see Amadou & Mariam on the Gobi stage, my friend headed for Ted Leo and the Pharmacists at the Outdoor theater (Leo took a moment to noodle Daft Punk's "One More Time" on his guitar and ask his crowd if they saw them last night). My friend also praised Tel Leo's set.

I'm not the kind of guy to get emotional, but I couldn't help being a little choked up while watching a blind couple from Mali perform in front of thousands of people in the Gobi tent. What are the odds of that kind of success? Amadou & Mariam, who met at the Institute for Young Blind People in 1977 in Bamako, Mali, delivered a perfect 45-minute sample of African Pop from their latest album, Dimance a Bamako. Their songs, which alternate between the bright and dark, Pop and Soul, often revolve around their relationship. But others call for the unity of all people, or call out the problems innate in politics.

In Europe the album has done even better than in the U.S., going as high as No. 2 in France last summer. Their show was also one of the few places in the Coachella Valley where you were more likely to hear French than Spanish.

Manu Chau, the album's producer, probably left too many fingerprints on Dimanche. They couldn't do the album's signature song, "Senegal Fast Food," because Manu Chau also sang lead on it. But honestly, he wasn't missed; Amadou & Mariam filled in the gaps quite nicely.

Afterwards, a quick walk to the Coachella stage and a loosely-packed crowd allowed me to get a good position to catch almost all of The Magic Numbers' 50-minutes of sensitive, hooky, harmonious Guitar Pop. I've been hooked on their self-titled album steadily since I first heard it last fall. For a guy who sings so much about love in his high-pitched, breathy voice, I thought Romeo Stodart would look a little less like Meat Loaf. They sounded great, though, like all the bands on that stage, Stodart could have laid off the audience participation request in the upper 90s heat of the mid-afternoon. (Fan note: The Magic Numbers were to begin recording their follow-up two days after their Coachella performance.)

In the late afternoon, with Matisyahu comparing Jews wandering the desert during biblical times to the atmosphere in Indio, I caught the last bit of Metric's set and saw the best recovery of the weekend. Josh Winstead, with his bass failing him in mid-finale, tried another one, then another, before falling backwards, hands in the air in frustration, before getting the third bass to work, to huge cheers from the crowd. It all happened in less than 30 seconds. That's composure under pressure.

Then it was time for the show with perhaps the most buzz: the first public-advertised performance of Gnarls Barkley. The Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo Pop/Soul collaboration has already hit number one in the U.K. with the single "Crazy," based only on the number of downloads (a first). They hit the Gobi tent in the late afternoon with a 14-piece band in Wizard of Oz costumes. In all, the band consisted of two Dorothy and two Scarecrow backup singers, four witches on bass, guitar, drums and keyboards, a four-flying-monkey string quartet, Cee-Lo as the Cowardly Lion and Danger Mouse as the Tin Man.

Gnarls Barkley couldn't be here today, Cee-Lo announced. So instead here was "Big Ol Lion and the Hearts."

They proceeded to perform songs from their forthcoming debut, St. Elsewhere, including the Motown-channeling "Smiling Faces." Perhaps no other crowd was as universally excited to be in front of a band all weekend as the Barkley fans were. As Cee-Lo gradually stripped the makeshift robe/wig lion costume and his T-shirt down to a tank top, the band tore through "Gone Daddy Gone," the Violent Femmes classic, their own "Crazy," and others. While Cee-Lo worked the crowd, Danger Mouse manned the keyboards in his Tin Man outfit.

Cee-Lo asked if everything was OK. "We want it to be absolutely perfect," he said, which it wasn't. Feedback blemished some of the Gobi tent shows, including a couple of Barkley's songs. But it was still a hell of a lot of fun. Their brand of old-school Soul, Rock and cheekiness is going to be something to watch once they get some shows under their belt. (Their first public gig was a secret show the night before in L.A., to iron out any kinks.)

That might have been the last peak. After the sun set, Madonna would perform a five-song set of mostly newer songs complete with dancers to a huge crowd; ultra serious Massive Attack would play perfect versions of "Karmacoma," "Future Proof," and other hits on the main stage, while at one point updating the total number of dead in the Iraq War. The Editors would put out a smooth, clean, collection of Modern Rock, as if Coldplay and Radiohead met in the middle. And Britain's The Go! Team would have a hell of a lot of fun on stage building music with roots in every possible genre, turning it into a cheer for standing up for yourself and global awareness.

But for my money, no one was going to touch the freshness of Gnarls Barkley, the irresistibility of Daft Punk's hooks or the charm of Amadou & Mariam.

Besides music, there was a wealth of local sculpture and other art and the usual assortment of local vendors of T-shirts, sunglasses, and more. Cyclecide/Bike Rodeo offered a two-person ferris wheel and four-person carousel, both pedal-powered. Several small-tented domes gave the chance to dance like a maniac to breakbeats, watch a combination of Cirque de Soleil-style acrobatics by LucEnT dOsSieR Vaudeville Cirque or chill out among fake fall foliage in the Leaf Rake Tree Dome. Also, Lucent was kind enough to provide a mist tent that my friend repeatedly enjoyed.

I could bitch about the sometimes 50-foot lines just to have your ID checked, much less to get a beer (which cost $7). Or the audacity behind confiscating bottles of water then charging $2 for 17 ounces inside as the thermometer edged toward 100. Or the $8 cheeseburgers.

But those were details, really. Parking was free. The weather was perfect — not even that hot, for a desert. And the mix of talent was impressive. Where else could I have spent a weekend among African Pop, French techno, British and American Rock ... and who knows what else that I couldn't get to?

Note: My partner in music, Maggie Downs, contributed to this story and to me being able to be at Coachella in the first damn place. iTunes and artist Web sites also helped me get my spellings straight.

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