Written by Robbie Gennet, Keyboard senior contributor.
As your intrepid reporter on all things Keyboard, Iheaded to the desert to bear witness to all the coolest keyboard-related activities I could find. Having been to previous Coachella and Phish weekends at the Polo Fields in Indio, California, my girlfriend and I were prepared for broiling sun, teeming masses, and a lot of hustling from stage to stage to catch all the bands, while looking for sources of water and pizza along the way. As always, it’s impossible to see all the bands we want to see, and some hard choices needed to be made regarding how we scheduled ourselves. We chose as judiciously as possible and still managed to miss some favorites. But we also caught some unexpected gems and that is part of what makes being there a can’t miss experience. Luckily for you, we did all the hot and sweaty work; you can search for all of these bands in the cool comfort of your own couch. All of them can be easily heard on Myspace and YouTube and who knows? You may even find a new favorite band.
We arrived mid-afternoon Friday and got stuck in some pretty thick traffic. This year, there were backups at every possible intersection and some severely understaffed entrances and exits that bottlenecked cars for literally hours. Missing some of the early acts, we vowed to arrive even earlier on Saturday. All that being said, we caught some wicked ska from the Specials, one of many interesting retro acts on the bill this year. From there we dashed to the Gobi tent to catch the legendary Gil Scott-Heron, who was set up front and center at a vintage Rhodes, accompanied by only a second keyboard player and a sax/flute player. Heron’s deep, resonant voice practically reached out and hugged us, enveloping the crowd as he laid down the soul from a deep, deep place. It is awesome seeing someone who spent years out of the limelight get so much love from the crowd. Later that night, LCD Soundsystem’s frontman James Murphy dedicated their set to Heron, showing reverence and paying homage. Beautiful!
We caught a little bit of Pretty Lights rocking a tent full of grooving party animals but had to leave early because we didn’t want to miss Them Crooked Vultures, who were playing all the way the other side of the Polo Field. The pairing of John Paul Jones, Dave Grohl, and Josh Homme felt like one of those rock royalty events that one didn’t want to miss. However, as with most expectations that high, the band didn’t match the buzz. When you have such a rich and varied discography as these three, you’re up against a stack of amazing songs. Add that extra layer of expectation because of the cool pairing (“Zeppelin! Foo Fighters! Queens of the Stone Age!”) and it’s near impossible to live up to it. It’s really a compliment to the fact that they’ve struck gold so many times before that they set a really high bar for their music.
We scooted over to the Outdoor stage to catch a newly refreshed Echo and the Bunnymen, who looked and sounded as if they’d never stopped rocking. Ian McCulloch’s brooding presence reminded everyone that without him, Liam Gallagher wouldn’t have known who to mimic onstage. It was great seeing some of these now-classic ’80s bands on the bill. Next year I’ll expect Haircut 100 rocking “Favourite Shirts” or Alphaville unleashing “Forever Young” to a neon crowd. We left the Bunnymen early to get a good spot for one of our faves, LCD Soundsystem. James Murphy is highly adept at making everyone within listening range start to dance, and his band was super-tight. It was excellent to see some electronic acts using real bands instead of beat machines and tracks—hiring musicians is always a great way to support the arts! Though LCD didn’t give us the “North American Scum” we were most hoping for, they grooved out something fierce on tunes like “All My Friends,” “Us v Them” and the powerful set closer “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down.” Murphy claims this is a final album and tour but we hope he’s kidding.
We sadly couldn’t make it all the way to see Imogen Heap in the Mojave tent so we opted for a nearby taste of Vampire Weekend at the Outdoor Theater. The band was very upbeat and poppy and a lot of fun for the adoring crowd. Yet the main event awaited: Jay-Z. As Vampire Weekend finished, the flow of people over to the main stage got pretty heavy so we headed over to find a spot. The Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep ’Til Brooklyn” and the James Bond theme were part of the anticipatory opening music and a giant video countdown heightened the excitement factor. When he finally hit the stage, the crowd went nuts. Opening with “Run This Town,” Jay-Z laid out a slew of hits, plus snippets of a few odd covers such as Oasis’ “Wonderwall.” He had a large band with full horns, and the amazing Tony Royster Jr. on drums, so you know the tunes were tight. Again, major kudos to Jay-Z for using live musicians instead of pre-recorded backing tracks! About 27 songs into the set, the lovely Beyoncé came out and belted out the Alphaville-laced “Young Forever” to an adoring crowd. We left to the dulcet strains of Johnny Rotten and P.I.L., ready for some sleep before the 12-hour day we were going to attempt on Saturday.
Saturday started with good intention, as we wanted to get there super early to catch the amazing band Porcupine Tree, whom I’d never seen live but was eager to. They were on at 1:35 in the afternoon, an ungodly hour for any musician to rock outdoors in the desert southeast of Los Angeles, but we slathered on the sunscreen and hit the road. Though we got to the area early enough, the traffic navigation was so poor that it took over an hour to get in the parking lot before the long walk over. Needless to say, we arrived on the Polo Field just as Porcupine Tree’s equipment was being wheeled offstage—highly unfortunate. However, we had to soldier on and hiked to the Gobi tent to see Portugal. the Man. (yes. their name. is spelled. with an extra. period.) This great band dips into the same acid-spiked inkwell as MGMT and David Bowie—highly listenable and super-fun. We ran by Jason Bentley’s set for a few minutes before checking out Scottish pop band Camera Obscura in the Mojave tent. Their timeless sound and upbeat energy won over the crowd and we dug their tunes a lot. Keyboard player Carey Lander and singer Tracy-Anne Campbell looked as stylish as the music sounded, and the band did a great job replicating their sparkling pop songs live. Lander’s rig was a Roland V-Combo stacked with a Nord Electro 3, a simple yet elegant solution for the band’s needs.
When Camera Obscura finished (cue rapturous applause) we headed to the Outdoor Stage based on word of mouth (thanks Donna!) to see Aussie rock sensation the Temper Trap. Lead guitarist Lorenzo Sillitto doubled on keys, and the band rode a tight, danceable beat through a set we thoroughly enjoyed. We thought they would pair well with Phoenix in upbeat singalong/dancing territory. They were a great warm-up for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, who stormed the Outdoor Stage just after 5 P.M. and raised the crowd to the next level with their infectious music. There were quite a number of people onstage, and the vibe was a kind of hippie cult sundown celebration, with Mr. Sharpe leaping about the stage and feeding into the band and crowd’s energy. The crowd seemed extra exuberant and we saw some excellent expressions of pure joy amidst the grooving throngs. I wonder how many of them are aware of Sharpe’s former career fronting west coast glam-slammers Ima Robot? After that set, we grabbed some food and refreshments and got over to the main stage for one of our favorite bands, Coheed and Cambria—who did not disappoint. Keyboardist/vocalist Wes Styles rocked a Nord Electro 2 and Korg Triton pro next to a Minimoog Voyager and the band let loose the prog metal. The played tunes off their brand new record “Year of the Black Rainbow” and threw in some earlier hits for the fans as well. The stomping rock epic “Welcome Home” was the last song and midway though, a full marching band appeared onstage from the wings and played along to the gargantuan riff. Watching a dozen tubas headbanging is a rare treat and it sounded absolutely huge out front. It was great to see some heavier bands at Coachella inject a little metal into the proceedings. Accordingly, many heads were banged, including ours. Link to Coheed finale: http://http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=twIxvZjZq1E
Catching our breath from the Coheed closer, we watched a little Hot Chip over on the Outdoor Stage. Their fans were out and the bands light keyboard-driven pop appealed to a pretty sizeable crowd. We cut short on Hot Chip and ran over to the Main Stage so I could get in the photo pit for the newly reunited Faith No More. Mike Patton, Roddy Bottom, and company came onstage in dapper suits, with Patton dressed all in red like Satan morphed with Hugh Hefner. They launched into a sincere cover of the Peaches and Herb hit “Reunited” before tearing into “From Out of Nowhere.” The band was in terrific form and their alternative-before-alternative music really holds up well after all these years. Patton’s voice is still wondrous, the vibe is still strange, and they still sound ahead of their time. Keyboardist Roddy Bottom had one M-Audio controller and a MacBook Pro, a nice tight rig for the road, upon which he duly rocked out. The band was extremely well received by the crowd and hopefully will expand their Second Coming tour beyond the few east coast dates they have booked this summer.
After Faith No More, we cruised through the crowds to see MGMT over on the outdoor stage. Though we hadn’t yet heard much from their new record, we were pretty psyched to hear our favorite songs from the first album. The band’s songwriting style incorporates a more adventurous path of chord changes and psychedelic sounds, though some of the songs tend to wander a bit for the casual listener. They strike me like a modern day T. Rex: Marc Bolan tried to break out of basic and common chord changes and lyrical tropes, and much like in Bolan’s case, the results can be hit-or-miss. When they launched “Electric Feel” the fourth song in, you could feel the crowd’s elation, and the live performance duplicated the record’s spaced-out sound quite deftly. They also played the gargantuan hit “Time to Pretend” but oddly left off “Kids,” which surprised us. They started losing a little crowd towards the end as their timeslot was going to overlap main stage headliners Muse and people wanted to get a good spot for that. And they were surely glad they did, because Muse killed!
I don’t want to gush too much, but damn—Matt Bellamy and his bandmates are talented musicians and songwriters! Opening with “Uprising,” the first track off of last year’s album The Resistance, Muse rolled out a superb set list of stadium rock, replete with lasers and lights galore. Sound quality was excellent and the band performed heroically, with Bellamy’s exceptional voice resonating across the Polo Field. Older songs like “Time is Running Out” and “Supermassive Black Hole” balanced well with newer tracks such as “United States of Eurasia” and “Resistance,” while the closing one-two punch of “Stockholm Syndrome” and “Knights of Cydonia” was totally epic, leaving the crowd riled up. What a rock show! At times, it felt like the best of U2, Radiohead, and Queen all rolled up into a shiny metal wrapper. Muse has established themselves as global superstars, and rightly so. If you’ve never seen Muse, you are way overdue!
At the last note of Muse, we wound our way back to the Outdoor stage for one of the most anticipated acts of the night, the Dead Weather, featuring Jack White (of the White Stripes) on drums. The screens flanking the stage played in black and white, which complemented the retro stylings of the band’s music and wardrobe. Most importantly, they kicked major ass! The band opened with the Pentagram cover “Forever My Queen” and set about rocking the crowd with their thick distorted blues riffing and singer Alison Mosshart’s vibey wail. White did come up front to sing a tune, but seemed more than happy to take a proverbial back seat to the rest of the band. White’s kit was set up low and his playing recalled the Mitch Mitchell/Ginger Baker school of classic rock drumming. The Dead Weather lived up to their hype and then some. The energy and vibe was akin to early Led Zeppelin performances, leaving us truly satisfied.
From there, our last show was the legendary DEVO in the Mojave tent and they did not disappoint. The masked men of DEVO manned synth rigs across the stage, and along with drummer extraordinaire Josh Freese, kicked out the new wave jams. Their new single “Fresh” sounded right at home with their older material and it was great hearing both the hits and deeper cuts. No matter how many times you hear it, “Whip It” is a great live tune! Add to that “Girl U Want” and “Satisfaction,” throw in “Mongoloid” and “Jocko Homo,” and you have yourself a party. As the last beats of “Gates of Steel” rang through the cool desert night, we headed towards the parking lot to attempt to drive home. We caught a little bit of Sia along the way and heard the thump of Tiesto across the fields. There was a fair amount of electronic music at Coachella from some pretty big acts but after awhile, a four-on-the-floor thump with occasional filter sweeps and stuttering snare fills simply feels like a hammer to the skull. Hearing groups like LCD Soundsystem and Jay-Z with such stellar live bands only made the electronic bands sound less soulful by comparison. Not that the raving ecstasy-fueled dancers seemed to mind or even notice, and there were certainly a lot of rave-like gatherings along the weekend. Dead center of the field there stands an electronic dance music area that always seemed packed with half-naked revelers deep in their own world. My only beef is that the subwoofer-heavy bass bleeds so heavily into the two main stages—and even the Gobi tent is ill-placed in the center of the field. Since the attendees didn’t seem to know or care where they were, perhaps moving the four-on-the-floor dance are to a more remote corner of the field would alleviate the sound issues next year. Those of us that were not there to lose our minds on “E” would appreciate being able to hear the live acts we came to see. ’Nuff said.
A note to the organizers of Coachella: your parking situation malfunctioned so badly this year that it really detracted from an otherwise stellar experience. Each night, we sat in the parking lot for hours as we waited for thousands of cars to bottleneck out of an inadequately managed, one-lane gate. The poor planning and horrendous traffic jams were unfortunate, and there were some heated tempers out there. Please craft your battle plan carefully next year and fix what went wrong, whether it was a lack of traffic management or just real-time assessment of where things were backing up, so you can relieve the pressure before it builds up. One last thing—and I hate to gripe, trust me—those water trucks you had spraying all the dirt lots and paths in the daytime to avoid dust? Where were they at night when everybody tramped across those same dusty roads and lots? The air was so full of dust that it was quite difficult to breathe. We had dust in our eyes, ears, noses. and mouths, and I hate to even think of what our lungs took in, even though we did our best to cover our mouths.
Ah, Sunday, the final day. After two solid days on our feet, we steeled ourselves for another go-round, excited at some of the acts ahead, including the elusive Sly Stone and “Cars” synth wizard Gary Numan. Both of those shows were unfortunately destined for disaster—more on that later. Again with the traffic, we missed Meyer Hawthorne and Mutemath, who we were hoping to catch. However, we did catch De La Soul rocking the main stage crowd with a vigorous set of upbeat hip-hop, which jammed! There were definitely some old-school fans in the house, but I’m sure a lot of people who weren’t familiar with De La Soul were pleasantly surprised and happily grooved. From there we sprinted across the field to see Matt & Kim in the Mojave tent and we were sure glad we did! The duo played a raucous set, the crowd sang along, and keyboardist Matt Johnson rocked out on a Roland Juno-G and a vintage Yamaha CS-5 analog synth.
After Matt & Kim, we hit the Gobi tent for an anticipated set by Florence and the Machine, who didn’t disappoint. Lead singer Florence Welch has a powerful voice, and she and her band laid down music from the 2010 Brit Awards Best British Album-winning Lungs. There was a female keyboard player onstage, whom I think might be named Isabella Summers, but she had a scarf draped over her rig so I couldn’t tell what keyboards she was playing. Still, the music sounded good, and Florence and crew were well received. After a healthy dose of Florence, we ran and caught a little of Yo La Tengo on the main stage, then ran back across to the Mojave tent to see Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas fronting his own solo band. Flanked by two keyboard players, Casablancas laid down an energetic set of ’80s-inspired New Wave rock, with echoes of Human League-era synth pop mashed with NYC indie rock. We had to soon peel off to head back to the Gobi tent for some of Charlotte Gainesbourg’s French pop music and were pleasantly surprised to see a ton of keyboards onstage, including a vintage Minimoog, a Korg MS-20, and a cool old Panther transistor organ.
After Charlotte’s grooving set, we caught a little of Sigur Rós singer Jonsi’s set drifting across the crowd at the Outdoor stage, but I soon had to get into position for the hugely anticipated Sly Stone set back at the Gobi tent. I took a bunch of shots of the keyboards during sound check, and the crowd poured in, cheering wildly for Sly to come out. Onstage, there was a stage-right rig with a Korg Triton and a Yamaha Motif with a smaller extra controller on top (I’m assuming that’s Cori Jacobs’ rig). Center-stage for Sly, there was just a Triton and a smaller Korg with a Vocoder by its side. Unfortunately, one of Sly’s crew announced that Sly would now be going on after Little Boots, and the crowd was disappointed. So we ran over to the Outdoor stage and caught a terrific set by Phoenix, whose keyboard-laced pop-rock got the packed crowd dancing all over the place. They sounded great and their songs really held up live. We will definitely be investigating the keyboards of Phoenix in the not-too distant-future.
At the last note of Phoenix, we navigated the crushing throngs back to the Gobi tent where Little Boots was about to go on at 8 P.M., pushing Sly even later to 9. Luckily for us, Little Boots was superb! Her backup band consisted of a drummer and two synth players (whom I would love to give props to if I could find out their names) playing a Korg Kontrol49, a Moog Little Phatty, and a Dave Smith Prophet ’08. Upstage on a drum riser, electropop princess Little Boots (a.k.a. Victoria Hesketh) began the set seated behind a red Korg SV-1 keyboard before moving front-and-center to a rig consisting of MiniKorg and Casio synths stacked next to a Yamaha Tenori-On. She looked cool, sounded great, and the synth-drenched set really rocked the crowd. My only small complaint was that the front-of-house sound engineer mixed the bass so heavily that my nostrils and bowels quivered in a semi-painful way. Still, we had a great time. Afterwards, I asked someone by the stage about Sly’s set and was informed that now he was postponing I to 10:30 so he could go on at the same time as the headliners Gorillaz. Turns out he didn’t actually go on until around 11 P.M., but by that time we were gone, having given up on Sly to see some of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke before the long drive back to L.A. As usual, Yorke brought the rapture, and his all-star band was tight, giving the pulsating crowd what they came for. We were sorry to have missed Gorillaz, but with all the traffic hassles and the lateness of the hour, we made the decision to head home. If it’s any consolation, we heard the Gorillaz set was awesome and that the sound was superb as well. Can’t make ’em all, unfortunately. But for a moment, back to Sly Stone.
After we watched band after band at Coachella profusely thank the crowd for seeing their set, after countless demonsrations of humility from some of the biggest bands of the fest, including Jay-Z, and after watching every artist stick pretty close to their scheduled set times (barring technical difficulties), it was embarrassing to see Sly purposefully abdicate his downbeat time not once but twice, then finally come onstage to slouch into an office chair and deliver a rambling monologue about some lawsuit while the band waited uncomfortably. For the record, the band sounded awesome. When they did manage to start a song, it was only at the mercy of Sly remembering the lyrics or just plain deciding to continue the song. It really pains me to say this, because I and every other Sly fan were rooting for this opportunity for him to come back and claim his legacy. He was going into this gig as the recipient of more good will than perhaps any time since back in the day. Hearing about the second postponement was akin to that classic moment from Johnny Rotten—who has done well claiming his own Pistols/P.I.L. legacy—where he asks the Pistols audience if they at all felt cheated. The disappointment in the air was palpable. In another. more positive reality, my review should have read like this:
“The crowd is chanting for Sly and a buzz of anticipation courses through the room. At the stroke of 7 P.M., Sly’s band kicks into the opening riff of “I Want to Take You Higher” and brings the audience to its feet. Sly enters stage left to rapturous applause, and struts over to his keyboard rig, set center stage and glowing amidst the lights shining off of his rhinestone boots. Cori Jacobs and the band were on it, and as Sly kicked in on keys and vocals, the music came together to form that legendary sound. For the next 45 minutes, Sly killed, putting every ounce of his soul into song after song, singing with a deep passion and lifting the crowd ever higher. As the band kicked into the last song “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” Sly thanked the crowd for showing so much love, and the crowed roared with approval. The king of funk was back and the music sounded better than ever.”
But that’s not how it was meant to be. Whatever it was that caused him to decide to postpone the set, it must be pure self-hatred to take an opportunity like this and blow it like that. Ultimately, we care so much because we care about the MUSIC, and seeing him do it disservice hurts worse than not seeing him do it at all. Let’s compare the Sly situation to that of Gary Numan, who also had a big Sunday night set at Coachella. It was the same scenario in the sense that a classic artist was jumping into this lineup to show people why they not only mattered in the first place, but why they matter NOW. Unfortunately, due to the whole volcanic ash situation in Iceland, he couldn’t travel here from Europe. Both Gary Numan and Sly Stone missed their slot, one on purpose, the other not. We can talk about gratitude all day long, but when it’s absent, it only diminishes the greatness of the art and the artist.
To conclude, we made it home and survived. We also got some cool pics which are posted on our Flickr feed at keyboardmag.com/Community so check ’em out and look up some of the bands. For those who have never made the trek to the Coachella music festival, we hope you’ll consider going next year. Just bring comfortable shoes, lots of sunblock, and earplugs. And park early! See you there.
April 20, 2010