Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Weekend 2 brings a myriad of musical riches to Coachella

Singer Thom Yorke of the band Radiohead appears to be peering into the night as seen on one of the gigantic screens positioned over the Coachella Stage where the acclaimed British band headlined on Saturday, April 21.
Everyone has a different Coachella experience. Many brave impossible elements or fatigue to catch as many performances as possible while others are fanatic about a specific artist and trek out to Indio for a single performance. Still others come to view the fantastic artwork installations, watch out for celebrities, party with friends or for no other reason than to say "I was at Coachella" (even if that means they attended a party in far-off Palm Springs and never actually set foot on the Empire Polo Club grounds in Indio). For the record I have always come to Coachella to catch some of my favorite artists in the most thrilling of settings and for the joy of discovering great artists for the first time. After catching all or part of eight sets on Friday, nine on Saturday and another nine on Sunday, here are some highlights of my sonic journey through Weekend 2 (April 20-22, 2012) of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
I'm glad I arrived at the Coachellafest first thing because Friday's finest moments came early in the day. Don't get me wrong; I did enjoy seeing Pulp, Mazzy Star and the Black Keys in their respective turns that would come after dark. But a string of incredible performances following the kickoff from Mea (seen in the image on the left) came via Los Angeles Americana outfit honeyhoney, the eclectic Oklahoma-based Other Lives, singer-songwriter-guitar virtuoso Gary Clark Jr., country-folk rockers Dawes (whose "Time Spent in Los Angeles" and "Fire Away" simply rocked live) and genre-defying singer-songwriter-guitarist M. Ward set the perfect pace for me over the fast-paced day. With the exception of the experimental rock of the Jesse Tabish-led Other Lives, the wealth of roots music artists who were featured on Friday really was terrific. Dawes recalled classic Crosby, Stills and Nash, while Clark Jr. floored a packed Gobi tent over the course of 55 magical minutes with potent blues rockers like "When My Train Pulls In" and "Don't Owe You a Thang." Anyone who loves blues rock needs to discover this amazing Austin, Texas based artist (do yourself a favor and pick up his newly-released Bright Lights EP). Saturday's wide-ranging schedule yielded similarly-thrilling sets from early performers as well, although Coachella-goers had to contend with some of the highest fest temperatures in memory. Indeed, while checking weather conditions just prior to Grace Potter and the Nocturnals' 3:40 p.m. set time I saw 106 listed as the current temp for Indio. A far cry from the cold and rain that had marked Weekend 1 of the festival a week earlier. But baking in the sun was made a bit easier thanks to staff hosing down those positioned near the front of the Outdoor Theatre, the spot where I caught three solid performances. Orange County-based Suedehead's hard-charging sound recalled Paul Weller's The Jam while We Were Promised Jetpacks blended post-punk and '80's alt rock into a rousing mix. The aforementioned Potter and company opened with the infectious singalong "Paris (Ooh La La)." Potter strummed away on her electric guitar while nailing high notes with her amazing soprano on the way through a 40-minute performance that boasted the depth and range of a full-length concert set. Highlights included the blues-rock of "Stop the Bus" and a musical tribute to the recently-deceased Band drummer Levon Helm.
While the weather (thankfully) cooled a bit as the sun began to set, the intensity of the music making side of things never let up. From the energetic Kaiser Chiefs and U.K. power pop masters Squeeze, to Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds (seen rocking on a mega-screen in the image on the left) and Portland-based the Shins, the day and evening brought one breathtaking set after another. Squeeze performed with a fire and intensity of an up-and-coming band, unleashing versions of timeless favorites including "Black Coffee in Bed," "Pulling Mussels (from the Shell)" and "Is That Love" on the Mojave stage. Not long after, James Mercer led the Shins through a set that was the perfect setup for what was to come on the main stage throughout the rest of the night. Along with the delight of hearing the Shins perform a winning version of Neil Young's gem "Helpless," additional standouts came via the group's terrific new album Port of Morrow (notably the infectious upbeat "Simple Song" and decidedly sad tune "It's Only Life"). Following the Shins, Bon Iver played a 55-minute set that showcased the group's blend of folk, alt-country and indie sensibilities as the faithful cheered. Singer-songwriter-guitarist Justin Vernon displayed a musical style that often would find a quiet folk song grow into a neo-grunge roar. The stunning Bon Iver opener "Perth" (with its amazing guitar line and hushed intro layered with Vernon's falsetto vocals) was my favorite track of his set, but "Holocene" reached an almost similar depth. Radiohead performed a marvelous two-hour concert to finish off Saturday in grand fashion, featuring mostly-recent material off the troupe's last two studio albums (2007's In Rainbows and 2011's The King of Limbs) and some classic favorites, notably "Karma Police" and the night-ending "Paranoid Android." The English quintet, led by its charismatic front man Thom Yorke, utilized their experimental musical instincts and technology to enhance - rather than detract - from their concert show. With dazzling lights and a multitude of revolving projection screens, Radiohead immersed the crowd in an experience that was as much art as music. Weighty stuff that felt just right at Coachella. I got to the festival far earlier than I thought on day three so I was able to catch most of Gardens & Villa's set inside the Mojave tent. Until Sunday I never heard a group combine Thomas Dolby-styled '80s electronica with traditional Native American flute music. "Black Hills" mixed up a goth soundscape with a driving rhythm that got early birds moving to the music out on the grassy dance floor. Few who had gathered to watch Gardens & Villa left the Mohave tent once Brooklyn-based Oberhofer arrived on the scene with their own high-energy approach. The quartet's direction was mostly set on fun. Lead singer Brad Oberhofer injected some real life drama when he climbed high on the stage frame to throw flowers down into the enthusiastic crowd. Even frustrating technical woes resulting in First Aid Kit's keyboards not working properly did not dampen enthusiasm for the Swedish duo. Performing songs from both their The Big Black & the Blue debut and new sophomore effort The Lion's Roar, the siblings' shining harmonies and authentic '70s country folk was a joy. I predict very big things for these young sisters from Stockholm. The wide-range of styles of artists who perform at Coachella is an obvious attraction for music lovers. Sunday's finale summed that up clearly. I caught the indie R&B-flavored pop ensemble Fitz and the Tantrums (who shared a splendid reworking of the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams"), the high-powered attack of Sweden's The Hives (I loved the band's new single "Go Right Ahead"), and the perfect set from Florence + the Machine (featuring singer Florence Welch) with dramatic crowd pleasers like "Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)." Welch finally ended a seemingly-flawless hour-long set with the beautiful and involving "No Light, No Light."
Another Coachella to remember.

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