Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Coachella Weekend 2 - day 1: Blur, Band of Horses, Jake Bugg, Johnny Marr and more

Sunset is always magical at Coachellafest. Photo: Robert Kinsler
My coverage of Coachella 2013 (Friday-Sunday, April 19-21, 2013) was originally posted on the Orange County Register Web site. This post also includes some additional notes on Blur and Johnny Marr. A special thank you to Kelly A. Swift for the use of several of her outstanding photographs.

Helix Poeticus joins the fun watching Divine Fits. Photo: Kelly A. Swift
Coachella 2013: Starting the second weekend with Skinny Lister, White Arrows

NOTE FROM BEN WENER: Coachella Weekend 2 opened just like the first, with a chance to catch swarms of young artists all across the well-trod field at the Empire Polo Club in Indio – including several our rotating Soundcheck crew missed last weekend.
Walked in right around noon to find Skinny Lister on the main stage, and was immediately impressed by the British outfit's blend of Celtic folk and punk energy. Despite the fact that gates had been open only an hour or so, a large crowd had gathered to cheer on the band as if they were headliners. I also glimpsed a couple tunes from IO Echo, a Southern California-based indie band whose '80s-esque synth-pop produced feel-good vibes for anyone chilling in the Gobi Tent.
White Arrows, on the Outdoor Theatre stage, produced a sound right at home with the burgeoning blending of kinetic indie rock and electronica with melodic pop influences. The L.A. quintet's accessible approach went over well with those soaking up sun and breezy sounds, and right from the start, when they opened with the energetic, keyboard-heavy "Roll Forever," off Dry Land Is Not a Myth. From there, the set grew heavier, thick with guitar-driven grooves.
Equally successful at getting arriving crowds moving and dancing was the nine-member Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, who nonetheless took a while to hit their stride on the biggest stage. The large Japanese ensemble mixed up ska, rock and jazz effectively but never elevated its many talents (a smart repertoire, virtuoso chops) into an artful whole – although their version of Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" in the manner of Booker T was an interesting offering.
Band of Horses on Friday night. Photo:Robert Kinsler
Band of Horses lift the mood after sundown; Jake Bugg impresses again
Weekend 2 offered some solid music-making early in the day, but the class of potent and memorable stuff that draws thousands to the desert every spring stepped up in a big way via emerging British star Jake Bugg's performance in Mojave on Friday afternoon.
Showcasing the 19-year-old Nottingham native's already potent skills as singer, songwriter and guitarist, there was an electric buzz throughout his sterling 45-minute set. I watched the first half near the stage, then positioned myself further back for the last half, and the enthusiasm for Bugg's authentic blend of spirited '70s folk-rock was palpable even in the furthest reaches of the large tent.
The up-tempo "I've Seen It All" and an astounding take on "Simple as This" were among the impressive highlights, the latter in a fantastic arrangement that began with the newcomer in full acoustic mode before his band came in.
Damon Albarn of Blur. Photo: Robert Kinsler
In a day that included excellent turns from Blur and Johnny Marr on stages large and small, there also were rousing sets from several acts at the Outdoor Theatre. Of Monsters and Men had the good fortune of starting at 5:45, when the day was cooling and many in the crowd were finally ready to come alive.
Naturally, the seven-member Icelandic troupe's 50-minute performance centered on the jubilant tracks from last year's My Head Is an Animal, opening with its opener (the riveting "Dirty Paws") and closing with its closer (the cascading "Yellow Light"). The dynamic "Six Weeks" sounded as if Sigur Rós and Mumford & Sons had joined forces. Those pieces alone guaranteed a winning set, but adding the tender "King and Lionheart" and lush "Lakehouse" provided moments of resounding wonder, the otherworldly vocals, trumpets, keyboards, acoustic guitars and other instruments painting marvelous soundscapes.
Band of Horses turned in a similarly triumphant appearance for its equally timed turn. Whether it was because Beach House's preceding dream-pop was too hushed and dialed to a lone emotional tone, the South Carolina transplants from Seattle were the perfect lift to fill the large expanse in front of the Outdoor Theatre, giving the night a fine jolt.
Singer-guitarist Ben Bridwell did little talking beyond a few sincere words of thanks to fans, photographers in the pit ("they have to put up with tour managers") and Coachella itself, but he led the quintet through a rundown ideally suited to the vibe that spreads across the Empire Polo Club field after dark. "The Great Salt Lake" and "Is There a Ghost" provided depth early in the set, with the more powerful, Crazy Horse-like "Laredo," the gorgeous "Infinite Arms" (title track of their third album, from 2010) and a set-ending "Am I Good a Man?," a rocker with shades of country and R&B that illustrates BofH's wide aesthetic reach.

Johnny Marr at Coachella on April 19. Photo: Kelly A. Swift
 Finally, I can't let my recap of day 1 end without noting two of my favorite performances. Johnny Marr was simply amazing, performing a mix of songs from his recently-issued The Messenger and several Smiths classics. Another great artist I got to see for the first time was Britpop pioneer Blur. As was the case when I caught Marr in the early afternoon, when catching Blur I put away from notepad (since George A. Paul was reviewing for the band for The Register) and simply made my way close to the main Coachella stage to enjoy the set.

The last two songs of Blur's set fully helped illustrate the range of material that makes the band so special. "The Universal" is a genre-defying melodic gem with an inspired chorus and the song builds in ways that sweep up listeners. The band than turned on a dime and raged artfully through its powerful and potent hit "Song 2" as the crowd around me jumped up and down in a frenzy. Even after a long day (and night) of mostly standing and running around the Empire Polo Club, I was ready for Saturday.

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