Monday, April 27, 2015

2015 Coachella Weekend #2 Roundup

Review by Robert Kinsler

Walter Becker of Steely Dan Fame performing at Weekend 2 of Coachella. Photo: Kelly A. Swift
What do rock 'n' roll legends AC/DC and Steely Dan, modern-day favorites Florence + the Machine and Interpol, Americana champions Sturgill Simpson and Ryan Adams, underground heroes Sloan and Built to Spill and emerging greats Hozier and St. Paul & The Broken Bones have in common? All were among the outstanding performers I caught at the second weekend of the 16th edition of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, CA this past weekend (April 17-19, 2015).

Friday, April 17
Sean Lennon on April 17. Photo: Robert Kinsler
And while many of the rousing performances did come down after nightfall on all three days of the fest, there were simply too many reasons to not come early every day despite the 90+ degree heat typical for the eastern reaches of Southern California's Coachella Valley in late April. Take Friday, with The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger hitting the Outdoor Theatre before noon. Led by singer-guitarist Sean Lennon (son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono) and bassist Charlotte Kemp Muhl, the duo and four other musicians performed a 40-minute set of artful psychedelic pop-rock. Among the standouts was the melodic "Animals" bolstered by some winning vocal harmonies featuring the couple and "Midnight Sun," the latter featuring Lennon trading lead guitar lines with another guitarist. 

Although psychobilly pioneer Reverend Horton Heat is no stranger to performing in Southern California, it was a treat to catch singer-guitarist Jim "Reverend Horton" Heath, upright bassist Jimbo Wallace and drummer Scott Churilla tear it up inside the Mojave Tent at Coachella. The trio attracted a pretty good-sized crowd for the early afternoon, rocking through "Psychobilly Freakout," "Smell of Gasoline" and "The Devil's Chasing Me" with Heath showing time after time why his guitar work is as impressive as when he released his debut album 30 years ago. 
Ride in action in the Gobi Tent. Photo: Kelly A. Swift
One of my favorite sets of Friday played out in the Gobi Tent where legendary British band Ride performed a 50-minute set that was as powerful as anything I caught all weekend. I was blown away with the quartet's fiery brand of britpop, with singer-guitarist Mark Gardener and singer-guitarist Andy Bell leading the outfit through memorable originals including the dreamy "Dreams Burn Down," "Leave Them All Behind" (featuring nifty harmonies) and the band's best known song "Vapour Trail." 

Few groups arrived at 2015 Coachella with the well-timed buzz of Athens, Alabama export Alabama Shakes. Mixing up roots rock, blues, soul, '60s garage rock, folk and more, the quartet definitely thrilled an enthusiastic crowd gathered in front of the Outdoor Theatre for an early evening outing. Led by singer-guitarist Brittany Howard, the band featured material off their just-released sophomore effort "Sound & Color." Opening with a mighty blues rocker "Hang Loose," the tune's groove recalled the Rolling Stones rhythm section at their finest. Later, the soulful ballad "Rise to the Sun" showcased Howard's emotive soprano in spades.

New York's Interpol is the perfect Coachella band. After dark, the outfits mix of driving rhythms and neo-goth alternative rock just plays out perfectly in front of the Coachella Stage's expansive field. Taking the stage just as it started to really get dark, the band got well-deserved cheers for the orchestral rocker "Evil" and guitar heavy "Everything Is Wrong" (off the band's excellent 2014 album "El Pintor"). One of the late set highlights was a riveting take on "PDA," with the band setting out slowly with a bass-anchored groove before the song exploded into a driving and hypnotic rocker.
Donald Fagan of Steely Dan. Photo: Kelly A. Swift

Few outside of the smart folks at Goldenvoice (the concert promoter that puts on Coachella) could have predicted that jazz-rock group Steely Dan would not only be booked to perform at Coachella, but that the classic rock radio favorites would fit in so well at the event. But to be sure, Donald Fagan and Walter Becker and company couldn't have been more welcomed and embraced by young and old at the Empire Polo Club. Indeed, this writer had the fortune to catch Steely Dan just two days earlier at the Santa Barbara Bowl and it was fascinating how the duo was able to adapt their set list and approach to tackle the young demographic at the festival. From the energetic opener "Bodhisattva" and nuanced "Black Friday" to a mind-blowing one-two-three punch  of "My Old School," "Reelin' in the Years" and "Kid Charlemagne," the group won over the audience with well-known material and stunning musicianship that never faltered.  
Guitarist Angus Young of AC/DC.
Photo: Kelly A. Swift

For more than four decades AC/DC has survived more than the band's fair share of challenges while moving on despite little evolution of its sound. Indeed, when original lead singer Bon Scott died in February 1980 founding members Malcolm and Angus Young replaced him with Brian Johnson and the band went on to release "Back in Black" (one of the best-selling albums of all time). The group has also weathered the loss of drummer Phil Rudd (twice) and most recently, Malcolm Young who was replaced last year by his nephew Stevie Young. Against that backdrop, AC/DC simply shook Coachellafest like they were a young band just out of the gate. Opening with "Hell Ain't a Bad Place To Be," the band proceeded to tear through one riff rock-styled nugget after another. While Johnson's vocals were admittedly ragged, there is no denying the power of AC/DC to thrill in 2015. Angus Young's lead guitar work has always been the ace in the band's pocket, and his lead work provided non-stop appreciation of his talents. "Back in Black," "Shoot to Thrill," "Thunderstruck," and "Hells Bells" were among the early classics unleashed. Material from the band's latest studio album "Rock or Bust" ("Play Ball," "Baptism by Fire") came off just as strong. And when the band performed "You Shook Me All Night Long," you would have thought Coachella had morphed into a hard rock festival with the excitement in front of the main stage. 

Other solid artists I caught on Friday included George Ezra on the Mojave stage, Australia's siblings duo Angus & Julia Stone, Tame Impala, and The War on Drugs (I was only able to catch 20 minutes of the latter's set but was completely impressed).

Saturday, April 18
After surviving a marathon-length Friday at the Empire Polo Club, I was back before noon on day two to take in another massive helping of music.
Ryn Weaver at Coachella. Photo: Robert Kinsler

Only 22, Southern California native Ryn Weaver impressed in her first-ever outing at Coachella. Performing inside the Mojave Tent at 1:15, she nevertheless attracted a good-sized crowd with her energetic stage presence and high-powered vocals. Backed by a four-man band, she often interacted with her musicians and was emotional when speaking about her family's roots in the Coachella Valley and the recent death of her grandfather who she had hoped would see her perform at the fest. She got the crowd going with her new dance-styled "The Fool" and her best-known song "OctaHate."

British hard rockers Royal Blood had not been on my radar until I caught them at Coachella via a Web cast of their Weekend #1 performance a week earlier. After catching that powerful set, I knew I had to catch at least part of their performance on the Outdoor Theatre stage on April 18. "Better Strangers" featured a heavy, blues-rock sense, but like all of the band's material was simply presented with a pedal-to-the-metal fury. The epic closer "Out of the Black" was simply amazing, with the band members performing at breathtaking speed in perfect unison.  

While Toro y Moi (the stage name for Chazwick Bradley Bundick) came off as relaxed in his late afternoon set inside the Mojave, make no mistake the singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist generated plenty of excitement in the packed tent. Featuring songs off his outstanding new album "What For?", Toro y Moi opened with that disc's opening track ("What You Want") blending power-pop and indie rock in magical ways. Other highlights of his 45-minute set included "Living High" (sounding like an intoxicating cross between Zero 7 and the Shins) and the undeniable melodic pop-rocker "Empty Nesters."
Hozier performing on the Coachella Stage.
Photo: Kelly A. Swift

Like Alabama Shakes, Hozier's booking at Coachella couldn't have been more perfectly timed. The Irish singer-songwriter lived up to the promise he exhibits across his wonderful self-titled 2014 debut. "From Eden," with its sparse acoustic blues soundscape was an early standout, while "To Be Alone" with his Delta blue-influenced guitar work allowed his soulful vocals to shine. The infectious and Memphis soul-styled "Someone New" had many in the packed crowd clapping along in a feel good spirit.

Other notable players who performed on day two of weekend 2 included the London-based electronic artist Tourist, neo-soul collective St. Paul and the Broken Bones, and the wonderful Scottish baroque pop-rock ensemble Belle and Sebastian. With a multitude of places to catch music going on simultaneously there are often sacrifices to be made. I sadly missed the majority of Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness; I can testify that singer-songwriter Andrew McMahon rocked the faithful with several wonderful tracks from his latest album including the confessional "Maps for the Getaway" and the instantly-memorable "High Dive."

Sunday, April 19
One of the exciting things about Coachella is that even by day three, there is little sense that things are "winding down." That was never truer than 2015, when Sunday boasted as many top-tier performers as ever.

It points to either the depth of Coachella or simply oversight, but only those who arrived early on the final day of the event caught acclaimed Canadian rockers Sloan. The Toronto, Canada-based outfit is one of that nation's most beloved rock bands but has sadly been mostly overlooked in the U.S. I count myself fortunate to have now discovered the quartet, which unleashed 40 wonderful minutes of potent power-pop and indie rock. All four members sang and showcased their top-tier songcraft throughout. With the possible exception of DADA, I can't recall a '90s-spawned melodic rock outfit with the ability to blend experimental and tuneful sensibilities so powerfully. I definitely count Sloan as one of my top discoveries as Coachella 2015. 

Traditional country music is in great hands thanks to Sturgill Simpson, who celebrated its roots with contemporary firepower inside the Gobi Tent. Opening with "Life of Sin" off his 2014 album "Metamodern Sounds in Country Music," the Kentucky native and his four-man outfit proceeded to mine the richest traditions of Nashville and Appalachia. "It Ain't All Flowers" found Simpson playing acoustic guitar blending country-blues, while he later dipped into his debut to tear through the country rocker "Railroad of Sin."

Rockers Built to Spill are not only back with a terrific new album ("Untethered Moon"), but rocked the Outdoor Theatre with firepower equal to the searing temps that greeted fans brave enough to stand in the sun and rock out to the Idaho-bred outfit's Dinosaur Jr. meets Neil Young graceful approach to distortion, hypnotic rhythms and authentic vocals. A gentle "Things Fall Apart," wistful "Carry the Zero" and blistering "Sidewalk" were all reasons to endure the heat to watch the performance. 
Phil Selway performing in the Gobi Tent.
Photo: Kelly A. Swift

Best know as the drummer for RadioheadPhilip "Phil" Selway is also a skilled songwriter and compelling singer. His fast-paced 45-minute set inside the Gobi allowed Selway to focus on his unique gifts in a relatively intimate setting that proved to be another of the festival's welcome bookings. Backed by three musicians who each played different instruments, Selway himself would rotate from guitar or keyboards to standing in front of a mic holding small percussion shakers depending on the song. "Around Again" with its pulsating beat and prominent bass line was particularly dynamic. "A Simple Life" featured Selway's emotive and gentle vocals that were presented over a simple melody while a rapid rhythm fired in the background. An experimental set worthy of a member of Radiohead, Selway closed with "Coming Up For Air," a wonderful song that somehow blended electronic and folk together effortlessly.

Of all the 30 or so part- or full-length performances I caught over the fast-moving weekend, I might put Florence + the Machine's Coachella Stage set at the top of the list. Although the English songstress Florence Welch had broken her right foot jumping off the stage a week earlier and was confined to sitting on a stool this night, that did little to diminish the power of her songs and delivery. It was simply breathtaking to hear Welch deliver involving already-classic cuts ("Dog Days Are Over," "Only If For a Night") and songs off her forthcoming third album ("Ship to Wreck," "How Big How Blue How Beautiful") in the magical setting.
Ryan Adams early in his set.
Photo: Robert Kinsler

I was also impressed by Saint Motel's set that played out under blistering temps on the Coachella Stage, Jenny Lewis' enthralling Outdoor Theatre appearance, Ryan Adams' Americana-meets-alt rock set and Fitz & the Tantrums high-energy, dance-minded celebration that closed out the Outdoor Theatre.

Thinking back on the more than two dozen acts I caught over three magical days in Indio, it strikes me of the more than 100,000 people who attended the festival each likely had a completely different experience. I may have missed a couple of essential performances, but I did make sure this year to spend some time checking out the interesting and impressive artwork as well. All of it made for another great Coachella experience.

Make sure to check out writer George A. Paul's overview of the festival here.

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