The Californian desert burns with white heat. The horizon rises into mountains; palm trees reach for a flawlessly blue sky. In this idyllic space, relaxation might be on the agenda. But its timing’s wrong: Coachella is again consuming its surroundings, inviting attendees to express rather than unwind.
Random raves break out early on this second weekend of one of America’s greatest fixtures on the festival calendar. Io Echo and White Arrows get people moving at their respective stages, limbs vigorously shaken despite the punishing heat. The former’s Ioanna Gika exhibits an infectious, unstoppable energy; the latter’s presence is more elegant, but no less suited to dancing along to.
An encounter with local risers The Neighbourhood, who draw a healthy crowd, precedes Clash’s first experience of something distinctly off the wall. British beatboxer Beardyman rolls into Coachella with his Beardytron Mk.500 in tow, and proceeds to demonstrate incredible spontaneity and creativity.
The man born Darren Foreman has stepped his game up: at times his stage presence is phenomenal, tracks combining aspects of hip-hop, bass, funk, dub and electronica – and quite possibly more besides – to result in an awesome experience. The Earth’s crust threatens to crack beneath the low end. Not bad for an act that’s just one man and one machine.
Jake Bugg has the look of a busker about him, but his cool and charisma floods the tent where he holds his court. Album tracks and new songs alike are delivered with effortless poise – at their best, they capture listeners in a moment entirely of his creation. The following Johnny Marr pleases his public with a few Smiths cuts, including ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’. Without Morrissey, this is a warmer, somehow fiercer sound than when Marr was partnered with his ‘80s foil.
Divine Fits mix Joy Division and Roxy Music influences, kicking up dust and fireflies. ‘Ice Cream’ melts the crowd, eagerly awaiting nightfall. And as daylight gives way to dusk, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s beautifully eccentric show can begin.
Resplendent in spiked baseball cap, huge crimson shorts and the Jamaican flag about his waist, Perry’s appearance is almost as bright as his material. A beach ball is sent his way, and promptly returned courtesy of what look like Air Max sneakers after an acid trip. “Look at me boot!” he exclaims, repeatedly. “Have fun forever!” is his parting instruction. We, like he, just might.
Modest Mouse draw the first genuine sing-along moments from Coachella’s revellers. But the real spectacle of Friday follows in the form of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, whose Karen O is increasingly making it apparent that she is not quite of this world, a force of nature that can raise energy levels through the highest heavens.
O consumes and subsequently ignites any stage, any space, any event. Tonight, in a cape and fez, blue-rimmed eyes blinking beneath a bleach-inverted bob, she fronts a band performance that lights up the desert. From raging war cries like ‘Zero’ to the more soulful ‘Sacrilege’, YYYs surpass expectations. “Sometimes I think I’m bigger than the sound,” she shouts. As her mic hits the stage and the band departs, the silence is deafening.
The Stone Roses and the west coast perhaps aren’t natural associates, yet the revived Manchester band is welcomed by a core contingent of admirers – a fortunate situation after the tepid reception they received on Coachella’s first weekend. It’s a feeler set, an hour of songs that find act and audience figuring each other out. But there’s a definite attraction there.
Grinderman’s fans don’t hesitate in getting crazy. An unstoppable creation, this savage rock outfit fronted by the lean and mean Nick Cave is as lethal as a butcher’s knife but as technically gifted as a surgeon. In a nearby tent, Modestep provide a very different brand of entertainment, their dance-rock hybrids stimulating the wildest crowd yet into frenzied abandon.
On Coachella’s main stage, Blur are less turning back the years as reinforcing the suggestion that they’re a band improved with age. Damon Albarn’s voice is fierce, the narratives it carries existing somewhere beyond context but nevertheless connecting with the assembled masses. Years ago this four was cool, but perhaps a bit distant for US tastes. Today, they possess a realness that’s palpable, and don’t struggle to assert it.
Trent Reznor’s How To Destroy Angels propel their dark rhythms into a night approaching its end. They’re up against Earl Sweatshirt, who owns the Gobi stage to such an extent that, even so long into Friday’s bill, his performance causes the crowd to pose security a few problems. Not a beat is wasted – Earl is worth the wait.
Saturday dawns and so, again, does the high temperature. Despite this, Vintage Trouble are fully suited up when they hit the stage at 2.25. Think Wilson Pickett with a rocket in his pocket: you’re some of the way to this outfit’s passionate, gospel-infused and truly soulful rhythm and blues. New York rapper Action Bronson is out early, too, his syrup-smooth flow unhindered by the cruel heat. The crowd around his stage is soon jumping.
Danny Brown (pictured, main) seizes the stage as a girl faints down the front. With untameable hair and a triangular tongue, which rasps away behind his gap-toothed grin, he’s a whirlwind. But while Brown exudes an intoxicating energy, his reliance on certain rap stereotypes – “bitches” this and “bitches” that, mainly – suggests he could do well to open his lyric sheet up to new experiences. He could be a huge crossover star, but his time isn’t the here and now.
Brown’s impressive throng is dwarfed by that attending 2 Chainz’s set, where navigating one’s way to the front takes a solid half-hour. His set is heavy, vigorous; his rhymes go that stretch further than Brown’s, daring to explore worlds beyond the strip club scene. Suffice to say that your correspondent comes away more impressed than anticipated.
Over on the main stage once more, Mexican group Café Tacuba set about cementing their reputation as an outfit capable of rewriting the conventions of rock. Veterans with a decades-spanning career – they formed in 1989 – they explode into flashes of ska, electro, funk and folk.
Their appeal is broad, embracing of all ages and nationalities. Songs touch upon real-life matters: mortality, the passing of time… universal themes sure to strike numerous chords. The crowd carries piñatas and huge Mexican flags – yes, there’s a lot of love at Coachella for Café Tacuba, and it’s great that a band like this can share a bill with some of rap’s rising stars.
Major Lazer are another Saturday highlight, dropping bass enough to send the Richter Scale off the chart – maybe not a great idea given California’s penchant for earthquakes. The standout moment of ground-shaking grandeur: when Diplo instructs the spilling-over crowd to jump in unison at the count of one… two… three… And the world tilts on its axis that little more.
Sunday brings slightly cooler air but no less entertainment. Jimbo Jenkins shakes any slumber from Coachella’s weary revellers with a set mixing deep house with techno – the whole experience is a bit like tuning into a pirate radio station in the 1990s, but much better out here under the sunshine.
Deap Valley number two, but make the noise of five (or more). The big-lunged and hot-panted girls slam their drum kit and guitar into the sort of racket suited for sweaty urban dives as well as it is the Cali desert.
Little Green Cars follow, the hyped Irish act delivering chilled-out vibes for those already in need of respite from the rock. Comparisons to Mumford & Sons will surface, inevitably – but Little Green Cars’ Faye O’Rourke is a valuable asset, her voice akin to Patti Smith’s, and the band’s songs are fresher and sweeter than those of the Mumfords.
The Outdoor Theatre hosts Raider Klan, the rap crew founded by the 4AD-signed MC and producer SpaceGhostPurrp. The young Miami musician has already collaborated with Wiz Khalifa and A$AP Rocky, and he and cohorts present a most tantalising mix of passionate rhymes and punchy percussion. There are elements at play far darker than your rap standards – and those who don’t sweat in black drink it in.
Smith Westerns are something completely different, the Chicago foursome perhaps a contender for the title of America’s Beatles. Tunes are laced with jangling reverb, and the structure of their deceptively studied pop cuts sets them apart from the indie majority. New songs are aired, and they represent real progression from 2011’s ‘Dye It Blonde’ LP – these harmonies hit in a rush, leaving lasting impressions.
Meaty rock pair JEFF The Brotherhood strike with such force that they have Motorhead sounding as meek as Oasis. Brothers Jake and Jamin Orrall could riff on forever and these ears would ride along. Jessie Ware tells us that “Coachella is the most beautiful festival” over in the Gobi tent, adding that its attendees are beautiful, “not like UK festivals”. But then, how many deserts does the UK have?
Alex Clare and his band – probably the most up-for-it combo of the weekend – are near enough revelatory. He covers Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’, and apologies to the diminutive pop icon. But he needn’t – Clare’s interpretation is a reconfigured romp through soul-busting funk. He might be a ginger-bearded Brit, but he’s the spirit and charisma of the whole Motown roster.
Wu-Tang Clan, Vampire Weekend, Disclosure, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds… Coachella’s Sunday climaxes in some style. You know they’re brilliant, so for this festival-goer, the time for writing is over – it’s time to go and play…
- - -
Get the best of Clash on your iPhone - download the app here