Review: ‘Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival’

While there was some fine music heard from Saturday's strong-on-paper lineup at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., a vague sense of disappointment hovered over the massive polo field and its five stages. Just about every band hit their marks, pros that they are, but no single set had the crowd buzzing.

This review was corrected April 29, 2003.

While there was some fine music heard from Saturday’s strong-on-paper lineup at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., a vague sense of disappointment hovered over the massive polo field and its five stages. Just about every band hit their marks, pros that they are, but no single set had the crowd (estimated at 35,000) buzzing; no star-making moment set against the desert sky. With one exception: Queens of the Stone Age. Come day two, two questions were on everyone’s minds: Would the White Stripes be able to fill the large stage; and would the reunited Iggy and the Stooges retain their power nearly 30 years after their last concert. The answer to both was a resounding yes.

Appearing on the main stage, Jack and Meg White didn’t really change their style — a minimal, primitive sound not unlike early Cramps. They still wear only red, white and black (even their road crew is decked out in this color scheme) and play a style that’s both unrefined and sophisticated in equal measure. But the emphasis has moved squarely to singer/guitarist Jack. He’s still an energetic whirlwind, careening back and forth among three mikes onstage, one facing toward Meg’s drum kit, but he used White Stripes’ Coachella set to make his bid for guitar heroism — he wants to be spoken of in the same breath as Jimmy Page. And he certainly has the chops — the extended blues “Ball and Biscuit” from new disc “Elephant” (V2) was obviously conceived as a concert workout, and doesn’t disappoint.

But less dramatic tunes lacked impact. They weren’t helped by the sound mix, as the high end cut in and out intermittently, sounding almost windblown. To really make the leap, the White Stripes might want to look to the Talking Heads. The New York band was as rigidly formalist when it started, but didn’t take off commercially until it added additional members.

Iggy and the Stooges followed the Stripes with a set that was easily the highlight of the weekend. The Stooges may look like accountants (guitarist Ron Asheton could be Michael Moore’s body double) but they still play with a crunch and grinding power that would put bands half their age to shame. And Iggy is a freak of nature: His lithe, muscled body, without an inch of fat, a full head of long, flowing hair, and a voice that’s still the most menacing whine in rock. No one should look that good at 57.

Together (along with bassist Mike Watt, who lived out a dream with this gig) they picked up right where they left off in the 1970s. The riffs of tunes such as “No Fun,” “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “Fun House” and “T.V. Eye” are part of the primordial material of rock, their DNA hardwired into everything that came after. And they can still nail them with authority and that kind of haywire danger that animated the original albums. There was even a sense of integrity to their set that raised it head and shoulders above such touring waxworks as the Rolling Stones — the band only performed tunes from the Stooges’ first two albums, ignoring their best known, “Raw Power,” because it was recorded by a later version of the band.

The Stooges were so strong, you could almost feel sorry for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, given the unenviable position of following them. Almost. Anthony Kiedis has carved out his career in Iggy’s image, and the juxtaposition did not favor him. The Chili Peppers take much of the same elements as the Stooges, but end up with a vastly inferior band. They once had the smart idea of grafting hip-hop style onto the Stooges unalloyed rock, but they’re stiff and out of key, relentlessly unfunky and self-indulgent. The most effective moments were the unexpected ones, such as John Frusciante covering the Chantel’s “Maybe,” while hits such as “Give It Away” were grindingly dull.

At Saturday’s show, Queens of the Stone Age, a Palm Desert, Calif., quartet augmented with the Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan for three songs, was an unyielding machine, nailing home their tautly constructed riffs with a breathtaking precision. Surprisingly light on their feet, the Queens anneal their metal with unexpected touches, including Gary Glitter-styled sing-along choruses. In a style where sludge and brute force usually trump finesse, Queens of the Stone Age bring smarts, humor and a polished sheen, while sacrificing not a whit of power.

For such a high-profile gig, headliners the Beastie Boys seemed rusty and under-rehearsed. Basically a run-through of their biggest songs, with a few new tracks (including the Internet-only broadside “In a World Gone Mad”), the three Beasties were energetic, but rote — forgetting lyrics and missing cues. They weren’t helped by the desert winds that kicked up after sunset; the gusts were at times so strong that they blew one of DJ Mixmaster Mike’s records clear off the turntable.

As the group ages, it seems a little silly to call them “Boys,” and the set had the feel of a Little Rascals reunion, or one of the later Marx Brothers’ comedies — the material still works, but the band has its hearts in a different place. Where that place might be was hinted at by Adam Yauch’s political commentary; although the aud’s reaction will not lighten the mood of either political party. After professing “mad respect” for the troops, Yauch told the crowd he wished the U.S. would “stop acting like a bully” around the world (mixed applause and boos); that the administration should allow the U.N. immediately into Iraq for humanitarian aid (quizzical silence); and that, no matter what, in the next presidential election, everyone should vote, “for anyone but George W. Bush — we have to get him out” (enthusiastic cheers).

Stuck in between the Beasties and Queens, Ben Harper let his guitar do the talking. His thickly textured sound and passionate, wailing solos are well framed by the Innocent Criminals’ mix of blues, reggae, folk and soul. Earlier, on the main stage, N*E*R*D, backed by Spymob, could become production superstars — the Neptunes’ version of Funkadelic. Their set took the kitchen sink theory of music-making, throwing just about any sound or beat into the mix, resulting in a rich, appealing stew.

Blur made an impressive return, shuttling between hits such as “Boys and Girls” and material from the upcoming “Think Tank” (Virgin). The latter integrates the experiments in production and world music of front man Damon Albarn’s side projects with the Gorillaz and Mali Music into Blur’s usual glam pop with intriguing results. “Crazy Beat” is a riotous ping-ponging stomp, while “Out of Time” is a graceful Arabic ballad. What’s most interesting is seeing how Albarn’s continuing Bowie obsession progresses. Earlier tunes such as “Beetlebum” (turned live into a smashing extended guitar workout) knelt at the altar of “Ziggy Stardust,” whereas the new material appears to take its cues from later Bowie such as “Lodger.”

On the outdoor stage, Blue Man Group introduced its latest production, a song-based show that will tour to promote the new album, “Complex” (Arista). The usual Blue Man serious tomfoolery captivated the crowd, who also rocked to the percolating covers of “White Rabbit, “Baba O’Reilly” and “I Feel Love.”

That last choice put the Blue Men squarely in what seemed to be the trend of the day — the ’80s are back in a big way, as many of the bands looked back to that decade’s guitar-based power pop or heavily synthesized post-punk. Even the DJ tent, a loci of sunny futurism in earlier years, wasn’t immune, as record spinners such as Felix Da Housecat looked back to the early halcyon days of four-on-the-floor Detroit house music. The Hives played a fun, energetic, streamlined version of punk, with lead singer Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist embodying the winking, toothless arrogance that passes for edgy these days. And Ladytron could have been a recruiting poster for a revival of the Human League.

On Sunday, New York’s Interpol headlined the smaller Outdoor stage, playing their Joy Division-inspired songs for an audience that wasn’t even alive when Ian Curtis died. I
t’s music in translation; Interpol gets the sound right, but they lose the subtleties. There’s none of the emotional brinksmanship, the throbbing angst mixed with dark humor, that made the Manchester Joy Division so compelling. Without it, Interpol becomes painfully pretentious.

They might want to look toward the Libertines. As obviously derivative as Interpol, given a chance to perform a full set after Saturday’s curfew shutdown following 1½-songs, the London band came through. New album, “Up the Bracket” (Sanctuary), was produced by Mick Jones, and with a gruff singer who could pass for Joe Strummer, comparisons to the Clash are inevitable. But leavened with bits of Mott the Hoople, the Yardbirds and songs that treat heartbreak with the sly wit of the Buzzcocks, the Libertines have a freshness other neo-punkers lack.

It’s also easy to see where Primal Scream gets its inspiration — the sound, attitude and lifestyle are pure Rolling Stones. But they were one of the first to add elements of electronic music to the classic Stones sound and they still do it better than anyone. The aggressive, metallic samples and drum machines make the music more sinister and dangerous.

On the other end of the spectrum, Polyphonic Spree are originally beatific. The 23-member band and choir are decked out in white robes, and everyone moves to the music with a broad grin on his or her face. With eccentrically arranged songs, filled with guitar, horns, keyboard and theremin, that treat everyday events such as waiting in line or waking up in the morning as grand, momentous events, the group takes its album’s good vibes and adds a slightly addled joy. It’s like Up With People after a bad acid trip and a brush with cultdom: joyous but not saccharine.

In a setting where light beach reading would seem the order of the day, the Chicago collective Tortoise are a computer programmer’s manual. Cerebral and inward-looking, the group’s impressive musicianship felt out of place. Appearing at the same time, the Mars Volta drew on some of the same ideas, but was relentlessly propulsive. Where Tortoise was thoughtful, Mars Volta was kinetic. Somewhere in between them there’s a great band. And standing midway from the two stages and hearing both simultaneously didn’t help.

Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival

Empire Polo Fields, Indio; 35,000 capacity; $75 each day, $140 two-day pass

Production

Presented by Goldenvoice. Day one reviewed April 26, 2003. Day two reviewed April 27. 2003.

Cast

Day One Bands: Beastie Boys, Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, Queens of the Stone Age, Blue, the Hives, N*E*R*D w/Spymob, the Donnas, the Mooney Suzuki, Gomez, Blue Man Group, Black Eyed Peas, Talib Kweli, Spearhead, Kinky, Ben Kweller, Joseph Arthur, Particle, Roger Sanchez, Masters at Work, Felix Da Housecat, Christopher Lawrence, Herman Cattaneo, D:Fuse, the Libertines, Groove Armada, Ladytron, the Music, Hot Hot Heat, Badly Drawn Boy, the Rapture, Idlewild, South, Amon Tobin, Dillinja & Lemon D, Stereo Total, Peanut Butter Wolf/Madlib/Wildchild, Ian Mackaye, Medusa, the Liks. Day Two Bands: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Iggy and the Stooges, the White Stripes, Jack Johnson, Sonic Youth, the Mars Volta, the Polyphonic Spree, Soundtrack of Our Lives, Whirlwind Heat, Interpol, Blue Man Group, Thievery Corporation, Primal Scream, Cafe Tacuba, Tortoise, Ben Folds, the Kinison, Eisley, Richie Hawtin, Underworld, Darren Price, Deep Dish, Timo Maas, DB, DJ Irene, FC Kahuna, Fischerspooner, G. Love and Special Sauce, Johnny Marr and the Healers, Dirty Vegas, Rooney, the Libertines, 22-20s, the Von Bondies, Ima Robot, S.T.U.N., El-P/Aesop Rock/Rjd2/Mr. Lif/Murs, Mouse on Mars, C-Minus, Ursula Rucker, Ian Mackaye, Michael Franti.
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