Big music festivals can largely be tracked back to the first Newport Jazz festival in 1954, The Folk version in 1959, and then followed by Woodstock in 1969, Glastonbury in 1970 a bunch of other European festivals that followed and thrived through today. SXSW launched in 1987 and has become something entirely different 30+ years later, Lollapalooza launched in the US in 1991, but lost momentum eventually, and finally Bonnaroo and Coachella re-ignited the scene in 2001. Since then, the idea of the Summer festival has exploded, evolved and become a massively big business, including a re-launched Lollapalooza, ACL Festival, Outside Lands, Sasquatch, Governors Ball, and countless EDM fests.
With the traditional “record business” at the end of it’s inevitable decline, reinvented as part YouTube and SoundCloud (free) with the balance being a digital subscription, algorithmic radio, and old school vinyl nostalgia (sure people buy CD’s and digital tracks but that will be over within the next 5 years). The music that we have access to and the speed of an artist’s ascent from obscurity to stardom, are equally astounding. Nowhere are both those facts more self-evident than at a major festival.
Every year I go to a few festivals and take an immersive temperature on both the state of modern music and the pulse of youth culture - both of which are best viewed from the vantage of the fields of the Indio Polo Grounds at Coachella. This was my seventh Coachella, but the first time I attended the second of two weekends. The weather was perfect if you like hot, dry breezeless days. There were no sandstorms, no rain, very few clouds, and as a result almost no grass since it had been trampled down the prior weekend. There were, however, fewer people and a lineup of incredible music that peaks between 1-9 if you’re an indie music nut like me.
Coachella 2014 was a very very good year for music. It was also the year of the female vocalist. It was also a year, where synthesizers outnumbered guitars by a very large margin.
The first six bands I saw on Friday were absolutely breath taking female fronted bands: Wye Oak, was the first, and their track “Civilian” was among the best of the festival. Next a few tracks from newbie Waxahatchee, who make straight up guitar and drum indie rock riding the wave of their “Peace and Quiet” single. Then there was the truly otherworldly Austra, who sound like something you would hear in a good dream. The always incredible Dum Dum Girls, lead by singer Dee Dee who looks like Joan Jett, sounds like Chrissie Hynde, with a band as cool as they come. There is no band destined to be bigger and broader this time next Coachella than MS MR, who met in college made a record and were playing the main stage to a massive crowd early in the day 18 months later. The first dude I saw all day utter even a word was the utterly mindblowing Jagwar Ma, an Aussie psychedelic dance band that wooed the crowd into a blissful trance. Back to the ladies and there isn’t a story about the speed of buzz and the reality of the 10,000 hrs than LA’s Haim. A trio of LA based sisters who sing beautiful pop songs, but live play their instruments as if possessed by hellions from the 70’s. Next up was Neko Case, who possesses perhaps the best natural voice at the festival and without a doubt one of the tightest bands out there. She was divine despite the too smallish crowd. The second dude at the mic all day was Greg Dulli from Afghan Whigs, a band I loved twenty years ago and one who still managed to sound tight and relevant even today. There is something magical about the sunset set on the Outdoor Stage at Coachella, this year it was the delicious Broken Bells (James Mercer from the Shins and Danger Mouse), projecting perfect pop into the colorful desert sky. For the most part, I know every set I’ll see ahead of time, but some are more exciting than others, and for me it was the deep house mastermind Bonobo (aka Simon Green) who played the tightest DJ set of the whole weekend. I say that having gone to see Girl Talk take over the festival for a few songs just after, but sometimes too big is too big. When you see music all day, the big messy crowded headlining sets just seem unworthy, so we stopped to see the biggest, weirdest, coolest band cap things off The Knife.
Another of the best things about Coachella is getting there early enough that there are no crowds just big open spaces and room to drift. Laura Mvula is one of the best British soul singers you have never of, and I was so glad I had and that it started a glorious second day. From lush, orchestral soul, to the brutishly authentic Mick Jagger meets Iggy Pop retro rock from the most excellent Foxygen. Continuing on a deep retro vibe was UK youngers Temples whose whirling Pink Floydian rock was happening 20+ years before their birth. I saw a few songs from Banks, but they were too sleepy for that early in the day, before heading over to Bombay Bicycle Club for a packed house of happy fratty guys and gals. The crowd for Scotland dance pop band CHVRCHES was absolutely enormous, proving you can go from not even being in a band to 40,000 people singing every lyric in less than two years. Next was more 80’s Brooklyn based dance pop in the form of an excellent set by Holy Ghost!, followed by a massive crowd for Head and the Heart, who, although I’ve seen a dozen times now was playing to a massive crowd and sounding like the folk rock stars they were destined to become. Now you can’t see everything, so no Kid Cudi, only one Washed Out track, before venturing over to perhaps the coolest set of the festival: LA based Warpaint , whose deeply serious melodic rock was mesmerizing closing with the incredible single “Undertow.” Every year there is one band that literally blows up right before the festival. In the past there has been Foster The People, Gotye, Alt-J, but this year the band and the set of the fest for me Baltimore’s unlikely Future Islands. Looking like Marlon Brando but sounding like a fusion of Fine Young Cannibals and Tom Waits, singer Samuel Herring is a wonderfully electric and unlikely rock star. After that we caught pieces of Fatboy Slim, Pixies, Solange and before hunkering down for one of the loudest, strongest sets of the day from Sleigh Bells. Sure elsewhere Pharell, Skrillex, Queens of the Stone Age and Empire of the Sun were banging, but Coachella is all about hard choices.
By day three if you are really “doing Coachella” as in seeing music, not hanging at VIP, or showing up at 5, or stumbling around bleary eyed, you are tired, but also very much in a groove. The groove of watching music all day. Clearing your head of everything except for the music you are watching and that with you will see later. This day was the lightest in terms of what I wanted to see, but it started with deep disco with LA’s Poolside, whose grooves were a super smooth way to start the day. Not since Liz Phair’s debut “Exile” record has their been a singer as clever, and cool, and competant’ as Aussie Courtney Barnett. Again, from out of nowhere she is playing Coachella within a year of releasing her first music. More luscious 80’s disco classics from Classixx, so much damn fun, followed by perhaps the best Superchunk set I have seen in eons, despite the notable lack of Laura on bass. Certain things just turn magical in the desert, and the sunset set with a reunited Neutral Milk Hotel was down right spiritual. There was nothing like them when they made their two classic albums in the mid-90’s, and there was certainly nothing more intense than this set this year. For something a little bit more upbeat nothing is better than Sweden’s lush Little Dragon. I hadn’t seen anything in it’s entirety on the big main stage all weekend, but playing his first Coachella set in fifteen years Beck was absolutely on it, covering the classics from “Loser” up through the glassy ballads on “Morning Phase.” It’s easy to forget how incredibly important Beck has been and will likely be for many years to come, but seeing him on that stage was nothing less than magical. With the exception of Radiohead, without a doubt the biggest, baddest critically acclaimed live rock band on the planet is Arcade Fire. Although I’m not a huge fan of their new LCD produced album, seeing them play “No Cars Go” or “Suburbs” is something special. For all the incredible music that played throughout the weekend, there is only one Arcade Fire. A good headliner is hard to find, but on this particular Sunday Arcade Fire owned the night.
Music and Technology
Back to reality. For the past eight years I have tried to chronicle each significant step and change in technology, and the evolution/application of mobile and social behavior through the lens of music festivals. First there was SMS (texting) on feature phones - for finding and meeting people in impossibly crowded environments it was simple and useful. Next fans taking photos, mostly Razor phones, to eventually publish on Flickr or merely store on hard drives. Then came Twitter (most easily via sms), short simple web-based publishing but also serving the location conundrum, which was an excellent innovation and great way to follow tastemakers in real time on the grounds. Facebook mobile brought photos + geo + publishing. Phones in the air, selfies, videos, all endlessly capturing the moment, so much so that the moment is lost and replaced with looking at phones. With Foursquare came adding and leaving location-based check-ins, sometimes with photos, sometimes just as quick diary entry. Next there was Instagram with good-looking, geo-tagged photos, with comments and everything else from everything that had come before. And that is kind where things stalled. Sure Vine, Snapchat, Tinder, Whatsapp, Coachella’s own app, and all the iterations that have happened since these original innovations are nice, but we’re kind of back to where we started: photos, FB, Twitter, etc. Bandwidth still sucks, especially later into the day and night, and in the end festivals exist for people to see and hear music, share communal passion, and spend quality time with friends and family. I still do take a photo at every show I see, but more as a form of diary. Perhaps it’s tedious to watch from afar, but it makes sense to me.
It’s possible that the rise of festivals is merely a societal reaction to the alienation and self-absorption of the screen-based world we live in, but to see tens of thousands of people experiencing the same moment with nothing but smiles (and yes phones) reminds us of the many things that technology will never replace. People turn people onto things through passion, expression and joy. Now go see some live music this summer. Your soul will thank you.
Oh and if you subscribe to Spotify or Rdio here are the playlists:
On Spotify: TastemakerX V31 “Coachella 2014”
On Rdio: TastemakerX V31 “Coachella 2014”