The 20-something roaming the grounds for America’s premier alternative music festival in a makeshift “Where’s Radiohead?” T-shirt received an answer Saturday night—the British rockers weren’t needed to boost the musical quotient at the ninth Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, not with an even more masterful live performer tapped to close out the biggest night at the three-day Southern California desert event.
Arriving on the Empire Polo Field main stage after 11 p.m. and announcing, “Coachella, I am here!” with nary a shred of irony, ex-Vegas resident headliner Prince shook up a weekend of next-wave sounds with a throwback, James Brown-style revue equal parts familiar pop hits and Hendrixian guitar solos. It opened with appearances by Morris Day and Jerome Benton of The Time and Sheila E., and closed with back-to-back showstoppers “Purple Rain” and “Let’s Go Crazy” (the latter around 1 a.m., a full hour after Coachella’s traditional stop time; guess Indio’s curfew-breaking fee will come out of Prince’s reported $4.8 million price tag). And it was constructed with both a sense of history—Prince’s first festival appearance included a rendition of Santana’s Woodstock ’69 breakout “Soul Sacrifice”—and the here and now, evidenced by a brilliantly conceived cover of Radiohead’s highest charting single, “Creep.”
Though that nod to indie culture seemed to win over skeptical, new-school festival-goers on Saturday, Radiohead—who actually played that seldom-performed “oldie” on the same stage in 2004—could have proven quite useful during the 2008 fest’s other two days, when attendance appeared to be well shy of previous highs of some 60,000 per day.
Unlike 2007, which saw Björk, Interpol and The Jesus and Mary Chain top the expanded festival’s first-ever weekday bill and draw crowds close to those for the weekend, this year’s Friday ticket turned out to be a much tougher sell. Chalk it up to work conflicts, flagging economic conditions or the decidedly un-hip reputation of acousta-rock headliner Jack Johnson, but Friday felt unusually roomy, so much so that one could easily walk within 25 feet of The Breeders’ 5 p.m. main-stage set to take in “Cannonball” or within 100 of The Verve’s 9 p.m. sub-headliner main-stage appearance to sing along to “Bittersweet Symphony.”
Tents still felt tight—at times. An ultra-rare stateside appearance by U.K. electronic master Aphex Twin (let’s classify it as hypnotic, interesting and slightly underwhelming) left noticeable pockets of space throughout the normally cramped Sahara dance tent. But Goldfrapp’s shimmying electro-pop and Battles’ controlled post-rock mayhem pulled plenty of people into the smaller Mojave and Gobi enclosures, though those who bailed on the latter got to witness one of the weekend’s wildest spectacles: Les Savy Fav’s Tim Harrington in action. The singer with a big belly and an even bigger reputation for manic behavior actually advanced his live legend, rushing the audience multiple times, sticking his hand through the fly of his tight biker shorts, rubbing a giant block of ice over his bare chest and scaling one of the outdoor theater’s giant support towers—all while gripping a microphone and maintaining his vocals.
Much-buzzed-about Manhattan outfit Vampire Weekend failed to keep the energy going on that same second stage during a primo early-evening time slot, the group’s Afro-flavored pop doomed by volume three clicks shy of demure. A couple of hours later, however, Jack White raised a deafening ruckus back on the main stage with his Raconteurs.
Expected to be the warmest day at a festival that traditionally hits triple-digits in April, Sunday actually turned out to be quite comfortable—the result of afternoon cloud cover. Attendance also failed to sizzle, with the event’s usual Pitchfork-centric fanbase likely unsure about main-stage headliner Roger Waters, and the former Pink Floyd man’s supporters likely unenthused by everything else.
Waters did his part to make Day 3 memorable, upsizing the massive arena show he brought to the MGM Grand last summer to ludicrous proportions, wowing—and no doubt scaring—many an unsuspecting soul with a quadraphonic sound system that bounced laughter, heartbeats and fighter-plane ammunition from all angles of the Polo Field. The 64-year-old’s Floyd-filled, Dark Side-in-its-entirety-included, two-sets-and-an-encore marathon featured guest violinist Lili Haydn, lasers and lights, psychedelic videos, pyrotechnics, the famous floating pig—emblazoned with “Obama” across its underside (in apparent support of the presidential candidate) and, ultimately, loosed to the heavens (“That’s my pig,” Waters announced with faux sadness as it floated off)—and a low-flying aircraft unleashing rounds of an indeterminate, glittering substance. It was bombastic, and beautiful, and everything a rock fan could really ever want in a large-scale performance from a festival headliner.
The rest of Sunday? There was good music to be found, but not in obvious places. Reunited U.K. shoegazers Swervedriver rocked the Mojave at 5, but hardly anyone heard it. German techno crew Modeselektor raged in the Sahara at 8, but most folks had already staked out a spot for Waters. And cow-punky Scotsmen and women Sons and Daughters ripped up the Gobi at 7:40, but found themselves with about one-tenth the crowd actor Sean Penn managed early in the day, for a speech about his Dirty Hands Caravan, a cross-country bus journey he launched on Monday to promote eco-awareness. (Would it have been insensitive to shout out, “Aloha, Mr. Hand!” while he spoke?)
Technical issues plagued one should-be highlight, Spiritualized’s intimate, almost-acoustic set (the string section was barely audible, and a recurring microphone buzz surely was a message from the musical gods that Jason Pierce needs to free his inner drone). Southern rockers My Morning Jacket had no troubles with sound or crowds at 7 on the main stage, however, jamming out with buddy M Ward for the noticeably older throng assembled for the Waters experience to follow. And—performing unopposed post-Waters—French electro duo Justice drew a massive gathering for its festival-capping Sahara tent romp.
Ultimately, though, Coachella 2008 was all about Saturday—a day of music so wonderfully intense it was often difficult to choose between three or four quality acts at any given moment.
Early in the day, pirate-klezmer outfit Man Man (no, that’s not an established genre; yes, it is how the Philly quintet sounds) eclipsed its considerable hype with a set as entertaining visually as it was pleasing sonically; while Brooklyn’s MGMT rated an F for set-list construction, squandering a jam-packed Mojave crowd by loading up on ponderous rock material early and saving soulful pop ditties “Electric Feel,” “Time to Pretend” and “Kids” until hordes of could-be fans had fled the scene.
Ex-Pavement leader Stephen Malkmus provided an appropriately mellow Outdoor Theatre vibe in the late-afternoon sun, one stage over from the site of his former band’s famed 1999 meltdown. And one year after scorching the Mojave tent with one of 2007’s best-received performances, British electro group Hot Chip packed the much-larger Sahara tent to its outer edges and beyond—fans scaled the canopy’s metal supports to gain views of the stage—and produced another hour of highly danceable fun.
Then it was time to get serious, with German electronic progenitors Kraftwerk and their robotic-yet-moving early techno sounds. “Every DJ in the world owes their career to these guys,” someone shouted from the crowd, and while that might be overstating it a bit, there’s no denying the group’s tremendous influence, right up through present-day giants Coldplay, who borrowed the heart of “Computer Love” for the hit single “Talk” a few years back (no telling how many kids thought it was the other way around Saturday night). Despite performing without co-founder Florian Schneider (missing from the group’s U.S. tour, for undisclosed reasons), the laptop-strapped quartet dug through its four-decade history for such classics as “Autobahn,” “Trans-Europe Express” and “Radioactivity,” aided by well-coordinated, old-school imagery.
Next up: Portishead, Britain’s mystical electronic trio just back from a 10-year performing hiatus. Earlier in the week, the local daily quoted member Adrian Utley as being “a bit annoyed” at having to play before Prince, after the original festival bill had Portishead headlining Saturday. But if Beth Gibbons was bothered about her band’s 9:15 start time, she never let on, her smokey vocals sounding as good live as they do on disc during a set that seamlessly married the group’s past with cuts off its new Third album.
Topping that would have been difficult for most mortals, but Prince is … well, something else entirely. His version of “Little Red Corvette” left little room for debate about that, burning slowly at the start, evolving into the song that gave him his first Top 10 hit in 1983 and then opening up for some of the night’s most passionate guitar work. “From now on, this is Prince’s house!” the man of the hour yelled across the desert night before exiting. He’ll get no argument here.
Photography by Aaron Thompson