Prince finally played the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival last Saturday, after having turned down invitations for nine years. His performance was announced less than three weeks ago, silencing fans who were grumbling that the original lineup with headliners such as laid-back singer-songwriter Jack Johnson, morose trip-hop group Portishead, and former Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters lacked punch.
When he took to the stage, Prince seemed to acknowledge that he had just elevated the festival to the stratosphere. "Coachella, I am here," he screamed. "You are the coolest place on Earth right now!"
Prince tore through a set that included hits like "1999," "Little Red Corvette," and "Purple Rain," as well as two surprising covers: Radiohead's "Creep" and the Beatles' "Come Together." He was supported by a twelve-strong backup band and had Morris Day sing a song while he roamed the stage soloing on his Fender Telecaster guitar.
Prince came back for a second encore, shouting "They're telling me that we've got to go, but I can't leave!" before launching into "Let's Go Crazy."
Coachella is known for pulling off seemingly impossible reunions of bands like Rage Against the Machine and the Pixies. This year's big thing was supposed to be Portishead, whose Coachella performance would be their only US appearance since the British trip-hop group reunited this year after releasing their first record since 1997. But they were quickly demoted from their headlining spot to make way for Prince, and rightfully so. Portishead's music satisfied as always, but such a dose of gloom is better suited to an old, moody, and preferably majestic indoors venue than a polo field in the desert.
Johnson played an enjoyable set on Friday to a vocal group of fans, demonstrating that he has indeed blossomed into a veritable star. And on Sunday, Waters gave Prince a run for his money with a dazzling show of lights, sound, and props, even though his audience was not as packed close together. He performed the Pink Floyd classic Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety, as well as songs from his former band's albums The Wall, Wish You Were Here, and Animals. He brought with him a band of more than a dozen musicians, including violinist Lily Haydn. Powerful pyrotechnics warmed up the evening while lasers crisscrossed the sky. Speaker towers placed at various points around the festival grounds provided surround sound. At one point, an inflatable pig was brought out to hover over the crowd. Graffiti on its side said "fear builds walls" while its belly had a check mark next to the word "Obama." (Later, the pig's handlers lost grip of it and it soared into the desert night. Coachella organizers are offering a $10,000 reward plus four festival tickets for life to the person who returns it.) At the end of the Dark Side part of the show, a prism slowly rose over the stage radiating light in its primary colors in all directions in a re-enactment of the legendary album cover.
Fans came from all over the United States and abroad, including several Britons wearing Native American costumes and an estimated one thousand fans that travelled from Mexico to see the more than 125 bands on two outdoor stages and three tents in the punishing desert heat. In an effort to attract more fans from south of the border, festival organizers announced this year's lineup at a press conference in Mexico City.
Festival-goers were given a chance to dump drugs in an "amnesty bin" at the entrance to the polo grounds. The program was introduced last year, when police said they collected nearly five hundred marijuana cigarettes, three hundred tabs of LSD, and one hundred ecstasy pills. But judging by the clouds of marijuana smoke floating all over during Waters' set, it seemed the police did not make much of a dent in most revellers' stashes.
The side stages had consistently strong crowds throughout the three days, with Sri Lankan-born rapper M.I.A. easily winning the queen of the tents title as she packed the biggest crowd in the impossibly hot Sahara tent.
MGMT also did well in another tent, the size of the crowd surprising the Brooklyn-based psychedelic rock group that has created considerable buzz with its debut album Oracular Spectacular.
"That was pretty crazy; I was smiling the whole time," MGMT singer/guitarist Andrew VanWyngarden said after the show. "I'm trying to decide now if I should stay grounded or go all out with the being in a rock band thing," added bassist Ben Goldwasser, relaxing afterward in the band's spacious and air-conditioned bus.
British electropop songstress Alison Goldfrapp put on an extravagant show in a side tent, bringing with her a six-member backup band that included a harp as if to imply she belonged on a bigger stage. She played a competent show but malfunctioning stage monitors visibly irritated her through several songs. Goldfrapp also was hampered by a dull light show and a stench of toilet sewage surrounding the tent on the outside. Thankfully that odor was no match for the smell of sweat inside the tent, so everyone ignored it.
Other highlights included Santogold, which had two female backup dancers that looked like a mix between pants-wearing Catholic school girls and Public Enemy's militaristic stage performers. System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian brought his message of social awareness to the smaller outdoor stage, touring in support of his solo record.
Vampire Weekend was one of the festival's few disappointments. Its clever lyrics could not compensate for its lack of showmanship. Perhaps its music is better fitted to be played in hipster clubs than on an outdoor stage in front of 10,000 people.
Death Cab for Cutie, Gogol Bordello, My Morning Jacket, SIA, Kate Nash, and Holy Fuck also provided memorable performances, while Sweden's Shout Out Louds left everyone largely indifferent and wondering why this band was given the privilege of playing on the main stage.
Kraftwerk was visually stunning, with the four black-clad German musicians lined up in the middle of the main stage behind their laptops, methodically running through their set with machine-like precision while a huge screen behind them played video synched to the songs.
On the last day of the festival, actor Sean Penn appealed twice from different stages to young people to join him on a caravan of biodiesel-fuelled busses to perform volunteer work in New Orleans. But most in the crowd were already thinking about who might play at Coachella next year.
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