East Bay Art Rocks Coachella 

Local artists — not musicians — were the highlight of the three-day music festival.

Even the worst recession in recent memory wasn't enough to deter thousands of music fans from crowding Indio last weekend for the tenth annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. The three-day festival featured 130 performances, including headliners Paul McCartney on Friday, the Killers on Saturday, and the Cure on Sunday, as well as avant-garde circus performers Lucent Dossier and original installation art. Bay Area artists had a relatively small presence on the stage, but accounted for nearly half of the visual art exhibited.

The East Bay's politically conscious reggae/rock/rappers Michael Franti and Spearhead rocked the Main Stage with an upbeat performance early Saturday evening, wedged between the folky Paolo Nutini and New York indie rockers TV on the Radio. Even with a couple hours to go before sunset and the temperature blazing into the mid-90s, a full, marijuana-clouded crowd danced like crazy throughout Franti's fifty-minute set. He concluded by inviting everyone to grab their friends' hands, or even strangers' hands, before jumping into an extended version of a sing-along "Say Hey (I Love You)," off his latest album, All Rebel Rockers. Before leaving the stage, he called out, "See you on Twitter!", where he posted a video of his performance on Monday morning.

Though the band is no longer based in the Bay Area, neo-psychedelic shoegazers Brian Jonestown Massacre performed to a crowd of dedicated, singing fans Sunday afternoon in the Mojave tent. With up to nine musicians on stage at a time, the group performed songs spanning its fifteen-plus-year career, which reportedly started with a gig at a Berkeley frat house in the early 1990s. Mid-set, the Dandy Warhols' Zia McCabe joined the band for some backing vocals and percussion during "Not if You Were the Last Dandy on Earth," off of the 2005 Broken Flowers soundtrack. They followed it up with "Anenome," off the recently released Tepid Peppermint. Toward the end of the set, a few meathead hecklers began to yell at frontman Anton Newcombe, as often happens when so many different music fans occupy a single festival space. (Some might remember when an audience member threw a water bottle at Crowded House during their 2007 Coachella set which, incidentally, preceded the Rage Against the Machine ten-year reunion show.) Despite his reputation for being more than a little outspoken, Newcombe stayed mellow, and thanked his fans for coming out before leaving the stage a few minutes early.

Despite a relative paucity of local bands performing during the festival, seven of the fifteen sculptors exhibiting work claim Bay Area roots. The all-female, San Francisco-based artist group Flaming Lotus Girls contributed one of the most impressive structures, a 168-foot long, copper and fire "Serpent Mother," a sculpture of a snake protectively coiling around a large copper egg. Docile during the day, "Serpent Mother" came to life after dark, drawing a crowd as it moved its head toward the sky, shooting flames from its mouth and spine.

"PyroCardium," by San Francisco's False Profit Labs, was the fiery structure that drew massive crowds after dark. Having made its debut at last summer's Burning Man, the sculpture consists of a series of forty large torches organized in a spiral. Operated by a pulse monitor, the movement of the flames corresponds to the rhythm of the viewer who clips on the monitor. According to the artist's statement, it's a manifestation of the human heart stroking the body's inner fire. Whether casual passers-by picked that up or not, clusters of viewers stood mesmerized as the flames lit up their faces. Not far away, Oakland artist Michael Christian celebrated his fifth year at the festival with a 25-foot plant sculpture named "Sphae," with oversized white bulbs as leaves, which glowed and slowly shifted colors after dark.

Other Burning Man artists at Coachella included Oakland's Alex Nolan and Justin Grant, who displayed their giant recycled steel and aluminum sculpture, titled "S.O.L." Praised at last year's Burning Man, "S.O.L." is an interactive and intelligent sort of kinetic sound system, which is designed to observe the movement of the crowd around it and project music toward them based on their movement and body heat.

Veteran exhibitor and Menlo Park resident Mark Lottor displayed his "Quad Cubatron" again this year, a twenty-by-twenty-foot arrangement of 5,760 multicolored flashing lights. It was aptly situated near the Sahara tent, which was dominated by electronic music throughout the festival. A crowd of placid viewers gathered in the grass around the structure after dark, enchanted by the various patterns. Nearby sat Robert Bucholz's piece titled "Perhaps," a 34-foot stainless-steel and mirrored-glass mosaic palm tree sculpture. Perfectly situated in its environment, "Perhaps" reflected sunlight throughout the day and was illuminated at night, its shiny leaves in contrast to the natural surrounding palm trees. Meanwhile, a few entrepreneurial spirits wandered through openly offering ecstasy pills for sale, despite reports of about seventy drug-related arrests throughout the weekend.

What appeared to be the crowd's favorite exhibit was "La Familia Divina-Shrine," created by the Spears family of Oakland and Pasadena. A strikingly beautiful structure of recycled material, trash, found objects, and years worth of paintings and drawings, it was reminiscent of a Hindu temple. Crowds of people gathered around it during the day, touching and photographing it, and as the festival began to dwindle at the end of Sunday night, fans who hadn't had enough partying mobbed the shrine to sing and dance at it, and even climb it.

Possibly the perfect end to the weekend was the Cure's 31-song, nearly three-hour set Sunday night, which continued even as the sound system went off. Before beginning their encore some time shortly before midnight, the band announced that they would play until we all went home. Despite their cue to wrap up, Robert Smith finally began their classic "Boys Don't Cry," as the sound system was completely shut off. Fans who had been spread across the field ran toward the stage to hear, clustered in a relatively small group who all sang along. Despite three days of sweating, sunburn, and sleep deprivation, everyone kept everyone dancing until the end.


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