A Boston-based Chief Culture Writer for The Christian Science Monitor (www.csmonitor.com). Author of "Art of Rush."
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Glastonbury may be the world's most famous music festival and certainly the most prestigious, but Coachella is surely the finest festival in the world.
For starters, The Coachella festival site (a polo club) is an unbelievably beautiful setting. It's an oasis in the middle of the Southern Californian desert: palm trees, lush green fields of lawn, rows and rows of flowers, and a backdrop of huge snow-capped mountains. I'll take this over Glastonbury mud any day! At night, colorful lights are projected on the palm trees and the grounds themselves -- filled with exotic works of art -- take on neon hues.
There are two main outdoor stages and then several concert tents (which hold thousands of people) as well as numerous other attractions (a "learn to DJ" tent, for example) and also a welcome "hose down" area. Also some, er, interesting attendees, too, dressed in odd and colorful costumes. At times, I wondered whether I had mistakenly wandered into the Burning Man festival. I saw a guy in a body-hugging red devil suit and I wondered how he could possibly endure spandex in the desert heat. Others were naked with "clothing" spray painted on, like pages from the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition come to life.
I had a backstage pass and although that didn't mean that I could use Beyonce's gold-plated toilet in Jay-Z's pimped-out compound, I was able to use proper air conditioned toilets rather than portapotties. (I have no idea, actually, if Beyonce had a gold-plated loo -- I've just been watching too much MTV "Cribs.") I had many surreal experiences in the restricted artists area ranging from a long talk with Serj Tankian of System of a Down about how Obama reneged on his campaign promise to recognize the Armenian genocide, to opening the restroom door and almost knocking over Danny DeVito -- who is shorter than a midget. I also saw Melanie Griffiths' collagen-inflated lips in close-up. (Imagine a bee-sting version of the Rolling Stones logo.)
After watching Yeasayer (fun, but the songs evaporate from memory seconds later), a regal Gil Scott-Heron, and escaping the Dillinger Escape Plan, I headed to the main stage as the sun (and thermometer) plummeted.
Early on, it was apparent that the festival was going to be affected by the volcano ash as just about all the British and European acts, including Bad Lieutenant, The Cribs, and Delphic (who I had recently interviewed) were stranded at airports.
Fortunately, John Paul Jones -- the linchpin of Them Crooked Vultures -- wasn't among the stranded musicians. He emerged on to the main stage with the most bizarre-looking instrument I've seen in my life. It had 12 strings and a screen in it and then proceeded to play it with a bottleneck slide. Loved how TCV improvised on the original song arrangements and reveled in thrilling executed handbrake turns and sudden stops and starts. One of my fave songs on the album is "Scumbag Blues," a 21st-century update of Cream, which was elongated to include a trippy psychedelic interlude. One of the wonders of the entire festival was Dave Grohl's drumming. He threw himself into each beat with such attack and physicality that it's a wonder he wasn't taken off stage in a stretcher. I watched TCV with Steven Wilson and John Wesley from Porcupine Tree and we all enjoyed the show immensely. Compensation for an afternoon of less-than-enthralling sets.
Afterward, I was torn between heading to a tent to see Imogen Heap or staying to watch LCD Soundsystem. Since I recently saw Imogen's show and had never seen LCD Soundsystem, I opted to take in their epic dance grooves and wasn't disappointed.
I'm not much of a hip-hop guy yet nevertheless stayed to watch Jay-Z come on stage to the introductory music of the James Bond theme followed by "Live and Let Die." Hova was elevated through a hidden hatch in the stage. Quite an entrance. Soon after, I headed over to one of the tents to see Fever Ray. I never did see Fever Ray. Her stage was shrouded in darkness apart from multiple household lamps and some cool lasers. She and the band were just silhouettes in the murky darkness. She sounded great, though, as she played her debut solo album.
Porcupine Tree's set on the second outdoor stage during lunchtime on Saturday was top-notch with a set nicely tailored to festival goers and the uninitiated. Setlist: The Start of Something Beautiful/Sound of Muzak/ Anesthetize/Lazarus/Blackest Eyes/ Time Flies/Halo.
The show received the following rave review in the Orange County Register:
Porcupine Tree proved to best several more high-profile hard rock bands that I also saw perform on Saturday, including buzz trio Band of Skulls and main stage rockers Coheed and Cambria. Indeed, I thought the relatively-unnoticed English group performed one of the most impressive sets of day two, with several concert-goers coming up to me and asking “Who are these guys?”-styled queries. The nuance of the British folk-meets-progressive rock of Porcupine Tree was a revelation, notably the beautiful and reflective “Lazarus” featuring lead singer Steven Wilson seated at the keyboard and singing one of the key songs from “Deadwing.” Later in the set, he set out with his bandmates on the ambitious “Time Flies.” One of the featured tracks on 2009’s “The Incident,” “Time Flies” featured him playing both acoustic and electric guitar and showcased the natural comparisons that can be drawn between this band and genre pioneers such as Pink Floyd. Although the quartet has been around since the late 1980s, it’s nice to see Porcupine Tree getting some well-deserved accolades. Count me among the group’s newest fans.
By contrast, Jon Pareles at the New York Times clearly didn't watch the band's set at all because in his blog post about progressive rock bands at Coachella, he made an off-handed mention of "the early Genesis-loving Porcupine Tree." No one who has actually seen or heard PT would compare their sound to early Genesis. The mind boggles....
Another reviewer for the Los Angeles Examiner shrewdly noted, "a night slot would have really solidified this band to the thousands of people not familiar with the Brit’s transcendental material. With over 20 years of experience, asking a band to only play a short, single-filled set is near disgraceful."
Indeed, few festivalgoers had arrived on site when the band took to the stage and those that did opted for the shelter of the tent stages which routinely attracted several thousand people. It's difficult to comprehend the calculus that determined Porcupine Tree's slot on the bill. There were so many bands in the tents with better time slots that were obscure/unknown or just riding blog buzz. These are bands that are still on the club circuit. None of them could sell out LA's Nokia Theater or Royal Albert Hall months in advance. Certainly, few if any of them has had a top 25 album or the kind of sales Porcupine Tree has had.
I watched Faith No More with the guys from Porcupine Tree on Saturday night and we were delighted by their leftfield opening number: a cover of the 1970s soul tune, "Reunited." Later, they did Michael Jackson's "Ben." They rocked out, too, during a vital set that included "Epic" and "We Care a Lot." Mike Patton waded into the audience and crowd surfed during the set. At one point, a shirtless Danny DeVito ran across the stage. I think that was quite possibly a more disturbing sight than Melanie Griffiths' plastic surgery.
Saturday's headliners, Muse, DESTROYED the place. I was flabbergasted by great they were. Truly one of the great live bands. From their showmanship to musicianship to sheer playfulness (spontaneous excerpts of Ennio Morricone and Hendrix), they were utterly astonishing. The wide-ranging set included "Uprising," "Supermassive Black Hole," "Time Is Running Out," "Starlight" and "Knights of Cydonia." Widespread consensus that it was one of the best sets anyone had seen a band play. Even Jay-Z and Beyonce were rocking out on the side of the stage.
I got to meet Matt Bellamy on Sunday as he was just hanging out in the artist area. He's now one of the biggest rock stars on the planet (Muse were just announced as headliners of Glastonbury) so it was great to discover that he was completely approachable, grounded, engaging and no ego at all. I said to him, "Let me be the 1 millionth person to tell you how incredible your show was." "You're only the 7th," Bellamy quipped. "She was the sixth," he said, pointing to my friend. I told him he also had the quickest costume change in concert history. He explained that he had ripped his red trousers. "Nobody wants to see my knobby knees," he joked. He also said that when he played the guitar with his teeth it was meant to be deliberately cheesy but nobody gets that it's done in humor. And when I told him that all that was missing from their show was a hot air balloon with acrobats suspended underneath it (a la their Wembley stadium gig), he said they're coming to L.A. in September -- with the acrobats! Clearly, these musicians should be given laminates that say "Excess All Areas." They're ridiculously fun.
I got far more of a kick chatting to Bellamy than watching the likes of Beyonce, Kate Hudson, Paris Hilton, and the dude from Twilight swan around.
Over the weekend, I saw several great sets, including those by Beach House and Dirty Projectors. But the breakout band for me was Mutemath. The band were so energetic that their set could have generated nuclear fission as a byproduct. At one point, the frontman placed a snare drum on top of upstretched hands and then clambered on top of that drum somehow before leaping into the crowd. When it was over you could hear the collective "wow" by the crowd. It was a tough act for the keyboard and drums duo of Matt & Kim to follow. But their enthusiasm sustained the crowd's euphoria.
Unfortunately, I missed Jonsi, though I heard he wasn't all that great, but then I started chatting with the drummer from Passion Pit as we tried to get access to watch Phoenix from the backstage. No dice. Beyonce and Thom Yorke had arrived at the same stage and so it was a total lockdown with no access for anyone. Phoenix had a MASSIVE crowd even though they were on the second stage. Sounded really great, though not much variance from their albums.
After that, Thom Yorke and Atoms for Peace took to the second stage. Since no other acts were playing, he drew perhaps the biggest crowd of the festival. They played Thom's "Eraser" album in its entirety and Flea turned out to be an inspired choice of bassist for songs such as "Black Swan" (that bass riff!) and "Harrowdown Hill." Thom performed three Radiohead songs -- an acoustic "Airbag" (wow!), a solo piano rendition of "Everything is In Its Right Place," and the b-side "Paperbag Writer." One new song, "Judge, Jury, Executioner," is a band composition -- Flea tells Rolling Stone that the band has been busy recording -- and it's likely we'll see an Atoms for Peace album or EP before any new Radiohead album. (The album might also include recently debuted compositions such as "A Walk Down the Staircase," "Give Up the Ghost," "The Daily Mail," and "Mouse, Dog, Bird.")
I stayed for three songs into the headliners, Gorillaz -- a huge multimedia spectacle with a setup that included an orchestra + The Clash's Steve Cook and Paul Siminon -- before heading out at 11 to beat the traffic back to LA. Arrived home at 1:30.
It was the best fun I've had in forever, though my aching feet might disagree with that statement.
Wednesday, April 07, 2010
During a commercial break of the NCAA championship basketball on Monday night, I watched a trailer for the new "Battlefield: Bad Company" video game (see above).
I was nauseated.
Just two hours earlier, I had watched the leaked classified video of a US Army helicopter killing a group of Iraqi men in Baghdad -- including two journalists for Reuters. (The video, below, contains disturbing images and language.) The footage, a film from the helicopter's point of view, looks uncannily like the video game scene in "Battlefield: Bad Company." Worse, the soundtrack to the actual killing sounds like a videogame. A spokesperson for WikiLeaks, the whistleblower website that brought the footage to light, even commented that the helicopter pilots act "like they are playing a computer game and their desire is they want to get high scores" by killing opponents.
At one point, one of the pilots laughs amid the carnage. Worse, the footage reveals US ground soldiers firing on people trying to help a man wounded in the helicopter assault. Two children were injured as a result.
I'm not advocating videogame censorship. And I'm not someone who believes that videogames inspire players to perpetrate real violence. But anyone looking to play "Battlefield: Bad Company" might wanna watch the real war video and then reflect on just how fun the game seems afterward.
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