Live Review: Coachella 2011

Arcade Fire, The Strokes, Kings Of Leon & Kanye West

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There should be a law about bands only playing their hits at festivals. Your set is short, the beer tent is in no way near enough to where we are standing, and our friends are already muttering about going to see that other lot on that other stage. Play the big tune we all know! The one that makes us put our arms around each other and sing at each other with faces scrunched up like newborn gerbils! Don’t save it for the very end of the set after you’ve made us wait through some new unreleased stuff that has yet to locate its own chorus and that boring one from the difficult second album you’ve only put on the setlist to placate the drummer.

Of course at a glorious festival like [b]Coachella[/b]... wait, there aren’t any festivals like Coachella, festivals where you trek into the desert beyond Los Angeles into the dry, grassy fields of a posh polo club. A festival where bands play open-air stages with no backdrop so you can watch the sun setting purple behind them, over the palm trees. And California girls in bikinis and the lustful aroma of weed. But anyway, at a festival like Coachella, where the baking sun of the day has turned to a sun-stroked haze by nightfall, you need the hits. You need the unifying. You need something to rouse you from your heat coma before your flip-flops make the ungainly hour-long trudge back to your car with another hour just to drive offsite.

[a]Arcade Fire[/a] get it about the hits. Nearly. After opening with [b]‘Month Of May’[/b] they’re off, straight in with [b]‘Rebellion (Lies)’[/b], although after that it’s mainly gorgeous newer stuff from [b]‘The Suburbs’[/b]. “If you had told me in 2002 that we’d be headlining Coachella with [a]Animal Collective[/a] playing before us, I’d have said you were full of shit,” bellows Win Butler, with the triumphant face of a man fully satisfied by The Year When Everybody Else In The World Started Celebrating [a]Arcade Fire[/a] Too.

And [a]The Strokes[/a] – oh how we swoon – [a]The Strokes[/a] get it, always putting something massively loved straight in after something less proven, mixing up all their albums but doing it with such finesse that we think we couldn’t enjoy anything more than this. That is, until they are directly followed by [a]Kanye West[/a] and everybody immediately forgets that the guitar perfection and dense sex of those New Yorkers ever existed, because this is less of a show, more of a religious experience. He is surrounded by dancers who appear naked in their flesh-coloured bodysuits, but for the jewels.

They are his tragic Greek chorus. When it turns to ballet, they become swans. They evolve into a huge white duvet that covers him and the stage, and he is reborn on a pedestal in a shiny pink suit. He is the god figure, he is shamed, the cameras focusing on every bead of his sweat as he toasts the assholes and scumbags and jerk-offs and brings them into his dark light.

But all the other bands who play [b]Coachella[/b] need to think about hits. [a]Kings Of Leon[/a], with so much promise, start haemorrhaging their audience in proportion to the solos and the noodling. As the crowds drift away, out come the strains of [b]‘Sex On Fire[/b]’: too little too late. [a]Interpol[/a] go down a similarly noodling route. [a]Mumford & Sons[/a] – well, we don’t even know what they do, because of the massive rumbling and thunderous noise of Americans loving the shit out of them. My god, but they love them over here – even without [a]Bob Dylan[/a] coming on and croaking through a duet like he did at the Grammys. Whatever your taste, it’s hard not to feel heartened by seeing the new world take these London boys into their hearts.

There is always such a strong British presence at Coachella, both in the audience and onstage, that it seems to bring out a certain patriotism. “The moon is constant,” beams one drug-lost Brit. “Look at her! She’s consistent – like the Queen.” But not everyone is blissed out. Sebastian from [a]Death From Above[/a] 1979, whose five-year-hiatus-breaking set is one of the most eagerly anticipated comebacks, gets cross with the sound technicians and throws a drumstick at them. He might be cute and bare-chested by the end of the show, but the relentless pounding rhythm of songs like [b]‘Blood On Our Hands’[/b], laced with a little something nasty, reminds you that [a]Death From Above[/a] may be adored, but they were never adorable. Satisfyingly unsettling.

[a]Marina And The Diamonds[/a] also has a bit of technical trouble but it’s hard to get quite as cross when you’re dressed as a cheerleader with rabbit ears. [a]Brandon Flowers[/a] astonishes everyone at the end of his solo set by muttering about having run into some friends – and then bringing on two Killers to play [b]‘Mr Brightside’[/b]. Alison Mosshart seems emboldened by her time with [a]The Dead Weather[/a], coming back to [a]The Kills[/a] as a truly hardened, smoking, rock’n’roll frontwoman, and silences the crowd with a solo finale of [b]‘Last Goodbye’[/b], just her and the piano. We want so much from Win’s beloved [a]Animal Collective[/a] but their subtle textures get lost in such a wide-open space, reminding us that we’re never quite sure if they should do festivals at all.

But yeah, like we said, none of this matters any more after [a]Kanye West[/a] has headlined Sunday night. The birds will not sing again, the colours will not be as bright. Kanye says little during his set, busting blood-vessels by saying so much with the words of songs like [b]‘Love Lockdown’[/b], [b]‘Hell Of A Life’[/b], [b]‘Jesus Walks’[/b], [b]‘Through The Wire’[/b], [b]‘Gold Digger’[/b] and [b]‘All Of The Lights’[/b]. Every lyric takes on new import as he gives it everything his body has to give, before he finally announces how long he has waited to play Coachella, and how grateful he is to the fans who have always stood by him “when TV was saying the opposite”.

Then at the end we happen to be walking away through the fields of cars with ‘CARPOOLCHELLA!’ daubed on their back windows in spray-paint. And there, in among such vehicles, is a sweet little minibus where some nice hippyish guy is getting into the driving seat as his friends climb in the back, and he is driving them away… and it’s [a]Bon Iver[/a]. [a]Bon Iver[/a], who was onstage with Kanye throughout that whole cathedral paean to wealth and splendour and God and emptiness and the Renaissance and Swan Lake and porn stars. Just singing. And now he’s just driving, and as he passes I shout out “We love you Bon Iver!”. And through his window he says “I love you too!” and off he drives, slowly and gently, through the midnight desert dust.

Sophie Heawood

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