Coachella 2004

“”What’s that thing do?” asked Sarah Martin, singer/cellist for Belle & Sebastian. She was referring to a fan that blew mist on people’s faces. “Is that dry ice?”

It might as well have been. Under an incomprehensibly hot sun, 68,000 music lovers and scenesters flocked to the giant Empire Polo Field in Indio, Calif., for the Coachella Music and Arts Festival. Both May 1 and May 2 were sold out, and with bands like Radiohead, the Cure and a recently reunited Pixies playing, it’s no wonder why. Anyone who could pay the exorbitant ticket cost and withstand the heat got to see some of the best bands in the world play one after another.

But the heat! I spoke with Martin before a solid Belle & Sebastian set as she sipped an iced lemonade. Meanwhile, concertgoers guzzled water, lay in the shade and did whatever they could to keep cool. On a side note, two pairs of guys and girls got in front of the fan in question and started obnoxiously pretending they were in a photo shoot (yes, there were those kind of people there).

As far as the music goes, there’s no beating this year’s Coachella. May 1’s set began strongly with sets from dios, Erase Errata and Sahara Hotnights. Unfortunately with such a huge crowd, only those who arrived very early would see these bands because of nightmarish parking situations. The first show I caught was the Stills, the Canadian buzz band sporting an ever-fashionable ’80s gloom. Though the band sounds slight on record, the boys turned things up a bit to cool off the crowd with an easygoing set of mopey yet pleasant songs.

At the main stage, I caught part of the Heiroglyphics set, which sounded terrific. Underground hip-hop that is both imaginative and danceable is always a good thing. I made my way to the outdoor stage to see one of my favorite bands of the last few years, the hardcore-meets-art-rock entity known as And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead. The band confessed to not having played in months and unfortunately, it showed. They blasted through new songs that sounded great, even further broadening the dynamic of their last album, 2002’s essential Source Tags & Codes. But it was clear they were a bit rusty, ending one song early because they “were still learning that one.”

Trail of Dead’s shaky set would echo future problems with the Flaming Lips and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, but we’ll get to that later. First and foremost is the Beck set. Now everyone knows and loves Beck, right? So doesn’t it make sense to have him play in the middle of the day in a roasting hot tent with people overflowing out of all sides? I saw none of Beck. I saw hundreds of sweaty bodies trying to catch a glimpse and walked away.

The plus side is that I saw a foreshadowing piece of the Junior Senior set. Best known for the kitschy dance hit “Move Your Feet,” Junior Senior’s colorful sound perfectly fit the tent atmosphere with all the dancing and the sweating. During “Move Your Feet,” Fred Schneider of the B-52’s came out to dance and sing along with the band during a gloriously gay moment. Later on, I would have my own quite gay moment dancing with Junior Senior and Fred at Spin magazine’s afterparty. Awesome. Another side note — celebrity sightings: Gideon Yago, Ben Kweller, Jared Leto and Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

It’s tough to catch everything, so I’ll tell you what little else I heard before the main event. The (International) Noise Conspiracy and Desert Sessions sounded great, while Death Cab for Cutie and Sparta were disappointing (those last couple opinions are not my own but come from reliable sources). As an enormous crowd formed before the main stage and the Moving Units cried about playing at the worst possible time in a faraway tent, anticipation was at a high for the most talked-about event of the weekend: the return of the Pixies.

The alternative-rock originators came back with a tight, punchy set of classics that would disappoint no one. The band didn’t look nervous or even excited, but if you closed your eyes, you could hear some of the greatest rock music of our generation being played live for one of the first times in a decade. Almost every favorite was played and done so nearly flawlessly. Kim Deal played and sang with untouchable cool, smoking a cigarette and not missing a beat, and guitarist Joey Santiago stole the show with guitar licks hotter than the desert weather.

Who could upstage such a show? Only Radiohead, the greatest band on the planet. I say this without bias (well I guess they do happen to be my favorite band), but there simply isn’t a band more stirring or inventive than Radiohead. The songs off of Radiohead’s latest album, the dense but rewarding Hail to the Thief, sounded best. The already adventurous tunes were infused with even more ideas, including electronic improvisation and the near-possessed intonations of frontman Thom Yorke (never mind that Yorke lost his voice days earlier). Hail to Radiohead, the only band who could outdo the Pixies.

May 2’s show failed to deliver the heavy-hitting excitement of May 1 but kept things going with lesser-known but equally exciting bands. The excellently named !!! (usually pronounced “chik chik chik”) proved that disco-punk is here to stay. Seven-minute songs echoed dance, punk and noise-rock in an entirely celebratory fashion. Credit the sexually-charged performance of singer Nic Offer in getting a sizable crowd dancing in 110-degree weather.

Broken Social Scene, who have been the toast of indie rock over the past year, put on a potent set of post-rock soundscapes and more upbeat rockers. Generally, the instrumental songs, which sound terrific on record, were a bit awkward in an outdoor setting while the pop songs, especially the duet “Almost Crimes” with hottie Emily Haines of Metric, worked beautifully. The highlight of the set came at the end when one of the band’s guitarists proposed to his longtime girlfriend, saying “this is the greatest girl I’ve ever known.”

Resting and walking between stages, I overheard sets by Muse, Air and Dizzee Rascal that all exceeded expectation, while the opposite was true of other shows I witnessed. Poor Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Their set began with one of their best songs, the blues-rock stomp of “Spread Your Love,” but vocals were almost silent while the bass and guitar occasionally cut out. The next few songs, namely the single “Stop,” sounded great but it was soon apparent that sound malfunction would get the best of them. Instead, BRMC switched to acoustics for unreleased songs that sounded fantastic. Their smoky, overdriven sound perfectly translated to acoustic guitar, rendering the music more bluesy and soulful. It raised the question: With albums that sag with drawn-out rock compositions, why not include a few more of the acoustic numbers?

The Flaming Lips had similar problems and began their set late, only playing four songs. But the part everyone would remember is singer Wayne Coyne moving out into the audience in a giant inflatable bubble. Various artists attempted to be profound on stage, but the silly Flaming Lips, with their animal suits and ridiculous lyrics, provided the best rhetoric: “I don’t wanna say ‘fuck Bush’ because he got elected by people, but let’s say, ‘stop Bush,’ okay people?” He then led the crowd to sing along with “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 2” with a nun hand-puppet.

What to say about Sunday headliners the Cure? For starters, their new song sounded, well, awful, and that was no way to begin the show. Though the songs sounded more subdued, prompting a friend to remark that “they had no bite,” there’s no ruining songs like “Pictures of You.” Older gems like “Charlotte Sometimes” and “The Hanging Garden” sounded even better than the hits, thrilling goths who braved the heat in all black. They weren’t at their best, that’s for sure, but it wasn’t the kind of reunited Sex Pistols debacle it could have been. Seeing one of my all-time favorite bands wasn’t a bad way at all to end an extremely memorable two-day event, one which will likely be remembered as the concert of the year.