Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Coachella 2011, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Heatstroke

Originally published by PopMatters on April 19, 2011

This was my first Coachella without press credentials, my first as a music fan and not a professional, which is kind of not that different really; because I was a music fan the last couple of times around, too. That was in 2008 and 2009, and though the press was given VIP access, all that really meant at the time was some breathing room off to the side of the Coachella Stage, where the festival’s headline acts play.

VIP was a little different this time around, allowing those who paid a premium a closer look at some stages, a comfortable spot with a view in the soundboard area at others. But my ticket, or rather my wristband, only allowed me to peer into those spots, though rarely with anything approaching jealousy as the festival was among the very best organized I’ve seen.

I may be remembering this incorrectly, but I think it was a friend of mine who dubbed the 2010 iteration of the festival Clusterfuckchella because of the ridiculous crowds, as many as 30,000 of them reportedly gatecrashers. Goldenvoice, the festival’s organizers, apparently took all the criticism to heart, as they expanded the grounds, increased the size of the tents and introduced a series of security measures designed to keep the fence-hoppers out.

At the heart of the new security was the wristband, which when applied properly could not be removed without damaging the whole thing. Attached to each wristband was a small panel with an embedded chip. These were scanned repeatedly, first upon approach to the grounds, and again at the festival gates. I’ve no idea how effective the system was in terms of actual numbers, but the combination of all those changes really did give the impression that in spite of the festival selling out in just six days, it wasn’t a clusterfuck at all.

With congestion light and plenty of opportunities for shady respite, the music was able to be the primary focus of the weekend. And in spite of the inevitable conflicts, the technical difficulties which delayed wildly-hyped hip-hop collective Odd Future from taking the stage in the Sahara, and the increasingly horrendous stench rising from the porta-potties, it really was all about the music. Well, the music and the sometimes sexy, sometimes bizarre, often both fashion choices. So many feathers, so many dark jeans and furry boots. But really, it was about the music.

In the past, I’ve felt somewhat beholden to sampling as much as I possibly could in an effort to cover the vast breadth of the Coachella experience. Sometimes that meant making tough choices and leaving one stage for another when I was really enjoying what was happening right before my eyes. But with no press credentials and no official reason for me to even be there, I was free to be a music fan first and stay for as long as I liked at some of the performances I was most looking forward to. I could follow my whims wherever they and the rare delightful breeze might take me, spend time with friends even when something I might have otherwise been able to do and didn’t worry at all that I might miss something “epic” that might not mean a goddamn thing to me personally. And in that way, I was able to experience Coachella more fully than ever before.

In putting this together, I tried to think of my favorite performance each day, and when that proved fruitless I tried to make an all-inclusive Top Five. That didn’t work out either, so here’s some stuff I liked in no particular sequence.

Suede—They scared the shit out of me in the week before the festival when it was announced that bass guitarist Mat Osman had his travel visa denied. Despite loving them from the moment I heard that first glorious run of singles, I’d never actually seen them live. And here I thought I was going to miss my chance again, and when the fuck are they ever coming back? But I was assured by someone in the know that the announcement that they were rehearsing as a four piece was the gospel truth.

Despite my best efforts to remain aloof and free from letting the fey bedsit recesses of my heart be torn asunder, I hit the Mojave on Saturday night with hips that swiveled far more freely than ordinarily. And then Suede hit the stage and fucking killed it. It wasn’t just one of the best sets of the entire weekend, but of all the shows I’ve seen in at least a decade. Brett Anderson, even in his early 40s, is an androgynous god, swinging his microphone like Roger Daltrey one minute, dramatically falling to his knees the next. Suede—or the London Suede as they’re known in the United States—had no other American shows planned. They’ve just released a phenomenal two-disc compilation, and hopefully enough of you will pick it up so they’ll feel compelled to come back and do a proper tour. Breathtaking stuff, especially when I realized tunes like “Animal Nitrate”, “Trash” and “Killing of a Flash Boy” were meant to be sung en masse.

Duran Duran—From the moment the official lineup dropped, some Coachella purists pegged Duran Duran as one of the acts that somehow didn’t belong in the middle of their party. Never mind the endless stream of artists who’ve performed previously who admit their own debt to the music of the early MTV icons. Besides, when your festival has featured a performance by James Blunt (2006), you’re really in no position to throw stones.

The New Romantic legends proved their mettle at sunset on Sunday by building their debut single “Planet Earth” glittery brick by brick, then rolling through a hit-laden set that mixed well with songs from their new album, All You Need is Now. Ana Matronic of Scissor Sisters stuck around after her band’s Saturday night set to perform “Safe (In the Heat of the Moment)”, and “Ordinary World” made it back into my good graces after years of foolish abandonment.

Elbow—Guy Garvey looked miserable in the heat of the Mojave tent, which instantly made me both love and identify with him. It didn’t hurt that Garvey and his band put on a stunning show, one heavy on material from their latest long player, Build a Rocket Boys! The set was grandiose and celebratory without pretense. Or at least without the lame kind of pretense. This wasn’t Muse, is what I mean.

Big Audio Dynamite—Three years ago, former Clash founder Mick Jones brought his Carbon/Silicon project to Coachella. It was a workmanlike set of workmanlike tunes, and even though there wasn’t anything particularly special about the music, Jones’ smile made it come off like a classic. If a guy can enjoy being on stage and making music that much, surely I can get on board.

Saturday’s stop on the Big Audio Dynamite reunion tour was something altogether different, as I already loved the songs from way back in high school and college. Jones smiled, Don Letts toasted and the scourge of the scourge of the latter rap-rock genre was finally hurled into the stinking abyss by the real deal.

Random Friday highlights include: The Michael Cera-esque dance moves of !!!’s Nic Offer; the angsty anthemic rock of Titus Andronicus; the swirling and gregarious Warpaint, a band which had one of the festival’s best drummers, Stella Mozgawa; the much better than we were all led to believe Lauryn Hill; the arrival of an inflatable kangaroo during a triumphant set by Australian neo-psych band Tame Impala, the sheer force of Sleigh Bells; the defiance of Jonathan Pierce of the Drums continuing to rock the bowl cut that makes him look and behave like a blonde penis.

Saturday’s best moments included: Foals showing plenty of figurative and some actual muscle; Animal Collective confounding people, captivating people and hitting all points in between; Erykah Badu. Really, everything about Erykah Badu; Arcade Fire’s radioactive ball drop and pretty much their entire set; the lazy afternoon buzz of Radio Dept.

And on Sunday: An Outdoor Theatre set by PJ Harvey many considered to be the true festival closer; OFF!’s brief aggro reminder that Keith Morris is a gentleman and a scholar and should be allowed to, as he suggested, headline Coachella in 2012; the creepy hovering koala-human baby hybrid that got as much of a full-throttle charge out of the razor-sharp tumult of Death From Above 1979 as I did; the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas keeping it clean during “New York City Cops,” but swearing like a sailor elsewhere; Kanye West’s punctuality.

These were only my highlights, of course. One of the best things about Coachella is that there are tens of thousands of people who attend each year, and because of the incredible amount of completely rad shit to see and hear, every single one of them will have a completely different set of favorite experiences.

Well, there’s that and the frozen lemonade.

But, you know, these things aren’t perfect. There’s always the festival despair of not hearing the songs you wanted because your favorite band had to make crucial time-sensitive setlist decisions. There are the scheduling conflicts that left you—or in this case, me—missing out on artists like Wire and Here We Go Magic. And there’s the abject terror when you—me, again—learn from a few different friends that you showed up on the screen during Big Audio Dynamite’s set probably during one of those moments when lyrics you’ve always known by heart and were really trying to sing along to were difficult to recall simply because you’re like 15 feet away from fucking Mick Jones!!!

In spite of my needing a Silkwood shower before bed each night just to get the sticky sheen of sweat, dust and cigarette smoke off me, I wouldn’t change a thing about Coachella. Even the stuff that irritated me, the technical blips and the sound bleed, the wind blowing the funk from the toilets right into my face every time I refilled my water bottle from the adjacent fountains and the unlikely abundance of so many Boston Celtics jerseys on the weekend they opened up a one game lead over my beloved New York Knickerbockers in the opening round of the NBA playoffs. It’s Coachella, and whether I’m there in an official press capacity or as a fan of music who by coincidence can’t go anywhere without a notebook and a few pens, I’m probably going back next year.

LCD Soundsystem: 2 April 2011 - The Long Goodbye, NYC

Originally published by PopMatters on April 7, 2011

New York City was crawling with acolytes long before the show, dressed as instructed in black, white or some combination of the two. LCD Soundsystem did more than sell out a run of shows at Terminal 5 and an arena sendoff at Madison Square Garden this week. If you were in the right place, and the East Village fit that description on Saturday evening, it was as though James Murphy & Co. had taken over the city itself.

Forget the fury over ticket scalping, the oft-reported likelihood of a regular guy and all-around good dude being so iconic or the fact that bigger isn’t necessarily better. None of that mattered on Saturday night.

Fans arrived from across the country and around the world, doing everything within their power to be there for the finale of one of modern music’s most enthralling live acts. It’s possible some of them even plotted their route to the Garden by way of the L, C and D trains - logistically possible, though sort of convoluted and redundant, and with a short walk at the end. It would have made perfect sense, of course.

This was a night, not for excess exactly, but for an appropriate amount of jubilation. And, as it happens, no amount of jubilation would have been too much. People latched on to one another like family, not just during “All My Friends”, but beforehand on street corners and subway platforms. They were rewarded by a party where it’s like you’ve been hugged by 15,000 pairs of arms, and by some miracle no one smells bad, and even if they do you don’t really mind.

So few bands say goodbye on their own terms, or on terms acceptable to its legions of fans. The rock & roll story is littered with acrimony and greed and no end of shit that leaves a taste in the mouth even worse than anything the concession stands at Madison Square Garden could conjure up. Because of the way they operate, LCD Soundsystem threw a party. It turned into an exceedingly long party, with the four smaller shows serving as a lead in to the massive one.

Liquid Liquid, rhythm-based post-punk band and early influence on Murphy, was the night’s opening act, a traditionally unenviable role in the cavernous hall. But that night it worked, in part because 1/3 of the floor was general admission and people were showing up earlier than they might ordinarily. Back in October, N*E*R*D had a much tougher time of it opening for Gorillaz in the same venue. Liquid Liquid proved their mettle and with “Cavern”, a song covered by the Sugar Hill house band on the classic Grandmaster Melle Mel track “White Lines (Don’t Do It)”, had ushers shaking their asses.

But the night truly belonged to LCD Soundsystem, a band for whom live shows have always been something of a celebration. Opening the gig with a tremendous “Dance Yrself Clean,” Murphy chirped and crooned like a digital David Byrne, his iconic laconicism punctuated by a black suit, untucked tuxedo shirt, white sneakers and 5 o’clock shadow. This is how we’ll always remember him, exactly as he is.

Though ostensibly Murphy’s vision, LCD Soundsystem would not be possible without a close-knit group of collaborators. Multi-instrumentalist and singer Nancy Whang and drummer Pat Mahoney picked up the lion’s share of the audience appreciation, though Murphy seemed equally indebted to everyone on the stage, including a chorus and brass section in silver jumpsuits and roughly half of Arcade Fire, who looked like the von Trapp children on growth hormones as they sang along to a bristling “North American Scum”.

To pinpoint a single highlight would be a disservice to a night where every second stood out as crucial. Was it the trembling future funk of “Get Innocuous!” or the Devo soul of “I Can Change,” the self-conscious “Losing My Edge” or the final bow, when hundreds of white balloons dropped from the ceiling to “New York, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down”? It was each of those and more.

There were still apparent hiccups, though to no one sensible and no one truly caught up in the moment. “No ‘Pow Pow’” remarked one lost soul in the tangle of the Garden’s exit pattern, in spite of a set that lasted nearly four hours, touched the four corners of the LCD Soundsystem experience and left thousands of true believers with the confusion of having faces streaked by tears and sore from grinning. A shock to the system so great has the power to befuddle, leaving one thinking they were shortchanged on a night where the inclusive give-and-take was as generous as anything ever seen in those hallowed halls.

As something of a postscript to illustrate what a magical night it was, I had a few friends find themselves in the midst of the official after-party at the Tribeca Grand Hotel. One member of the industrious crew, Aaron Gonsher, said the good vibes were still in full effect by then.

“James was walking around with a big bottle of champagne”, said Gonsher. “I gave him a huge hug and just said, ‘Thanks for everything’”.

It was a night where time stood still, where the sheer weight and significance of what was happening was further illustrated by the genuine humility and appreciation being hurtled through the great hall from every direction. And thanks to a live video stream of the show by Pitchfork, it was a moment shared across the world, Twitter and Facebook feeds fat with commentary.

If LCD Soundsystem resists the urge to reunite for some future Coachella or Lollapalooza, they will have said goodbye exactly as they should, as their music and attitude demanded, with a party for the ages. The life-affirming power of music and collective experience was in full effect at Madison Square Garden, and no amount of joyful hyperbole could come close to explaining how much it all meant.

Thanks for everything.

The Life of an Alien Lizard Queen: An Interview with Monica Baccarin

Originally published by PopMatters on April 13, 2011

Though she’s since become known to fans of the contemporary remake of the sci-fi television classic V, in a former TV life Morena Baccarin was known to fans the world over as an interplanetary prostitute on Joss Whedon’s heralded but short-lived series Firefly.

Inara Serra was really more than just a mere hooker in Firefly (and its follow-up feature film, Serenity). In the late 25th century world concocted by Whedon, Companions like those played by Baccarin are really high-society courtesans and part of the social fabric. Naturally, Inara Serra is something of a tormented soul. Coming as Baccarin’s first steady Hollywood gig, it was also an unforgettable experience.
“It was a blast,” Baccarin said, in part because of her work with Whedon.

“Joss was great,” she explained. “He’s really specific about his work; he knows exactly what he wants.” 

Baccarin said of Whedon, “I feel like he is the kind of person that allows for so much creativity,” she said. She added a tongue-in-cheek caveat: “Generally speaking, he is always right.”

Firefly and Serenity also gave Baccarin a taste of what it’s like to become a key figure in sci-fi fandom, especially after the experience entered her rear view mirror.

“It was humbling to see how many fans there are of Serenity,” she said. “It’s like an underground fan base.”

It’s something she’s likely experiencing all over again now that V has just wrapped its second season. On the show, Baccarin plays Anna, the Visitor Queen and High Commander of the sinister alien invasion.

“Reaction has been good,” Baccarin said of the ongoing series. “This (was) a much more action-packed season…Lisa doubts if she wants to be a queen.”

Though it might seem as though it would be a piece of cake to play an emotionless alien, Baccarin said she actually finds it to be a tricky proposition.

“Having no emotions is the most difficult, to tone it down,” she said.

One way of ensuring she can keep emotions out of the character as much as possible is to not let them get in the way of her private life. One way to ensure this is to avoid looking herself up on Google because she’s wary of seeing what people might be saying about her.

“I don’t want to believe the bad stuff,” she said.

As for what comes next, Baccarin said she might like to try her hand at something outside the realm of sci-fi, perhaps dabbling a bit in comedy.

“For me, it really is about the story and characters,” she said. “Inspiration is key for me in choosing characters.”

Fans of the Brazilian-born actress would likely contend she’s already done a pretty good job of that already.

Additional reporting by Charles Wallace

Beady Eye: Different Gear, Still Speeding

Originally published by PopMatters on March 4, 2011

People really seem to want Beady Eye to fail. Between the two Oasis-era Gallaghers, Liam generally gets the lion’s share of the scorn; they’re both acerbic jerks, but Noel’s sense of humor is maybe a little easier to read. Liam, on the other hand, comes off like he truly believes it when he says things like his new band’s debut, Different Gear, Still Speeding, is “as good as (Oasis debut) Definitely Maybe, if not better.”

First things first: Different Gear, Still Speeding is hardly a disaster, and is, in fact, a mostly enjoyable rock & roll record. It’s also nowhere near as explosive and dynamic as Definitely Maybe, but how could it possibly have been? On the other hand, it is certainly better than a couple of other Oasis albums.

Yeah, people questioned whether or not these guys could even write a passable tune with Oasis’ principal songwriter, Noel Gallagher, sitting on a big pile of money in his mansion as far away from the action as he could possibly get. The thing is, Liam was coming along rather nicely as a songwriter himself before Oasis imploded; one of the band’s best latter-era singles, “I’m Outta Time”, was written by Liam. And, you know, Andy Bell isn’t any slouch either, even if his Hurricane #1 material was Oasis Lite. He was in Ride, for crying out loud. Plus, Gem Archer rounds out the Beady Eye songwriting triumvirate, and he’s got his shit fairly well together. It also doesn’t hurt that producer Steve Lillywhite has a knack for knowing when to go big and when to pull back.

Which brings us to the first salvo from Beady Eye, “Bring the Light”. Released last November, the song has been generously compared to Jerry Lee Lewis and the Rolling Stones yet was really kind of a plodding bore. As an introduction, it failed spectacularly to live up to the hype. Fortunately, things picked up from there, with the band dropping the album’s opening track, “Four Letter Word”, in late December. I guess it’s a statement when the lasting impression is the repeated line “Nothing ever lasts forever”, but it doesn’t hurt that the song is also a monster, an avalanche of drums and strings and filthy guitars and super-snotty attitude.

“The Roller”, the first official single off the album, is also splendid, a choice cut of mid-tempo Beatles-esque fun, and while cut from the same cloth, “The Beat Goes On” is also good enough that its familiarity doesn’t really matter.

There are also some weak moments in addition to “Bring the Light”: “For Anyone” is fairly inauspicious ‘70s touchy-feely singer-songwriter fare, and “Millionaire” sounds more like the Charlatans than the Charlatans themselves have sounded in ages. “Standing on the Edge of Noise” is the sort of clumsy rawk the Beach Boys used to pad their early ‘70s albums with, only way noisier. It’s like “Student Demonstration Time,” only with marginally better lyrics.

But what people really want to know is if it sounds like Oasis. Of course it does. How could it not? After all, Oasis itself was a completely different animal when it ended from when it began, with only the Gallagher brothers remaining from its original lineup, and it carried on sounding like Oasis as it shed member after member. Plus, even though Beady Eye sometimes throws in pianos or sassy female backing vocals, the influences are essentially the same. There’s even a (rather good) song called “Beatles and Stones”, let ye forget where these fellows are coming from.

Beady Eye may have bitten off more than they can chew because, at 13 songs, Different Gear, Still Speeding really sags in the middle, with the least successful numbers all coming in succession. Thankfully, it picks up for the duration with “Wigwam,” a psych-rock spread with Simon & Garfunkel vocals and a dense, hazy production.

It opens and closes brilliantly, and hits its rhythm here and there, though Different Gear, Still Speeding is not without its faults. But it manages excess and grandeur far more gracefully than Oasis’ own overblown collection, Be Here Now. It’s also better than anyone shy of Liam Gallagher himself would have believed possible.

7 out of 10