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Neal Vitale Reviews (on DVD): Elegy

Neal Vitale: Day One In The Desert

Despite a life of loving music and attending countless live performances, I had never been to a multi-day, multi-act event - I had missed Woodstock, Monterey, Newport, New Orleans, etc.. The Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival (CVMAF), held a couple of hours east of Los Angeles, beckoned, but I had resisted its charms over the years, even while tempted by the prospects of performances by the Arcade Fire, Prince, and Bjork. It just seemed like too much of a hassle, I was too old, it'd be too hot, blah, blah - I had plenty of excuses.

But I have a 15-year-old daughter, Marissa, and, for her, the prospects of going to Coachella were intoxicating (even if Dad went along). For me, a little father-daughter bonding would be icing on the cake. So I booked a hotel, bought tickets for the three-day event ($269 per person, plus fees), and coordinated with a few adult friends to meet for at least a day at the festival. Marissa knew she would see plenty of her classmates from Marlborough School.

Last Thursday, after school, we decamped for the desert. CVMAF takes place in Indio, a town of about 50,000, southeast of Palm Springs by roughly 25 miles. Indio is in the Coachella Valley, the bulk of which is occupied by the Salton Sea. We stayed in LaQuinta, a few miles west of the Empire Polo Club festival site. (Small world note - Marissa is an equestrian, and she has participated in a six-week event called "Horse Shows In The Sun" that, until recently, took place each winter at  the Empire Polo Club. So this was fairly familiar territory.)

The gates open at 11am each day (Friday-Sunday) and the music generally starts around noon, and runs through at least midnight. There are five venues - a large "main" stage, the moderately smaller "Outdoor" stage, and three tents - Gobi, Mojave, and Sahara. To give you some idea of the size of the site, there is amazingly little "bleed" of sound from one powerfully amplified stage to the next. While there is a constant throb of bass throughout the day, the sound from one performer is remarkably free from neighborly intrusion. Each act (other than the main stage headliner that ends each evening) is allotted 45-55 minutes, which makes for tightly-focused sets, and disaster if there's an equipment problem.

The festival has a strong online presence (, in the weeks leading up to it, Marissa and I were tracking who was playing when and planning our viewing. With none of Friday's early bands high on our list, we ate lunch at the hotel - not quite sure what we'd find on the grounds - and aimed to get to CVMAF around 3:30pm. The day was in the 80s, a far cry from what can be blistering desert heat. Other than a significant delay in getting into the (free) parking lot, the trip from the hotel was uneventful. We were a major hike away from the stages, though, so it took us a while to get in. Long security lines added to the time, and we arrived a little behind schedule. We Are Scientists were wrapping up their set on the main stage; we hurried over to the Gobi tent to catch a few painful minutes of LA hip hop duo People Under The Stairs.

We grabbed some water - the theme of music in the desert is hydration - and headed back to the main stage to connect with a couple of friends. One had come in from Gloucester, MA, and brought her two teenage sons; the other was from Santa Barbara - her daughter was also at the festival, but on her own, and their contact was purely by cellphone. In the background (but not far enough), Mexican rap-metal band Molotov raised quite a clamor as we waited for The Airborne Toxic Event. Their set was energetic and powerful, and the beauty of the venue started to register. As the sun began to move toward the surrounding mountains, gorgeous gleaming vistas were picked up by on-stage cameras and reflected on the flanking video banks.

Akron, OH, blues rock duo followed and, while their crunching thick sound was faithfully recreated live, there wasn't much of a spark - we might as well have been listening to CDs (admittedly cranked past 10 on the volume dial) - and we wandered off. Some went off to see M. Ward and then Conor Oberst, both in more rocking modes than one would have expected from their recordings, and I went to catch snippets of bands at the tents - Los Campesinos!, The Hold Steady, The Ting Tings, Buraka Som Sistema, and Felix Da Housecat. The Sahara tent was the techno/dance/DJ spot for the weekend, and you could usually find a mass of bodies bobbing to a pounding electronic beat - my glimpse of Felix Da Housecat was a sliver of stage above pulsating outstretched arms, a scene that would be repeated a few hours later for sampling master Girl Talk. For the rest of my stay at CVMAF, I stopped short of Sahara.

I swung back to the main stage to catch a few songs from Scottish rock group, Franz Ferdinand - polished, tight, and energetic, keeping a large audience on its feet. The sun was close to setting, and I was cajoled by my friends to see Leonard Cohen on the Outdoor stage. I wasn't enthusiastic but went along - how many more chances would I have to see the 74-year-old Cohen? We squeezed down front, to about the second row from the stage on the right. Cohen is a poet who has written numerous great songs - "Suzanne," "Hallelujah," "Dance Me To The End Of Love," "I'm Your Man," and "Bird On A Wire" - mostly made famous by other singers. I was worried that the soft rock arrangements and Cohen's croak would be offputting. But I shouldn't have been - he turned in a magical, enchanting set. Cohen radiated warmth, humility, and engagement, and the crowd loved him.

It was barely 8:30pm when Cohen finished, so the night was still young. The property is scattered with art, much of which is best suited for darkness. There is a fire-spined metal serpent, towers producing lightening, a three-dimensional multi-colored LED display, twisting bands of purple plastic and light, and an enormous metal hand that is used to grab and toss around junk cars. Arty New Mexico band Beirut was playing its exotic, vaguely Eastern European tunes in the Mojave tent as I headed back to the Outdoor stage. LA band Silversun Pickups ran through a screeching, shrill set, while former Smiths singer Morrissey - the king of mope rock - battled  sound problems on the main stage. 

But Friday night belonged to Paul McCartney. On the anniversary of the death of his wife Linda, McCartney played for over three hours - 50 minutes past curfew, at $1,000 per minute of fines - some 30+ songs. Those who stayed said it was great - emotional, exciting, and memorable, for many their only time ever hearing a Beatle perform. But, for Marissa and me, we listened to a few songs - I thought the set started sluggishly, with "Jet" and "Drive My Car" feeling slow and labored - and headed out. I had seen McCartney a few years earlier and had great memories of a solid show, it had been a long day, and Marissa has no particular connection to the Beatles, Wings, or any other Sir Paul incarnation. We got back to LaQuinta  in minutes, well before midnight, and went for a late night snack. [My friends stayed to watch and listen. They got to their car around 1:45am and, after hours in the traffic lines, to their hotel at 4:30am. We canceled getting together for breakfast for Saturday.]

FRIDAY HIGHLIGHTS: Leonard Cohen, The Airborne Toxic Event

[Next week - Day Two in the Desert]