Life, Death and Coachella 2012

Death is an interesting thing. We assume that once something dies, it is never coming back to life and we must accept its passing as ultimate. For a music festival to challenge this very notion is unusual if not downright inappropriate, but that’s exactly what Coachella 2012 challenged us to do.

It’s been a well-known fact for years that Coachella’s primary goal as a festival is to reunite legendary acts for exclusive performances. They’ve done it time and time again, with the likes of Rage Against the Machine, The Pixies, Iggy & The Stooges, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Pavement and more. By now, it should hardly come as a surprise when Coachella reunites the artists you’d least expect to return to the stage, but those they choose always do.

2012’s edition of the festival was arguably their most reunion-oriented event to date, listing high-profile performances from long dormant artists like Dr. Dre, At the Drive-In, Pulp, Refused, Jeff Mangum, fIREHOSE and Company Flow. Rounded out with current figures like Radiohead, Bon Iver, The Black Keys, and Justice, as well as rising artists like Yuck, Le Butcherettes and Suedehead, this year’s lineup made for the greatest Coachella in the festival’s 13-year history.

Of the over 130 artists who performed each weekend, four particular performances stood out in capturing the spirit of Coachella 2012.

Life
For many of the bands getting back together for Coachella, it was a matter of building bridges and patching up old differences. For Jeff Mangum, it was a matter of leading him out of the cave he’d been hiding in for the past decade. Arguably the most mysterious man in music, Mangum’s public persona is nonexistent. No interviews, few photos and even fewer performances. The multiple announcements over the house PA prior to his performance, asking the crowd to not take photos or video of the performance, served to reinforce this notion.

Once Neutral Milk Hotel’s primary member did take the stage, with only a chair and a few acoustic guitars, a hush fell over the crowd. It was as if thousands of people suddenly saw a unicorn. The emotional command Mangum, a mere mortal, could wield over the crowd was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Almost as captivating as his performance was the realization that this person, whose music many of us had been singing along to in solitude for a decade, was an actual human being. When a member of the crowd collapsed to heat stroke, Mangum dropped his guitar, hopped off stage and checked to make sure she was ok. Each time someone yelled “I love you, Jeff,” or “Thanks for coming back,” he responded with thanks. For an hour that weekend, Coachella didn’t feel like a giant festival filled with fancy lights, huge barriers and rockstars, but an intimate, communal gathering of equals.

Mangum made clear his gratitude that so many people showed interest in hearing songs he wrote so long ago, and in the form they were written—with just he and his grandfather’s guitar. The audience expressed theirs when they sang along at the tops of their lungs to “Holland, 1945,” “The King of Carrot Flowers,” “Two Headed Boy” and the many others he performed from Neutral Milk Hotel’s classic album “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” There was just something special about joining the crowd in belting out the lyrics, “But for now we are young / Let us lay in the sun / And count every beautiful thing we can see” that day. Some songs just seem like they were written for you at that very moment, and I think the entire crowd felt the same way.

At sunset on the second day of Coachella, Mangum breathed life into a festival otherwise propped up by expensive effects and stage props. His sole acoustic guitar, accented by french horn, trumpet and cello cameos, completed by the chorus of our voices, filled the desert sky with an emotional performance that rivaled anything the festival saw all weekend.

Death
When it comes to summing up punk in the 1990s, there are two bands that immediately come to mind. At the Drive-In and Refused, while coming from completely separate spheres of the punk world, and different parts of the real world, fostered risk-taking and the avant-garde in the then stagnant scene. Neither band having played live in at least 10 years, it was hardly surprising to see how well their music held up over time.

Refused’s closing performance on day one was arguably the most wild and electric of the weekend. As soon as the intro to “Worms of the Senses / Faculties of the Skull” blasted across Coachella’s grounds, the festival transformed into the strangest, most massive lovechild of a hardcore show and stadium-rock spectacle. Thankfully, it worked, and Refused were finally able to do 1998’s landmark album “The Shape of Punk to Come” justice.

It was inevitable that the band whose last American show took place in a New York basement to 45 people in 1998 would find a few growing pains in the jump to thousands in a huge festival environment, but the punk energy and vibrancy of their performance shook the dirt from the outdoor stage out beyond the distant Sahara tent. Anthems “New Noise” and “Rather Be Dead” sent even the least punk members of the crowded mass into a frenzy filled with dancing, pogoing, moshing and crowd-surfing—all appropriate for a diverse setting like Coachella.

When the band split in 2001, the divide between At the Drive-In’s halves, which resulted in the formation of The Mars Volta and Sparta, seemed as far and wide as that of Morrissey and Johnny Marr. But unlike their attempts with the Smiths, Coachella successfully reunited El Paso’s finest (who, coincidentally, was the first band to ever play the festival back in 1999).

A sharp contrast with Refused, who seemed as fresh as they did in 1998, there was something different about At the Drive-In. From the first shake of the maracas on opener “Arcarsenal” until the band walked offstage, the set was non-stop fun. But the band’s members had noticeably aged, as did their performance. Instead of jumping and flailing around, guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López played with a general lack of enthusiasm, almost as though he were watching the rest of the band perform. As great as it was to relive high school memories during our favorite songs from “Relationship of Command” and “In/Casino/Out,” the performance was a little “older” than I’d always pictured it. Luckily, “maturity” never got to vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s eccentric dance moves nor his jokes. Some things never change.

Rebirth
Kicking off only a few weeks after Easter, it seems almost appropriate for Coachella to wield its powers of resurrection to bring back long gone but not forgotten artists. But beyond the spectacle of Denis Lyxzén’s pent up release of punk fury or Jeff Mangum’s simple and celebratory stripped-down set of Neutral Milk songs was a literal resurrection on its own.

Having braved the chaos of an At the Drive-In set (which I largely spent lifting exhausted crowd members from the thick of the pit to crowd surf to safety) I positioned myself front-and-center for Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. It was the perfect perspective to catch two artists I’ve enjoyed listening to since childhood. The memories of playground competitions of who could recite the lyrics to “Forgot About Dre” most quickly and accurately came rushing back, and when Eminem rose from the stage and burst into “Nowadays everybody wanna talk…” I sure as hell rapped along. But Coachella truly showed its colors when two electric generators descended from the rafters, bearing a slanted piece of glass between them.

After Dre and Snoop performed a truncated rendition of “California Love,” against the backdrop of the Los Angeles skyline, the lights shut off, thunder roared and the generators lit up. Then, following an already impressive list of guest appearances by Kurupt, Warren G, Wiz Khalifa, Kendrick Lamar, 50 Cent and Eminem, the one (and only?) 2Pac rose from the stage, rocking his gold chain, baggy white pants, and glowing faintly purple.

As fascinating as it was to watch an extremely detailed computer-generated hologram of the deceased Tupac Shakur onstage, I couldn’t help but wonder the implications of this performance. Dr. Dre got permission from Shakur’s mother to use his likeness, and even donated money to his charity. But where do we go from here? Can music handle these sorts of holographic performances with regularity, or will Tupac’s appearance be an isolated event? Talks of a tour and a fake Coachella poster complete with an exclusively hologram lineup which has gone viral add fuel to the fire of the possibility it could catch on.

Imagine the amount of money a Beatles tour would generate with holographic likenesses of John and George. How many stadiums could a hologram of Freddie Mercury or Kurt Cobain pack?

2Pac’s performance at Coachella raises several important questions about live music in the 21st century. For the first time, the technology to display three-dimensional likenesses of human beings is not relegated to just “Star Wars.” It is clear that we now can embrace this hologram and do just about anything we like with it.

There’s no doubt that I enjoyed seeing 2Pac onstage. It was a surreal experience to see the lifelike figure of a long-dead artist rise (literally) from the ground and address the Coachella crowd, then burst into two songs. When Snoop joined him onstage to perform “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” together, it was clear that even Tupac’s physical dimensions were accurate. I then started to ask myself whether this is really the right thing to do.

Are we, by enjoying this entirely manufactured representation of a deceased artist, in any way dishonoring his life, or are we doing the opposite? With the advent of this technology and the potential it has to create lifelike performances of lifeless artists, one could make the case that we do a disservice to the individual’s legacy by reanimating their likeness and nearly treating it as real. Tupac addressed Coachella, but they weren’t his own words. Engineers created his movements. None of what he said or did on stage was of Tupac Shakur’s actual design. An individual’s identity no longer has to die along with their body, nor does the control over it.

Coachella has once again raised the bar for music festivals across the world. It’s managed to reunite bands that everyone (band members included) thought would never play together again. This year, they took it a step further, and pushed the boundaries of what a “live” performance really is. They’ve presented the world with the question: does an artist need to be alive to perform live?

But aside from the spectacle and philosophical questioning, I’m sure the hundreds of thousands of attendees lucky enough to enjoy one of the two weekends of Coachella 2012 will agree with me when I say, I’ll be damned if it wasn’t a good time.

 

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