Last year when it was announced that the mercurial Amy Winehouse would be playing California's Coachella festival, I thought to myself, "Yeah, right. Like that'll happen." And sure enough, my skepticism was confirmed when Amy cancelled. This year I experienced a similar reaction when I learned that classic-rock casualty Sly Stone--whose bizarre "comeback" performance at the 2006 Grammys was the biggest bomb to hit the awards show since Soy Bomb, and who has long been infamous among concert promoters for his flaky behavior--was scheduled to play Coachella's Gobi Tent on Sunday afternoon. However, this time the unreliable artist in question did manage to show up; he just arrived four hours late, in a different tent than advertised, and frankly seeming more stoned than sly.
"Sly Stone & Friends" (or, as I more fittingly dub them, "Sly Stone & Enablers") were set to play the Gobi stage at 7pm on Coachella's third day, and while I had my serious doubts about whether Sly would actually turn up, I nonetheless headed over there with high hopes and crossed fingers...just in time to hear the announcement that his gig had been postponed. I assumed "postponed" was Coachella-speak for "cancelled due to Sly going AWOL," an assumption only bolstered by the lack of any concrete follow-up news about his rescheduling. But then, around 11pm when I checked my Twitter, I saw a flood of frantic tweets that indicated I better hightail it over to the nearby Mojave Tent to see what was going down. Sly had in fact showed up after all, and he was on the Mojave stage apparently acting loopier than the most spaced-out, glowstick-waving rave kid on the Coachella field.
When I arrived at the Mojave Tent--which was only a quarter-full, either due to a lack of word of mouth or concertgoers' understandable disbelief that Sly had actually showed up--the onetime legend appeared to be nodding out behind his keyboard, wearing a Village People-style cop uniform and a mop wig that actually looked like a real mop. He was ranting unintelligibly about some lawsuit involving his former manager that had allegedly left him penniless. His many bandmates/enablers, wearing creepy forced grins and jamming away as funkily as they could despite their supposed leader's lack of cooperation or coherence, kept propping him up like the titular character in Weekend At Bernie's. Occasionally Sly jolted out of his funk (no pun intended) to make up new nonsense lyrics to his mangled classic songs or lie down on the stage floor; his disoriented and disturbing behavior made even the sandbox-era antics of fellow rock recluse/eccentric Brian Wilson look downright sane. Eventually Sly wandered offstage midway through "(I Want To Take You) Higher" and drifted like an escaped mental patient into audience, where he was besieged by flipcam-wielding lookie-loos before heading backstage. Security personnel then attempted to coax him back to his keyboard, but he refused, and the perma-grinning band, a sort of dysfunctional Family Stone, just kept on playing as if they hadn't even noticed he'd left. Honestly, Sly's absence made no difference to the concert's audio, since he hadn't been contributing at all musically anyway.
At first this trainwreck seemed amusing, but in the end it was a truly sad spectacle. I'm not sure if Sly just accepted this paying gig because he needed money to fund his aforementioned lawsuit, but whatever the reason was, it was obvious he was a mere shell of his former funky self and should never have been permitted to perform at Coachella in such a state. Shame on the festival organizers, and/or his handlers, for allowing this to happen.
Thankfully, Coachella's third day featured many shows that went more smoothly. The highlight had to be the main stage headliners, Damon Albarn's cartoon band Gorillaz, who eschewed the cheap constant-looped Hanna-Barbera-style graphics of their first disappointing tour in 2001 and went totally 3D for this new extravaganza. Backed by a string orchestra and accompanied by soul legend Bobby Womack, Little Dragon's fetching frontwoman Yukimi Nagano, old-school rap pack De La Soul, Mick Jones of the Clash, and a filmed intro by Snoop Dogg, the once-2D band finally came to vivid life as a flesh-and-blood, not ink-and-paper, production.
Also on the main stage, one of Coachella 2010's biggest reunion acts, '90s demi-gods Pavement, shed their reputation of being lackadaisical, lazy Generation X alt-rockers by playing a stunningly tight and energetic set of grungy hits. I'd kind of forgotten how many Pavement songs I knew and liked, but I must say, the live versions of "Stereo," "Shady Lane," and "Cut Your Hair" sounded better in 2010 than they ever did back in the day. In a Sunday lineup that included fellow '90s alterna-icons Sunny Day Real Estate and Yo La Tengo, Pavement were definitely the most current and the most cool.
Speaking of '90s icons, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, joined by Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea in the new Yorke project Atoms For Peace, magnificently headlined the second stage, playing some acoustic Radiohead songs plus cuts from his solo album Eraser--while none other than Friday's Coachella performers, Jay-Z and Beyoncé, flanked by security staff, looked on. And over in the dance-centric Sahara Tent, recently reunited British techno duo Orbital headlined while excited spectators simultaneously hurled hundreds of glowsticks into the air in salute.
As for newer artists, possibly THE breakout act of Coachella 2010 was Britain's Florence & The Machine, whose eponymous firebrand Florence Welch was a true rock goddess with her bat-sleeved Stevie Nicks caftan, Cyndi Lauper tresses, and Siouxsie Sioux vocals--in short, she was an amalgam of every cool rock chick you might imagine. It was mind-boggling that the Machine were playing in the intimate Gobi Tent, Coachella's smallest stage; the overspilling crowd they drew could have filled the space three times over. They should have been moved to a larger venue, given their ever-growing Stateside buzz. But Florence & The Machine are already headlining festivals overseas, and at this rate, it won't be long before they're doing the same over here.
Other awesome it-girls rocking Coachella Sunday were English indie-disco pixie Little Boots--who barely made it to America due to volcanic-cloud-related flight delays, and who consequently had to perform without her missing-in-action crew or wardrobe--and Beck-affiliated chanteuse Charlotte Gainsbourg (daughter of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg), who charmed the crowd during her first Coachella appearance with her purring French-accented vocals and humble demeanor. "This is my first year, my first tour, my first everything!" Charlotte cooed nervously, as the boys in the audience swooned.
Meanwhile, the ladies were swooning for hunky Strokes singer Julian Casablancas, who played a solo set in the Mojave Tent, looking a true New Yorker seemingly impervious to the Cali desert heat in his black leather biker jacket. Songs from Julian's excellent solo debut Phrazes For The Young were well-received by the crowd, but it was an unexpected Strokes classic, "Hard To Explain," that unsurprisingly generated the most enthusiastic response. (Note to Strokes: It's been four years since Last Band On Earth. There are a lot of people out there waiting for your comeback. Get your next album out by Coachella 2011!) Another treat was Julian's funny, viral cover of the SNL holiday carol "I Wish It Was Christmas Today," although such a seasonal song seemed a little inappropriate given the 90-degree heat.
And finally, when it was initially announced that Sly Stone's 7pm set was postponed, perhaps indefinitely, French indie-pop band Phoenix came to the rescue, rocking the second stage in earnest in the same timeslot. Phoenix were almost no-shows themselves, as they too encountered travel difficulties due to the volcanic cloud hovering over northern Europe. But thankfully they made it to Coachella safe and sound, and their ensuing sunset set was one giant feelgood singalong, as the entire field belted out the quirky lyrics to "Listomania" and "1901" in earnest.
Obviously for Phoenix, it was well worth the trip. And what a long, strange trip Coachella 2010 was.
Additional reporting by Don Andrews Jr.
All photos except Sly Stone by Mike Orlosky. For more of Mike's Coachella pics, click HERE.
Sly Stone photo by Lina Lecaro