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COACHELLA ’08: Partying Like It’s 1999 On Saturday

Lyndsey Parker
Maximum Performance

Coachella is becoming more and more party-centric, with unofficial hipster soirees offering a refreshing alternative (and a refreshing selection of complimentary cocktails) to those who'd prefer not hit the actual festival before sundown. So Saturday at Coachella actually kicked off for me 17 miles away from the festival grounds, in Cathedral City, at Anthem magazine's "La Fiesta de Fiestas."

As the Anthem invitation so tastefully worded it, "Keep in mind it's a pool party, so be prepared as it's not a stand-around-the-pool-looking-like-a-d**chebag kind of party." Well, La Fiesta de Fiestas was a muy caliente bash indeed, complete with Wet 'N' Wild pedicures, wild bikini dancers, drunk-diving contests, a Mexican buffet, churros...and a burro.

Yes, people: a real live burro. And you know it's a hot party when a donkey shows up!

So after a few poolside churros and the four-legged photo opp of a lifetime, it was time to head to the actual fest. First up on the second stage was this year's token country artist, Dwight Yoakam (last year it was Willie Nelson),

entertaining the mixed masses with a covers-heavy set that included Johnny Cash's "Ring Of Fire," Elvis Presley's "Little Sister," and Ricky Nelson's "Can't Please Everyone." Meanwhile, over in the danceteria known as the Sahara Tent, British disco duo Hot Chip performed a note-perfect rendition of New Order's "Temptation." (Spoiler alert: These would not be the last cover tunes I'd hear today...)

Over on the main stage, Death Cab For Cutie played a pleasant but ultimately underwhelming set. (Sure, they were once Seth from The OC's favorite band , but keep in mind Seth was a fictional character--I like DC4C enough, but it's hard for me to understand how any real-life, flesh-and-blood person could be that passionate about such a bland band.)

DC4C were followed on the main stage by Teutonic technoid pioneers Kraftwerk, whose song "Computer Love" might have been mistaken for a cover of Coldplay's "Talk" (Coldplay sampled the Kraftwerk original, you see). Unfortunately, the German robot-rockers' usual amazing audiovisual spectacular was sort of lost in such a sprawling venue. The 'Werk would have been better off returning to the Sahara Tent, where they played a legendary headlining set at Coachella 2004.

Speaking of the Sahara Tent, that's where Sri Lankan-born, British-bred electro-agitator M.I.A. played next...and for a moment she seemed truly poised for greatness, as the crowd was at first eating out of her fingerless-gloved hand. M.I.A., who until recently had been unable to secure a U.S. visa for mysterious reasons, first played Coachella in 2005, giving a quite literally "stinging" performance when the Gobi Tent filled with swarms of bees midway through her set, causing her audience to momentarily flee in terror. But to M.I.A.'s credit, the minute the yellowjackets dissipated, the fans returned to watch the rest of her set. Sadly, that was not the case for M.I.A. this time. She invited eager concertgoers to hop onstage for one song, after which technical difficulties ensued (perhaps one of the stage-crashers unplugged a cable or something?), and she never completely got her groove back after that. She totally lost her mojo, and even forgot the words to her current hit "Paper Planes." Punters subsequently started streaming out of the tent--and when people leave in the middle of an artist's biggest single, that's a bad sign...especially when they were willing to brave swarms of bees for said artist not too long ago.

Back on the second stage was Mark Ronson, the man responsible for producing another controversial British female with troubles obtaining a U.S. visa, Amy Winehouse. Mark was there to play his songs from his covers album Versions, a set that would include advertised "special guests." Well, Amy wasn't one of those guests (I seriously doubted she would be, anyway, since she rarely even shows up to her own gigs...but then news of her recent London arrest totally put the kibosh on any Amy-appearance rumors). However, this show was still an indie-allstar affair, featuring rucksack-rapper Rhymefest on "Ooo Wee"; British blue-eyed soulman Sam Sparro on "Black And Gold"; Neptunes/Ashlee Simpson-affiliated, scaffold-climbing electro-hopper Kenna on the Ryan Adams cover "Amy" (secretly dedicated to Winehouse, maybe?) and a version of Radiohead's "Just" (not the last Radiohead cover I'd hear tonight, hint hint); Charlie Waller of U.K. buzz band the Rumble Strips filling in for Amy Winehouse on a male-POV interpretation of "Back To Black" (which Mark claimed was better than Amy's original); Ricky Wilson from the Kaiser Chiefs ironically stepping into the Lily Allen role on Lily's version of the Kaiser Chiefs' own song "Oh My God"; Tim Burgess of the Charlatans U.K. singing the Charlatans classic "The Only One I Know"; and Jamie Reynolds of the Klaxons taking over lead vocals on Mark's famous Smiths cover, "Stop Me."

It was definitely the best set of Saturday...until Prince played, of course. But more on that later...

Prior to Prince, reunited trip-hop twosome Portishead hit the main stage. Now, I must admit that I wasn't too excited about these guys at first. See, I remembered them being a little dull, a little too wine-bar, a little too much like a band whose CD would be available for impulse purchase at the Starbucks checkout. Well, I was wrong. I had NO idea that Portishead could be so sinister, so deliciously evil-sounding, or that brittle chanteuse Beth Gibbons was so sexy in such a weathered, Catherine Keener-ish sort of way.

As their music screeched and squawked across the pitch-black desert field, the howl of the wind through the silhouetted palm trees blending with Beth's own mournful howl, while the band's backlit-shadowed members appeared in scratchy, pixilated black-and-white on the jumbo video screens...well, this was some heady, powerfully creepy stuff. The only thing that broke Portishead's spell was when I turned around and spotted Nicole Richie and Joel Madden standing behind me.

But of course all of this--the allstar Ronson revue, the Portishead comeback, the Ritchie-Maddens, the burro--had been leading up to tonight's main event: PRINCE. His Purple Majesty had long been rumored to play Coachella, and finally this year, he was added to the bill at the last minute to presumably boost lackluster ticket sales. Someday our Prince would come, and finally, that someday was today. Ever the diva, he emerged on the main stage 20 minutes after his advertised set time, but after having fans wait for him during years of unfounded Coachella rumors, what was 20 more minutes, right? And he was well worth the wait.

"Coachella, I am here!" Prince declared as he strutted up to the mic in his spotless snow-white suit. (His first outfit, before he changed into a Big Bird-yellow ensemble.) And then he did something rather un-diva-like: He dedicated the first 15 or so minutes of his show to some of his old cronies. It was a sort of "Prince & Friends" extravaganza, if you will. First, Morris Day and the Time shockingly came out and did "The Bird" and "Jungle Love" (which made me so very, very happy, since Prince and the Time disappointingly didn't perform together when they both appeared at the Grammys this year). And then Sheila E. materialized behind the drum kit, singing "The Glamorous Life." I couldn't believe my eyes nor my ears. What could possibly be next? Surprise cameos from Appollonia, Vanity, the Family, Carmen Electra, Wendy & Lisa, Tevin Campbell, or Sheena Easton, perhaps?

Well, that didn't happen--although Prince did play a Sheena-less version of their old duet, "U Got The Look," later in the night. But already with the first three songs of his set, Prince had totally upstaged Mark Ronson's celebrity-guest show.

He also had Mark beat in the cover-songs department, playing two completely unexpected tunes: the Beatles' "Come Together" and, even more astoundingly, Radiohead's "Creep." The latter was transformed into such a wonderfully Princely soul ballad, he really ought to record it and release it commercially; if he did, I'd be willing to bet my hard-earned Yahoo! paycheck it'd be a hit.

Of course, Prince played a good number of his own hits, never seeming the least bit jaded or unwilling to crank them out yet again, despite the fact that he's performed them countless times over the past two or three decades. Among the highlights were "1999," "Controversy," "Little Red Corvette" (with its very fitting line about "Saturday night"), "Cream," "Anotherloverholenyohead," "7," and even his 1979 song later made famous by Chaka Khan, "I Feel For You."

And his encore was the double-wallop of "Purple Rain" and "Let's Go Crazy"--it doesn't get any better than that, people.

Sure, there were a jillion other songs the Artist Currently Known As Prince could have played: "When Doves Cry," "Kiss," and "Raspberry Beret" were all conspicuously absent from the setlist, for instance. But hey, he did a rad Radiohead cover, he reunited with the Time and Sheila E., he rocked for two hours (waaaay past the regular Coachella curfew), and he didn't play "Batdance." So there's no way I can complain here. Prince's set will, without a doubt, go down as one of the greatest concerts in Coachella history. Thank the Goldenvoice gods for adding him to the 2008 bill.

I honestly don't know how anything's going to top this...but I'll be back at Coachella on Sunday, seeing if Roger Waters is up to the task. In the meantime, check out the live webcast and highlights after the festival exclusively in the AT&T blue room. And for more info on Coachella, click here for the official site.

All live photos by Mike Orlosky. For more of his Coachella pics, click here.

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