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Coachella 2013: Weekend 2 trumps first festival

Coachella 2013: Weekend 2 wins

Descendents

Miles Aukerman and Karl Alvarez of Descendents. Photo: David Hall, for the Register. Click for more.

Last year, when the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival decided to replicate itself across two weekends for the first time, the instant replay proved a bit of a drag. Not bad, just blasé, especially after so many bands had warmed the first weekend's misty chill with glowing performances.

This year it's been the opposite: The first weekend still had crummy weather – Sandstorm Sunday will live long in fest lore – but as of Sunday afternoon the second go-'round has been markedly better, outshining all but a few highlights from the previous bash.

Why so?

Fewer celebrities and scenesters. Insufferable cooler-than-thou hipsters come with the territory here, but the truly annoying types – the rich kids who come to Coachella merely to say they went, famous faces who complain about paparazzi only to turn around and bait them – well, they were a lot harder to find during Weekend 2.

Genuine musicians seeking out great stuff could still be spotted, be it producer Danger Mouse reveling along to the psych-rock and Beatles references of Portugal. The Man or rapper Talib Kweli checking out Record Store Day exclusives in the boutique tents.

But the TMZ fodder that clogs more than just VIP was gratefully lessened – it's clearly more important to be seen during Weekend 1. And the posers who only come to party either stuck to the Sahara dance tent or concluded that better times were being had poolside off-site.

Smaller crowds = better crowds. Here's a theory: Loads of people bought Weekend 2 wristbands strictly intending to resell – and when the time came to unload them, no one was buying. By the time gates opened Friday, prices on secondhand websites had dropped to $100-$150; by Saturday you could get into VIP for less than double that.

Had the Stones or Daft Punk been on the bill, this wouldn't have happened, and the field would have felt as densely packed as it did last weekend. Instead, word spread that this was a good-not-great year and attendance appears to have dropped.

Phoenix, the Postal Service, 2 Chainz, Of Monsters and Men – they still drew the biggest crowds, just not as hugely as previously. The upshot: Those who braved the heat for the replay predominantly came for the music, not to wait around for surprises or get tanked in the beer garden.

Relaxed bands = better bands. Damon Albarn pointed it out Friday night after a more roaring opening than Blur managed last week: "We've 'climatized." Accustomed to gray, rainy skies, much of this year's Brit-heavy roster needed a trial run, using the first weekend to adjust to high temps and dusty air. But they weren't the only ones for whom the edge came off the second time around.

Tegan and Sara admitted to feeling free of nerves produced by the glare of the opening fest, when media attention is at a fever pitch and most sets stream online to even larger audiences at home. Others, like Brian King, the Jack White of garage-rock duo Japandroids, were determined to outdo themselves: "We had a helluva time last weekend," he said, breaking a string on the first song, "but we're gonna top that this time."

That prevailing attitude swept over everyone. Better aware of where to go and what they'll face, acts across the board achieved that rare loose-but-tight feel: a vastly improved Modest Mouse on Friday, a radiant turn from Bat for Lashes on Saturday, fierceness from Franz Ferdinand, Hot Chip and Local Natives improving on already great sets.

Less manufactured moments. Sure, it was ... interesting to see R. Kelly with Phoenix during the French band's appearance last weekend, but not satisfying and far from spontaneous. The stampeding reaction to the Daft Punk commercial at sundown on the first Friday (didn't happen again, by the way) was instantaneous, yes – but those phasers had been set to stun all along.

Weekend 2 had sights no one could have seen coming, despite another whispered surprise: reunited emo-rockers Fall Out Boy joining rapper 2 Chainz's set. Nicki Minaj showing up for "Beez in the Trap" would have been preferable. Those who saw the collaboration on their single "My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark" tell me the cameo bewildered more than impressed.

But there were inspired turns that couldn't have happened elsewhere, like Celtic punks Dropkick Murphys on the main stage Saturday afternoon, saluting their hometown of Boston a day after the surviving marathon bombing suspect was apprehended. It was the last set of a tour that began in January before flying back to Beantown, and the fervency in their playing matched the poignancy in their yearning to be with loved ones.

Add to that some random acts of lunacy, like when Queens rhymer Action Bronson reportedly tossed out vials of medicinal marijuana during his afternoon spot at the Outdoor Theatre a couple hours ahead of 4:20 on 4/20. On the more inane side, there was New Order inviting a couple of fans dressed as wrestler the Ultimate Warrior and his similarly clad bimbo to dance around the Mojave stage during "Blue Monday."

New Order

New Order's Bernard Sumner in the Mojave tent. Photo: David Hall, for the Register

Legends roar. Above all, there were two frenetic performances I missed entirely last week: Friday night fury from Nick Cave's other band, Grinderman, and Saturday night slamming with veteran South Bay punk group Descendents.

The Bad Seeds' alter ego garnered more people this time, likely thanks to word of mouth after scorched-earth sets last weekend, or perhaps because they were no longer opposite Blur. But neither those Aussies or our more local heroes drew immensely. The low turnout for Descendents was a given, of course, considering both the genre (punk has always been on the fringe here) and that they were up against the pearl of the fest, the Postal Service.

Yet both outfits expertly executed sets teeming with unbridled ferocity. Milo Aukerman & Co. deftly reasserted themselves as one of the mightiest and most influential punk bands of the past three decades, tearing through one absurdly melodic rant after another with lightning speed and spot-on precision.

And at Grinderman, once photographers cleared out after a lone number, Cave flung his guitar off, letting it crash onto the Mojave stage as he darted to the barrier to holler into the faces of fans. His raw power never let up, the singer at times almost tackling cohort Warren Ellis, at others whacking his microphone off his stand with the headstock of his Fender.

An enthusiastic crowd stuck around, and scored a Mojave rarity: an encore.

(New Order, whose set I saw most of this weekend instead of Phoenix's, merits mentioning as well, though I suspect George Paul will have more to say about that. For me, regardless of the joy I felt hearing personal fave "Love Vigilantes," the set really didn't hit its stride until "Bizarre Love Triangle" and "True Faith" ... by which time I was starting to wonder how Sigur Ros sounded, and realizing that nothing about New Order's set here was having the same impact as it did so magnificently last October at the Greek Theatre.)

The vibe has returned. Last week I lamented that Coachella as I've loved her since 1999 might finally have vanished, cluttered by partying out of proportion and clusters of people (famous and not) angling to be seen, rather than to observe and absorb.

But I forgot to tell you about a faith-restoring thing I saw last Sunday.

It was nightfall. I'm in the usual stage-right corner where you can always find a fairly close place to stand. Vampire Weekend's doing "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa," delighting despite the heavy gusts. And I realize I'm surrounded by devil-may-care strangers all swirling and twirling away.

Suddenly the wind blew a white dandelion out of the crown of flowers atop the young woman in front of me, who kept right on dancing, oblivious. The woman to my right, bouncing in place in a just-purchased festival hoodie to keep warm, took notice. She picked up the dandelion, tapped its owner on the shoulder and handed it back.

They couldn't possibly hear each other say anything. Just shared sweet smiles, as if to say: "Gee, what a frivolously unnecessary thing to do. Thank you."

At that moment I knew my Coachella would never be gone, no matter how much grumbling she might have merited last weekend. How glorious, then, to come right back to find her in the same shabby, misshapen dress, more weathered than usual, yet looking lovely as ever.


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