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Tuesday, May 6, 2003

Coachella 2003, Part Two: N*E*R*D Blows It

Editor's Note: It's a brave soul who, in 2003, is willing to venture into the no-man's-land of a "rock festival." Even a well-mannered rock fest such as the annual Coachella event. Such a soul is Neumu contributing editor Jesse Zeifman, who risked it all for the sake of journalism (and a good time). This week we're running his reports from the front lines. Enjoy.

Neumu's Jesse Zeifman reports: There are five venues on the vast Empire Polo Fields; the main and second stages and three tents, one for hip-hop and smaller indie bands, one for bigger draws, and the last, the Sahara Tent, a hangar-sized behemoth exclusively for DJs and dancing.

It's a testament to the breadth of the festival lineup, not a complaint, that no matter how detailed an itinerary you design it's impossible — unless you're like those folks who'd arrived right at 11 p.m. just to see the Beastie Boys — to catch every act you want. Of course, everyone I spoke with agreed, again lauding the organizers, that having too many choices always beats not having enough.

For me, Saturday began in the Gobi Tent with the hip-hop crew Tha Liks. They filled the stage with their members, trading rhymes among themselves and selected guests and getting the early-afternoon crowd ready for the first of two 12-hour days of music. The beats were tight, the rappers sharp and the crowd happy to be there.

I must confess it took a lot of Saturday to figure out the concert's flow. The venue's scale is so grand that even after being prepped I was still awed. That first day, though, the first taste, it was truly pleasant walking the field, uncovering surprises at every turn.

As large as the crowds got (35,000 Saturday, 33,000 Sunday) and the facilities stretched, the concert grounds only began to feel pinched when the headlining bands played towards the end of the evening. Even then, as when the Beastie Boys closed Saturday out, revelers were considerate of one another, and there was none of the bullshit pushing and shoving and other inappropriate behavior that's plagued some other large festivals. The Beasties actually stopped their set, had the audience cease crowd-surfing and asked everyone to take three steps back to give those up front some room to breathe.

Long before the Beastie Boys, however, the focus was on the main (Coachella) stage for The Donnas and then N*E*R*D. With most of the crowd still fighting at that point to get in, The Donnas' set was far less crowded than one would have expected. Even so, they played to those present, blazing through material from their latest, and were enthusiastically received.

As far as gauging crowd buzz, N*E*R*D was the first band that people left other acts to congregate for. Unfortunately, their set was one of the weekend's disappointments. Instead of taking the stage straight away, they turned things over to their accompanying band, Spymob. It was somewhat understandable cross-marketing, and Spymob, with an album of their own due, were a fine, if forgettable, rock band. When the members of N*E*R*D appeared, performing three songs off of their debut album — "Provider," "Lapdance" and "Rockstar" — trading rhymes over chunky basslines, die-hards and spectators alike were grooving excitedly.. Then, as quickly as N*E*R*D captivated, they lost it.

The band introduced their own label's latest signing, a vocalist whose name they may or may not have announced, and turned from playing their own material to playing (read: selling) his. It was a cynical, gratuitous piece of self-promotion, and the shitty music that came with it — think of Linkin Park but, if possible, worse — quickly drained the crowd's energy and patience. Their last terrible misfire was bringing out Kelly Osbourne during their final song for no other reason — she (thankfully) didn't sing — than as a celebrity show-off.

Their entire set and attitude was out of step with the event. They would have done everyone a favor by staying home, watching their own episode of "Cribs" and fondling their platinum records. Instead, they dialed it in and wasted the time of a lot of music fans who, at Coachella, have no time to waste.

I crossed the grounds again, seeking out Peanut Butter Wolf and Madlib, in the Gobi Tent, and Badly Drawn Boy, at about the same time, in the Mojave Tent. Unfortunately, being on that side of the field meant missing most of The Hives, who, from afar, sounded great, as well as Mexican electronic/rock band Kinky, whose set, for those who saw it, was a noted highlight of the weekend.

With four (potentially) great draws happening at once, I realized the Coachella philosophy suits, in the best and worst ways, our contemporary predisposition for short attention spans. It's the channel-surfing concert, and there's always something on. You'll never be bored, but you'll always, when choosing your own adventure, have to make some tough choices.

The hip-hop show was fine. At 5:30, it was about a million degrees in the tent. While the performances were OK and I love hip-hop, I'm finding live hip-hop harder to enjoy, unless it's someone really unusual, such as Buck 65, or someone totally on their game, like Talib Kweli was later in the evening. Would I ever pick Peanut Butter Wolf and Madlib over The Hives again? No way.

I was looking for something a little more upbeat and, while that wasn't going to be Badly Drawn Boy — I'd seen him a few times (each its own high-wire act) — I was curious if he had anything up his sleeve. His set may very well have been great but, with the Mojave Tent's proximity to the Sahara (dance) Tent, it was very difficult, unless the band itself was really loud, to get any sense of what you were hearing. When Damon Gough kicked off his set acoustically and I realized it was all going to sound like he was being remixed by Felix da Housecat, I headed next door to see Felix da Housecat.

Coming Wednesday: Learning To Love The Sahara Tent

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