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Wednesday, May 7, 2003

Coachella 2003, Part 3: Learning To Love The Sahara Tent

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.

Neumu's Jesse Zeifman reports: Because of Coachella's depth, the experience you have — unless you're running from place to place after a couple of songs, trying to catch everybody — depends on the dice-roll of the sets you choose. Of the people I spoke with, most felt the music on Sunday was actually better. I tend to agree with that.

There were some moments where it was clear the democracy of the event afforded people the opportunity to let certain bands know of their displeasure by voting en masse, with their feet, and moving on. This happened late Saturday when a huge crowd gathered to see Groove Armada and proceeded, after hearing just one song, to clear the tent.

One place where the energy and quality of music remained solid the entirety of both days was the cavernous Sahara Tent. Prior to Coachella, the dance tent aside from a chance to see Underworld live for the first time, had been an afterthought. I figured I'd wander in and check the novelty of the little ravers bouncing around and get the picture in about two seconds. How wrong I was.

That archetypal raver was duly represented but they certainly weren't the story. Whether it was early afternoon or late at night, there was always a positive crowd — lots dancing, lots not — and great, not-at-all generic, music from a world-class roster of DJs, any one of them a potential headliner. It was energizing to be in there and exciting sounds were constant. For some of my cohorts, those who doubted they'd spend a minute in there, it was a place that kept drawing them in, and one in which they insist they'll spend even more time next year.

As a convert, a (now) true believer in the Sahara Tent's place at Coachella, I must make one comment regarding its location. The grounds, if you can imagine, are configured in a backward L-shape. The main stage lies at the southwestern end, the second stage at the northwestern corner and the three tents line up, running east from the second stage. The two smaller tents are anchored by the Sahara, which dwarfs the others in both size and sound. After Badly Drawn Boy, I essentially gave up on artists playing the Mojave Tent, as it was impossible to hear them without distraction.

This was a drag, considering the flawless sound from the two stages and in the dance tent. At either stage, you could be 100 yards from the front and hear perfectly. Outdoors, in the wind, it didn't matter. There was no distortion. It was, for us freaks, perfectly engineered. The dance tent was the same. The moral of the "sound" story is that it would serve the smaller or quieter acts to have some distance put between them and the dance tent.

Saturday may have started with N*E*R*D's misfire but it ended strongly with Blur, the Beastie Boys, and a great set from rapper Talib Kweli.

Performing with a new lineup, after the acrimonious departure of guitarist and co-founder Graham Coxon, Blur captivated the main-stage audience just as the sun dropped behind the San Jacinto Mountains. They played a richly textured set composed of moodier material from their upcoming album, Think Tank, as well as more upbeat crowd favorites like the formerly ubiquitous "Song 2." Damon Albarn, leaving behind his Gorillaz persona, made their set one of Coachella's most substantive and satisfying.

The day's most surprising performance, at least for me, came from Talib Kweli. He's a fine rapper who's released a couple of solo records but who is best known as being Mos Def's partner in the duo, Black Star. Mos Def has developed into such a celebrity that Kweli is often overshadowed and underestimated. I wasn't expecting much more than for him to warm up the crowd for Black Eyed Peas, who are average on record, but generally much better live.

Kweli, drawing from his own work as well as Black Star's, turned in an electrifying performance. In addition to rocking his own catalog, Kweli took ownership of the Black Star material. One of the few artists who actually dared get political, Kweli hit his high point with a new freestyle about the war, the Bush Administration, and its policies. It was fiery, it was great, and Kweli feasted on the crowd's adulation, leaving Black Eyed Peas to nibble on scraps.

The Beastie Boys, playing on the West Coast for the first time in years, came out swinging. Their performance may have lacked live instruments and their flow some polish but, contrary to what I've read in such publications as the New York Times, they didn't lack energy and they weren't just going through the motions. Their DJ, Mix Master Mike, one of the best there is, took the stage first and stood, like a conductor, on a perch set back of center stage. One by one, Ad Rock, MCA and Mike D. followed and then, with the opening refrain of Hello Nasty's "Super Disco Breakin'," let it rip. They followed with a set that included "Sure Shot" and "Root Down" from Ill Communication, older fare including "Pass the Mic" and newer one-offs such as "Alive" and their protest song, released after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, "In a World Gone Mad."

Throughout the set, MMM would begin a song with its original beat and then, as one MC flowed to another, he would switch it up, spinning instrumentals of newer hits like Missy Elliot's "Work It" or NaS's "Made You Look." It was an effective device and it infused their older work — songs many of us have been listening to since we were kids — with some unexpected tension.

Without a new album, this performance was more a career retrospective — and for a lot of fans, especially those who'd never seen them before, that was enough. The only times audible voices of dissent and dissatisfaction could be heard was when the band stopped the music to use the stage to talk politics. For those who agreed with their views about the war and about the Administration, it wasn't so distracting. For others, it was an affront to their party.

By the time the Beasties closed the show with "Intergalactic," politics gave way to dancing once again and the group left the stage to cheers for more.

Coming Thursday: Ecstasy

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