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Thursday, May 8, 2003

Coachella 2003, Part 4: Ecstasy

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: Sunday, April 27 — Day two began with a different strategy. Instead of leaving things completely to chance, I used the master lineup to scrawl an itinerary of must-sees:

1:00 PM — FC Kahuna
1:35 PM — The Soundtrack of Our Lives
2:35 PM — The Polyphonic Spree
4:05 PM — Tortoise, Timo Maas
5:10 PM — Sonic Youth
5:40 PM — Libertines
6:30 PM — T.B.A. (the weekend's big mystery and, when revealed, biggest shrug)
7:40 PM — The White Stripes
8:35 PM — Underworld

Then a juggle of El-P and the Def Jux crew, Iggy and the Stooges, and Interpol.

We set out earlier on Sunday so as to avoid the mayhem that greeted those arriving after noon the day before. Once in line, it appeared all the problems from the day before had been ironed out. We moved quickly and were on the grounds in less than five minutes.

We saw the beginning of British DJs/producers FC Kahuna, who started late, and sounded good. Like their album, Machine Says Yes, they moved from big crunchy Chemical Brothers-like beats to housey stuff. Would have liked to stay, but for the impending arrival, on the main stage, of Soundtrack of Our Lives.

The entire first day it seemed as if people I spoke with were searching for a spark, looking to be moved, to find their revelation. That's a tough expectation to begin with. However, with something like Coachella, some surprises are what gets people going the most, fair or not — that instant buzz of having seen something special. A lot of quality music was heard on Saturday, yet people were still thirsting for something unexpected.

Soundtrack came out and just killed it. They rocked like their guitarist had been air-guitaring since he was a baby in the playpen. As if he had known, from moment one, that guitar was his calling. He had all the moves, the leaps, the twirls, the Chuck Berry hops. All of this would have meant nothing had he and the rest of the band not completely backed their style with a shit-load of substance. Playing selections from their latest, Behind the Music, they reflected its swagger but replaced its recorded sheen with an edge that served them well.

As far as swagger goes, I'm not sure if anybody at Coachella could beat Soundtrack's frontman, Ebbot Lundberg. At 1:35 in the afternoon, in the searing desert heat, the guy was dressed in a black head-to-toe frock that would have melted mere mortals. He played it off like temperature was up to him. His cool drove the crowd into a writhing frenzy. He had people sitting down, standing up, those stage right cheering one way, those stage left another. Putty in his hands, we were, and loving it.

Soundtrack were a great example of why, sometimes, it's not enough to stay home and listen to the record. There are a lot of acts who perform faithful renditions of their recorded works. They sound great in-person and also fail to justify the hassle of seeing them live rather than just pumping the home stereo to 10. Something different needs to happen to make it magical.

At the end of their set, which could have gone on all day and no one would have minded, I turned to a friend, one who would admit he's far less outwardly sensitive than some of us guys, and he had tears in his eyes. Fucking tears in his eyes. He had been transported. It was incredible. He was staring, smiling, crying, completely permeated by what he'd just seen and heard.

For others, that transformative moment was about to come. There had been a lot of wonder about the Polyphonic Spree, their numbers (24 strong) and their dress (white robes for all) but none of us knew what to expect. It's impossible to hear every unknown band after the lineup's announced. Besides, for an anomaly like the Polyphonic Spree, I was more interested in seeing them live first.

The gang ambled on stage and took their spots — next to the harp, on the French horn/flute/viola/trumpet, or where the chorus of men and women filled a tri-level platform — and then their lead singer, Tim DeLaughter, formerly of Tripping Daisy, got it going.

While neither my friends nor I had ever heard this band, it took about 10 seconds for all of us to feel, in the best way possible, that we'd been listening to the Polyphonic Spree forever. A band that's only existed for a couple of years has crafted the perfect pop. Mixing giant orchestral sounds of late-period Beatles with the verve and joy of the Flaming Lips, the music with which the Spree greeted us created a scene of giddy pandemonium.

As they played material from their debut, The Beginning Stages of...The Polyphonic Spree (essentially a demo produced in a couple of days and later released on Dallas label, Good Records), the crowd was utterly seduced.

DeLaughter has a lot of that infectious Wayne Coyne charisma, not only conducting the band but the crowd from the stage. Lots of supportive hoots and hollers. He's appropriately credited in the album's liner notes, aside from vocals and guitar, as being responsible for, "arm waving." With a voice echoing Coyne's endearing raspiness, he sounds a little like him too.

I was mesmerized by the happiness emitted from a stage crowded with two dozen robed musicians. As much as people were dancing and moving in the audience, the band rocked harder. Have you ever seen a harp player rock before? I hadn't either. The chorus shook and danced, and DeLaughter bounced around the stage, and by the end of their set we were all best friends with the Polyphonic Spree.

At that point, feeling like I had been somehow changed, I looked at another usually low-key companion and he looked at me, as the other had earlier, with tears in his eyes. Quite soon after that, one of the more naturally exuberant fellows in the group came bounding from the front and declared that, "that was the best thing I've ever seen!" He's since bought tickets to the Field Day Festival in New York, in large part to see them again, as well as ducats to a mid-June performance at The Cat's Cradle, in Carrboro, N.C.

I think I'm going too. By the way, where's Carrboro?

Coming Friday: The "Born Slippy Moment"

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