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Friday, May 9, 2003

Coachella 2003, Part 5: The 'Born Slippy Moment'

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've been running his reports from the front lines. Today, the final report.

Neumu's Jesse Zeifman reports: For a while after the one-two punch of Soundtrack of Our Lives and the Polyphonic Spree it was hard to believe we'd come close to another comparable high. Unbeknownst to me, however, there was one final moment of unequivocal euphoria pending.

Strangely, after the Spree took leave, it was just four o'clock and there was still two thirds of the day to go. Tortoise, as excited as I'd been to see them, got a walk-by as soon as their mellow soundscapes began. They sounded like I'd hoped, but it was impossible for them to follow what had been one of the most exhilarating live music experiences of my life.

The alternative, after also not grooving to the Mars Volta, became the one place where it was off the hook for 48 hours straight: The Sahara Tent. Saw a little Timo Maas and, very soon after, it was time to return to the main stage for Sonic Youth.

I don't really have much to say about that. They were solid, sort of passive, a bit too New York cool. Again, it could have been the state of mind and trajectory that Soundtrack and the Spree had shot me into, but most of their set was observed while catching a breather in the beer garden.

With a prominently placed "question mark" on the Coachella website, Goldenvoice hatched a mystery leading up to the festival about who their "Featured Artist" would be. Rumors were rampant that Radiohead, after not appearing on the bill, were indeed going to make an appearance. Others thought Zwan. Some mentioned DJ Z-Trip. Theories abounded, and when the T.B.A. spot was upon us — in the venue's smallest tent no less — we had to go check it out. The place was packed and, on stage, instead of instruments, there was only a set of Technics. Ah, Z-Trip. People were stoked. And, as we all learned a minute later, wrong. The "Featured Artist" slot was filled with a DJ set from Perry Farrell. Cool, but the White Stripes were coming up next.

The Stripes, drawing heavily from their latest, Elephant, played in a way that left a lot of people wondering how two people can make so much wonderful noise. Jack and Meg White looked small, facing one another, on that enormous stage. But their barrage of evolved garage-y rock, beginning with "Seven Nation Army," was unstoppable. Another highlight was "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" from their last album, and then later, after switching gears, "Jolene," a Dolly Parton cover. The Stripes, a relatively young band, playing in front of many of the 33,000 who'd arrived by nightfall, showed few jitters.

There was an acute lack of cynicism present, among artists and fans, the entire weekend. For the most part, bands were just really happy to be there and thankful that folks, with so many choices, turned out for them. People weren't approaching the White Stripes' performance looking for them to fail, but it seems some critics were. "Could they handle the pressure? Blah, blah, blah." Why write about music if bitchy and doubting is your stance? It was clear that the Stripes came to play. They were tough as hell and they made a lot of new fans.

The second they finished, with no time to reflect, we were on the move again. Underworld were already on, and we needed to be there. After a race across the Empire Polo Field and into the Sahara Tent, which was nearly filled to its 10,000-person capacity, there was to be a final moment of incomprehensible ebullience.

As I understand, our tardy arrival landed us about 30 minutes into their set. The place was already mad with gesticulating bodies, and it didn't take long for Underworld to deliver their ultimate anthem, "Born Slippy," which, when performed live, sneaks up on you.

In the midst of a set of faster driving beats and breaks, there is — very suddenly — the familiar reverberating synth wash which, as soon as it works its way out of the speakers, heats the crowd from elated to frenzied. The place was throbbing with sound, lights were flashing and asses shaking and heads bobbing and there were spontaneous hugs and acknowledgments by those present that everyone at once was opening themselves up to something larger. I know, it sounds dramatic. It was.

During the height of raves, years ago, when they were still relatively underground and non-commercial, friends of mine would explain how you could be thrown into an altered state (not necessarily with drugs) just by being on the dance floor. I tried a few out and didn't get it. It seemed contrived and forced and the little ravers and their candy necklaces were irritating. I didn't mind the music but the scene was too over the top.

This moment, the "Born Slippy Moment," was over the top as well. We had all hoped for it to happen, so maybe that even made it contrived. It still managed to sum up the entire festival and the Coachella experience. The music was fantastic, the sound exquisite. People were full of joy and, just the same, full of respect. Although it would have been more shocking had they not played it, the song still came out of nowhere.

That moment cost us Iggy and most of El-P and, when it was over, I was too tired for Interpol. None of it mattered. Maybe there was magic to be found in the hip-hop tent and maybe Iggy took people back to his raucous glory and maybe Interpol were going to play the greatest set of all time. How many transcendent moments can one ask for? How many friendships can an event like this help forge? How many wounds can music heal?

Everyone present at Coachella has their answers. And I have my own. They'll stay with me until next April when we discover it all together again.

(This one's for the team: Skip, Shawn, Hammock, Yvette, Chey, Mary Kay, the Jens, Marissa, Marcus, DP, and the man already on his way to Carrboro, N.C., Anth.)

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