Live Review: Winter Jazzfest 2018

It’s another cold January in NYC, but the Winter Jazzfest keeps rolling along. In spite of, or perhaps thanks to, previous missteps, the WJF has endured its growing pains and evolved into a dynamic festival with a wide range of music from accomplished artists young and old. While New York City hosts plenty of jazz 365 days a year, the WJF brings together progressive musicians and multi-generational audiences while staying ahead of the curve on issues like racial justice and gender equality, and continues to illuminate the purpose and place of social protest and civic activism within the arts.

The 2018 festival allowed for a dozen different performance spaces to showcase more than 130 groups burgeoning with talent. This year’s artist-in-residence, Nicole Mitchell, was an insightful choice, and the flautist/composer/bandleader performed several times with different ensembles over the course of this week. The festival also featured all-star tribute concerts celebrating the memory of beloved musicians Geri Allen and Alice Coltrane.

With each venue hosting several groups playing hour-long sets, it was a joyful challenge to pick and choose how to spend your time. Singer José James brought his Bill Withers project to Le Poisson Rouge and seduced the audience with his old-school set. As much fun as it was hearing those soulful classics performed by such a gifted singer, you can imagine James ultimately feeling trapped by such familiar material.

One of the standout performers was undoubtedly singer Jazzmeia Horn, who was powerfully engaging at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium. Drawing material from her album A Social Call, Horn showed poise and chops beyond her years, and she’s clearly one to watch. Ace guitarist Marc Ribot threw a pleasant curveball, performing “Songs Of Resistance” on acoustic guitar and singing his plainspoken social protest in a flat-but-not-inexpressive voice. As with many of the artists at the fest, the unwelcome presence of Donald Trump found its way into Ribot’s bold commentary.

Serving the past, the present and the future, 93-year-old saxophonist Marshall Allen directed the perennial Sun Ra Arkestra as they performed a live score to accompany oddball film Space Is The Place. The 1972 movie starring Sun Ra is corny, cosmic and absurd, but Ra’s vaunted Afrofuturism is not without the timely, ongoing message that black lives do indeed matter. Study up.

Veterans of the old Black Rock Coalition also populated the fest, including bassist Melvin Gibbs, guitarist Brandon Ross and drummer J.T. Lewis in their band Harriet Tubman. Augmented with several additional players, the power trio turned into a “double quartet” with two bassists, two drummers, two saxophonists, guitar and trumpet. By design, the sprawling ensemble tackled the landmark Ornette Coleman performance/composition/collective improvisation from his iconic 1961 album Free Jazz. The results were mixed, but the concept, effort and commitment were still appreciated. Ornette lives!

Far more satisfying was a late-night gig by Jamaaldeen Tacuma’s Brotherzone. In this incarnation, Brotherzone reunited bassist extraordinaire Tacuma with veteran funk/rock guitarist Ronny Drayton and drummer Darryl Burgee. The show at Subculture didn’t start until 1:30 a.m. and featured some special friends, specifically spoken-word soothsayer and original member of the Last Poets Abiodun Oyewole and Last Poets percussionist Baba Donn Babatunde, as well as Brotherzone’s own poet, Wadud Ahmad. With Tacuma’s super bass and Drayton’s keening guitar bringing extra funk to Oyewole’s urgent observations, all was right with the world—and the Winter Jazzfest.

Looking forward to WJF’s closing show tomorrow night featuring progressive indie outliers Deerhoof with their veteran free-jazz trumpeter buddy, the most esteemed Waddada Leo Smith. Consider that one.

—Mitch Myers

Live Review: Totorro, Paris, France, Nov. 28, 2017

With guitars skipping and hopping like a scat improv, instrumental French quartet Totorro leaps from one motif to the next, in the playful manner of a festive Poster Children—no, perhaps a more muscular fIREHOSE—wait, a Giraffes? Giraffes! with less pronounced ADHD. Each song is exhilarating and bouncy, a rollercoaster thrill ride but with no real danger. The twists and turns shoot off in every direction, yet with a precision that reassures the sonically queasy.

Tonight there is, we are told, reason to celebrate. This gig is the band’s 100th—of the year? ever?—so the group raises champagne glasses in its own honor. Bassist Xavier Rosé confers dime-store medals onto individual crowd members as if emceeing a children’s party. The laureates accept their awards with mock reverence. A cardboard cactus backdrop (a visual allusion to the group’s frisky Come To Mexico from 2016) bestows a fun-in-the-sun vibe to the proceedings.

“Brocolissimo” and “Saveur Cheveux” are lively and silly and carefree jaunts through indie, math and post-rock. Set highlight “Gérard Blast” burts with a sweaty vigor; its dramatic stops, pregnant pauses, delirious divergences throw the crowd into a friendly frenzy. Like cartoonist Al Jaffee’s Mad magazine fold-ins, the performance spirals and coils and spins back onto itself. Its lighthearted touch thumbs a proverbial nose at post-rock’s staid anti-conventional conventions.

The group’s qualities are manifest: humor, creativity, energy, excitement. And yet, as with satirist Jaffee, its greatest value may be its ability to diffuse post-rock of its—Rosé takes a hearty and ironic swig of champagne, pinkie akimbo, before asking the house to dial down the strobe lights, preferring to forego their—insufferable pretensions.

—Eric Bensel

Live Review: Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival, 2017

For the past 11 years, Columbia, Mo.’s Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival has been the crown jewel in the town’s art, music and culinary scenes. Stephens Lake Park, a stone’s toss from the picturesque campus of the University of Missouri, set the scene with two impeccably outfitted stages, the Great Southern Bank Stage resourcing the natural amphitheater of the rolling hills on that side of town, and the Missouri Lottery Stage a few hundred yards away at the end of an effervescent trail of food trucks and trailers and pop-up tents selling local fare from the sublime to the ridiculous—sporting craft vendors, delectable local craft brews, even mats made of recycled materials for your lawn-seating comfort. A unique take on the common music festival, and we haven’t even gotten to the musical talent or the endless sunshine, the entire weekend a veritable Bob Ross painting of perfect weather.

Friday afternoon jumpstarted with the dual opening salvo of local’s Paul Weber & The Scrappers on the Missouri Lottery Stage and the legendary Big Sandy And His Fly-Rite Boys representing in big fashion on the Great Southern. The former emitting its special brand of ’60s-inspired honky-tonk country, the latter its time-tested, Bruce Springsteen-approved, Rockabilly Hall Of Fame-inducted version of the art. Trading tempos and hot licks, the bands were the ideal soundtrack for folks to settle in for what would be three days of impeccable elements and positive vibrations, both sonic and otherwise. Houston’s the Suffers ramped up a convincing set of soulful rhythm & blues in the wake of their hometown’s hurricane-infused devastation as frontwoman Kam Franklin delivered an inspiring narrative as to why life is too short to be working a dead-end soulless day job if your heart’s in the music game. A testimony of inspiration meets perspiration.

On the Lottery Stage, the Old 97’s delivered in spades as per usual leading up to the headlining Gary Clark Jr. and his squeaky-clean variations of blues classics and originals. The modern-day guitar god with an invaluable backing band laid out while the crowd devoured his offerings like the whole-pig BBQ being served daily in the VIP tents, washing down the rhythms with local libations from Logboat, Bur Oak and Broadway breweries.

Conversely, the highlights for my eyes and ears were over at the Bank Stage where soul men Lee Fields & The Impressions procured a sultry set of impervious soul from one of tightest ensembles that’s ever looked like your high school’s math club. The crowd was showered with love and inspiration as the band made way for the inimitable Booker T And His Stax Revue—highlighted by his son Ted’s guitar prowess and, of course, Booker T’s Hammond B2 organ. (Of which the Impressions’ keyboard player had the luxury of commanding during their opening set.) Just the sight of it and the road-weary, time-worn Leslie cabinet it’s played through was enough nostalgia for me to comprehend. Both bands’ horn and rhythm sections were exquisite, and I didn’t want to leave the rail.

Saturday marked not only the last day of September but the marathon day in not only musical terms, but a half-marathon run … without someone chasing them! Anyway, back to beer and music: I damn near had breakfast with Kent Burnside And The Flood Brothers for some Mississippi hill funk with plenty of blues laid down like his grandaddy R.L. even with their before-noon start time. The needle was set by a thunderous set of rock ‘n’ soul blues rolling justly into a powerful offering by inventive local three-piece the Hooten Hallers, whose drums, guitar and sax layout is big fun in the grittiest of measures, heavy on a blues trip that’s eternally outside the box. These two stunned the early crowd like a well-placed jab combination.

Deke Dickerson and the rest of local garage/surf-rockin’ heroes Untamed Youth turned in a beer-funneling, foot-drinking stomper of party on the Lottery Stage, complete with go-go dancers, as the Bel Airs and the succulent Nikki Hill wowed on the Lottery Stage. The Bottle Rockets played a shortened set of their raucous and witty classics and then played back-up band to Marshall Crenshaw to continue the onslaught. Nikki Lane worked her glamorous-badass, spit-in-your-face, sweetheart-of-the-rodeo angle with a formidable backing band for an enjoyable set of sassy, killer throwback country. The SteelDrivers put on a harmonizing bluegrass powerhouse clinic only to have local hero Pokey Lafarge and company burn the place down like Hank Williams and hellfire.

Unforgettable hours of music were launched into the ether by Marty Stuart and then the Mavericks. Stuart provided solid country gold with his custom rockabilly flare with arguably the best band in the music game in his Fabulous Superlatives. A short solo set was deemed and his beautiful legend of a wife Connie Smith joined in for a spell. The Mavs’ custom cocktail of Cubano beats and twangy rock are the things of legend. The Hella Go-Go dancers donned the stage with them as the biggest party in Columbia, MO., was had on the stage. Band Of Horses closed things out in a loose fashion for an impressive performance that was equal parts comedic as highly copacetic. Leon Bridges’ Texas soul was bared with a stellar helping of neo-golden soul in the best jumpsuit I’ve seen since Cash’s famous middle-finger picture. Again the weather, positive energy and artistic auras amalgamated with the sweet smell of BBQ for a king’s feast and soul-cleansing musical offerings. Church was Saturday and Sunday this weekend.

Sunday’s lineup was expertly designed as the bloody mary of the three, easing on into the morning with the Norm Ruebling Band, Broadway Blues and Chump Change on into the Fairfield Four and the Music Maker Blues Revue for brunch. A great country set from the sweet Amanda Shires (Mrs. Isbell) whose penchant for funny stories and killer melodies is only outshined by her sweetness and witty song crafting. Bluesy soul-guitar legend Anna Popovic and her band relit the fire at the Lottery Stage as the imitable Emmylou Harris turned in another of the unforgettable sets of the festival although feeling a bit under the weather.

Emmylou is an angel, and if someone hadn’t told me I’d of never known, save for the fact that a fellow with a gigantic wallet in his back pocket kept delivering tea with her guitars. She’s the Queen of the USA and her king played just following in the most moving, hilarious, classy, beautiful, life-affirming standout set from the legendary John Prine and his band, sans drummer. Emmylou joined for a rousing “Angel Of Montgomery” as the great Margo Price hauled ass from her set in a golf cart from the Lottery Stage for classic duet “In Spite Of Ourselves,” of which it was impossible to tell who was more excited to be playing with whom under a radiant sunset. Price turned up again for “Paradise” as the first encore followed by Prine and band’s penultimate offering of “Lake Marie.” And nothing beat Prine’s dedication of “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” to Adolf Benito Trumpolini—pure genius.

That space was given back to nature in the audible sense as Ryan Adams closed things out in typical Ryan Adams fashion over at the Lottery Stage. A cuss-word-laden, although not undeserved, berating was hurled at an uncooperative photographer who disobeyed the now-famous no-picture rule despite a solid attempt by Adams and band at hiding behind smoke machines on full tilt the entirety of the show. Aside from that and given the amount of innocent children in the crowd with its 7:30 p.m. start time, the rest of his set was formidable. The old televisions playing looped graphics were cool, but the huge, fake Fender Princeton Reverb amps were not. A stout band and Adams’ never-disappointing voice and guitar chops are always enough to power through a decent set. Definitely the most work put into a set design out of all artists for the entire weekend, so take away from that what you will.

Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival king Richard King and Co. and the great folks of Columbia, Mo., ought to be proud of the quality of talent in all forms they’ve curated here. A serene college town that knows how to party was the perfect backdrop for a glorious weekend of irrefutable performances, eats, drinks and genuine cool. Someone must have sold their soul for that weather or there was a definite divine intervention of sorts, possibly from the late Betsy Farris, whom I’m told was an undying force in making this party happen for years as Thumper Entertainment. God rest her soul. I’m already planning my trip back for next year.

—Scott Zuppardo; photos by Chris Prunckle

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Live Review: Unsane, San Diego, CA, Aug. 1, 2017

Perilously low above the Casbah venue, every five minutes or so, an airliner screams its approach into San Diego International Airport. Anywhere else in the neighborhood, the sound is unpleasantly loud and disruptive. But in this cozy club on the northern edge of the city’s playful Little Italy, the din doesn’t even qualify as background static.

For Unsane is in town.

The New York trio’s noisy blend of hardcore punk and gritty metal shatters eardrums with a violence that’s glorious in its simplicity. A new release entitled Sterilize is due out in September, and judging by the half-dozen of its tracks played tonight, the LP promises to be as flesh-ripping as anything else in a catalog stretching back 30 years.

The plodding and grinding “Aberration” from the upcoming album, for example, recalls Blood Run’s punishing “Killing Time.” But set highlights “Scrape” and “Committed” are the performances that showcase Unsane at its most inspiring: urgent, brutal and thoroughly no-nonsense. The three musicians perform like mechanics wrenching the songs out of their instruments with muscle and elbow grease.

What the original punks did for classic rock—stripping out its pretensions, restoring its immediacy—Unsane has done for metal. Gone are the cartoonish exaggerations, the cock-rock superficialities, the inane chest-thumping. Unsane prunes metal down to its slasher-pic essentials. The group’s music is so earsplitting, unfiltered and savage that, in comparison, a 747 crash-landing would register as little more than a coquettish whisper in a lover’s ear.

At the close of the set, guitarist/vocalist Chris Spencer politely thanks the audience and steps off the stage without underlining the band’s alpha status. Unsane’s soundtrack for murder speaks, or rather shouts, for itself.

—Eric Bensel

Live Review: Electric Electric, Paris, France, June 17, 2017

Rare are the gigs that successfully distill styles through a thesis/antithesis/synthesis triad. Tonight, Belgian duo La Jungle opens with a vibe that sets the spazzcore heroes in Lightning Bolt to turbo dance rhythms. Fellow Belgians It It Anita counters with a noise bath that recalls the grimiest of ’90s art punk. French headliner Electric Electric ably splits the difference, tenderizing Kkraut math experimentation with a hard-rock mallet.

The result is more than just a frenetic Trans Am or a family-friendly Atari Teenage Riot; Electric Electric triangulates the digital and the analogue, sweating euphoria through metronomic-yet-manic beats. With machine precision, the Strasbourgeois trio deploys electronics, blunt guitar riffing and repetition the way a masseuse employs whale song, oil and deep muscle kneading.

With “Minimal Maximal,” hard-hitting drums and trance coax the listener’s consciousness out of time and body. The combo could score a Philip K Dick film adaptation … or surgery to install neural implants. From latest album III, “Dassault” entices gently with a light beat, to which siren wails add a threat of impending calamity. The detached, monotone delivery of the vocals is deliberately blurry as to be detectable mostly at the subconscious level. “Klimov,” likely an homage to the Russian director of ’80s war film Come And See, is dancey and ominous and jagged all at once. Neither dejected nor joyous, the group’s sound is less cathartic than soothingly dehumanizing.

In a world where the insanity of terrorism is answered with the inanity of populist nationalism, perhaps the best (or, regrettably, the only) sane response is withdrawal within oneself. Unplug the mind and submit to the gaping void. Electric Electric demonstrates that a synthesis need not require the resolution of competing visions. It can be an acceptance that there are no good options.

Apart from escape into the hollow bliss of art.

—Eric Bensel

Live Review: Föllakzoid, Brussels, Belgium, May 25, 2017

Guitarist Domingo Garcia-Huidobro walks onstage with a careless authority. His shoulder-length frock of blond hair kicks back and forth like the legs of a Rockette. He wears Adidas coochie cutters and shin-high combat boots. His turtleneck sweater is pulled up over his mouth and nose, exaggerating his tall, gaunt frame to Muppet heights of silliness. He is, to understate the effect, an eyeball magnet.

His bandmates in Chilean trio Föllakzoid—bassist Juan Pablo Rodrigues and drummer Diego Lorca—are able foils. Where Garcia-Huidobro’s guitar lines are sinewy and ticklish, their rhythms are repetitive and droney. Where Garcia-Huidobro flails and romps, they are immobile and businesslike.

The contrast is striking. But the combination is intoxicating.

If ’70s krautrock bands disrupted popular music with avant-garde experimentation and electronic ambient, Föllakzoid smooths over the rough edges and enchants with an impressive capacity for groove and chill. Fresh off a collaboration with Spiritualized’s J. Spaceman, these space krauts generate a mood, in particular one that imagines the vibe in the lounge of an intergalactic liner.

Fists punching the air, Garcia-Huidobro eggs on the crowd, yet the volume is never thoroughly pumped up, the jams never fully kicked out. But Föllakzoid focuses on emitting a pulse, riding a wave.

While the band’s first two records were crunchy and Hawkwindy, the four tracks from latest album III are minimalist and feather-light, accentuated with random bursts of ringing chords. “Earth,” for example, opens with the churning inside a starship’s engine room then levels off to a smooth glide, looping back to the coarse intro, then bubbling over with cymbal crashes, guitar feedback and a bass rumble.

Bookending III, “Electric” and “Feuerzeug” are nearly mirror images of one another. Ethereal yet spiky, both tunes sprinkle prickly notes atop a slow but gritty rhythmic base, like dragonflies buzzing over a murky swamp. As with much of tonight’s set list, the songs ooze and hum. And when the moment strikes his fancy, Garcia-Huidobro unleashes a buzzsaw riff that jolts the audience out of its reverie.

Because that’s what wizards do.

—Eric Bensel

Live Review: The Firefly Festival, 2017

It’s Firefly season, a time every summer when 90,000 giddy, glistening fans descend upon the 750-acre Woodlands in Dover, Del., to watch their favorite artists perform, and discover new ones. Every Father’s Day weekend since 2012, locals witness Dupont Highway bursting with cars packed with camping gear making their annual pilgrimage from across the East Coast and beyond. Over the past six years, the festival has expanded from a modest three-day event to a five-day bonanza featuring 140 multi-genre, multi-generational acts—everything from Bob Dylan to the Weeknd to AFI to Kesha to Weezer to Miike Snow.

Tweaking what was already a fun, efficiently run event, Firefly provided fans the opportunity to curate all aspects of the festival this year, from merch to campground entertainment to food options. Back in December, organizers posted various polls to the festival website so that fans could vote on what they wanted to include in the 2017 iteration of Firefly.

With so much competition and so many new festivals popping up like games in the Apple app store, Firefly’s strategy of fan engagement helps tether their fans to their festival, fostering a sense of ownership. Who wouldn’t want to attend a fest that they helped create? With so many Bumbershoots, Pitchforks and Boston Callings to choose from, it’s hard for fans to figure out where to spend their limited disposable income and PTO time. By being the self-proclaimed “first fan-curated festival,” Firefly is trying to make that decision easier.

Offering such a varied, wide-ranging artist lineup also attracts fans from across every age and demographic, expanding the potential pool of attendees who wouldn’t have previously considered going to a festival. Walking through the Woodlands this past weekend, I witnessed more diversity than any other year. For every glitter-encrusted teenager in daisy dukes waving glow sticks, there was a dad in a polo shirt tucked into khaki shorts with a braided leather belt looking like he was ready for a night at Outback Steakhouse. Apparently Firefly has now replaced many families’ Pocono lake or Jersey Shore trips, a new tradition that should be the envy of all others in the festival industry.

Although Firefly had been underway for close to two days by the time Friday night rolled around, the energy was elevated a notch once the 9 to 5-ers arrived. Weezer, the band that churned out mega hits like “Buddy Holly,” “Beverly Hills” and “Island In The Sun” in the ’90s and early aughts, kicked off the nighttime headliners as the sun sank below the tree line. Frontman Rivers Cuomo sported his signature thick-rimmed specs, and the band offered a predictably pleasant set, playing all of its popular songs that brought me back to the days of middle school, Total Request Live and Napster.

Indie trio Miike Snow, which includes the songwriters behind pop smashes like Brittany Spears’ “Toxic,” got the dance party started with “My Trigger” and “Paddling Out.” Lead singer Andrew Wyatt bounced from keyboard to microphone, from one end of the stage to the other, his voice climbing up to falsetto at times before plummeting into a deep, warbled bass. Their infectious beats filled your diaphragm and excited your cells at the atomic level.

On a sweltering Saturday afternoon the next day, 24-year old British alt-pop riser Bishop Briggs ran laps around the Main Stage in an oversize black sweatshirt and pants. Her dynamism never wavered as she belted out hits like “Wild Horses,” “River” and “Have Mercy,” underscoring her brooding, soulful voice. Combined with thudding beats and growling guitars, she sounded like a mash-up of Adele and Pretty Lights.

The Naked And Famous drew a large crowd at the Lawn Stage as dusk settled over the festival grounds that evening. The indie electronic band from Middle Earth broke onto the scene in 2010 with “Young Blood,” which was featured in numerous promos and commercials for shows like Property Brothers and The Leftovers. Alisa Xayalith’s ethereal vocals, combined with fuzzy synths and strong beats, exhibited their CHVRCHES-like sound on songs like “Punching In A Dream.”

After four days of 90-degree heat, marathon day-drinking and countless half-mile trudges from one stage to the next, you wouldn’t blame festival-goers for throwing in the towel and heading home early to beat Shore traffic. But on Sunday, the only evidence of flagging energy was the increase in cycle rickshaw trips from the parking lot to the front entrance of the festival. And the artists the fans stayed to see did not disappoint.

MisterWives, the cheerful pop/rock band from New York, made a triumphant return to Firefly during an early evening set. “Two years ago we were the opening band at 2 p.m. on Thursday, and we had to camp here because we didn’t have money for a hotel room,” frontwoman Mandy Lee told the crowd of several hundred people. “Don’t give up on your dreams!” Watching them play, it was clear to all why they have had such a meteoric rise since their first Firefly. All six group members acrobatically juggled multiple instruments throughout each song as they danced and bounded around onstage, displaying their musical talent, stamina and pure joy.

When electro-rock duo Phantogram took the stage as night fell, all eyes locked onto lead singer Sarah Barthel as she emerged in her signature superhero-esque ensemble, with thigh-high boots and a cape. She and childhood friend and bandmate Josh Carter played their moody, rhythmic hits like “When I Was Small” and “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore,” helping to close out the festival on a high note.

Firefly will enter into its seventh year of existence. Like every year, organizers will debrief this past weekend, survey the festival landscape and try to think up ways to bring back past attendees and to attract new fans. They’ll also assess the fan curation experiment, and figure out how to keep families away from the Poconos and Shore over Father’s Day weekend. At this point, however, Firefly’s excellence has been established. I’ve made it my own tradition, and I’ve already booked my Hampton Inn for 2018.

—Maureen Coulter; photos by aLive

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Live Review, Coachella 2017

One of the laziest journalistic tropes ever is: “This (supersuccessfulthing) isn’t nearly as cool as it was back when it was (underground, lesser-known, hardly a blip back in the day, etc.).”

This is what LCD Soundsystem sent up so effectively with “Losing My Edge” and has been a theme we’ve heard associated with “Chella” over and over again in recent years. It’s a giant financial ecosystem of which music is only a part (in 2016, Coachella sold nearly 200,000 tickets and grossed about $100 million, not to mention all of the tangential revenue generated by sponsors, merchandise sales, concessions, etc.), there’s too much corporate largesse creeping into the picture, the bookings aren’t nearly as edgy as they were, it’s more fashion show and social media mirror than cultural statement, I saw your dad there last year, yadda yadda.

One way to think about Coachella: it’s a festival whose humble beginnings date back to when Pearl Jam was warring with Ticketmaster and booked itself into the Empire Polo Club in 1993, as lighting-oneself-afire an act of anti-careerist stubbornness as has existed in the music industry’s recent history. Another, perhaps more practical way to think about it, is that the festival has become a way for largely niche acts in indie rock, hip hop and various flavors of EDM to reach a broader audience that wouldn’t otherwise be accessible to them given present course and speed of their organic development. When you think about artists such as Long Island’s Lemon Twigs, Seattle’s Tacocat or even the legendary Belleville Three (Detroit techno OGs Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson), the kind of affinity they can create with two weekends’ worth of energetic performances might eclipse everything else they’re capable of generating in a typical album/touring cycle. So: Coachella serves a useful purpose (as do other festivals of its type: Pitchfork, SXSW, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, Glastonbury, etc.) no matter what the self-proclaimed cool kids may think or how snarky their Tumblr posts may be.

It was with this framing in mind that we packed our rucksacks and caught the party plane down to Palm Springs for this year’s opening weekend. Gloriously bathed in 90-plus degree sunlight, the Empire Polo Club hosts what is no doubt the most thoughtful and, if possible, comfortable long weekend of live music in the U.S.: There is ample space for the crusty campers, backdrops for the Instagrammers, food and drink for all, and if it’s possible to call 330 acres of desert oasis “lush,” these guys have figured out a sensible way to make it so. Therefore, two generations of duBrowa festival attendees took in the three day weekend of with a tacit agreement in place: We would humor each other by attending the other guy’s sets-of-choice to the extent it was logistically possible—your Louis The Child showcase vs. my GBV fix. It’s unclear who got the better of this particular deal, but it made for a fantastic weekend at the musical deli tray under near-perfect conditions, all the same.

Friday split the difference between a typically Angeleno party night and a visit from the touring artists of the Empire. Having opened with the Raspberries-meets-Walker Brothers stylings of Long Island’s Lemon Twigs (a plaid-suited Brian D’Addario jogging crazily around stage like a Faces-era Rod the Mod), we then transitioned to the first of several British acts who killed it with their particular brand of music: London-based grime superstar Stormzy, whose “big man wif a beard,” high-energy 140-BPM rap set the table for everything else that followed. L.A.-based party collective Brownies and Lemonade hosted a showcase EDM set at the LCD-festooned DoLab Stage, with producer Alexander Lewis adding some festive trombone to a series of trap tracks while the duo Louis The Child slayed a packed tent full of Stevie Nicks hippie-chick lookalikes with a sparkling set of future soul. Every festival produces its share of surprises and disappointments—British soul-man Sampha definitively qualified as an unexpected delight, packing in a sweaty tent and filling the VIP area up front (we saw Gwyneth Paltrow, Stormzy, Kevin Abstract and half of his Brockhampton rap collective boogying away) with a crew who came for his Drake hit “4422” but left singing the praises of his virtuoso solo keyboard performance “(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano.” Expect huge things from this London-based R&B artist down the line.

As for Australia’s Avalanches—making their first U.S. appearance in 15 years on the back of their 2016 global comeback smasheroo Wildflower—the show proved that their real strength is as a studio creation vs. live act, with a catastrophic rig failure in the middle of “Subways” making for an interesting moment of improv for a band that isn’t really built for that sort of thing. Guided By Voices proved that Bob Pollard and Co. can still come correct with the old-school, serrated-guitar indie rock, their set ranging from brand-new material to songs unearthed from the Bee Thousand era. While Richie Hawtin and DJ Shadow demonstrated that ’90s-era techno and sampledelic hip hop can still summon a passionate audience in 2017.

Without doubt the spotlight act of the day was Radiohead—the band played before a sea of humanity and opened with slower, more contemplative material from A Moon Shaped Pool before suffering through three different sound stoppages, leaving the main stage twice before returning in a much feistier mood, with Thom Yorke changing the band’s setlist seemingly on the spot to troll festival organizers with the much-maligned “Creep,” blaming the various failures on “aliens.” L.A.-based EDM superstar Dillon Francis closed out the evening with a set heavy on moombahton jams, reprising his signature style from about 2013-ish for what appeared to be the largest single audience we’ve ever witnessed at a festival, filling an entire airplane hangar with sweaty, jiving fans who spilled out into the surrounding area with dayglo sticks, humorous hand-cobbled signs and a ridiculous number of “Christmas lights as costumes,” creating an undulating pool of people that washed rippling into the desert night.

If Friday was about new discoveries, then Saturday was devoted to surprise features—meaning, the time-honored tradition of bringing special guests onstage for a social media-amplified star turn. After taking in Mitski’s offbeat, Helium-like charms, the day turned to the half-Interpol/half-Wu emo tangle of Banks + Steelz and the hard, dark beats of French producer Brodinski, whose 90s-inspired techno would have been perfect in the midnight time slot (as it was, he packed the hangar-like Sahara venue full of writhing sparkle-face-paint kids). Portland’s Car Seat Headrest held to the indie-standard party line—guitars, attitude, skinny suit in a pastel color, more guitars—and then the parade of features began, with Angeleno six-string bass jazzbo Thundercat weaving his magic for an overflowing crowd before bringing out yacht-rock hero Michael McDonald (yes, that one, the silver-topped, golden-throated Doobie Brother) for a trio of beautifully ’70s-touched Fender Rhodes numbers that brought the house down when the familiar strains of “What A Fool Believes” wafted into the air.

British producer Mura Masa then proceeded to make a virtue out of his rotating backstage holding pen, with Desiigner, Charli XCX and finally A$AP Rocky all hitting the stage for their respective radio hits, which sent bodies overhead (Desiigner crowd-surfing his way into the front rows, and various kids in their desert finery passed back over the barrier in return) and produced probably the single best set of the day—dude is not only the owner of a golden set of ears, he can multitask with the best of ’em (keyboards, guitar, drums). Atlanta’s Future played to an ocean of fans before bringing out Ty Dolla Sign and then Drake out to close his evening set; while not to be outdone, fellow ATL resident Gucci Mane coaxed an appearance from hot-rap-kid-of-the-moment Lil Yachty and performed “Black Beatles” with guests Rae Sremmurd to wrap up his Coachella timeslot. Canadian rapper/producer Nav marked an otherwise low-key performance by inviting prior-night-headliner Travis Scott and the Weeknd to the stage, while French producer DJ Snake brought Migos to the stage for their ubiquitous radio anthem “Bad And Boujee,” then dropped the jaws of about half of the night’s attendees by conjuring the notoriously fickle Ms. Lauren Hill for a series of Fugees tracks (“Ready Or Not,” “Killing Me Softly”) before wrapping her cameo turn with a spin on her solo classic, “Lost Ones.” The night wrapped with Lady Gaga’s insanely produced and highly calibrated replacement slot for Beyonce (who bowed out months ago after announcing that she was expecting twins; Gaga returned the favor by dropping a surprise single, “The Cure,” just as she left the stage), and a fantastic, sunny-day-disco nightcap from L.A. production duo Classixx, whose admixture of electro, indie pop and straight-up ’70s dance music leaned heavily toward Disclosure territory and would have made the perfect soundtrack for Brodinski’s mid-day slot. All told—a day full of other people’s talents attached to a series of sets that were perfect for the 95-degree heat that baked the valley.

Our flight back to Seattle left early evening Sunday, so in an abbreviated day, we managed to catch the perfect Sunday comedown set from EDM producer/DJ Chet Porter, an experimental guitarfest from ragged-but-right Aussie indie-rockers Pond, a high-energy show from London grime artist Skepta that brought the house down, backed by a ridiculously bouncing set of pure party hip-hop from Lil Uzi Vert before wrapping up our weekend with a rare side-by-side-by-side performance from the aforementioned Belleville Three (unfortunately missing evening sets from OC OG punks TSOL, New Jersey indie-pop craftsmen Real Estate, a reimagined New Order, and rapper-of-a-generation Kendrick Lamar, whose amazing new full-length Damn will no doubt appear on many year-end lists) before heading back to civilization. We literally saw a little bit of everything over the course of three days: ferris wheels and freestyling, fairground food and fiery funk, famous features and FOMO-inducing moments of pure “you had to be there” magic. We see you, Coachella. And we promise we’ll be back to do it all again next year.

—Corey duBrowa and Tanner duBrowa

More photos after the jump.

Continue reading “Live Review, Coachella 2017”