Life Lessons at Coachella

3 05 2008

By Jill Ettinger

Sean Penn is a strangely compelling man. As he took the stage in Coachella’s Gobi tent last Sunday afternoon, his voice cracked and cascaded like a nervous teenager, while he perched awkwardly on a stool. His message began to reveal itself through a muddled attempt at a joke about his reason for being there: “A cappella Celine Dion covers,” he insisted. The crowd looked confused and intrigued.

“Revolution is a job for the young,” he announced. “This is the smartest, most technologically proficient generation of all time.” He blasted not only Bush, but also all three (yes, Obamaniacs) presidential candidates for their support of the no-end-in-sight Iraqi invasion. Bob Dylan once penned, “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” Sean Penn is that guy; he exudes a righteousness most like his character Mick O’Brien in the 1983 film Bad Boys, who stood up for justice against the resident prison bullies, earning status and prestige as a trustworthy inmate.

He asked the crowd who had been at Prince’s performance the previous evening. “Awesome, wasn’t it?” He went on, “Now imagine glaciers melting into the ocean, soldiers dying, people starving, forests being destroyed. Because it was all happening while Prince was playing.” His point was sharp, humbling. Yes, it’s true, while thousands gathered in the desert to dance, drink and laugh, the word-at-large is not unanimously joyful. He called to Coachella’s mixed crowd with an earnest invitation: “We have three bio-diesel buses here. They’re leaving the parking lots on Monday, and we want you to come with us.” The buses are part of the Dirty Hands Caravan, a cross-country excursion setting out to lend hands where needed, all the way to New Orleans for Jazzfest, then back to California.

This was Sunday afternoon, the last day of Coachella, and quite a departure from previous years. Overall attendance was down 30% from 2007, due largely in part to the lineup. This year’s headliners were Jack Johnson, Prince and Roger Waters. (Last year was Bjork, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against the Machine.) Penn’s buzzkill message seemed to echo the emptiness and despair of the festival. Though there were certainly shining moments (more on those later), the mood was best summed up in his pensive tone. One can only wonder what a post ’08 presidential election will hold in store for Coachella, or any festival next summer.

Art is that je ne sais quoi of the human psyche. We are curious creatures, after all, and best express ourselves as abstractly as we feel compelled. That means something different to everyone. Just in the way that our expressions are unique, so are our interpretations and responses to other’s offerings. One person’s poison is another’s panacea. As true as that is, there is still a collective acceptance of what is mind-blowing, versus a so-so lineup of musicians and talent. Compared to 2007, 2008’s edition was just a notch more exciting than any city Memorial Day picnic festival. Last year was so good it was painful. One simply could not see all the amazing artists at any given time. Abundance overwhelmed. Did you go see Amy Winehouse or Stephen Marley? Red Hot Chili Peppers or Gotan Project? Bjork or DJ Shadow? In comparison, 2008’s nail-biting choices included: Tegan and Sara or Vampire Weekend, Flogging Molly or Sasha and John Digweed, Sons & Daughters or Modeselektor, Serj Tankian or Pendulum? Ugh. How about a quiet nap tent?

Coachella’s Do-lab side show and leftover Burning Man installations were not enough to rally attendees in lieu of ass-kicking lineups. Though there were about 100 performances, the top three nightly headliners are what drive sales. Some of the more impressive day time performances included Les Savy Fav, The Breeders, Yoav, Man Man, Cinematic Orchestra, Rogue Wave and Little Brother. As for the main stage nightly headline acts, they went something like this… (continued tmw)




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