Why the hell would 30,000 kids who barely see the sun want to spend a weekend out in the middle of the desert? On any other day you could ask a person that and they could not come up with a logical conclusion, but every year in the Indio desert, it happens.
The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival has been happening for over three years now and is showing no signs of going anywhere; always boasting a lineup of the coolest independent and not so independent artists from hip hop, DJs, and of course all the hippest indie rock bands of the moment. Most of the time, actually, ninety percent of the time, the event is just another schmooze fest, but nonetheless, my small group of friends decided to make our way out to the desert for the 2004 edition.
This being my first year at Coachella, I was not fully prepared for the heat, crowds and lack of hotel rooms. Fortunately, everything ran smoothly and I had one hell of a weekend. Rather than pick apart every single thing about Coachella that I loved and/or hated, we can do this in list form:
- MASSIVE amounts of people, which I normally would hate but it was pretty neat watching this many people support artistic freedom and creativity.
- Cheap water!
- The amount of bands that I wanted to see was staggering and in my opinion the best lineup they have seen.
- Ample parking.
- Alright food.
- The obvious one, heat.
- WAY too many people wearing sweatshirts or silly costumes, some sets conflicted with each other.
- The side tents were hotter than outside.
- They ran OUT of veggie burgers.
Now, on to the bands in the order in which I saw them (sorry if I missed some of the bands you, the reader wanted to see, I tried):
The Sounds – We arrived during the last few songs of their set and I was wowed at the size of the main stage. They looked like ants from far back but that was to be expected. This European dance meets Blondie group had no luck igniting a dance party, but they did look like they were putting their all into it; a good way to start things off.
Sahara Hotnights – These girls know how to play while demanding your attention. Why people have not embraced the Swedish rock like The Hellacopters, Backyard Babies and these young ladies is beyond me but they had this boy’s attention. Unfortunately the tent was hotter than the surface of the sun so we left before they wrapped things up.
The Evens – I was contemplating on how it came about that Ian MacKaye’s new band got on. Did he just call Goldenvoice (the company booking and promoting this festival) and say, “Hey, this is Ian MacKaye and I want to play with my new band.” Who can say no to that? The Evens is his project while Fugazi is on hiatus this year and while it is much mellower, you can’t help but compare them to a lo-fi Fugazi. They were met with a large crowd and an enthusiastic response after every song.
The Stills – Yes, these guys are played in every Urban Outfitters across America and even my mom would like them; but they still execute their music flawlessly. Even playing in the middle of the heat soaked afternoon they ran through most of their Logic Will Break Your Heart which is quite an impressive record but an even more engrossing live experience. One of my favorite performances of the whole weekend.
Hieroglyphics – We ran over to catch a few songs from this very talented hip-hop group. Unfortunately they did nothing for me as looking at them on the huge main stage; I felt no connection at all. I am sure in a small club they would be electrifying but at this particular moment, they were not.
…Trail Of Dead – My biggest disappointment of the whole weekend. Having never seen them live I was expecting an instrument smashing good time but they just all looked tired and worn out. Mostly playing new material off of their upcoming record it gave the fans something to look forward to but sitting in the hot sun just made them fade into the back of my memory banks as they played.
Beck – I attempted to see him. That was a bad idea since they decided to throw him in one of the side tents which it seemed like the whole festival tried to fit in so we decided to leave. I heard he was great.
Death Cab For Cutie – Coming from a person that hates this band’s older material, they smoked most of the bands for the whole weekend. They joked with the crowd, played a good selection of songs and above all, looked like they had fun. Their Promise Ring influenced indie-pop was ringing through my head the rest of the day.
Sparta – I think I am in the minority but I know a few people share my opinion so I will go ahead and say it. I like Sparta better than Mars Volta. Yep, I know Sparta is simplistic but I can’t wrap my head around what the other half of At The Drive-In is doing. To me this band should be larger than life having their songs played on the radio rather than most of this garbage right now. They played a solid set that had some new songs from their latest full-length Porcelain.
Pixies – Rather than writing a longwinded description of what was played and how each person looked, I will spare you the details and say this. The Pixies are a legendary band for a reason. They created music that inspired, influenced and transcended different generations of music. Hearing some of these songs in the live environment was impressive but overall, Frank Black (pictured) looked disinterested and was just going through the motions. It did not floor me but I would definitely say that I am glad I saw it.
Eyedea & Abilities – Yes, I know most of you are asking, “What about Radiohead?” Plain and simple, I have seen them twice before and they put on the SAME EXACT SHOW EVERYTIME. Yes obviously it is one of the better rock shows I have seen but if you have seen them once, you don’t need to come back again and again. Plus they are becoming the counterpart of Dave Matthews Band in your stereotypical college student’s collection which is not a bad thing, just ironic. Regardless I was more excited about this underground hip-hop DJ and crew. Playing in front of 200 people, they put on one of the most electrifying examples of punk rock ethos I have seen. Understanding everyone was watching Radiohead, he plowed through a set full of jumps, call outs and some impressive DJ work. I think this was the highlight of my weekend.
!!! – After getting beat up in the sun the day prior we made a late appearance but just in enough time we were able to catch the funk jams of Touch And Go’s new party machine Chik Chik Chik (!!!). Even in the heat they had some people dancing their hearts out and they even played what I like to call ‘The Best Song Ever’ off of their first release on GSL. If you were watching them and not smiling, you are dumb.
Broken Social Scene – I had high expectations for this Canadian group of three guitarists and rotating musicians but unfortunately they were very dull and boring. They just seemed to go through the motions. On record this band is incredible but for the time being you should pass on their live experience.
Muse – Hands down, this is one of the best bands around right now, regardless of musical preference. The UK three-piece got up and owned every single piece of that stage and worked the crowd like nothing I have seen for a long time. Also, they were the heaviest three-piece I have ever seen. The singer went back and forth between his guitar and piano making sure that the songs sounded as flawless as the do on record. Probably the best of the weekend.
Atmosphere – I will go on record saying that hip-hop will be the new trend in these next few years. Many people were anticipating Slug’s performance all weekend and even with the technical difficulties of his DJ’s records melting, he managed to work the crowd and have a few good things to say as well. While not being as inspiring as Eyedea & Abilities, he came a close second.
Thursday – We caught a few songs of Thursday on the main stage and even though I think they are one of the better bands out there right now, apparently no one else really did and gave them very little energy to feed off of. Add to the fact that Geoff the singer was extremely ill and even passed out on stage during one of the songs; it was a very difficult performance to watch when I know the band is better than what they showed.
Sage Francis -The poet turned rapper who is on the new wave of hip-hop artists being recognized outside of their normal fan base, he shredded through a few songs of politically motivated rap armed only with a beat box and no crew like many other hip-hop artists employ. While he held my interest, the hot tent that he played in drove me out after a few songs.
Cursive – Never ceasing to impress me, these Omaha veterans showed why they are getting so much mainstream attention and wowed the large crowd at the side stage by playing a healthy mix of songs from their most recent full-length The Ugly Organ and their previous one, Domestica. Tim Kasher and company show that determination will pay off.
Bright Eyes – Always letting his show speak for himself, Conor and his group of touring musicians (a who’s who of Omaha, and featuring the guitarist from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) left no jaw dropped. This was one of the best performances of the weekend as he played most of the songs off his Lifted… record. Simply put, this man will make a difference with the music that he makes.
Mogwai – Do I really need to tell you how amazing they were? How loud five men from Europe can be? Well, if I do then you need to experience the show that Mogwai puts on. They will place you in a trance that many can not shake even after the show is over. One of the best times I have seen them play.
The Cure – Sorry Mr. Smith, you are old, your voice is great but I think we should leave those songs alone. It was insane how many people we watching them but my interest was lost long before they hit the stage. I always have a hard time getting into the 400th version of a band and this is no exception. I would rather listen to their records.All in all this was quite an experience and to those ever thinking about taking something like this on, I urge you to as you might have as much fun as I did. The key word being might.
Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes” and the Art of Alienation
The hard-won wisdom about the human toll that capitalist alienation extracts is what makes Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes” so beautifully devastating
Someday, when the world finally loses Willie Nelson, there will be an eruption of sadness. He is an icon, yet many people will still be shocked at the depth and profundity of his body of work. At this point already, the unbroken length and quality of his career is almost without precedent in American music. He has simply been here so long it seems he has always been here doing what he does. And his music has defied easy categorization, slipping seamlessly between wide varieties of country music, jazz, and American standards. He is probably the artist for whom the term “Americana” was most properly invented.
Yet his career can be divided into rather neatly-defined stages. For many people, myself included, his most interesting stage is probably his brief stint with Atlantic Records in the early 1970s. Atlantic had just begun a Country division and Nelson was brought in as a cornerstone for that new endeavor. The experiment was not long; Nelson ended up recording only two albums under the Atlantic label, Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages, but the two albums worked out to be an essential bridge in Nelson’s gradual transformation from a fixture of the Nashville establishment to an iconic Outlaw and the singular artist we know and love today. Without these works, there is no path to Red Headed Stranger or Stardust or the collaborations with Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard that would come to define Country music in the decades to come.
Here I want to discuss the simple, singular genius of one song from this period, “Sad Songs and Waltzes” from Shotgun Willie. The song perfectly embodies the artistic maturity gained by Nelson’s long breakup with the Nashville machine. And the hard lessons learned by that process show up in the song’s spare production, which works with its deceptively simple lyrics to show how market economies alienate human beings from themselves and one another.
“Sad Songs and Waltzes” and Willie Nelson’s Career
Nelson was pushing 40 when Shotgun Willie was released. He was a longtime fixture in the Nashville music business, mainly as a songwriter (he was a hit maker for many other artists, writing songs like “Crazy” for Patsy Cline). As a solo artist himself, however, Nelson was constrained by the producer-centric power structures of The Nashville Sound. His ambitions were too large to be contained for long, however.
Nelson had already experimented musically. For example, he released a beautiful yet enigmatic concept album in 1971 called Yesterday’s Wine, which began the process of pushing his way out of the mold Nashville had formed him in. Eventually, he would leave RCA and Nashville altogether, moving to Austin, Texas and, in that strange mix of bikers, cowboys, and hippies, Willie Nelson as we now know him began to invent himself.
This is the world into which Shotgun Willie, and its third song “Sad Songs and Waltzes” was born.
With only a single guitar, alternating bass notes between plucky strums to create a (you guessed it) waltz, and backed by a distant steel guitar, the song begins “I’m writing a song all about you. A true song as real as my tears. But you’ve no need to fear it, ‘cause no one will hear it. ‘Cause sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.”
This utterly simply, yet devastatingly powerful opening tells the whole story. A man, an artist, is betrayed by his love and longs to express it through his art. The power of the marketplace makes this an impossibility. He is left both without a woman and without a song to mourn her absence. This is the purest tragedy.
Essentially the song, like many country songs, tells a story about a man who has lost a relationship with a woman. This is a rather normal part of human life, but human relations are flexible and people typically have the ability to craft new relationships in the wake of these breakups. The speaker in this song is deprived of that opportunity. The purpose of his art, the song he sings about writing, is to forge a relationship between him and his audience. His artistic expression is an extension of his humanity, his self. Sadly, this self does not exist outside the controls of the marketplace. His song will remain unsung because “sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.”
The chorus puts it in even more starkly economic terms. “It’s a good thing that I’m not a star. You don’t know how lucky you are. Though my record may say it, no one will play it. ‘Cause sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.” Perhaps if our singer were more famous he could escape the cage built for him by the music industry, but he is not. Therefore, any effort to make art from his pain — art that might forge a relationship between him and an audience — is in vain. No one would play it in the first place as it is not marketable.
One particularly interesting feature of this song is its meta approach to songwriting. It is, in simple terms, a song about a song. This is not a particularly novel concept in itself, with the supreme example probably being the first verse of Leonard Cohen’s ubiquitous “Hallelujah.” “Sad Songs and Waltzes” provides a fascinating twist on the genre, however. This is a song about another song that no one has heard, nor will they, for economic reasons that we will get into in a bit.
This is not merely clever, it is a formal feature that contributes to the song’s meaning. “Sad Songs and Waltzes” is a song is about alienation. And the singer of this song is so alienated from his personal art that he can only sing about it at a distance. It represents an ultimate form of alienation.
Alienation and Markets
Alienation is a devastating consequence of life lived under the control of markets. This is a central point in the writings of Marx and other critics of capitalism. The moving around of money in the quest to extract profit makes us all, in one way or another, cogs in a capital-producing machine, and Nashville certainly was and remains one of those.
Like many talented artists working in Nashville, Nelson had been alienated from the fruit of his labor. He was put to work writing songs for other people to sing to create income for his record company. And when we was permitted to record his music himself, it simply wasn’t Willie Nelson as we know him. Seriously, look at his early album covers and try not to laugh at how uncomfortably not Willie Nelson he looks.
And just as Nelson had been forcibly removed from his authentic self, alienation extends beyond our relationships with the products of our labor. It also emerges as a barrier between individuals, interfering with proper relationships among human beings. Forced to sell our labor for wages, other people lose their individual identities and become mere competitors, making human cooperation difficult to achieve. We become, above all, alienated from ourselves and other people on a natural, human level when subjected to the demands of money-making. We lose our status as fully embodied people, having been reduced to a figure in some equation to determine the bottom line.
Its hard-won wisdom about the human toll that capitalist alienation extracts is what makes “Sad Songs and Waltzes” so beautifully devastating. The betrayed singer is alone and must remain alone because he cannot spin his pain into enough profit for the bean-counters.
When Shotgun Willie was produced, Nelson had only recently emerged from the Nashville money machine. He had spent years conforming himself to the demands of that industry, stifling his creative self in service of its products. This professional history provides insight into the source of a career frustration that finally exploded into songs like “Sad Songs and Waltzes.”
The move to Austin, a place that was weird and incomprehensible to the logic of the Nashville scene helped break him from his binds. Hanging out with the hippies and hillbillies of that unique and idiosyncratic music scene allowed him to develop something closes to an authentic artistic self and it set the stage for his many career reinventions. He became, in many ways, country music’s best answer to Bob Dylan in this way.
When he eventually returns to Nashville it is as a bonafide “outlaw” with the rest of that movement largely founded on its rebellion against the Nashville Machine. Waylon Jennings’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” is a good example of how the Outlaw movement wore an open animosity against how Nashville’s system stifled individual creativity and forced it back down the throat of that very system. Capitalism being what it is of course, Nashville eventually found a way to coerce profit out of the artistic forms that rose up against it, bringing the enemy into the fold as it were. Outlaw Country became the defining sound of 1970s Nashville.
Still, Willie Nelson’s Atlantic Records period serves as an inspiration. It is a moment when an artist well into his career finds the strength to reinvent himself and claim significant ownership over his own art, taking a career full of alienation and molding it into a new form of art that would indeed forge powerful human relationships with a new audience for decades to come. It might even be said that he took a share of the means of production, with the product being Willie Nelson.
A Night with Northlane
Josh Hockey went to go see Northlane in Melbourne and took photographer Albert LaMontagne with him to capture the night.
Settling in to 170 Russell would have been nice, but as we stepped in at the allocated 6:30 door time we were greeted with the start of Void Of Vision’s set. Sprinting down the stairs and into the room, it was clear that moving the door time forward half an hour had definitely affected the crowd.
A decent audience had streamed in, but nowhere big enough considering the year Void Of Vision has had. Releasing their magnum opus album, Hyperdaze, they have been on an absolute tear, and it was clear during this set that they were going to keep going hard.
Opening up by bringing the heavy early, Void had the room shaking from the world go. An impressive light show and an almighty wall of sound filled the room with layers upon layers of adrenaline. Vocalist Jack Bergin led this assault, bringing as much energy as he possibly could, whilst utilising his seemingly endless amounts of stage presence.
New songs like “Babylon” and “Hole In Me” showcased their new sound, while “Kill All Your Friends” got the pit going like it always does. They finished strong with “Ghost In The Machine” and left their stamp on 170 Russell.
International act Silent Planet were up next. A pretty much completely new band to me, I was immediately impressed by the connection they appeared to have with their audience. From the word go, the pit was open, and everyone in the front few row was singing along with all the passion in the world.
Spoken word vocals mixed with harsh screams ensured that vocalist Garrett kept the audience on their toes. The instrumentals kept up this pace as well, with their hard hitting dark tones unrelentingly assaulting the ears of all listeners (in a good way).
Silent Planet sounded incredibly large all the way through, and definitely would have made themselves some new fans on the night. Their music appeared to be full of themes of mental illness, and political issues, which is absolutely super important in today’s societal climate.
Counterparts were up next. Definitely a well known band, the heavy Canadians immediately made clear the tone of the set announcing themselves with a call of, “Counterparts Schoolies Week Motherfucker.” They launched into their first song and it was immediately clear why they are as acclaimed as they are. Ridiculously tight and sounding stupidly massive, they had fans moving from the second they started playing.
The shit talking between sets would have been the highlight, but the songs themselves made it hard to top. Playing the old classics as well as the new heavy-hitters, there was as much two stepping as there was singing along. Also this was perhaps the first time in history I heard a pitcall of “schoolies 2019 motherfucker open it up,” which was an experience that I’m glad I had.
Dedicating a song to Australia’s very own Trophy Eyes, their massive sound continued unrelentingly. Coming towards the end, the set closed with a wave of crowdsurfers all diving and climbing towards the microphone, trying to get ahold of vocalist Brendan so they could scream his words right back at him. This set was great, and I’m quite sad I personally am not a Counterparts super fan so I couldn’t join in the fun. Next time boys. Next time.
Finally it was time for the big dogs, Northlane. The lights went down and hands went up, ready to go and awaiting the bands arrival impatiently, the audiences cravings would soon be met. Northlane charged onto stage and belted into “Talking Heads.” The movement was huge from the start, and the audience was off their feet and jumping non-stop all the way through.
“Details Matter” was a definite highlight of the set, with the ridiculously massive sound of one of the better songs of 2019 running rampant through 170 Russell. Headbangers were aplenty and moshers were in surplus. This continued even into one of their softer songs, “Rot.” The first song released by the band with vocalist Marcus Bridge, “Rot” went down an absolute treat as always.
Northlane are a ludicrously tight live band, and this became ever more clear as they smashed through “Citizen, “Obelisk”, and “4D.” New party song “Eclipse” had the room shaking as everyone refused to stop bouncing. The set began to come to a close as massive Alien single “Bloodline” was the definite highlight of the show. It has been one of my favourite songs of the year, and this rendition locked that in even more. Cannons and lights were ablaze and firing everywhere, and made this even more of a spectacle.
Leaving stage momentarily, Northlane returned as Marcus came back wearing a big sparkly coat. “Sleepless”, the closing track of the album was incredibly effective and touching live. And was a nice sombre end to the show, right before they launched into the timeless heavy classic, “Quantum Flux.” And goddamn was it massive.
Northlane are one of the best bands out there, and this show only locked that in.
Check out the images from the Northlane show:
All photos by Albert LaMontagne. Copyright 2019 Albert LaMontagne / Sound the Sirens Magazine. Please do not use or distribute these images without the permission of Albert LaMontagne. If you use these images without permission, you are a terrible person.