Critic’s Notebook: Which of Coachella’s smaller acts will go on to make it big?
The monikers are etched on old Coachella posters like the names of fallen soldiers engraved on a war memorial: Donovan Frankenreiter, Yo! Majesty, Planet of the Drums, Fischerspooner, Does It Offend You, Yeah?, the Sexy Magazines, Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip.
Those and dozens more represent collateral damage in the endless battle for continual musical and cultural relevance. Over the festival’s 16 years, all gunned for glory when arriving on the Empire Polo field, hellbent on delivering sets for the ages.
For reasons known only to fate and publicity teams, they came up short. (Hope springs eternal, Scroobius.) That’s usually the case. Despite their best efforts and marketing campaigns, only a chosen few musicians gigging the 2015 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which commences April 10 in Indio, will hit pay dirt and survive to perform on the grounds a second time.
Beneath the boldface headliners Jack White, Drake, AC/DC, Steely Dan, FKA Twigs, the Weeknd and more are a host of little acts, represented on the annual playbill in smaller type, who will play to scattered crowds while baking in the sun and jamming nighttime music during the day. Does German folk duo Milky Chance stand a chance? Is Ryan Hemsworth a future superstar a la David Guetta? Is there any stopping Joyce Manor? Can Azealia Banks prevail despite alienating virtually everyone in the business? Vic Mensa, future rap star? What to do with Hozier? These are questions we ask.
The bright side? In theory, these could-be chart-toppers are no different than others who have played small debut sets. Among those who rose from the undercard to headliner status on Coachella dance cards include Phoenix, Ben Folds, LCD Soundsystem, the Black Keys, Black Eyed Peas, Danger Mouse, Diplo, Kaskade and Skrillex. Impressive company.
As such, history tells us that at least a few of Coachella 2015’s roster of 120-plus non-Drakes will earn marquee success — perhaps even headline Coachella 2020. Who might those acts be?
Even if predicting such success is a fool’s game, one great pleasure of Coachella is discovering a new favorite artist. Honesty always helps, something that Canadian singer Mac DeMarco understands. Amid a musical generation raised on wink-wink emojis and lyrical ambiguity, DeMarco has struck the hearts of the love-infested, lonely and lost aching for honest expression, the kind not couched in freshman-level poetry class expressions.
DeMarco already has a legion of followers who, like him, wear their baseball caps backward and hearts on their sleeves while shouting lines about damaged souls and guilty living: “What mom don’t know has taken its toll on me / It’s all I’ve seen that can’t be wiped clean / It’s hard to believe what it’s made of me,” he sings on “Passing Out Pieces.”
Like veteran Boston songwriter Jonathan Richman, DeMarco’s got a knack for finding the sublime in little things and is unafraid of sincere positivity. His breakout gem “Let Her Go” offers simple tips on the ethics of love. “My Kind of Woman” delivers intimate truth minus much emo-rock melodrama. Most promising for DeMarco’s future: He understands how to build durable songs, the kind ripe for reinterpretation by whoever is headlining the festival in 2030 alongside a reunited Rae Srummurd.
In that sense — but few others — DeMarco is like fellow guitar-and-lyricist Angel Olsen, even if she’s got a better voice and can express in a few sung syllables as much as DeMarco can in whole verses. A magnetic performer with equally strong lyrical skills, she’s one of the woefully few female artists who made the Coachella cut. Olsen is not an artist who’ll be winning an album of the year Grammy any time soon; she’s too oblique for that. She’s more an artist about whom a few decades from now some crate digger will look back and wonder how such a deep, eternal singer landed on the same bill as Hozier and Kaskade.
More likely to prevail over the long haul is Sturgill Simpson, whose hardened country songs suggest that maybe promoter Goldenvoice, which also produces the Stagecoach country and western fest, signed him on for the wrong weekend. Simpson is not likely to dent the psyches of some Molly-addled members of the electronic dance music tribe, but if they happen to pass by on the way to get their minds blown by Guy Gerber, perhaps they’ll hear Sturgill testify in “Turtles All the Way Down”: “Marijuana, LSD, Psilocybin, and DMT / They all changed the way I see / But love’s the only thing that ever saved my life.”
As usual, Coachella 2015 has its share of unifiers, artists interested in fusion. Acts like Glass Animals, Sylvan Esso, Tycho and others are freshly blending sounds of house, global pop, rock, hip-hop and experimental beat music to create borderless jams. The most promising are Glass Animals. Like Ride and Radiohead before them, the band ascended out of Oxford, England, and its breakout 2014 debut, “Zaba,” has reverberated across an increasingly devoted fanbase. In love with texture and atmospherics, the songs blossom with repeated listens.
Less subtle is British band Clean Bandit, whose breakout smash “Rather Be” has chalked up an astounding 250 million online views. The members met at a music conservatory, and their music juggles much. Most notably, string runs merge the baroque and the beat-heavy. The track features vocalist Jess Glynne, herself a rising singer now signed to Atlantic Records, and sonically the band seems bent on pop ubiquity.
As AC/DC’s headlining set attests, rock is alive and well at Coachella, the evidence being the middling, forgettable guitar-centered acts dotting the days. But among likely asterisks like Eagulls, Tini and Bad Suns, the Torrance punk band Joyce Manor is a boldfacer. The group formed in 2008, but their 2014 breakout album, “Never Hungover Again,” released by punk powerhouse Epitaph, unified the kids. Sturdy, powerful and ripe for scream-along participation, the band spits out energy that’s bound to bruise.
Other acts to watch include hot young rock band Radkey, who move with the riffed fluidity of Queens of the Stone Age, and the mesmerizing New Orleans-based guitarist Benjamin Booker. Booker’s great live, and plays a brand of timeless rock that simultaneously draws on the rhythms and tones of artists including Buddy Holly, T. Rex, Bo Diddley and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Finally: Anyone in the same area code as the incendiary rap duo Run the Jewels who misses them will likely regret it when looking back on Coachella 2015. To avoid having to lie to your kids when they ask you what it was like to witness Killer Mike and El-P burn through tracks, tattoo that one into the schedule. You owe it to musical history.
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