Defining Coachella's Best Moments

By Bruce Fessier for The Desert Sun on May 3, 2005

Every Coachella festival has a defining moment. Most have more than one.

For me, the defining moment of the 2005 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival came during the second-to-last set on the main Coachella Stage when Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails broke into "Piggy," one of his many songs of angst and self-loathing.

Already a ball of sweat 20 minutes into his set, Reznor, fresh out of drug rehab, re-entered that tortured space that had made him seek sedation as he sang:

"Nothing can stop me now/I just don't care

"Nothing can stop me now/You don't need me anymore"

The knock on Reznor since NIN's 1989 debut was that his concerts were inconsistent. As allmusic.com said of NIN's ironically named live album, "And All That Could Have Been," "There is a distinct lack of energy that gives this the distinct feel of a cash-in, not a genuine live experience."

But Reznor showed Sunday he isn't afraid to go back to that place that inspired his turmoil. He showed throughout one of the longest sets in the festival he is using those life experiences to create art. Instead of being consumed by his demons, he is conjuring them for a dramatic experience.

The sound system and audience at the Empire Polo Club enhanced the performance. The Goldenvoice promoters used a system that directs sound in a way that minimizes bleeding between the five venues on the polo field, and its large capacity was ideal for NIN's overwhelming man-vs.-machine industrial sound.

Through songs such as "Tell A Lie," in which Reznor implored, "I cannot go through this again," to "Closer To God," in which he begged, "Help me become somebody else," to "Suck," in which he repeated over and over, "I am so dirty on the inside," it was like watching the Timothy McVeigh exorcism we never got.

And yet, Reznor looked buff and healthy in his dark green tank top. And he thanked people for listening to him, just like any other entertainer.

He wound down his set with "Hurt," the sensitive ballad about people dying all around him that Johnny Cash turned into an award-winning recording. Then he returned with his latest and biggest hit, "The Hand That Feeds," in which he turns his anger at those who deserve society's wrath. That fit perfectly with his closer, "Head Like A Hole," and its powerful chorus, "Bow down before the one you serve/You're going to get what you deserve."

In a classic rock 'n' roll gesture that said, "No one will top this," Reznor and his bandmates then trashed the stage.

Sure enough, the next act, hip-hop giants Black Star, couldn't top that. Nine Inch Nails had given perhaps the best set I've seen at the Coachella.

But yes, there were other defining moments.

One of the best ways to gauge audience reaction at the Coachella is to see what's selling at the Virgin MegaStore in the middle of the field. Just before midnight Sunday, I was told the recent albums by Nine Inch Nails, Boom Bip, Immortal Technique and the Joshua Tree band Gram Rabbit had sold out.

Gram Rabbit astounded a couple thousand people with their spacey, absurdist electro-rock. One joyous Orange County youth told me he'd never heard anything like them. I'm thrilled their song, "Disco #2," was included in Filter Magazine's "Welcome to the Desert, Vol. 2" with such singles as "Beverly Hills" by Weezer, "In My Head" by Queens of the Stone Age and "Tin Pan Alley" by Robert Plant. Last year's volume produced a half-dozen of the biggest hits of 2004.

Immortal Technique astounded new and experienced fans. I talked to a New Jersey youth who said he's seen the political, Peruvian native many times in New York, but he didn't expect more than 20 people here in "Calli." Technique's call for unity crossed ethnic lines at a time when unity between blacks and Hispanics could decide L.A.'s mayoral election.

I personally bought Kasabian's self-titled CD after being impressed with the power of their electronic rock in the mid-size Mojave Tent. "Test Transmission" was my favorite concert song, but it will be interesting to see what song will break on American radio. There are a half-dozen possibilities.

No one ever gets to see all the bands one wants to see at Coachella, but my other pleasant discoveries included The Kills, with VV's dark, Patty Smith vibe (minus the politics); the Bravery, with Sam Endicott's Bono vibe (especially on U2's "Electric Co."), and Donavon Frankenreiter, with his '70s rock vibe (especially on their loose blues jam).

Exceeding expectations were the Raveonettes, who drew me away from British jazz wunderkind Jamie Cullum, and The Prodigy, who are the Siegfried & Roy of electronica, in the last set in the big Sahara tent. Weezer was exactly what I expected, solid, fun and sometimes powerful (as in "Hash Pipe") rock

There were few disappointments. Coldplay wasn't a festival highlight, but I wouldn't have been disappointed if Chris Martin hadn't been throwing around so much hyperbole about his band.

On the whole, this Coachella, with its fabulous weather and smaller crowds than last year, will be remembered as one of the best.

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