Since its inception in 1999, Coachella has continued to evolve—to the point where it’s now one of the most well-known festivals in the world.
This year, it went through a large evolutionary step: The capacity went from 99,000 people to 125,000. The site was also reorganized, with the Outdoor Stage and the Mojave and Gobi tents pulled all the way back against Monroe Street. The Sahara Tent is a permanent fixture on the site, but the interior got all sorts of new effects. There is also a new tent, too: the daytime/early evening-only Sonora Tent. It offered an air-conditioned, club-like atmosphere and hosted a lot of punk-rock acts, like as T.S.O.L., The Interrupters, Shannon and the Clams and others.
Many Weekend 1 attendees took to social media to complain about crowding in the general admission areas. There was some truth to those complaints, as I learned during Weekend 2.
Still, I found it pretty easy to move around the festival with only a general-admission-wristband. I did notice longer lines for the restrooms, and thanks to an increase in the number of disabled patrons attending Coachella, the ADA platforms at all the stages got full early.
Another issue: The lobby area after the security checkpoints got overly crowded throughout the mid-afternoon to late evening. On Sunday night, I at one point found myself in a human traffic jam, in the middle of a large crowd of people trying to push through a bottleneck.
Yes, these are serious issues that need to be addressed for Coachella 2018. Still, I found the festival rather navigable overall.
Some Sunday highlights
• Ezra Furman, the first act on the Outdoor Stage on Sunday afternoon, opened his set with a cover of the Misfits’ “Where Eagles Dare.” His set had a lot of highlights; it was as if Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and the Ramones had a love child. The mixture of piano, a bit of harmony and a punk-rock sound was fascinating.
• Lee Fields and the Expressions was the first act to perform on the Main Stage. Fields has a very powerful voice, even by old R&B/soul standards, and his songs got the crowd going—singing along, clapping and slowly waving hands in the air as Fields sang slow, ballad-like songs about love or changing the world for the better.
• Future Islands’ early-evening set on the Outdoor Stage was just as impressive as the set I witnessed in 2013 when the band performed in the Gobi Tent. Front man Samuel Herring is well-known for his high-energy dance moves, and on Sunday, he pulled them off quite well. After 11 years together, the band is still climbing the ladder of indie-rock success, and doing so without many stage effects or crazy gimmicks. Who knows what we’ll see from them in the future?
• TSOL closed out the Sonora Tent on Sunday night with a fun performance—complete with old-school Los Angeles punk attitude, mosh pits, circle pits and Jack Grisham’s wild banter. He explained that while the band was recording the recent record, the members were one studio over from Snoop Dogg. At one point, the crew joined Snoop for a game of basketball—when John Fogerty drove his Corvette onto the tennis court. Grisham said he politely asked him to move it, and Fogerty simply walked away. Grisham’s response: He pulled up the door handle and put it between his butt cheeks. When Snoop and his crew said that Jack’s actions were “pretty fucked up,” Grisham responded that they didn’t know what punk was about. Oh, and Grisham said he also rubbed his scrotum all over Fogerty’s hood, too. In other news: Grisham pointed out that keyboardist Greg Kuehn’s son, Max Kuehn (who plays in the band FIDLAR), was filling in on drums.
• New Order put on a tremendous headlining performance in the Mojave Tent on Sunday night; it was one of the best shows I saw. The performance was upbeat, included more of a dance music element, and filled up the entire tent, with overflows onto the lawn area. The band played two Joy Division songs for the encore: “Decades” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” both of which paid tribute to friend and Joy Division front man Ian Curtis.
Photo credits (below): Aerial shot, by Chris Miller/Goldenvoice; Ezra Furman, by Greg Noire/Goldenvoice; Future Islands, by Greg Noire/Goldenvoice; Lee Fields and the Expressions, by Chris Miller/Goldenvoice; New Order, by Charles Reagan Hackleman/Goldenvoice.
Coachella attendees who braved Saturday’s hot temperatures got some great music to enjoy, including the day’s headliner, Lady Gaga.
I must admit that I am not a big fan of pop divas, but I promised myself I would keep an open mind as I took in Gaga’s performance, rather than doing my usual full embrace of the “music snob” title that some have bestowed upon me.
As for that performance: After Bon Iver’s Main Stage set finished a little before 10 p.m., most of the area was dead, as attendees crammed the Outdoor Stage area to take in DJ Snake’s performance. That let Gaga’s die-hard fans grab spots close to the stage.
Gaga was scheduled for 11:10 p.m., and even though the stage seemed set well before that, she did not take the stage until after 11:30.
I watched parts of last weekend’s Gaga show on the live YouTube stream. While it was an impressive spectacle, some moments fell flat (a sentiment I heard from people who were there, too). The costume changes were over-long, meaning her backing musicians had to play lengthy solos before she would finally reappear.
This week, she tightened things up. Her default costume appeared to be a pair of decorated Spandex shorts over a leotard, with stars next to her eyes and on her temples. While her appearance may have changed a bit, the set list was rather similar. Her banter with the audience at times seemed to fall flat—although she admitted to the audience that she felt a little nervous, in part because her parents were in attendance.
She also told a story about how she arrived in Los Angeles from New York wearing all leather, and was told that it was too hot to wear leather. She added that she still loves leather and that she was bringing leather to the desert. I’m sure the small group of bears I saw earlier in the evening walking around with leather harnesses and aviator sunglasses were in that sea of 100,000 people screaming, “YOU GO GIRL!”
Many of the visuals that accompanied the performance were not included all that much on the live stream last week—and in person, the visuals were indeed stunning and well-done.
Lady Gaga ain’t my cup of tea, but I appreciate the energy that her music puts out, and that she has fans from all walks of life. While the performance was a little rough around the edges for my tastes, her appearance will be remembered fondly by most.
Other Saturday highlights
• Local band the Yip Yops were an early afternoon delight in the Gobi Tent, with many people coming through to check them out. Their evolving and futuristic sound definitely made them stand out. Of course, the Yip Yops were ready for the Coachella stage two years ago.
• Chicano Batman performed to a large and fantastically diverse crowd at the Outdoor Stage on Saturday afternoon. Despite temperatures at almost 100 degrees, the band still played in ruffled shirts and new navy suits. This band is truly on the rise and drew a much larger crowd than they did when they played in 2015.
• The Heineken House was the place to be on Saturday, thanks to the air conditioning and the never-ending flowing of cold, delicious beer. Late in the afternoon, the protopunk band Death, the subject of a documentary titled A Band Called Death, performed in the tent. While it may have annoyed the typical Heineken House audience of people who like house and trap music, the rock crowd that turned out to hear them play—myself included—loved every minute of it. One has to wonder why they were not put in the Sonora Tent instead.
• Bon Iver’s co-headlining Main Stage performance was nothing short of fantastic. The band’s indie-folk sound has evolved in a big way, and the show was nothing like the group’s Coachella 2012 performance. There was a lot of live sampling and layering during the performance, along with some pretty trippy visuals. Also, Bruce Hornsby and Jenny Lewis appeared with front man Justin Vernon at the end of his set. Vernon, wearing a T-shirt that said “PEOPLE” across the front of it, declared toward the end of his set: “If you don’t have close friends, you don’t have shit.”
Photo credits (below): Death, by Brian Blueskye; Bon Iver, by Julian Bajsel/Goldenvoice; Chicano Batman, by Erik Voake/Goldenvoice; Yip Yops, by Quinn Tucker/Goldenvoice
Camping accommodations at Coachella are pretty sweet—if you like to party.
But what if you aren’t into partying, are Jewish, and are attending Coachella? Shabbat Tent has you covered.
Coachella and Passover tend to overlap at times—as was the case last weekend. This weekend, on Saturday morning—during the Sabbath—I noticed Shabbat Tent and decided to stop in. There, I met Rabbi Yonah Bookstein.
Before the service, Rabbi Bookstein’s volunteers offered attendees grape juice, wine or whiskey to drink during the service. One of the attendees raised his hand and said, “WHISKEY PLEASE!” He then added: “I LOVE JUDAISM!”
During the brief Sabbath service, Rabbi Bookstein discussed giving freely to others without expecting anything in return, as well as the meaning of establishing healthy boundaries.
Shabbat Tent doesn’t only show up at Coachella. When you look at the Shabbat Tent website, you’ll see it has appeared at numerous U.S. music festivals, both small and large. The tent is not only a place observe together; it’s also a place where people can get hot meals, water and even some entertainment.
“The idea of Shabbat Tent started in 1999,” Rabbi Bookstein told me after he finished the service. “A couple friends of mine noticed a lot of people of Jewish background going to these festivals. They want to observe some of their Jewish rituals together. They wanted to have a themed tent where they could get together. That was the original idea. They’re going to be there on Friday night during Shabbat, ‘So let’s do Shabbat together.’”
Bookstein told me that everyone is welcome in the tent. His wife, Rachel, and all the volunteers are very hospitable toward all.
Bookstein said Shabbat Tent organizers quickly learned they were on to something. “There are the people who want to come together. But then there are hundreds (of people), or at some festivals even thousands, who also want to benefit and participate. Maybe they have a Jewish background; maybe they want to do Shabbat.
“Then there’s another element, which is opening a hospitality tent. You can’t just make it for Jewish people; you have to make it for everybody. It’s got to be universal. Shabbat Tent became a universal tent to create a place of chill and community in the middle of the craziness of a music festival.
“Coachella is more of a party scene than any of the other festivals that I can think of. Some people have asked us, ‘Why would you go to Coachella? It’s nothing but a big party.’ Actually, that’s why we need to be here more than ever. Because Coachella is such a party atmosphere, there are not a lot of places for people to chill and relax. Here, I feel we’re a necessity as to what’s going on, to provide people with a safe and chill area.”
The Shabbat Tent was of great service to Coachella attendees who found themselves in distress this weekend, as a rash of robberies hit the festival.
“People here get robbed. Who else is going to give them water and food?” Bookstein said. “They just can’t walk over to any of those vendors and say, ‘Hey, my wallet got stolen. Can I have a burger?’ They can come to Shabbat Tent, and we’ll give them water and food. We had a few people sleeping here last night who had their tent stolen, and a couple of people had their friends leave and abandon them. They had no place to sleep and no food, so they slept here at the Shabbat Tent.
“There’s another element, which we never planned for, which is Coachella not serving Kosher food. We have a Kosher kitchen here.”
Is Rabbi Bookstein excited to see any of the acts at Coachella? He laughed when I asked him and he described himself as more of a bluegrass fan.
“This is not my kind of music,” he said. “I appreciate the people, and there are some really talented people here. There is somebody playing on Sunday who I want to see: Toots and the Maytals. But this is not my lineup. A couple of years ago, when the Red Hot Chili Peppers played, my wife and I went and saw them a little bit, which is was fun. I grew up a few decades ago, so that was the music I remembered from high school.”
Radiohead’s Weekend 1 Coachella performance was, by all accounts, a disaster.
That was on everybody’s mind as the Friday headliner prepared to take the stage for Weekend 2.
I wasn’t at Coachella last weekend, but I certainly heard about the sound issues, intense audio feedback and other problems that forced the band off stage twice during the set.
Also … the band played “Creep” last weekend—a song the group almost never plays. Was it planned for the set list, or was it added as a consolation for fans who braved the technical difficulties?
I may never get the answer to that last question, but all of my other queries and concerns were washed away: Radiohead’s Weekend 2 performance was fantastic.
Ambient and atmospheric sounds emanated from giant poles, with speakers positioned throughout the Main Stage crowd area, before the band took the stage; it reminded me of Roger Waters’ Desert Trip performance. Speakers like this can really complement sound effects—or make a band’s sound schizophrenic.
Radiohead took the stage with a surprising lack of visuals: The video walls to the left and were not on, and a large round oval—visible as a non-operational backdrop throughout the entire day—remained non-operational. (This is called foreshadowing, kids!) During the first two songs—“Daydreaming” and “Desert Island Disk”—the only visual effects were lights shining upward on the stage.
Then came “Ful Stop,” the third song—where all the problems started last week. Suddenly, visuals on the sides of the stage started—and the aforementioned large, round oval in the background came to life.
It was like a cosmic blast.
The speakers throughout the field in the Main Stage area began to add layers and little noises to Radiohead’s music. Thom Yorke was energetic, although he avoided conversation with the audience, other than quipping that Radiohead was ready for a residency in Las Vegas.
While the Weekend 2 crowd didn’t get to hear “Creep,” we were treated to “Fake Plastic Trees,” another song the band almost never plays live.
Radiohead’s Friday night set was indeed a beautiful thing, and Weekend 2 attendees—who tend to be more of a music-aficionado crowd than the Weekend 1 group—left the Empire Polo Club on Friday night quite happy.
Other Friday highlights
• Local band Kayves absolutely rocked the Gobi tent. A nice crowd came to catch a glimpse of the band, which was received well. I had to laugh when Nick Hernandez explained that Kayves was on Spotify; this led a man to scream, “WHERE ARE YOU FROM!?” Alas, his shout went unheard by the band.
• The Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s second appearance at Coachella was also well-received—which, considering the group was performing traditional jazz, was a beautiful thing. The group played some material from its new album, So It Is, and praised the crowd for “getting (their) asses out of bed early” to see them—even though it was after 3 p.m.
• King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard (say that 10 times fast!) is a psychedelic rock band that includes elements of garage rock and metal. Also … I swear there’s a touch of Indian music for which Ravi Shankar was so famous—even though nobody plays sitar in that band. Anyway, the band turned in a fantastic afternoon set, while saying that the band’s Weekend 2 crowd was better than last week’s group. Pretty far out, man.
• The Interrupters performed an energetic, upbeat and wildly fun performance in the new, punk-and-garage-leaning Sonora Tent during the early evening—one of several new additions to Coachella this year that boosted capacity to a whopping 125,000 people. (Good news: The tent’s air-conditioned. Bad news: It looks like Nickelodeon threw up in there.) The Interrupters gained a huge mosh pit and knowledgeable fans who knew the lyrics to the songs—screaming along with Aimee Interrupter. At the end of the performance, guitarist Kevin Bivona told the crowd he wanted some audience participation, and asked if anyone knew how to play guitar. In response, a guy got up onstage; when asked what his name was, he replied “Tim” in a gruff voice, before a crew member handed him a worn-down black Gretsch guitar. That not-so-random audience member: Tim Armstrong of Rancid, who played two songs with the group and then went back into the crowd, where he took selfies with attendees who couldn’t believe what had just happened.
Photo credits (below): Kayves, by Julian Bajsel/Goldenvoice; King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, by Charles Reagan Hackleman/Goldenvoice; The Interrupters, by Everett Fitzpatrick/Goldenvoice.
You’ve probably never heard of Klangstof. If that’s indeed the case … you really need to change that.
From Amsterdam, the group has been performing together since 2015, and is now signed with Warner Bros. This year, Klangstof became the first Dutch group to ever play at Coachella.
Front man Koen van de Wardt stopped by the media tent on Friday, April 21, and chatted with me about his Coachella experience.
“It’s been amazing,” van de Wardt said, beaming with a smile. “It’s been everything I expected and a little bit more. It’s our first United States festival date, and it’s a very cool one as a first experience. Everything has been so overwhelming. All these people are walking around. Obviously, the heat is horrible, but you try to deal with it.”
Van de Wardt said the band has played at festivals in Europe—but the experience here is rather different.
“American crowds are very honest,” he said. “If they don’t like anything, they’ll (complain) right away. If they love it, they’ll be screaming. In Europe, it’s like people wear a mask. You can’t really read them as you would American people. I really love playing Coachella—because whenever you play a good song, people notice it right away. You can really feel the vibe of the audience right away.”
Klangstof’s indie sound may be a tough sell in America, but van de Wardt said he hopes people will keep an open mind.
“I wouldn’t call it a struggle, but we definitely need to work a lot harder playing in America,” he said. “We have to take way more extra steps to get going here. But I think if we work hard to get that done, people will understand at last. We’ll get there.”
Klangstof will soon go on tour with the Flaming Lips—one of the craziest live psychedelic-rock bands in the world. A look of excitement came over van de Wardt’s face when I asked him about it.
“I’ve never seen them live before, so that’s going to be a first for me. I really can’t wait to see the unicorns, the confetti and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “I also like to tour with a band that inspires me—the bands you watch and say, ‘Now I’m inspired to write new music.’ I think the Flaming Lips are the perfect band to go on tour with, because they’re so different. They really do their own thing, and I’m looking forward to asking them how they do it and how they record their music. For me, it’s going to be a great learning process.”
Van de Wardt also talked about Radiohead’s glitch-filled performance last week.
“I really enjoyed Radiohead last week, even though they had all those sound problems,” he said. “I’ve seen a perfect Radiohead show before so many times, and I was curious to see how they coped with such a big problem. It was inspiring and very cool to watch a band cope with such a problem.”
I asked him what he thought about the cult of Lady Gaga, which is most definitely present at Coachella this year. He said he understood it—even if he doesn’t share warm feelings for the Saturday headliner’s music.
“I actually fell asleep during Lady Gaga because I was so tired,” he said. “That's definitely some kind of music I don’t understand myself, but I do understand it’s poppy and catchy, and people love it. But I always find it hard to trigger me. I do understand why she’s popular. I was awake for it for about 15 minutes, and I understand that it really works—how she does it onstage, and every move she makes. It’s very well-thought through, and it works great.”
Klangstof said the band is already booked through December.
“We’re doing the Flaming Lips tour first, going through the United States as well, and then we’re going to run through some festivals in Europe. After that, I want to rent a cabin in Norway, get the band in, set up our equipment and be there for three months.”
A poet at Stagecoach? Yes, indeed.
Renowned cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell will be returning to Stagecoach to serve as the Mustang Tent’s emcee for the entire weekend, April 28-30. Mitchell, who has recorded eight albums, is known for his poems such as “Story With a Moral,” “The Bristlecone Pine,” “The Rawhide Braider,” and “Night Before Christmas on the West Texas Plains.”
During a recent phone interview, he discussed his love for poetry that goes back to his childhood in Elko County, Nev.
“It was just always there for me,” Mitchell said. “I grew up on a ranch that was really remote. We were 60 miles from town and about 30 miles from a dirt road. We were 14 miles away from the nearest neighbor. We didn’t even have electricity, and we did the strangest things at night: We sat around and talked to each other. People have forgotten this, but it was very common practice when people would come to visit for (hosts) to be playing a musical instrument, singing a song or reciting poetry. I got into kind of the last of that, I think.
“Some of the old cowboys my dad hired would actually recite a poem or two. If you want to get a kid’s interest, give him a rhyme and a meter. Look at Dr. Seuss. That was something special when they would just tell me the story of ‘Casey at the Bat’ or ‘Cremation of Sam McGee,’ and all those things just resonated and became part of my life. I started reciting early, and by the time I was in high school, I was changing very nice and pleasant lyrics in songs of the day to silly, lewd kid stuff. I found I could write in rhyme and meter if I thought about it.”
Mitchell explained what his poetry is all about.
“It covers life; it covers who I am; it covers what’s around me, and hopefully people realize that cowboys are semi-human, so we have a lot of the same concerns,” Mitchell said. “There are only so many experiences humans can have, and they can get them from a wide variety of situations. … Each story has been told millions of times. What I try to do is make it interesting in the words of the language and try to make it part yours.
“We can all watch a Steven Spielberg movie … but we’re all voyeurs in that. We are watching. If you watch little kids watch movies like that, they get a dumb kind of look on their face and don’t react. But if you read kids stories, you’ll see physical reactions, because it takes them away from being a voyeur and puts them more into: ‘This is what’s happening right now to me.’”
I mentioned to Mitchell that poetry seems to be, frankly, a dead or dying art form.
“I think that it’s died more than once,” he responded. “I think human nature and human experience is like history repeating itself. I think one time, I premiered a book at City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, which is owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He and I got to sit down for a long time. Lawrence Ferlinghetti is one of the great beat poets of the time. We visited, and he said to me, ‘I’m really glad you guys are coming along and giving poetry back to the American people. I’m afraid I was part of a movement that actually removed poetry from the common person.’ Many people who love beat poetry are going to argue about that. If you think about it, the few surviving poets of that time were the Robert Frost-type of poet. Robert Frost was asked about this free-verse poetry, and his answer was great. He said: ‘Very interesting, isn’t it? It’s like playing tennis with the net down.’ I thought: That is part of poetry. Poetry doesn’t have to make you feel sorry for the poet or sorry for yourself, or let you know how bad the world or humankind is. It doesn’t have to do that. It can bring joy and comedy, and can touch all facets of life. We need poetry to tell us the politics of the day and remind us of feelings.”
Mitchell made one additional point about the state of human communication today.
“We don’t even rely on newspapers anymore,” he said. “We still rely on storytelling, no matter what media. No matter what media you go to … you have to go back to basic human communication. Music, arts and poetry are needed media staples in our life.”
Mitchell said he has enjoyed the wide variety of acts he’s encountered in the past at Stagecoach.
“For a guy who completely dreads crowds, and for a guy who is fairly uneducated as to who’s the newest big shot in Nashville, I still love it,” he said. “I still think that the people who put it on are good at what they’re doing—very good. They make it very comfortable for people to be there and make it very comfortable for you to find the type of entertainment you want. You can have the biggest of the modern Nasvhille stars on one stage, and the greats of yesteryear on another stage. Then you can come to my stage and have everything from the greats of bluegrass to the upcoming types of music that are bluegrass and the old-Americana type. But we’ve had Garrison Keillor up there, too.”
If you’re expecting a full cowboy poetry set from Mitchell this year … sorry, but you’re out of luck.
“It’s a funny thing: This year, they are bringing me in strictly to emcee the stage, just because they’re good people,” he said. “They didn’t want to leave me out and had filled the roster. They realized that my name wasn’t on it, and they hired me to come and be the host of the stage. I generally know the artists and get to introduce them in a way that the people who are there are actually introduced to them.”
Blending country music with jazz and pop is not easy—but for Robert Ellis, it seemingly comes naturally; just check out his latest (self-titled) album.
Ellis will be making his second appearance at Stagecoach on Saturday, April 29.
During a recent phone interview, Ellis said he did not use a specific formula while recording his latest album, which was his fourth.
“As much as I’d like to take credit for every decision and say that it’s all premeditated and conscious, a lot of what happens in making music is pretty accidental,” Ellis said. “You just chase down a vibe, and you go in a direction of things that excites you. At the end of the process, you can turn around and say, ‘I intended to make it this way,’ but in reality, it’s not always like that. It’s more about what your boundaries are and what your parameters are. If you have decided that you want to make a very Americana album, and the only instruments you want on it are acoustic guitar, stock electric guitar and harmonica, you sort of (have) a narrow window as to what can happen. But we didn’t have any of those boundaries when we started recording. We ended up with this weird thing.”
As far as the Americana genre goes, Ellis isn’t really a fan, and doesn’t consider his music to be a fit.
“I find most Americana music to be pretty boring,” he said. “It doesn’t interest me. I understand the reason why what I do is grouped into that genre; I get it. I think people tend to have superficial reasons as to why they group things together. I am from the South, and I write songs that are sort of story-based. At least in the past, there were some country and folk elements to what I was doing. So I can see why I was thrown into that category, and it makes perfect sense. But I don’t listen to that music. I like a lot of music that is described as folk music, like Joni Mitchell, but I think what she does is weird and progressive. If you look at the players on her records, like Jaco Pastorius and Michael Brecker, these are not big names in folk music; they’re jazz players. Everyone remembers Joni Mitchell as this flower-power folk artist.”
Ellis talked about a specific artist on his current playlist.
“I just bought the Joanna Newsom record. I was listening to that this morning,” Ellis said. “I really love that she’s not on Spotify, because you just can’t fucking go listen to her music for free. I thought, ‘I really want to hear that new record.’ I had to go on iTunes and buy it for $11. It’s not like I have a ton of spendable income, but her album is worth the money. I felt really good about spending money on her album. I think there are very few artists who do that, and it felt rewarding, because I don’t know the last time I bought a record.”
Ellis explained how he approaches songwriting, and what he thinks makes a good song.
“It could be anything. I like a lot of different music for a lot of different reasons,” he said. “What I try to do in my songs is communicate a story and choose the music to go along in telling that story. We listen to a lot of jazz, and a lot of rock ’n’ roll, and we just improvise.”
Ellis spends a lot of time each year on tour.
“Three hundred days,” he said. “I have good days and bad days. Generally, the time onstage is the best thing in the world. It feels right, and I feel time passing effortlessly while I’m getting to play music. It’s all the other shit that gets old. It’s all the driving and the other bullshit you have to do to make this work—like figure out how to sell music. It feels pretty tacky and time-consuming. But the actual performing and improvising never gets old, especially after you’ve been driving for 8 or 9 hours. All I want to do is be in the moment, improvise and play music.”
Ellis said he’s consistently writing, too.
“I have a lot of records in me that I really want to do,” he said. “I guess if I get enough coffee in me, I have 10 albums I wish I could do in the next five minutes. I’d love to do a record of jazz standards. But I have no idea what the next record will be like—but it definitely won’t sound like the last one.”
Stagecoach’s lineup is usually weirdly diverse. Ellis said that he finds Stagecoach to be inexplicable—but in a good way.
“A lot of the artists at Stagecoach are these weird left-of-center artists,” Ellis said. “I know Phosphorescent played Stagecoach a few years ago. The last time, I played Stagecoach, Toby Keith was the headliner. Nora Jones’ country band was there, and so was Old Crow Medicine Show. There’s a wide variety of artists that play that thing. I definitely don’t think Toby Keith and Old Crow Medicine Show play the same genre of music. I don’t feel out of place at all, because I don’t know the identifying quality all of the bands have. I haven’t been able to wrap my head around that. Last time I played, people seemed to really dig it, and I had a good crowd. It’s California, so it’s all kinds of different people.”
The name Justin Townes Earle tells several stories. The middle name pays homage to Townes Van Zandt, and his last name … well, yes, he’s Steve Earle’s son.
But Justin Townes Earle has made a name for himself; his music is truly his own. Like his father, he’s a country musician who frequently strays from the Nashville mainstream. Like both his father and his father’s mentor, Townes Van Zandt, he’s battled drug addiction.
He’ll be returning to Stagecoach on Friday, April 28.
His most recent albums, released in 2014 and 2015 respectively, were titled Single Mothers and Absent Fathers. During a recent phone interview, Earle talked about the differences between the similar albums.
“I ended up getting frustrated with the first record, Single Mothers,” Earle said. “I ended up writing Absent Fathers during (a) second year. They ended up coming together, because they were written really close to each other. I wouldn’t haven’t written Absent Fathers if I didn’t have that second year of frustrations I had with Single Mothers.
“I think, as an artist, I listen to a lot of different types of music. I think my records definitely have more of an Americana sound or whatever it is. … I paid more attention to my Replacements records and things like that. The new record I’ve made is more of a blues record, more along the lines of the Harlem River Blues album. Nobody should ever expect me to make the same record twice, or (for the records to) even to be in line with each other. I’m a whimsical motherfucker.”
As for that new record, just a couple of days after our interview, it was announced that Kids in the Street would be released May 26.
“During my early career, I would take a year between records,” Earle said. “Then I started taking two. It’s definitely time (for a new record).”
I asked whether taking more time between records helps or hinders his creative process.
“Really, I found it more frustrating to wait more than a year,” he replied. “I get a group of songs done, and I have time to second-guess them. I end up doing rewrites, edits and all kinds of things that maybe needed to be done, and maybe didn’t. But that’s up to the individual song. I do prefer the faster pace of work, but life doesn’t allow for that too much anymore.”
While he respects his father’s political music, Earle said he’s not a big fan of mixing politics and music.
“It’s not that I’m not interested in it; it’s something I think for me, personally, I would approach it very carefully,” he said. “I’m not happy about either political party. It’s been, ‘I’d rather vote for Jeffrey Giraffe instead of this person.’ It’s been like that my whole lifetime. I’ve always seen music as the Grand Ole Opry, the Louisiana Hayride, and this thing where everyone can go, which is a high for society. I want my music to be where you don’t have to believe what I believe to feel comfortable at one of my shows. I think we have very few bonds between Americans today.
“I don’t disagree with my father’s music, because that’s what he does. He’s really good at it. But it’s just not what I do. I feel like it works its way into my songs, but I tend to use more social ideas, and it tends to be buried. I write about people issues, everyday life issues and local issues.”
Earle said his father pays a price for his politics.
“I think that after years, you can’t go to a Steve Earle concert expecting anything different. But recently, it doesn’t go over very good for him in the South,” he said. “People will get up and leave one of his shows pissed off. It does happen, and that’s only because they didn’t do their homework, and they only remember ‘Copperhead Road’ and nothing else. But I wonder how big his crowds would be had he not gone that direction. Those people don’t come to the shows anymore.”
Justin Townes Earle now lives on the West Coast, after living in New York City. However, Earle said he misses the South.
“I’ve always missed things about the South, no matter where I’ve lived. It’s what I grew up with,” Earle said. “People aren’t as communal anywhere else as I’ve seen growing up in the South. I don’t know what it is, but there’s a certain niceness to Southern people that doesn’t exist anywhere else, and it’s a certain kind of nice. It’s just familiar to me.
“I miss Nashville—and that’s not anything you can see anymore. It’s gone. It’s buried, and the rate at which Nashville gentrified is just astounding. It’s not that it was a better place when I grew up. It was rough, and it was a dangerous city in the ’80s and ’90s. There was no industry; most of the inner city was poor and rough. … But my mom always got to take me back to the place where she got a burger when she was a little girl and the toy store where her dad bought her toys. I got to do all that stuff with my mom when I was growing up, and I can’t do that with my kid.”
As for his addiction days, Earle said they are behind him.
“I was 24 years old when my first EP came out, and I’m 35 now. There’s a drastic difference,” he said. “I’m also a married man now, and definitely a lot more stable of a human being than I used to be. I guess the self-destructive bomb found its way out of me. I do believe it has a lot to do with my wife, and if we’re happy with life, we’re not going to try to alter it. But I’m also not going to start writing songs about walking on sunshine and things like that.”
The last time Earle played Stagecoach, in 2013, his tour bus was parked right next to the Palomino stage. He said he enjoyed the diversity of the festival.
“For as big of a festival as it is, it’s laid out very well,” he said. “I’ve never played a large festival like that where I could put my bus right by the stage. I love that about it. It’s set up very well, and it’s very easy to get around. It’s really interesting how that festival is evolving in a big way. There’s definitely been this new look in the past several years of looking at the popular country vibe and doing that because people love that, but also bringing in some obscure acts that sound different. I think that it’s become a very progressive festival; a lot of other festivals get stuck in their ways.”
John Robbins has been around the local music scene for quite a while—and one of his many talents is his expert playing of the ukulele. He can perform classical pieces on the instrument, as well as a cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and even songs like AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” Despite being visually impaired, he’s also a visual artist; his work can be seen at www.facebook.com/whoseworldcomic. John was kind enough to answer the Lucky 13; here are his answers.
What was the first concert you attended?
I’m not exactly sure, but the earliest one I can remember is seeing Jose Feliciano on an outdoor stage in Berkeley when I was a kid. It was great to see one of my idols at the time!
What was the first album you owned?
Nirvana’s Nevermind, back in high school. Better late than never, right?
What bands are you listening to right now?
I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz recently with my dad: Steve Allen, Zoot Sims, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, etc. Otherwise, I’ve been really into J-Rock (bands from Japan): X-Japan, The Oral Cigarettes, The Pillows, Special Others and The Brilliant Green.
What artist, genre or musical trend does everyone love, but you don’t get?
Any sub-genre of metal. What’s djent and metalcore? Why not just say you play metal?
What musical act, current or defunct, would you most like to see perform live?
Kaki King. I saw her play once back when her first album came out, but I’d love to see what she can do now since her style of playing has evolved so much within the last decade.
What’s your favorite musical guilty pleasure?
1990s pop/pop-rock. It’s just fun to listen to! Who wouldn’t want to bob their head to “The Sign” by Ace of Base or sing along to any Boyz II Men?
What’s your favorite music venue?
The Hood Bar and Pizza in Palm Desert. It’s always a good time over there, especially for open mic!
What’s the one song lyric you can’t get out of your head?
“Let’s drive them crazy!” from the English version of “Hey Kids!” by The Oral Cigarettes, which is performed by a YouTuber called AmaLee.
What band or artist changed your life? How?
Jake Shimabukuro. I saw him live in 2006 when he played at The Knitting Factory with Kaki King. The way that he played ukulele was absolutely mind-blowing. I had no idea such a tiny instrument could be that powerful and move so many people. Needless to say, the ukulele has been my favorite instrument to play ever since!
You have one question to ask one musician. What’s the question, and who are you asking?
I’d ask Jake Shimabukuro: “How does it feel knowing you’ve inspired so many people to learn how to play ukulele?”
What song would you like played at your funeral?
Jake Shimabukuro’s arrangement of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Figurative gun to your head, what is your favorite album of all time?
What song should everyone listen to right now?
“Little Monster” by Royal Blood! What are you waiting for? GO LISTEN! (Scroll down to hear it.)
Radio personality Brad Mercer is known for his long-running Bands ’N’ Fans radio show on local country-music station KXCM. However, his showbiz talents extend well beyond radio.
Mercer’s show can be heard every Saturday from 4 to 6 p.m. on KXCM FM 96.3/92.1, and streaming at www.bradmercersbnf.com.
During a recent phone interview, Mercer talked about his true passions.
“I’ve done so much in my life that it boils down to helping other artists get to where they want to go,” Mercer said. “I’ve done so much in my life that I’ve wanted to pass it on to the younger artists who are trying to get somewhere in the business. The only way I know how to do that is to help promote them in some way.”
His showbiz career started rather inauspiciously.
“It started when I got my first guitar, which was back in 1955. I cut my teeth on live television at KTLA,” Mercer said. “My mother and father had a live television show called Bandstand Review. It was actually put together with the Mercer Brothers; it was my father and my uncle. They put me on one night, and it was before tape, and it was all live—and my debut was a close-up on my face, picking my nose. The director fell off his stool in the control room and never forgot that.
“The next thing I knew, I had a guitar at 5 years old and started learning Johnny Cash, guys like Roger Miller, and everything I could. It was the only thing I heard, because I wasn’t around rock ’n’ roll at the time. (As with) every other musician in the world who wants to do something, everything changed that night Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles. Whatever they did, I copied. I wanted to be a Beatle.”
In 1975, Mercer started his own band. He’d go on to record in Nashville, tour America—and just miss another potentially notable television moment, involving a recently departed comedy legend.
“I had six major albums behind me that didn’t do anything, because at that time, you had Fleetwood Mac coming out, along with Crosby, Stills and Nash. Those were bands that had all those labels behind them. The stuff I was doing back then was always a day late and a dollar short.” Mercer said. “I did make it to the Tonight Show green room. I had a song out at that time called ‘Don Rickles for President.’ Don calls me up and says, ‘You gotta come over and perform it. I’m hosting The Tonight Show; Johnny (Carson) is on vacation, and let’s do it!’ I’m thinking to myself, ‘Man, this is it!’ I’m getting ready to go, and I got bumped. He said, ‘Don’t worry, Brad; we’ll do it tomorrow.’ The next day, I’m at the pool in Burbank, and I get a phone call from Don’s manager: ‘Brad, Carson is coming back, Don is going to start shooting C.P.O. Sharkey, and you’re out.’”
Eventually, Mercer found himself in Jacksonville, Fla. That was where Mercer discovered another talent.
“I was at this comedy club called Sassy’s in Jacksonville Beach,” Mercer remembered. “I was sitting at the bar laughing and said, ‘I could do that.’ This guy next to me said, ‘Go ahead. Go on up there!’ I asked, ‘Who are you?’ and he said, ‘I own the club.’ I walked up onstage, and everything I learned from my father came to me: I did five minutes and had them laughing. (The owner) offered me a job to help him run the club. I booked acts who I had worked with like Pat Paulsen, Rita Rudner and a good friend at the time named Jay Leno. As I’m running these acts, I would go up and do five minutes, which would go to 10 minutes, and I was building material at the time. Jay would always call me and say, ‘Hey Brad. I’m coming through town; can you plug me in?’ I’d say, ‘Jay, all I have is $750. I can’t pay you any more than that.’ And he’d say, ‘It’s all right; we’ll go out and ride motorcycles.’ I would open up for him when he would come to town. That happened with George Carlin as well. The comedy led to radio.”
Mercer recently began recording and playing with local band Braun Fraulein—which means “Brown Girl” in German, he pointed out. Watch for an album-release show in the coming months.
“They’ve been here for a while,” Mercer said. “They would play the Palm Canyon Roadhouse; they would play the Joshua Tree Saloon; and they would play free concerts. Everywhere they’d go, it’d be three guys: Jimi Heil on guitar, Mark Fry on bass, and Eric Mouness on drums. When they played, it mesmerized me, because it was different. We got to know each other. … They knew who I was and would bring me up onstage. They didn’t want to do covers and wanted to do originals. I threw a bunch of originals at them, and when they played them, it took on a whole different aura and sounded really good.”
One of the songs they recorded is “Drain the Swamp,” which Mercer said is not particularly partisan. He explained the story behind the song.
“One night at the compound, which is Mark Fry’s studio up in Sky Valley, before the presidential election, we started jamming on a riff I created, and they got into it, and it started to come together,” Mercer said. “During that time period, you heard ‘Drain the Swamp’ and ‘Let’s Make America Great Again.’ We’re thinking, ‘That would be really cool, no matter who did it, no matter who was in office.’ We didn’t put politics into this at all. I just started singing ‘Drain the Swamp.’ I made up lyrics, and Jimi had the tape rolling. We took it back, and we were like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty good.’
“About a week before the inauguration, we released the video for it, and it was approaching 30,000 views. We had people saying, ‘You gotta play the inauguration.’ People really tried to get us to do that. It was nice to know they thought the song was that good. It wasn’t necessarily for Trump or Clinton; it had nothing to do with that. It was all about making America great again and draining the swamp in Washington, D.C., no matter who did it.”