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Op Ed: Bon Iver At Coachella – Bob Lefsetz

I thought I was going to be crushed at the David Guetta show.

And I wasn’t even in the tent.

Happened to me once before, decades back, at a Chambers Brothers show in Boston Common. My feet left the ground, I was being held up by bodies, somehow I squirmed my way to the right and was ejected from the scrum.

And I’ve never forgotten it.

On Saturday I saw too many bands giving good performances of mediocre material, and one band with great material that was so long in the tooth it was creepy, and an acoustic act that was as out of place as a Muslim at a Bar Mitzvah. But on my way to the Sahara tent I encountered Kasabian. They reaffirmed my optimism. They were good.

You can tell when an act has that little something extra.

But minutes before Kasabian left the stage, the swarm started to move. That’s what it was, like endless gnats moving to the Sahara tent.

I moved too, but got so frightened of being caught in the mass of bodies that I stayed outside the tent, where I was still being bumped into and twirled like a top. Guetta eventually featured Usher, but by that time I was gone. The patrons kept streaming in, I wanted out.

And then there was that Canadian singer, with a bunch of extra players on stage. She was charismatic, merging with her guitar, but once again, the material was disappointing.

And then I saw Bon Iver.

To say this guy and his band were great would be an understatement, they were TRANSCENDENT!

Incredibly well-rehearsed.

But most importantly, they sounded completely different from every other act on the bill. They were a party of one. I couldn’t take my eyes off them.

In a sea of mediocrity, excellence stands out.

Oh, what the hell, let me start naming names.

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. If she doesn’t get your willy moving, you’re gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) The sound was impeccable, the solos were good, and the material was so damn mediocre that she could close nobody, applause was minimal. And when AWOLNATION started up on the main stage, I gave up. That’s one of the problems at Coachella, sound bleed. It’s a war of who can turn up their amps louder. And if you think this is appealing, you’re deaf.

How about tUnE-yArDs? Great on paper, decent on YouTube and so out there live that almost no one clapped. We were all shaking our heads. I couldn’t find one person she impressed.

The aforementioned AWOLNATION was loud and that’s it. The less said the better.

Kaiser Chiefs were in the wrong location, maybe the wrong era. In the bright California sunshine, their music didn’t penetrate. I loved hearing "I Predict A Riot", but the audience was near somnambulant.

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds…

Who gives a shit.

Smart guy, good guitar player, sub-mediocre voice. The more you listen, the more you miss Liam. I know Liam’s insane, but that doesn’t mean he’s not necessary.



And with so much more noise coming from every other stage, the cacophony made me want to move on, which I did.

Laura Marling?

Why don’t you whip out your guitar at the baseball game? She was so out of place, so overwhelmed by sound bleed as to be irrelevant.


Positively creepy. I’d hate to be an over-the-hill rock band. People remember your hits, want to hear nothing new and you play to an ever-dwindling audience, unable to give up because you were someone once. It hurts, I know. I loved hearing "Tempted", but the first part of the show was material I never need to hear again, and if you think they were good, you still believe your grandma is a hottie.


I’ll admit they were decent, but I never got in front of the stage. You’ve got to eat sometime, and go to the car for more clothes.


I wanted to love her. Up close and personal her complexion was less than perfect, she can really wail on the guitar, she closed me, she’s a rock star, but the longer I stood there the more the material washed off of me. She had everything but the hits.

And I’d like to explain what made Kasabian so damn good, but you know music, it’s like pornography, you know greatness when you see it.

And I didn’t think David Guetta was great. But there was no denying he had the audience in the palm of his hand.

As for the headliner, Radiohead… They made a crucial mistake. Trying to be unique, they refused to use the giant video screens on each side of the stage. Instead, we were subjected to their own tiny floating screens over the stage. Very cool. Excellent in theatres. But if you’re playing to tens of thousands, it just doesn’t translate. The problem with Radiohead? You just couldn’t see them!

And they were so boring at first, they lost fifteen or twenty percent of their audience, they just drifted off to Kaskade.

As did I.

The Sahara tent was full. There were incredible pink effects. There was an energy absent from the Radiohead show.

Oh, I went back to see Thom Yorke, et al. They played a few numbers I was familiar with. But really, they’re a band for fans only. If you’re not one, you’re not gonna be closed.

Which brings us back to Bon Iver…

Talk about overhyped! Every hipster in America is testifying about him.

Furthermore, the press fawns.

But he was everything we’re looking for, completely special without trying too hard.

He looks like a guy from your math class. His chest is not ripped and his hair is getting thin. But boy could he wring ethereal effects from his guitar.

And there was brass and backup vocals and the end result was an aural tapestry you couldn’t help but weave yourself into. What Justin Vernon was selling you can’t get at the movies, you can’t read in a book, it’s the essence of music.

Sure, he’s got a nontraditional voice. But so does Neil Young.

And Neil’s a good comparison. Because both he and Mr. Vernon go their own way, obey their own muse, are unaffected by both trends and media feedback.

Once upon a time, in the era of classic rock, the superstars sounded nothing alike.

But today, everybody fits into a slot. You rarely hear something new. And if you do, it’s not infectious.

But Bon Iver was.

And I realize Bon Iver is not EDM ("electronic dance music" for the uninitiated). But if you want to survive the deejay onslaught, that’s what you’ve got to be, different, unique, special.

Forget the TV competition shows. That’s like watching Little League.

Forget Top Forty radio. That’s old men doing it without emotion for the bucks. Breaking rules is anathema.

If you’re not willing to risk everything, without complaint, if you’re not willing to go your own way, you’re just not gonna make it, not in today’s market.

Come on Grace Potter, write one irresistible song! We don’t want to sleep with airheads, not more than once!

Feist…stop being so precious!

Noel Gallagher… Either form a band with Axl Rose or get back together with your brother, otherwise we just don’t care.

We live in an era where all that matters is excellence. And this is especially true at a festival like Coachella. When put next to great, good just fades away, we’re not interested.

If you can’t blow people away, if you’re not the cat’s meow, you’re better off avoiding the festival, you’re just gonna look small and irrelevant.

But if you can wring a magic sound from your instrument, if you can make us believe this moment is all that matters, if you can make the rest of the world fall away, getting us to concentrate only on you…

Then we’re all ears.