Savages perform at Coachella's first weekend. (Bethany Mollenkof / Los…)
English quartet Savages didn’t need much time to make an impression at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. The band, in fact, still had more than 15 minutes left on the clock when it strummed its last menacing guitar note during its early set Saturday.
There was reason to be concerned. The venomous hard rock band, with three of its four members outfitted in nearly all black, doesn’t exactly look like the type that enjoys a good brunchtime concert. Then there’s singer Jehnny Beth, who lets her arms do the talking and her voice do the hollering. As she did at the recent South by Southwest festival and conference in Austin, Texas, the only time she spoke to the audience today was to introduce a song entitled “Shut Up.”
Beth keeps it curt. Her band keeps it vicious.
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Ayse Hassan’s bass notes wrangle like someone rattling chains in the sewers, and it’s rare that Gemma Thompson is seen strumming her guitar: She strikes it, pokes it, scrapes it and rarely hits a note that isn't fully distorted. Blink, or keep your eyes attuned to the boiling-with-tension Beth, and suddenly a cold bass line is enveloped by torrent of noise from Thompson’s direction.
Beth is as ferocious a band leader as Nick Cave, sometimes gripping the microphone as if it’s the only thing keeping her standing, and other times taking a step back as if she wants to challenge the audience or anyone who will come in her way. Notes clank like just-sharpened knives in “She Will,” and few songs at Coachella came off as damning as “Husbands.”
“My house, my bed,” Beth snarled. Drummer Fay Milton, the one band member who dared wear red, slowly itched up closer to her instruments, looking as if she anticipated but never quite knew when Beth would explode. The set ended with Beth shrieking “husbands” over and over, and the cathartic release had been building for so long that it wasn’t necessarily frightening. It was a moment of clarity.
If it’s a good year for rock ‘n’ roll at Coachella -- as evidenced by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Blur and Grinderman Friday night -- but dance is still a main drawing point for many. Coachella’s biggest and most dance-oriented tent, the Sahara, remains the most impressive stage at the venue. The indoor/outdoor tent is outfitted in a full sensory display from top to bottom, with speakers leading all the way to the rear exits.
It’s certainly the best-sounding stage at Coachella, and French DJ crew Birdy Nam Nam made it seem as if the act was reenacting the soundtrack to a spy movie. Beats didn’t hit so much as snap, leaving a slight echo when they were dispersed, as if they originated from a whip, and layered orchestrations took the place over alarms. The act even turned the sound of dripping water into a groove, and as it built it felt as if James Bond was driving through a rain shower.
Earlier and next door, throwback rock act Guards powered three decades of power-pop history with devilishly smart hooks. Guards toy with loud-soft dynamics, and touch on pastel harmonies and thick, almost ‘60s garage rock riffs, but it’s the back and forth between keyboardist Kaylie Church and Richie Follin that sets the group apart.
When Follin sings, he cradles the guitar as close to his chest as he can, but Church’s background vocals or slow-building harmonies are shadowing nearby. At times, the band seemed to work up a frenzy just to keep Church from taking control of the tune and bringing it into lighter, more atmospheric territory. It was continued evidence that a little tension goes a long way.
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