There was a time, not that long ago, when the two-or-three-day rock-festival experience was reserved for the Brits, who slogged through countless Glastonbury and Reading festivals while we Yanks were treated to traveling shows like the original Lollapaloozas every summer. When the Coachella festival — a multi-stage, alternative-leaning, two-day event that the booking agency Goldenrod brings to the Empire Polo Field in Indio, California, every May — was founded eight years ago, the idea seemed a bit risky, especially in light of the disaster that same year of Woodstock ’99. But Coachella, whose 2006 incarnation wrapped up last weekend, has now become an institution. And other festivals — like Bonnaroo, which this year scored Radiohead, and a three-day Lollapalooza in Chicago — have been springing up all over the country, using the Coachella model (inexpensive water, a veritable iPod-on-shuffle mix of artists).
Coachella itself underwent a serious change this year. In the past, the festival has amounted to a who’s-where assessment of not-quite mainstream music — a launching pad for buzz bands like the Arcade Fire, who were the stars in 2005, or for the re-formation of groups like the Pixies, who helped sell 50,000 tickets and establish the festival as a juggernaut in 2004. This year’s edition dabbled in the mainstream through a risky appearance by Madonna, who played her first festival show to a throng of true believers and thousands of disappointed curiosity seekers. When the Red Hot Chili Peppers headlined in 2003, critics complained they were too mainstream; now, the event’s promoters admit that no one is too big for Coachella.
But any festival goer knows it’s not the top line that counts but what’s underneath. And this year’s Coachella had its share of breakthrough bands. The Cee-Lo/Danger Mouse collaboration Gnarls Barkley, for one, and My Morning Jacket, who hit the second stage while Kanye West was on the main one. Still farther down the bill were Giant Drag, an LA two-piece whose debut CD, Hearts and Unicorns (Kickball), set the blogger world on fire earlier this year, thanks to everything from the gritty guitars to a glamorous sort of melancholy, not to mention song titles like “Kevin Is Gay” and “You Fuck like My Dad.” Waifish indie-rock dreamgirl Annie Hardy took the Coachella stage bra-less and wearing a pleated, barely-thigh-covering plaid skirt and proceeded to stammer off sexual non sequiturs that would make a porn star blush. “I wrote this song when I was eight,” she said, dedicating it to her first love. “He broke my heart, and he broke my hymen.” Audible gasps from the audience, followed by a gritty interpretation of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” — a track that’s been added to a 2006 major-label reissue of Hearts and Unicorns (Interscope).
Back in the festival’s overrun VIP area, after the band’s set, Hardy and straight-man Micah Calabrese are sitting under a palm tree soaking up some shade in the 95-degree heat. They’re already in the middle of an all-day cycle of interviews, and gearing up for a tour that will bring them across the country to the Middle East on May 11. Nothing changes about Hardy’s forthright demeanor when you’re one-on-two. That’s part of the charm. When I ask about technical problems on stage, she breaks into a rant about the septic tank being cleaned behind their trailer. “It’s beautiful, smelling the shit of 100 bands. Matisyahu — that one smells like matzos!”
And where do Giant Drag fit in among the festival’s superstars, wanna-bes, and indie-approved hipsters? Here’s Hardy’s take: “It’s like the time I was on NME’s cool list. I was the last one on the list — I was #50. Does that make me cool? Or does that make me almost cool?”
Beyond cool is more like it — and being so unselfconsciously comfortable with the subject makes her that much cooler. Critics who’ve compared her with PJ Harvey and Liz Phair? “I don’t care. We have vaginas and breasts and play music. That’s all a journalist needs to know. Stamp that: article done!”
What comparison would she prefer? “John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Weird Al Yankovic, Tupac, Mozart, James Blunt . . . ” She’s smiling now, sheepishly. In fact, the only time she gets serious is when I give her the opportunity to set the record straight about a little Internet controversy. Months before the show, Coachella message boards exploded when Hardy was quoted in a Colorado Springs newspaper as saying she hated the two Coachellas she’d attended as a fan. “I told a story about how I came to Coachella and ended up crying because of the people I went with being dicks to me. Of course, that wasn’t sensational enough. I’ll talk shit, and I’ll stand behind everything I say. But I didn’t fucking say that.”
One thing that Hardy is certain of is that she prefers being a performer to being a ticketholder. “It’s only a million times better. You get a trailer with air conditioning.” And in the hot desert sun, nothing — not even playing a show with Madonna or finding yourself on an NME list — is cooler than that.
Giant Drag + Pretty Girls Make Graves + Joggers | May 11 | Middle East downstairs, 480 Mass Ave, Cambridge | 617.864.EAST
On the Web
Giant Drag: //www.giantdrag.com/