Coachella organizers couldn’t have dreamed up a more appropriate closing night headliner than the Gorillaz for this year’s fest, one in which the annual event attempted a sea-change into exactly the sort of rich musical force that the group represents. Gorillaz, which started as a goofy cartoon-based side-project for Blur’s Damon Albarn, has evolved into a mammoth multimedia collective that pushes the envelope in multiple genres — less a traditional band than a guiding aesthetic principle. Drawing the biggest crowds of the weekend, the group closed out the three-day desert pilgrimage in dazzling style.
With giant videoscreens broadcasting new and old animations of the band’s four fictional members (created by comic artist Jamie Hewlett), as well as videogame-like landscapes and cameos from Snoop Dogg and Bruce Willis, Albarn functioned as both lead vocalist and ringleader on the stage below, directing an ever-rotating assemblage of crooners, rappers, string sections, gospel choirs and Middle Eastern folk artists.
Notably, the Gorillaz’s band included Paul Simonon and Mick Jones of the Clash (playing onstage together for the first time since the band’s 1983 dissolution), who experimented with hip-hop and dub back when both were exotic, emerging styles — and who were also present at the moment punk sparked rock and roll’s great diaspora into ever-splintering subgenres, each with strict codes of conduct and sociopolitical signifiers. To see the two backing a lineup of guest stars that spanned from Bobby Womack to Little Dragon and De La Soul was to witness an uncanny sort of musical singularity, a glimpse of an alternate rock history in which polymorphously ambitious efforts like the Clash’s “Sandinista!” are the rule rather than the exception.
This flattening of genre divisions and niches has long been a guiding principle for Coachella (as well as its philosophical forebears, Britain’s Glastonbury and Reading fests), yet never before have the barriers between artists felt so elastic. It’s not simply that the indiest of DIY’ers can play alongside multiplatinum entrepreneurs, it’s that their styles have become so easily interchangeable.
The weekend’s two big hip-hop acts each appeared with extensive backing bands, while organic rockers the xx and Beach House entrusted much of their sound to 808s and samplers. Jay-Z gave a shout-out to emerging experimentalists Yeasayer from his headlining perch on Friday, and the next day the academically minded Dirty Projectors closed their set with a slice of swirling, Soweto-influenced art-rock that’s recently been remade into an R&B radio hit for Beyonce’s kid sister.
Coachella has every right to challenge its predecessors as one of the world’s great music festivals. No longer relying on Woodstock-generation rock royalty to imbue the fest with significance (Paul McCartney, Leonard Cohen and Roger Waters have all headlined in recent years), and in fact including no rock bands among its three main-stage headliners, this year’s bill demanded to be judged as a carefully curated whole.
Which is not to say that there was no rock royalty present, as the weekend saw two of the new millennium’s most towering musical figures (and former Coachella mainstage headliners) team up with new conspirators. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke followed Jack White (playing with the Dead Weather on Saturday) as Sunday night’s second-stage headliner, fronting the hastily named Atoms for Peace. Notoriously dour as frontman for his primary band, the diminutive Brit seemed positively giddy throughout, cracking himself up and addressing the crowd in an oft incomprehensible faux German accent. Bassist Flea’s slapping and popping style enlivened tracks from Yorke’s solo record “The Eraser,” followed by two Radiohead oldies and a smattering of new material.
Reunited low-fi legends Pavement were tipped as an anticipated act early on, though crowds for their early evening set on the main stage were dwarfed by those at the smaller neighboring stage for France’s Phoenix. It wasn’t hard to see why, as while the latter provided exuberant, danceable pop-rock, Pavement seemed to laugh off its entire performance with lazily condescending
irony, embodying a ’90s alt-rock image that feels as anachronistic now as Aqua-Net hair and skintight leather must have felt back in the band’s heyday.
Making a rare North America appearance, Franco-British chanteuse Charlotte Gainsbourg played a stylish set in the late afternoon, filling the Mohave tent with sophisticated, minimalist pop. A few hours prior to their guest stint with the Gorillaz, old-school hip-hoppers De La Soul brought a party vibe to the afternoon crowd, showing-up amateurish young MC B.o.B. in the process.
Yo La Tengo was spirited on the mainstage, performing a cute synchronized dance that the group dubiously claimed was suggested backstage by Sly Stone (who reportedly played a regrettable late set after a several-hour delay). Florence and the Machine and Julian Casablancas packed their respective tents, while fraternal electronica veterans Orbital showed all the young dubsteppers in the dance tent how it’s done, segueing from demonic house beats to Belinda Carlisle to the “Doctor Who” theme with effortless aplomb.