Having cleared up the majority of the logistical headaches that made Friday’s opening day such an exercise in Zen-like fortitude, Coachella’s only enemy on Saturday was nature. An Icelandic volcano eruption that grounded numerous European flights forced several acts to cancel, which, combined with the day’s general tendency toward electronic dance music, left the day’s bill comparatively light on traditional live performance. Though that turned out to be something of a blessing, as the bill invited a more open-minded approach to the day’s programming.
Bad Lieutenant, Frightened Rabbit, and the Ravonettes’ entire rhythm section were all missing in action yesterday (the Cribs cancelled on Friday, and Sunday’s show will be without Gary Numan and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble). Nonetheless, Saturday’s bill seemed to reaffirm the strategy behind the festival’s decision to forgo single-day tickets: Lacking in the boldfaced stars and elusive once-in-a decade acts of Friday and Sunday, Saturday’s show would have likely been the most sparsely attended under the old rules. But as a captive audience, festgoers had no choice but to open themselves up to unexpected revelations.
One was Jack White’s the Dead Weather, which debuted new material that tears into riff-oriented blues rock as if such a style had never been attempted before. Though it’s strange to see one of the past decade’s defining vocalists and guitar heroes largely confine himself behind a drumkit, White’s deep grooves were expertly embellished by bandmates, and singer Alison Mosshart matched her bandleader howl-for-howl. With equal numbers of its second-stage audience crushed to the front of the stage and sprawled out on the grass behind, the band achieved a sort of sinister musical alchemy only hinted at in its recorded output.
The Muse provided the day’s most bombastic set as the last live band to play the main stage (Dutch trance megastar Tiesto closed the night with a DJ set). Backed by video scrolls of computer code and rave-like lasers, the earnest British trio played to the back of the field, if not the nearby parking lots, with wailing falsetto vocals and a phalanx of guitar solos. They’re an easy lot to mock, but anyone who claimed to be unmoved by their Iron Maiden-meets-Sergio Leone anthem “Knights of Cydonia” is either lying, or else simply doesn’t enjoy large-scale rock music.
Yet in terms of sheer bizarre spectacle, the band couldn’t hope to compete with their predecessors on the main stage, a reunited Faith No More. Approaching their vintage rap-metal anthems as though they were all long-lost Dadaist performance artists, the nattily-suited quintet interspersed bludgeoning originals like “Epic” and “Surprise! You’re Dead!” with unexplained, jaw-droppingly faithful renditions of Peaches & Herb’s “Reunited” and Michael Jackson’s “Ben.” The latter saw wildman vocalist Mike Patton sustain an impossibly clear glory note, shove the microphone deep into his mouth, and dive into the crowd.
Sensual young Brits the xx were inexplicably booked on the smaller Outdoor Stage immediately opposite the mookish Coheed and Cambria, and their intimate charm was lost in the din. MGMT drew massive crowds to that same stage later in the day, but refused to play along, eschewing their signature hits for flurries of hyperactive psychedelia. It’s always encouraging to see a young act use early success as a pass to follow their musical bliss, but such willful obscurantism in the face of enthusiastic support couldn’t help but bring to mind the hard-earned wisdom of Spinal Tap: don’t do a free-form jazz exploration in front of a festival crowd.
Saturday also saw greater commingling between the stages, as opposed to Friday’s main-stage-skewing assembly. The Gossip packed the Mohave tent to the gills in the early afternoon, displaying the continued magic of Beth Ditto’s indie-Aretha vocal prowess and treating the crowd to a cowbell solo from guest James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem. Later on, the Dirty Projectors wowed and confounded with avant-garde rhythms and pristine harmonies, Z-Trip’s rapid-fire mashups left dance-tent denizens dizzy, Beach House covered the Everly Brothers, and LA-based glitch-hop producer Flying Lotus pounded away at his laptop with Jerry Lewis-worthy ebullience.
On Friday, headliner Jay-Z tempered his typical swagger with a sincere sense of graciousness for a crowd who had spent large amounts of the day dealing with one hours-long line after another, hitting the high notes of his catalogue and trotting out wife Beyonce for a duet. LCD Soundsystem prefaced the Jigga-Man with a set of literate dance rock, while Them Crooked Vultures saw frontman and Palms Desert native Josh Homme add another notch to his belt of successful homecoming gigs. The Specials joined Public Image Ltd. on the reunion circuit.
Sunday’s fest-closing show will see the event’s most crowded bill, with a headlining set from cartoon-band project Gorillaz arguably the most anticipated of the weekend. Reunited slacker-rock icons Pavement are also scheduled, alongside Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s Atoms for Peace, Sly Stone, Phoenix, Orbital, Spoon, De La Soul, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Yo La Tengo and Little Boots.