With a sellout and a lineup topped by Radiohead and impressive in its breadth, Saturday’s edition of Coachella proved that in its fifth year, the Goldenvoice-produced festival has become a major event on the international pop music calendar. While the evening’s commercial and artistic success drew raves, the day’s problems also engendered superlatives: too hot, too many people and too much traffic. But even after sweltering in the triple-digit heat, crowds that packed the tents and bumper to bumper tie-ups on the roads to the venue, the wealth of music heard Saturday easily compensated for the day’s discomforts.
Reports had been circulating that Radiohead might cancel its only American appearance due to singer Thom Yorke’s throat problems. While the set list seemed to be reworked to reduce the strain on his voice, which wasn’t at full strength, the band’s impressive perf had a simmering intensity.
If Radiohead rarely displayed the all-stops force they are capable of, it was just as satisfying to watch Johnny Greenwood use his synthesizer to caress Yorke’s vocal on “Go to Sleep” or hear the rearranged “Paranoid Android” which, with its slow build, moves toward a prog rock grandeur on a scale with “Stairway to Heaven.”
It was fascinating to see Yorke work within his vocal limitations, husbanding his resources and gaining strength over the 90-minute set. Perhaps it was the added drama of both the event and his health — or the fact that, in a world where a journalist reminding the public that people die in war could be considered a partisan if not seditious act, Yorke’s paranoia doesn’t seem like such a stretch. This less visceral performance was perhaps the band at its most impressive.
As Radiohead left the main stage, Kraftwerk was getting started across the grounds in the massive Sahara tent. It was an apt juxtaposition, as the German quartet have turned themselves into the “Man Machine” Yorke flails against.
Their 72-minute set found the band standing stock still behind their laptops accompanied by their chilly, imposing visuals — a combination of old Soviet poster design and travelogue. The set reaches its climax with “We Are the Robots,” where the mechanical music is “played” by four mechanized mannequins.
The reformed Pixies proceeded Radiohead on the mainstage, and their set delivered the most easily enjoyable music of the day. In the middle of their tour in over a decade, the quartet sounded tighter and more focused (and played to a larger audience) than they did during their early ’90s heyday.
The band’s musical elements –the terse dynamics, the mix of guitar noise with melodic songs and Kim Deal’s careening off the rails bass — may have been assimilated into the mainstream, but songs such as “Here Comes Your Man” and “Debaser” still sound fresh.
And Joey Santiago’s “look ma no hands” guitar solo during “Where Is My Mind,” manipulating the instrument’s feedback through various effects boxes and pedals, shows the band has not lost its taste for innovative mayhem.
Hometown hero Josh Homme taps into a similar sense of anything goes with the Desert Session. With a revolving cast of collaborators (including Mark Lanegan and his girlfriend, the Distillers’ Brody Dalle), the Desert Sessions is Homme’s basement laboratory and rec room, where he throws together sounds and ideas that might not fit into Queens of the Stone Age.
It results in music that has the rhythmic precision of Queens but adds layers of Merseybeat melodies, a Bowie-esque croon, driving keyboards and wailing female choruses for a joyful cacophony.
It’s a lesson the Rapture could stand to learn. The New Yorkers can’t seem to decide what kind of band they want to be, so they shuttle between stiff funk that recalls Gang of Four and the Cure when playing live instruments and the electropop of OMD when using computers.
If the music heard after the sun went down was of a uniformly high caliber, many of the earlier acts were hampered by the heat. Death Cab for Cutie’s felt especially sodden. Their dreamily echoed guitars and keyboards hung the air oppressively, like smog caught in a thermal inversion.
The Black Keys may have been more energetic, but their bloated exhumation of the spare girt of R.L. Burnside and already fatuous mid-’60s “blooze” reeked of musical flatulence. In contrast, Savath and Savalas’ Middle Eastern drones mixed with sweetly yearning melodies and sweet/sour harmonies had a coolly shimmering sensuousness.