After a dense Saturday show with no dead spots, Sunday’s Coachella fest got off to a slow start, with unimpressive performances by hyped artists like Fiery Furnaces and M.I.A. and few sets (with the definitive exception of the acid-trip costume show by local, sexy psych-rockers Gram Rabbit) that felt like anything but by-the-book indie rock or mic-and-mixer hip-hop. But as the sun started to set, there was a definitive shift, as Gang of Four, New Order, Nine Inch Nails, and the Prodigy all delivered sets that either cemented or extended their deserved reputation as genre forebears. However, those icons were all upstaged by a new band: the Arcade Fire, which, in the course of just one hour, went from hyped indie darlings to current contenders for one of the best young bands in rock.
The Montreal group did that by playing their songs as if it were the last time they’d ever see an instrument. The huge band — which, at this show, counted members in the double digits — isn’t a backing band for one front man but a full collective, with moments that resonate for each instrument. Percussionists climb rafters to play them with drumsticks; vocalists dive into the audience in moments of catharsis; violin players huddle around mics, breaking strings as they wail the songs’ hooks. The Arcade Fire’s album “Funeral” (Merge) is not like this; even die-hard fans admit that the group’s energy is lost in that dark studio translation. But what in recorded form sounds brooding and self-involved here was evident as composed pop so compelling, the audience swelled as the set continued, eventually claiming (at the smaller Coachella side stage) as many bodies as any of the headliners.
Part of the reason for that was the unfortunate scheduling of the first half of the Arcade Fire’s set against the latter half of the reunited Gang of Four, which, after nearly 25 years apart, was easily the least-likely reunion of the festival.
Now that new bands like Futureheads (who played the main stage right before them) and Franz Ferdinand have claimed Gang of Four as a major influence, the reformed group had something to prove. And prove it they did: Like the Pixies at last year’s Coachella, their songs went from nostalgia trip to of-the-moment listening immediately as they played each one.
Vocalist Jon King pulled out the dramatic stops throughout, doing monkey-man dances through one song and shouting, arms outstretched, in the next. But the theatrics didn’t deter from the songs’ resonance; rather, they gave “Not Great Men” its jitter-step significance, and made the angular “Damaged Goods” a full-throttle, propulsive assault. The thought that these songs are 20-something years old never occurred during their set — they felt nothing short of absolutely current.
Headliners Nine Inch Nails must reclaim that of-the-moment appeal, too; their new album, “With Teeth” (Interscope) — the band’s first in six years — is out Tuesday. But if this terrifically aggressive show is any indication, it won’t be a problem.
Trent Reznor still spills his guts onstage; though some of his 10th-grade-diary lyrics now sound a little off-putting coming from the mouth of a 40-year-old man (“Hey god/I think you owe me a great, big apology” comes to mind), he delivers them with such intensity that they still burn.
Almost every other song of his hour-plus set was new; tracks like the new single “The Hand That Feeds” were relentlessly driven by clenched-fist guitars and brutal keyboard attacks, though nothing in the Nails’ instrumental arsenal is nearly as powerful as Reznor’s huge scream. By the end of the set, as the guitars were plowed through speaker cabinets and drums were hurled across the stage, the rage felt real again.
Both New Order and the Prodigy also were at Coachella to hawk new product, but both felt more resonant when they were exploring their pasts. The Joy Division classic “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is a theme song for Coachella nation; when the ex-Joy Division members of New Order play it, it still feels important — not an adjective that would describe the by-the-book keyboard-laden new wave of their new songs.
Prodigy’s songs all sound exactly the same — thumping bass, growling vocals and a rapid-attack drum kit — but when the 1997 hit “Breathe” is played with a live band in the sweaty, loud Sahara tent, it’s more than enough to whip the dance-happy crowd into a raucous, til-midnight party to close out a fulfilling, eclectic weekend.