At the tender age of 7, Coachella has navigated its way through the crossroads with agility and grace. Festivals, a business that was dying when this alt-rock-oriented, desert get-together was rising, have expanded their focus this year, creating eclecticism with major names rather than up-and-comers. The names at the top of the Coachella bills responded by delivering energetic sets that thrilled the bejesus out of their fans and gave naysayers reason to pause. The presence alone of contempo commercial hitmakers Madonna, James Blunt and, most significantly, rapper Kanye West made this edition of Coachella stand out as much as the results: a riveting perf from Franz Ferdinand, the triumphant U.S. unveiling of Gnarls Barkley and the acts with U.K. followings who have yet to see their records hit Stateside (the Editors, the Rakes, Be Your Own Pet etc.).
The commingling of fans out for a day of music with those attending for a single act — sorry Madonna, but Tool appeared to have a lock on that consortium — worked well as each of the five performance spaces had healthy crowds for every act. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Blunt were the only acts crammed into spaces that quickly overflowed; otherwise, every act could be seen by anyone who showed up by the start time. (This reviewer caught 18 acts on Saturday and 14 on Sunday during 10-hour stays each day).
Headliners Tool, Madonna and Art Brut were using Coachella as launch points for summer tours, but many of the acts in this year’s lineup, which led to much early criticism, have been steadily touring for much of the past year. The benefit, to the listener, was a confidence in the performances from acts such the Go! Team and the intoxicating multiracial band TV on the Radio.
The Zutons, Magic Numbers, Franz Ferdinand, My Morning Jacket, Common, the Editors and Depeche Mode were among the most forceful and compelling performers, and each will receive a different payday. For the Zutons, My Morning Jacket and Magic Numbers, the spectrum they displayed live raises the anticipation for future albums; for the rapper Common, his visibility in the rock arena greatly increased; Franz Ferdinand and Depeche Mode proved themselves vital concert acts despite middling sales results for their most recent albums. The Editors, arguably the freshest of the latest list of “next big things” from England, beam with self-assurance while playing their spirited, straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll.
Conversely, mainstage performers Sleater-Kinney, the Duke Spirit and the Walkmen didn’t appear ready for the big time. On the flip side, Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs understands theatricality better than virtually any other young rock star, and her entertaining gyrations, beamed on the mainstage’s two big screens, made up for her band’s musical limitations.
In a class all their own — the ones who made the 95 degrees tolerable — were the Hasidic rapper Matisyahu, Sigur Ros, Brazil’s Seu Jorge and Gnarls Barkley.
Matisyahu, backed by an agile if not numinous reggae band, takes Judaic law and fables and turns them into compelling raps that owe more to early Jamaican toasting than contempo hip-hoppers. It requires only a quick visual adjustment — yes, the bearded man in traditional Jewish garb does have a way with a rhyme — and his charisma sucks in even the staunchest naysayer.
Sigur Ros, performing with strings and a brass section, covered their considerable recorded territory during a blissed-out 50 minutes. Blessed with an enchanting voice that doesn’t need translation, Seu Jorge, who played a smaller tent opposite Madonna, practically gave a symposium on how traditional Brazilian forms — samba and bossa nova — can be turned relevant when applied to modern music composition.
Gnarls Barkley, the band led by rapper Cee-Lo and DJ Danger Mouse that scored the first No. 1 hit in the U.K. available only via the Internet, delivered a fresh and invigorating performance that included old school soul, biting rock ‘n’ roll, some groove-based rap and a stunning cover of the Violent Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone.” With the band dressed in “Wizard of Oz” garb, Gnarls Barkley proved not only the most adventurous act of the two days, but the one that should command the most attention in the coming year. Its debut, “St. Elsewhere,” will be released May 9.
One thing that makes Coachella work well is the promptness with which acts hit the five stages; only the occasional sound or instrument glitch caused any of the acts to delay their starts, and many actually struck their first notes as much as five minutes before their scheduled start time.
Madonna and West, however, started their perfs late and, in duration at least, shortchanged their audiences. Madonna’s show, featuring the fest’s strongest production values complete with dancers, was a crisp and energetic 35 minutes that started with “Hung Up” and included “Ray of Light.”
Getting inside the venue to see Madonna meant taking in the DJs who preceded her for two to four hours, among them Paul Oakenfold, or showing up with a special fan-club-only bracelet that allowed wearers access to the pit in front of the stage.
A separate screen was set up between the tent hosting Madonna, the Sahara tent, and its neighbor, the Mojave. Ironically, a relentless and monotonous beat bled from the Sahara tent for the entire fest that interfered with quiet moments elsewhere; when Madonna took the stage, her sound was so low that the Editors, who were closing their perf at Mojave, had the predominant music in the field between the two venues.
Many of the indie rock bands are shaping modern rock with shards of the ’70s. Wolfmother, the power-rock trio whose Saturday perf generated considerable buzz, has twisted early Guess Who into something visceral and relevant; Nine Black Alps has put a pop spin on the Sex Pistols; Deerhoof goes in the jazzy prog-rock direction of Canterbury scene acts such as Matching Mole; and Devendra Banhart , whose records are acoustic hippie trips of varying quality, proves himself a potent front man drawing on Jim Morrison and Lou Reed to produce one of the most captivating sets of the fest.
But this crowd of twentysomethings — and people who wish they were in that age bracket — almost instantly becomes a marketer’s dream. This is no longer a crowd bound by the language of rock bands, connected by downloads and P2P networks whose discretionary cash is going toward CDs, T-shirts and the cover charge at Spaceland.
Despite the abundance of tattooed bodies, this weekend’s crowd appeared more multifaceted than the music-driven hordes that generally populate fests. These were people you see at the ballpark and the multiplex, at the car dealer and casino — the folks Madison Avenue sees as one step removed from the tastemakers.
Coachella, which Lollapalooza will surpass in August in Chicago as America’s largest, has a bit of a juggling act ahead as it weighs talent and sponsorship opportunities and tries to put on an event that maintains its trademark of enjoyableness.
(Jeff Miller contributed to this report.)