If we are to believe that Coachella reveals the best in the indie rock landscape in any given year, then the 1970s have taken the first decade of the 21st century by storm and made rock ‘n’ roll its guinea pig. The first two days at Coachella’s ninth edition were filled with familiar styles — punk, prog, disco, metal, reggae and confessional writing — fused with the beats of hip-hop and industrial dance music, enhanced with strings and horns and, in general terms, instilled with frivolity.
In terms of specifics: Jack White further established himself as a singular, era-defining artist, whether performing with White Stripes or Raconteurs; Cafe Tacuba proved they may be the ultimate multigenre band; and Prince once again demonstrated that he can take any audience, make them scratch their collective heads and then convert them to his team. An out of left-field delight: the most recent winners of the song Oscar, who perform as the Swell Season, fought off sounds bleeding onto their stage and turned in a charming and, rare for this desert fest, hushed performance.
All of the carping about this year’s event concerned the headliners and their mainstream appeal, dramatically increasing the importance of the names in smaller print for the fest’s core audience. On the two outdoor stages, it meant a number of buzz bands found themselves performing on a scale they have never seen. One was astonishingly good (Raconteurs); a couple performed like this sort of thing was old hat (Minus the Bear, Rilo Kiley); and a few struggled for a host of reasons: Tegan and Sara were tentative, Vampire Weekend struggled with pacing as they too heavily concerned themselves with re-creating their album, and the John Butler Trio and Slightly Stoopid came off as outdated and second rate.
As usual, Coachella was remarkably easy to navigate, lines for services were short if they existed at all, and the only frustration was the traffic getting into the venue after 1 p.m. and after the last act on the mainstage. Friday was glorious temperature-wise, even cool at night; Saturday was the hot one, but an intermittent cool breeze was just enough to keep it tolerable.
The three-day event’s major reunion — there’s always at least one — was that of Portishead, the Bristol, England, trio whose first album in 10 years, “Third,” will be released Tuesday. Portishead had two faces Saturday: Their former downtempo trip-hop style, which has transformed into a Brechtian take on a blues band; and a far harsher, industrial sound, a 180-degree spin from their smiley-face days in the mid-1990s. Through it all, Beth Gibbons’ voice sounds lush and graceful; she was one of the most pleasant vocalists heard over the first two days.
But the new work does not yet jibe with the music for which they are known. It’s a bit like tasting two Italian Barolo wines side by side — the one that’s more than a decade old has mellowed and warmed up, while the new release displays fine structure, but tannins make it unapproachable on first sip.
Portishead is a bit of a microcosm of indie rock as a whole, which is tugging at two extremes — dark, super-serious and melodically disruptive vs. light-hearted and logical. Only a few acts appear capable of blending the two and significantly exceeding those notions — the Raconteurs and Rilo Kiley — and a few are in danger of being tagged as little more than exponents of the styles — Battles, Man Man and Akron/Family in the former and Bonde do Role and Black Kids in the latter.
The playful side includes Mexico City’s Cafe Tacuba, Sweden’s Jens Lekman and Prince, all of whom delivered grin-inducing, buoyant sets. Cafe Tacuba took a spin around the globe musically — Beach Boys, bandera, Blondie, ska and other dance styles in a stylistic grab-bag that is nearly always unified by a Spanish-language chant that invokes audience participation.
Lekman has crafted a unique, geeky down-to-earth vision by combining the mundane with the dramatic; echoes of Morrissey and Jonathan Richman are strong, and the presence of horns and strings greatly enhances his gosh-golly personality.
Prince let members of the Time and Sheila E. kick off his show before he kicked in with “1999” and began a nearly two-hour party to close day two.
Prince, like Tacuba and Raconteurs, displayed an ability to galvanize audiences in a way few major pop performers still do. Such performers were plentiful from the 1960s up through Pearl Jam’s reign in the mid-1990s but have dried up and left the superstar-starved music business reeling.
While this trio of acts demonstrates everything that is right about rock music, it goes to show how tough the business has it right now: One is a side project, one doesn’t sing in English, and the third has given away his music for free. Say no more about needing a new business model.
Personal taste pointed me in the direction of bands with guitars in them, and of the 25 bands I saw perform three songs or more, only two lacked a six-string. The Sahara tent, with a bill of DJs, was kryptonite to me. (For the record, 42 acts performed Friday, 46 on Saturday).
And it was among the guitar-oriented music that the ’70s influence dominated. (Remember, this is music created for kids who have grown weary of being told how important and influential the 1960s were).
One could hear Lou Reed, but not the Velvet Underground sound that has already been nicked too many times. Now it’s “Metal Machine Music” or “Berlin.” Same holds true for the guitarist Robert Fripp. The influence is more League of Gentleman or “No Pussyfooting” than it is any incarnation of King Crimson. New York’s no wave movement holds more weight than new wave for most; disco’s early years, when it was blossoming from Philly soul, is a more likely additive than anything from the Donna Summer catalog.
And then there’s Brooklyn’s soul-funk act Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, who overlook the past 34 years of popular music and create a groove that’s as much 1964 as it is 1974 — the Eddie and the Cruisers story as told by an opening act for James Brown and the JBs. Their set was sizzling hot.
Elsewhere, Pink Floyd’s sway was detected in vocal and instrumental layering in the music of Minus the Bear; Cinematic Orchestra has turned to ’70s landmarks such as the soul-folk of Terry Collier and the orchestrated jazz of CTI Records, spiced by the saxophone playing of Tom Chant, who alternates between the booming solos of “Dark Side of Moon” and Albert Ayler-styled squeals.