The acts who have passed through the main stage of the Coachella Music and Arts Festival comprise some of the biggest names in popular music, and Saturday was no exception, with the incomparable Radiohead accruing the fest’s largest crowd. Yet ‘the second day’s lineup served as a reminder that Coachella, like music in general, holds its most precious rewards for those who search through the margins, as an unusually low-key main stage succession helped point the way to greater excitement on the satellite stages.
With the wind and rain that disrupted Friday’s show having passed by, Coachella seemed more like itself on Saturday, and a party atmosphere returned to the Empire Polo Club grounds. Temperatures still dipped into the low-50s during the late evening, though the chill helped provide an appropriate milieu for the dense polyrhythms of the day’s headliner.
With a setlist drawn mostly from the band’s most recent three albums, Radiohead served as a nice synthesis of Coachella’s two dominant genres: pensive indie rock and forward-looking electronic music. Yet the band only occasionally emerged out of an agreeable mid-gear stasis, missing some of the raw power that characterized its earlier performances and releases.
Of course, faulting a veteran band’s emphasis on newer material is one of the more tiresome critiques one can muster; and as newly ponytailed frontman Thom Yorke noted between tunes, “We play new songs because that proves that we’re alive, and indeed we are.”
But it wasn’t simply the vintage of the material that was the issue. At its best, Radiohead can imbue even the most esoteric musical structures with invigorating doses of drama and danger. When the band brought out “There There,” “Idioteque” and even the more subdued “Reckoner,” the audience surged with a sense of mounting tension and release. Whereas the likes of “Staircase” and “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” were appreciable as finely-wrought objects of meditation — perhaps the closest rock music hews to the principles of wabi-sabi — but less successful in stirring the blood. In the end, it was not a vintage Radiohead performance, but even an average showing from this band bests most anything else on the market.
Recent Grammy new artist winner Bon Iver immediately preceded Radiohead, playing to a crowd of a size that would have seemed inconceivable just a year ago. The band offered professionally executed, densely textured music, yet it too often straddled the line between swooning and somnolent. The reunited Shins in turn preceded them, and the strength of the indie standard-bearers’ songs compensated nicely for its relative dearth of charisma.
Previous main stage denizens weren’t so lucky. Generic Brit rockers Kaiser Chiefs seemed to founder under the big spotlight, and Oasis songwriter Noel Gallagher — playing with the awkwardly-monikered Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds — offered an unremarkable set of mid-tempo dad-rock.
Yet on the second outdoor stage and smaller tents, it was a different story all together.
Perhaps the day’s most intriguing perf came from the former, as reclusive Neutral Milk Hotel singer-songwriter Jeff Mangum returned to American stages after disappearing for years following his band’s much-beloved swansong, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” Strumming intense, hushed tunes on acoustic guitar with the LCD screens going dark around him, Mangum’s set struck a delicate note — with the rapt aud seeming unsure whether to sing along or respectfully observe. Yet when the dam finally burst, and thousands intoned “I love you, Jesus Christ” during the opening salvo of “King of Carrot Flowers Part 2 & 3,” what resulted was the most shiver-inducing moment of the fest so far.
Shortly thereafter, angular indie band St. Vincent put in a stunning performance in the Gobi tent. While frontwoman Annie Clark can sometimes seem a bit too cleverly aloof on record, she was nearly unhinged last night: headbanging while firing off paint-peeling squeals from her guitar, nearly breaking down in tears after the anthemic “Year of the Tiger,” and even performing punky new song “Krokodil” while crowd-surfing atop a thrilled, if clearly surprised, capacity crowd.
Buzzy rapper Azealia Banks, playing one of her first-ever shows, showed she’s clearly already learned the power of brevity. Hitting the Gobi stage with a barrage of highly profane lyrics and beats that split the difference between modern electro-rap and Jamaican dancehall, she detonated on impact, leaving a shellshocked crowd thoroughly sated despite departing with 20 minutes left in her allotted set time.
On a more low-key note, multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird brought significant woodsy charm to his late afternoon set, and folk-rocker Feist beefed up her sound with over a dozen backing musicians.