A couple months ago when Canadian collective Arcade Fire won the Album of the Year Grammy over presumed frontrunner Eminem, the Interweb and Twitterverse exploded as some outraged, uninformed protesters dared to ask the question, "Who is Arcade Fire?" But judging from the massive crush of music fans who showed up to catch the indie darlings' headlining set on day two of California's Coachella festival, it's pretty obvious that plenty of people know the answer to that query. It seemed like the entire Empire Polo field in the Indio desert tilted on the earth's axis in the direction of the main stage, as thousands of concertgoers heaved forward to catch the band's much-anticipated show--and the artists playing on competing stages at the time (like retro soul sensation Raphael Saadiq and disco dollies the Scissor Sisters, both of whom would have normally drawn sizeable crowds) were sadly forced to play to not even half-full tents.
But let's face it, Arcade Fire were far and away Saturday's main attraction, and not just because they have a Grammy on their mantel or seemingly more band members onstage than most Coachella bands combined. Win Butler & company's set was basically THE perfect festival concert--full of unbridled joy, epic singalong anthems, a video installation by the band's "Wilderness Downtown" director Chris Milk, and even a girl onstage interpreting the universally appealing song lyrics in sign language. Arcade Fire burned brightly, proving to any doubters once and for all that they deserved that Grammy.
"It's pretty intimidating to be up here in front of all you people," still-humble frontman Win totally the adoring audience. "We don't take this for granted, even for a second."
Arcade Fire's closing show was the big event of the night, but they weren't the only ones offering audiovisual drama. The Creators Project, an art/technology collaboration between Vice and Intel that was behind the above-mentioned Arcade Fire/Chris Milk extravaganza, also helped transform Animal Collective's stage set into a giant Lite Brite of sorts, via a psychedelic jumbotron masterminded by noise band Black Dice. ("We came to bring the weird," Animal Collective announced, and they weren't kidding.) The Creators Project additionally showcased a Spiritualized installation with renowned director Jonathan Glazer called "A Physical Manifestation of Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space," and CP's headquarters featured toy robots that performed an animatronic hip-hop dance every 15 minutes. Who needed to take hallucinogenic drugs at this festival, with sensory-overloading spectacles like these?
Australian glam-pop warriors Empire Of The Sun also offered a magical mystical stage show that was a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. Their stunning gig kicked off with frontman Luke Steele emerging resplendent in a tribal headpiece seemingly fashioned out of Venetian blinds, Adam Ant warpaint, and sparkly Mad Max armor, and to top it all off he was flanked by Mylar-leotarded fembot/ninja dancers in Daft Punk-esque welder helmets. Now, that is how to make a memorable entrance at Coachella, people!
Cameron Mesirow, frontgoddess for new-age-meets-new-wave L.A. buzz band Glasser, also knew how to impress from the get-go, hitting the stage swathed in layers of tulle that made her look like an electropop Miss Havisham. As her caftan'd bandmates banged on tribal and electronic drums behind her, this modern-day Kate Bush elegantly lurched and swayed about the Gobi Tent stage in her fully-body veil while emitting almost dolphin-like shrieks and wails. It's certain that Glasser will be considered one of Coachella 2011's big breakouts...and head-to-toe bridal veils may soon become the new fashion rage.
Another impressive veiled diva was neo-soul legend Erykah Badu, who delivered a stellar performance despite technical difficulties throughout her set. Even though her microphone kept feeding back, that didn't detract from her fine voice, and the undeterred audience seemed to love her. Erykah handled the situation like the pro she is, but it was a shame that she didn't get to perform under better circumstances.
But there was perhaps no cooler woman at Coachella than Alison Mosshart, singer for the garage-punk duo the Kills (sometimes Jack White's Dead Weather). Alison and her Kills cohort Jamie Hince (aka Kate Moss's fiancée) cranked out one of their typically blistering sets, elevating the Coachella heat by many degrees with all their onstage chemistry. The Kills shared so much sexual tension onstage, in fact--smolderingly staring at each other through their curtains of jet-black fringe and stalking each other around the stage like panthers in season--it was hard to believe that they're really just platonic gig buddies...and that Kate Moss shouldn't feel at least a little threatened.
As for newer artists on the scene, Oxford, England dance-punk band Foals were life-affirmingly good, their angular jangle inspiring all the cool kids to dance in the Mojave Tent. ("Total Life Forever" is the jam, people. Pure indie euphoria.) Sweden's Radio Dept. were mellower--their languid, synthy dreampop better suited for lying on the grass, not dancing on it--but they offered up a lovely bit of shoegazing (or at Coachella, would that be sandalgazing?) for a sunny day. And another Swede, singer-songwriter the Tallest Man On Earth (aka Kristian Matsson), brought even more sunshiny good vibes with his lovely cover of Sade's "By Your Side."
When sundown finally arrived, majestic Mancunians Elbow ushered it in beautifully with their epic, almost religiously joyful "One Day Like This"--this was by far THE feelgood moment of Coachella Saturday. Although Elbow were unfortunately only playing a medium-sized, not-entirely-packed tent--it seemed that the neighboring New Pornographers and Bright Eyes gigs had siphoned off some of their audience--their experience headlining overseas venues like Wembley Stadium showed in their brilliant performance. As they played their gorgeous and goosepimply new mini-symphony "Lippy Kids" for the absolutely enthralled crowd, Mumford & Sons' own Ted Duane could be spotted up towards the front, clearly a fan.
Speaking of Mumford & Sons, they played second-to-last on the main stage, setting the tone for fellow Grammy breakouts Arcade Fire (two of the coolest moments of this year's Grammy telecast were Arcade Fire's show-closing number and Mumford & Sons' acoustic jam with Bob Dylan.) In a festival filled with dance music and countless glowstick-wielding revelers, it was amazing (and encouraging) to witness just how popular this little acoustic Brit band had become, as M&S generated just as loud a Coachella buzz with lo-fi instruments like mandolin, accordion, banjo, dobro, double-bass...and hardly any drums.
But of course, no Coachella lineup would be complete without a few hotly tipped reunion or "heritage" acts. Post-punk legends Wire suffered greatly from having their set time conflict with Big Audio Dynamite's (the stupidest booking mistake of Coachella 2011), but honestly, B.A.D. were really the better upbeat festival choice. Former Clash-man Mick Jones, who started the reggae/hip-pop outfit B.A.D. in 1984 after the Clash disbanded, came across as The Most Likable Man In Punk, with his deeply smile-lined face and amusing between-song anecdotes about such random subjects as jackrabbits. (Mick just may be rock's third-greatest banterer, after the Hives' Howlin' Pelle and Van Halen's David Lee Roth.) Playing Coachella for the second year in a row (he guested with Gorillaz in 2010), Mick seemed delighted to be back, strutting onstage to spaghetti-western theme music before playing big audio hit after hit, including "Medicine Show," "E=MC2," "Bottom Line," and "Rush." And when the band performed "V. Thirteen," a song co-penned by Mick's late, great Clash partner Joe Strummer, it was probably as close to a Clash reunion as Coachella's ever going to get.
However, the best act at Coachella on Saturday was Suede, a band often known on this side of the Atlantic for legal reasons as the London Suede but amazing by any name. The Brit-glam gods basically gave a master class in how to stage a proper Coachella comeback. Slinking out in unbuttoned-to-the-waist black satin and looking as pencil-slim and high-cheekboned as ever, androgynous frontman Brett Anderson delivered the glammy goods just like he did back in the early '90s. His distinctive bleat crisp enough to cut through all the bleeding-over noise from all the adjacent stages, Brett minced and flounced and knee-dropped all over the Mojave stage during classics like "She," "Trash," "Filmstar," "Pantomime Horse," "Metal Mickey," "Beautiful Ones," "Can't Get Enough," and the still-sexy-after-all-these-years "Animal Nitrate" and "Drowners." Both Brett and his songs had aged incredibly well, and he gave the heart-on-satin-sleeve performance of the entire day, fantastic enough to even make everyone overlook the fact that original Suede guitarist Bernard Butler wasn't onstage with him. Suede have never really gotten their due--nostalgic retrospectives of Britpop's golden age always namecheck Oasis and Blur, and maybe Pulp, but rarely Suede--but after this triumphant tour de force, perhaps that will change.
Coming up Sunday: the return of Duran Duran, the Strokes, and Death From Above 1979, not to mention the sure-to-be-newsworthy festival-closing set by Kanye West.
All photos except robots by Debi Del Grande
Additional reporting by Don Andrews Jr.
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