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COACHELLA ’09 SATURDAY: No One At Coachella Has Swagga Like M.I.A.

Lyndsey Parker
Maximum Performance

The moment the Coachella 2009 lineup was revealed, I saw Amy Winehouse's name listed for Saturday and thought, "Yeah, right. That's so not gonna happen." And sure enough, a few weeks later it was announced that the famously flaky Amy's Coachella appearance had been cancelled due to her typical U.S. visa issues. That was no surprise.

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What was surprising was the subsequent announcement that Amy's main stage replacement for Coachella Saturday would be Sri Lankan-born, Britain-bred M.I.A.--a woman who ironically once dealt with visa problems herself, and who had a baby less than two months ago.

Of course, M.I.A.'s career has been on an unlikely upward trajectory as of late: After her song "Paper Planes" was used in the Pineapple Express trailer, it became a hit more than a year after its release, and multiple Grammy nominations (and a memorable nine-months-pregnant Grammy performance) followed. She was then even co-nominated for an Oscar for "O Saya" from Slumdog Millionaire. With momentum like that, why should M.I.A. let becoming a mom slow her down?

Well, judging by M.I.A.'s main stage Coachella performance on Saturday, she hasn't slowed down one bit. Her set was the finest I witnessed all Saturday (despite rumors of Kanye West and Lil' Wayne guest appearances proving unfounded, although Baltimore rapper Rye Rye did make a cameo). And she performed with a ferocity that Amy Winehouse probably wouldn't be capable of these days anyway, so it all worked out for the best.

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M.I.A.'s entrance was possibly one of the greatest in Coachella history, right up there with Bauhaus frontman Peter Murphy's hanging-from-the-rafters descent in a bat costume in 2005. Rocking a pair of pegged-legged acid-washed jeans that only she could get away with, and flanked by a fleet of TRON-style neon-outlined dancers (whose moves and attire also brought to mind early-'90s videos by groups like Technotronic and Deee-Lite), she appeared at a podium bedecked with multiple logo'd microphones, as if giving a TV news conference. It was such a cool shtick, I wondered why no one had thought of it before.

M.I.A. positively owned the main stage, even if she made occasional almost apologetic comments about her newfound celebrity status and frequently voiced a desire to return to the smaller tents she played at her two previous Coachellas. "I want to let you know that just because I did the Grammys, it doesn't mean I've gone all sold-out," she told the audience, before making a nod to the absent Amy by singing a snippet of "Rehab" with the altered lyrics: "They tried to make me do the Oscars, but I said no, no, no." (M.I.A. didn't perform at this year's Oscars because she'd just given birth, see.)

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M.I.A.'s hour-long set was a nonstop blitz of edgy energy, especially when--seemingly yearning for the close contact of more intimate venues and "missing the sweat"--she invited the massive audience to bumrush the stage. The stern-faced security guards were less than thrilled and kept many revelers from making it past the barricade, but enough fans managed to slip through (while M.I.A. chanted, "Let 'em on! Let 'em on!") to attend the impromptu onstage dance party. And she enjoyed more up-close-and-personal contact with her fans by finishing her show with a piggyback ride on a roadie's shoulders through the crowd. It was a grand finale that more than redeemed her Coachella performance from last year, which was such a technical-difficulty-riddled disaster she got thrown off her game and actually forgot the lyrics to "Paper Planes."

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What a difference a year makes. However, M.I.A. was self-deprecating to the very end, dismissing her past breakthrough year with, "This year I'm on the main stage; next year, I'm back in the tent." But I wouldn't be so sure. Maybe next year, she'll be headlining.

M.I.A. was a highlight in what was overall the weakest day for music at Coachella 2009. The Saturday lineup was so lackluster, in fact--at least compared to Friday's Paul McCartney/Leonard Cohen/Morrissey trifecta or Sunday's Cure/My Bloody Valentine shoegazer flashback--that I chose to start my day not at the festival itself but over at the Anthem magazine pool party, which is quickly becoming a hotly tipped new Saturday Coachella tradition.

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An indie Indio oasis of booze, BBQ, lake boatrides, private rooms bursting with swag from cool companies like Alternative Apparel and Reef, and some of the best people-watching in the desert, the Anthem blowout was definitely a nice way to beat the heat before heading to the festival once peak sun hours had passed.

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Back over on the festival grounds, Michael Franti & Spearhead did an odd medley featuring tributes to both Madness's "Our House" and AC/DC's "Back In Black" on the main stage, while '90s alt-rock icons Superchunk--one of many old-school acts playing Coachella this year--rocked the Outdoor Stage quite impressively. (The band had aged very well, both physically and musically.)

As for newer bands, buzzy Scots Glasvegas sadly cancelled their Mojave Tent appearance due to singer James Allan's "exhaustion" (ahem), and Brooklyn art-rockers TV On The Radio weren't quite up to the task of playing the main stage (although their final number, the brightly burning and beautiful "Staring At The Sun," was admittedly THE perfect song to play at dusk.)

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But perhaps the biggest bummer for me, personally, was Fleet Foxes.

The turnout for Fleet Foxes' early-evening Outdoor Stage set was huge, bigger than some main stage acts even drew...that's what appearing on Saturday Night Live can do for a band, I suppose. And it was admirable how such a large crowd remained reverently quiet while the Seattle soft-rockers performed their opening number, "Sun Giant," almost entirely a cappella. And yes, the Foxes' harmonies were quite nice. But that's was the operative word here: NICE. Overall, I found Fleet Foxes' music to be toothless, oddly devoid of any palpable emotion, bordering on new-agey, and (as I overheard one rare like-minded concertgoer word it) "pleasantly neutered." They almost sounded like an indie-rock Bread.

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And on a side note, those Fleet Foxes' guys faces sure must have been sweating in the merciless desert heat due of those unfortunate beards of theirs. I partially blame Fleet Foxes for this recent ill-advised indie-rock beard trend (although Iron & Wine, Bon Iver, the aforementioned TV On The Radio, and other such hirsute indie acts are also to blame), so I can't help but hold a little grudge. Why must all these otherwise cute young rock boys grow fugly homeless-man beards? The only band that can get away with so much overgrown facial hair is ZZ Top, so this follicle fad must stop, and soon. Coachella would have been a great opportunity for Fleet Foxes to kickstart a new trend called GOOD GROOMING by shaving (c'mon, even Saturday headliners the Killers are clean-shaven these days!), but Fleet Foxes blew it.

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But I digress. Bored with Fleet Foxes, I wandered over to the Mojave Tent to catch beardless young rock boy James Morrison, who I also half-expected to be milquetoast and mellow, but who surprisingly ended up being one of the best, most soulful performers I saw all day. He brilliantly covered Stevie Wonder's "Uptight (Everything's Alright)," he duetted with fellow Saturday performer Joss Stone on "Wonderful World," and he belted every song out with a passion sorely missing from Fleet Foxes' set. And yet, his sound was so commercial, so smooth, I wondered why this guy isn't already huge in America like fellow singer-songwriter Brits Coldplay and James Blunt. Morrison should be massive! His songs should be covered on American Idol and in iPod ads and on the radio every 10 minutes! It's shame. The Mojave Tent wasn't even entirely full for his set.

The day ended with the aforementioned-at-length M.I.A. on the main stage; Norwegian rock vikings Turbonegro (featuring shamelessly shirtless, beer-gutted, raccoon-eyed, profusely sweating/sweating frontman Hank Von Helvete) belting out X-rated anthems like "Get It On," "Wasted Again," and "Rock Against A**" in the Mojave Tent; and then, back over on the main stage, Las Vegas's finest, the Killers.

Killers frontman Brandon Flowers was the consummate showman, looking a bit like a sleazy Sin City lounge lizard himself with his sequin-spangled ringmaster jacket and exaggerated ringleader hand gestures, but it just wasn't as killer a set as it could have been. Besides hitting the stage a whopping 20 minutes late, the Killers just played way too much material from their difficult, "ambitious," beardy second album, Sam's Town, saving too many of their Hot Fuss hits for the end--when concertgoers were already streaming towards the exit in hopes of avoiding the Truckasaurus-style parking lot gridlock. But those who stayed were rewarded with a double wallop of "Mr. Brightside" and "All These Things That I've Done," complete with fireworks. It was a sudden reminder of how far the Killers have come since they first played a noon slot on Coachella's smallest stage, in the Gobi Tent, in 2004.

And thus concluded a somewhat so-so Saturday. Sunday, however, will boast an absolutely insane lineup, with older iconic acts (the Cure, My Bloody Valentine, Paul Weller, Public Enemy, Throbbing Gristle) and newer buzz bands (Antony & The Johnsons, Friendly Fires, Late Of The Pier, the Horrors, the Kills) galore. It's going to be a marathon day, but I've got my SPF 100 sunscreen packed (seriously, Neutrogena makes SPF 100 now) and I'm ready to go. See you on the field.

All concert photos by Mike Orlosky. For more of Mike's Saturday Coachella pics, click HERE.

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