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Radiohead Bring the Rhythm to Epic Coachella Set

Bon Iver, Buzzcocks St. Vincent rock the desert on the fest's second day

Thom Yorke of Radiohead performs at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California.
FilmMagic/FilmMagic
April 15, 2012 11:05 AM ET

Beats do more than keep time for Radiohead. At the band's epic headlining performance on Saturday at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival, tempo was everything – setting the tone and tension for the band's searing rock-electronics blend, and sending fans into fits of wild interpretive dance moves on the great lawn. It was easily the largest gathering at the festival so far this weekend.

On the road, Radiohead now has a second drummer, Clive Deamer, just to keep up with the layers of beats and rhythms. Late in the nearly two-hour performance, drummers Deamer and Phil Selway were joined by guitarists Jonny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien on percussion for "There There." On "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi," even the guitars were played like percussion instruments, tumbling forward as Yorke's lonely post-millennial cry rushed to keep up: "Everybody leaves, if they get the chance/And this is my chance."

Yorke dedicated the world-weary "Karma Police" to the sort of people "that want something from you. You need a cold shower after talking to them." But Saturday's version was gentler than the acidic original. Coachella came into its own in 2004, the first year that Radiohead headlined a night at the annual music and arts fest in the California desert. Already one of the great bands of their generation, Radiohead's performance helped define the festival. Years later – even as their material has grown more experimental and distant from the sound of their 1997 breakthrough, OK Computer – Radiohead remains an essential rock voice.

Bon Iver returned to Coachella with a bit more stagecraft but with their big musical ambitions unchanged from swelling popularity and Grammy Award recognition. Opening with a soulful "Holocene," leader Justin Vernon stood with his guitar behind a row of stage lamps, singing in wounded falsetto. With strings, brass, guitars and more, Bon Iver was capable of grand gestures fit for the wide open Coachella landscape, but they remained just as obsessed with the smaller moments. On "Skinny Love," Vernon strummed an acoustic dobro guitar for several understated moments before the song swelled into a powerful anthemic chorus with the full band, as he pleaded, "I told you to be patient, I told you to be fine/I told you to be balanced, I told you to be kind."

A decade after headlining Coachella with Oasis, Noel Gallagher returned to the festival's main stage for an hour-long set with his new band, the High Flying Birds. This time, Gallagher was calling his own shots, forgoing Oasis' spectacle-heavy approach and all but ignoring the massive video monitors onstage. After years of seeing Gallagher's younger brother and Oasis bandmate, Liam, sing Noel-penned tunes, it was a pleasure to see Noel step into the vocal spotlight. As he should: his voice is as effective on High Flying Birds tracks like "Everybody's on the Run" and "If I Had a Gun" as it was on "Don't Look Back in Anger" so long ago. 

Earlier, the Gobi tent was a good place to spend a big part of the day, with a great diverse lineup of style and generations, from Laura Marling's modern folk layered with cello, double-bass and occasional banjo and mandolin, to the bold raps of Azealia Banks, who had the tent full and bouncing to "212" and a pumping, abbreviated set. fIREHOSE whipsawed through a jumble of no-formula, free-flowing, muscular indie rock. Bassist Mike Watt kept close to George Hurley at the drumkit, locked in and sharing some laughs, much as they have off and on since their days in the Minutemen in the Eighties underground.

Also at the Gobi, the Buzzcocks brought the spirit of first-wave British punk with a crashing, bashing set that began with the vintage rant "Fast Cars." Guitarist Steve Diggle was the master of crowd control, keeping fans whipped up with demands that they cheer: "Louder! Louder! Louder!" The band played to a full tent, delivering "Orgasm Addict," "What Do I Get?" and other joyful sneers to bouncing fans who were mostly too young to have heard them in the punk-rock Seventies.

Just as memorable was St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark), with a fierce set of alluring, confrontational indie rock that collided the organic with electronics, as she pulled crooked melodies from her electric guitar and wild noises from a Theremin before knocking it to the floor. With a live drummer and two others behind laptop, sequencers and keyboards behind her, the sound shifted wildly from subtle to extreme. "Surgeon" was vivid and dark, and soon Clark was crowd-surfing during a furious new song called "Crocodiles," twisting and tumbling above the crowd with her microphone and raging, "Croco-dile!-dile!-dile!"

On the Outdoor stage, Andrew Bird plucked and strummed a fiddle during "Danse Caribe" as part of a celebratory set of vivid folk, as fans danced on the grass and blew bubbles and the afternoon sun slid toward the mountains. Later on the same stage, Jeff Mangum played a rare live set alone with his rack of acoustic guitars, performing solo songs and material from Neutral Milk Hotel, including a breathless "Holland, 1945." During "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea," Mangum was joined by trumpet and French horn for a forlorn brass melody. Even the saddest songs couldn't keep a smile off his face in warmth of the desert.

Additional reporting by Dan Hyman

 

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