Coachella 2008 Day Two: Portishead, Death Cab, M.I.A., Malkmus, Kraftwerk - Rolling Stone
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Coachella Day Two: Portishead, Death Cab, M.I.A., Malkmus, Kraftwerk

Saturday’s late-afternoon primetime sets began just before 5 p.m. at the Outdoor Theatre, where Stephen Malkmus was holding court with the Jicks. After joking about the environmental crisis, he half-heartedly crooned Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” adding, “I would have played that if I was over there,” gesturing towards the slightly larger Main Stage. After doodling one of his many lengthy solos during “Elmo Demo” (from the band’s new Real Emotional Trash), Malkmus, outfitted in a giant floppy hat, told the crowd, “That was one was for me. It felt so good to say something so stupid.” Informing the crowd the next track, “Hopscotch Willie,” was actually for them, the band broke into an extended desert jam, with power drummer Janet Weiss playing so integral a role, Malkmus spent the majority of the show turned sideways to partially face her. “These guys are so fucking good, I can’t believe I get to front this shit,” the former Pavement leader concluded.

As the mid-day heat finally started to abate, strains of Death Cab for Cutie‘s “The New Year” rang out across the Coachella field. Singer-guitarist Ben Gibbard rocked back and forth on his heels in front of several thousands fans at the Main Stage as his band debuted tracks from their new album Narrow Stairs (including winding, dark single “I Will Possess Your Heart” and “Long Division”), which sounded even broodier rubbing up against poppier older favorites like “We Laugh Indoors” and “The Sound of Settling.”

Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Lewis carries some glam with her in the form of passionate torch songs and fine threads. Over at the Outdoor Theatre she sang the tortured “I Never” with the lyrics “I’m only a woman of flesh and bone/and I wept much, we all do,” as guitarist Blake Sennett plucked out a romantic Fifties pop melody. The light and funky “Breaking Up” was disco-ready alt-rock, climaxing with Lewis oohing and ahhing and declaring “It’s good to be free” as a cloud of silver confetti burst in the air above her.

As the sky darkened and the giant beams of light encircling the field were illuminated, Kraftwerk, who performed one of Coachella 2004’s most talked-about sets in the Sahara tent, emerged, putting the two giant screens on the sides of the Main Stage to perfect use with giant projects of everything from pills (for “Vitamin”) to the open road (“Autobahn”) to soundwaves punctuated with the lyrics to “Computer Love,” which sounded like Hal 3000 contemplating a stint on The band’s four members stood anonymous in front of their matching consoles, generating gorgeously warm synth tones and throbs.

For a brief moment, dance music ruled nearly ever corner of the fest, as the twitchy sounds of “Boys” and “Galang” were also emerging from the stage hosting M.I.A. It was close to impossible to get anywhere near that dangerously overcrowded tent, and after the Sri Lankan MC invited the crowd onstage to dance she demanded the lights be lowered. When nobody at the light console responded, she turned angry, complaining, “We’re in the dance tent. I want to go back to London town 1992.” After an awkward several-minutes-long standoff the glaring lights clicked off and M.I.A.’s pastiche of beats and gunshots returned, making the area sound like an obscene war zone.

Though most crazed M.I.A. fans (including the ones who nearly caused a partial tent collapse) stuck around until the final strains of “Paper Planes” faded into the air, thousands of Portishead admirers found their way back to the Main Stage and sprawled out on the grass for the British trip-hop’s group highly anticipated reunion set. Beth Gibbons and Co. delivered bigtime, turning out stirring new songs from their first album in more than a decade, Third, as well as a slew of favorites from their Nineties albums including the slow and sensual “Glory Box.” As the dry, rolling snare of “Mysterons” cut into the night, Gibbons stood still, hunched over her microphone, where she’d remain the entire set. The band’s warm peels of sound moved across the field like an aural massage, the seven touring members locked in together with incredible precision, every turntable scratch and haunting synth gorgeously amplified. “Wandering Star” was performed with just Gibbons’ operatic vocal and a guitar, and on “Roads” she appeared on the verge of tears, moaning “Oh, can’t anybody see/We’ve got a war to fight/Never found our way/Regardless of what they say.” There was no between-songs banter or thank yous until the end, when finally a male voice emerged from the stage: “Thanks for waiting.”

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