The last time I saw the Red Hot Chili Peppers play a big festival was way back at Woodstock ’99, when their closing set led right into an hours-long bout of rioting, looting and arson by fans who were sick of paying $4 for water (and possibly also ashamed of themselves for liking Limp Bizkit so much). By comparison, the conclusion of Saturday night’s Coachella headlining set by the Chili Peppers was anticlimactic: Flea simply wished everyone “peace and love” following sing-a-long versions of “Under the Bridge” (“yeah, yeah, FUCK yeah!” sang the frat dude next to me) and “By the Way.”
The Peppers’ set was solid but unspectacular, weighed down in the middle by a few too many mid-tempo tunes from Stadium Arcadium — these guys have headlined so many festivals that this performance lacked a sense of occasion. (The biggest surprise was Anthony Kiedis’ luxuriant mustache — a far sturdier model than the fuzzy thing sported by Interpol’s Carlos D the night before.) Kiedis’ always-shaky pitch wandered off a few times, but John Frusciante’s falsetto harmonies never wavered. And there were some amazing moments, including Flea’s jaw-droppingly complex bass line on a brief cover of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and Frusciante’s Hendrixian lead-guitar freak-outs throughout, which are more flamboyant than ever.
Right before the Chili Peppers, the Arcade Fire gave a main-stage performance that felt like a coronation, drawing a sprawling crowd of tens of thousands: The big stage and fearsomely loud sound system and were just right for their grandiose songs, which finally swelled to the U2-and-Springsteen proportions they always had in them. They didn’t shy from the stadium-rock thing: During an epic “Rebellion (Lies),” frontman Win Butler walked off stage and into the audience, singing in their faces, Bono-style.
Their set was front-loaded with the less ecstatic songs from their new album, Neon Bible, which meant they were able to unleash the full-on anthems from Funeral one after another in the second half of the show. Butler had just taken a month off to deal with voice problems, but he showed no signs of restraint, howling his way through “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” like it was the last time he’d ever have to perform.
Other big moments on Saturday included LCD Soundsystem’s relentless set in the dance tent (which, sadly, was at the exact same time as the Chili Peppers); Peter Bjorn and John’s joyous version of their semi-hit “Young Folks,” with guest vocals from the Shout Out Louds’ Bebban Stenborg; and Tom Morello’s surprisingly well-attended solo set in his acoustic singer/songwriter guise as the Nightwatchman. He worked his fans into a fist-pumping frenzy with just an acoustic guitar and his voice — which suggests some serious pandemonium is going to break out Sunday night when steps on stage with Rage. But we already knew that.