An estimated 50,000 people descended on the grassy Empire Polo Field in Indio, California, for the two-day, sixth-annual Coachella Valley Music Festival. And while the post-punk sounds of the Kaiser Chiefs, Bloc Party and the Futureheads are the sound du jour, this year’s festival celebrated the genre’s originators with headlining sets by New Wave icons New Order and reunions by post-punk architects Gang of Four and goth-rock pioneers Bauhaus. For contemporary heavyweights, this year brought Coldplay, Wilco, Weezer and Nine Inch Nails.
Coldplay, Saturday’s headliners, entered to an ethereal chant. The stage was flanked with images of the band’s new album cover, X & Y, which, with its colorfully retro symbols, resembles an early Atari logo. Coldplay began with the new song “Square One,” its moody, churning melody swelling as black-clad frontman Chris Martin pounded away on his piano. “It doesn’t matter who you are,” he sang, as red and blue spotlights probed. The band then kicked the set up another notch with a revved-up version of “Politik.”
“Thank you for waiting for us,” Martin said to the crowd early on. “I hope we are worth it for you.” Throughout the set, Coldplay mixed new material, like their lilting new single “Speed of Sound,” with hits like “Yellow,” which Martin turned into a sing-along. In it, he substituted the word “Coachella” for “yellow” to the crowd’s delight. As an introduction to the song, Martin explained, “Every band has a song that took them to where they are, and this is ours.” The show’s emotional highlight came midway through the set as Martin delivered a moving version of “The Scientist,” with its delicate piano intro.
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In sharp contrast, Sunday night’s headliners Nine Inch Nails brought the angst for a blistering hour and fifteen minutes. After singer Trent Reznor opened with the extended piano introduction of “The Wretched,” the band charged and delivered a non-stop pummeling on songs such as “Piggy” and “Closer,” with its industrial rhythms and Reznor’s infamous cry, “I want to fuck you like an animal.” The band also performed material from its new album, With Teeth, including the single “The Hand That Feeds.” Reznor prowled the stage in black, rarely addressing the audience. “Hurt,” which marries Reznor’s piano-playing with more tempestuous orchestrations, did not fail to rouse the fans.
Across the field on Sunday, Bright Eyes closed out the evening — and the festival — with a different kind of angst. Teaming with members of dance-rockers the Faint — who performed a simmering, politically charged set earlier in the evening — Bright Eyes’ singer Conor Oberst warbled through kinetic material from his electronic-tinged pop album Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. “I’d like you all to relax. I’m going to play some songs,” Oberst told the crowd early in his set. Oberst, whose music can sometimes sound precious, was able to temper his emotional outbursts with a more subdued sonic palette, drawing on ambient electronica and straight-ahead rock.
Saturday, though, was all about rock. Earlier in the afternoon, as the sun began to set over the mountains, Wilco delighted with a set that deftly fused noise-rock experimentation and alt-country leanings. Before a superb rendition of “Handshake Drugs,” he quipped, “We were supposed to be here last year, but I was too fucked up.” (Wilco were to perform at Coachella last year but had to cancel when singer Jeff Tweedy entered rehab.) As the crowd roared in support, he deadpanned, “I feel a lot better now.” In light of Tweedy’s past, a version of “A Shot in the Arm,” which rode on a drizzly keyboard melody, especially resonated. Tweedy crooned, “Something in my veins/Bloodier than blood,” his singing invested with emotion.
Geek rockers Weezer followed Wilco on Saturday night with a surprisingly subdued set, highlighting material from their forthcoming album, Make Believe, due May 10th. Songs included the synth-pop-colored “This Is Such a Pity,” the mid-tempo, guitar-led “Peace” and “We Are All On Drugs,” with its pounding rhythm and silly lyrics (“When you are out with your friends in your new Mercedes Benz/When you are on drugs”). Singer Rivers Cuomo, donning a dapper plaid blazer and his trademark black-rimmed glasses, also led the crowd through sing-alongs — and nostalgia trips — on songs such as “Say It Ain’t So” and the set closer, “Buddy Holly.”
Saturday evening’s big reunion was Bauhaus, who have not performed together since a brief reunion tour in 1998. The goth vets played up their dark side: During a chilly, electronic-effects-laden version of “Bela Lugosi Is Dead,” singer Peter Murphy hung upside down from a metal cable, his platinum-bleached hair blowing in the night breeze.
Rarer still, on Sunday British rabble-rousers Gang of Four trotted through an impressive array of tunes, many from their heralded 1979 album Entertainment! The band’s Coachella appearance marked the original lineup’s first North American performance since 1981, and the quartet was in fine form. Singer Jon King charged through set opener “The Gift,” stalking the stage and throwing up his hands. The band’s knack for taut structures and jerky rhythms was especially apparent on “Damaged Goods,” which prompted crowd members to chant along.
“The really cool part [of reuniting] is that it’s a whole new audience,” Gang of Four bassist Dave Allen told Rolling Stone after their set. “I mean, very few people were in the audience in Britain from way back . . . I’ve got three teenagers that were blown away tonight. It’s the first time they’ve seen us. It was like, ‘Whoa, cool, Dad!'”
Later Sunday night, New Order offered pitch-perfect versions of songs from their back catalog, even extending back as far as their Joy Division days with set opener “Atmosphere” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Singer Bernard Sumner was especially charming, teasing, “We’re going to play a dance tune. Unfortunately I can’t dance at all because I tore a ligament in my foot,” before performing synth-driven set highlight “Bizarre Love Triangle.” Despite his warning, Sumner glided and twirled around the stage. The band closed with “Blue Monday,” which incorporated samples from Kylie Mingoue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” much to the dancing crowd’s delight.
Another reason music fans love Coachella is the diversity in genres and sheer number of bands on the bill. Ambitious concertgoers can trek around to the five stages to catch an assortment of performers. And while the desert climate has in years past proved menacing, this year temperatures stayed in the eighties with a consistent, cool breeze, dipping into the mid-sixties at night.
That only aided the music-hungry masses, especially those who arrived early on Saturday to catch sets by British crooner Jamie Cullum, who offered a jazzy jaunt through Coldplay’s “Parachutes” in anticipation of their set that night. “We might bollocks it up,” he joked before playing it. Also early in the day, Danish rockers the Raveonettes served up their love for American pop culture with a fuzzed-out cover of the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back”; and sensitive Brits Keane, who perform sans guitar, belted out fan favorites like “Everybody’s Changing.”
The alternating time-sequence allowed fans to swing over to the Outdoor Stage, adjacent to the mainstage, to catch sets by up-and-coming bands. On Saturday, Rilo Kiley, led by redhead Jenny Lewis, enchanted with a batch of urban folk songs, including the brass-ornamented “It’s a Hit” and the twangy “I Never” from their latest album More Adventurous. And at night, Mexican alt-rockers Cafe Tacuba riled up the crowd with a high-energy set that, despite the language barrier, expressed sheer rock & roll energy. Magnetic frontman Ruben Albarran, who sings in a gravely snarl, pogoed up and down on songs like “Cero Y Uno.”
On Sunday, the Outdoor Stage was dominated by indie rock, including some of Canada’s best exports. Twin sisters Tegan and Sara delivered a blissful set of power-pop. Buzz band the Arcade Fire justified all the hype with a galvanizing set that drew a massive audience. And artists and fans alike packed the Gobi tent to catch Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A., whose infectious set drawn from her debut album Arular left everybody dancing.
While Sunday’s eclectic lineup lacked some of the cohesion of the previous day, the pairing of the Futureheads and Gang of Four was inspired. “They were absolutely amazing,” Futureheads frontman Barry Hyde later told Rolling Stone of the Gang of Four reunion set. “When punk bands reform, it creates this general air of cynicism. But they absolutely nailed it.”