“This is my first festival,” Madonna said, looking out at thousands of fans on night two of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. “Now who’s going to share their drugs with me?” No one threw any joints onstage, which was probably just as well, given the out-of-place diva’s reaction when another substance landed near her microphone: “Do not throw water on my stage, motherfuckers!” She then wiped up the mess herself with a towel and threw it into the audience.
Madonna’s brief set — confined, for reasons never explained, to a dance-music tent instead of one of the two outdoor stages — was the biggest anomaly in the seven-year history of the alternative-leaning Coachella festival, held each year in the Southern California desert town of Indio. And her presence on a diverse bill otherwise headlined by Tool, Depeche Mode, Franz Ferdinand and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs prompted some grumbling. From the stage, Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein suggested she’d be skipping Madonna’s set, adding: “We’re more like Tool than we are like Madonna.” And a T-shirt worn by a few attendees read, “Madonna killed Coachella.” But backstage, Franz Ferdinand drummer and Madge fan Paul Thomson seemed to reflect the majority view: “Madonna in a tent? That’s insane!”
A tank-topped Madonna took the stage twenty minutes late Sunday night, prompting boos during the wait. Her performance was short, but had its share of thrills, even for haters — including a rocked-up version of “Ray of Light” that found her bashing out a chord or two on an electric guitar. The staging was stripped down by her standards — the only part of the show that felt completely out of place was a predictable bit where sweaty, shirtless back-up dudes ground themselves against her. Still, after two days filled with indie anti-frontmen, the showbiz polish was refreshing.
The other pop star on the bill was Kanye West, who played a short greatest-hits set of his own on Saturday — and also killed time by dancing to other people’s songs played by his DJ (including “Take on Me” by A-Ha). Indie snobbery aside, no one seemed able to resist singing along with Top Forty hits like “Gold Digger,” especially with West offering his permission to sing a certain word in the chorus: “White people, this is your only chance to say ‘nigga!'” he shouted.
With two outdoor stages and three tents, Coachella offers the opportunity to craft your own festival playlist — you could easily skip all the headliners and spend all your time in the tents seeing bands like the arty, chops-heavy Deerhoof, who at their best sound like the Who trapped in a Japanese cartoon. Some of the best sets were in those tents, including garage-metal revivalists Wolfmother’s arena-worthy Saturday show, which featured the kind of grandiose keyboard and guitar solos that get even more awesome when the kid next to you passes a joint.
Another tent highlight were blind Malian couple Amadou and Miriam, whose singular, blissed-out mix of Western guitar riffs, African rhythms and chanted French-language choruses seemed to be creating more fans by the minute. Also of note was a bravura debut live performance from Gnarls Barkley — the genre-ignoring supergroup of the charismatic, huge-voiced singer/rapper Cee-Lo and DJ Danger Mouse. The pair was backed by a full band, including string section — and everyone onstage, except Cee-Lo, was inexplicably dressed as characters from The Wizard of Oz (Danger Mouse was the Tin Man). The set peaked with a bonkers cover of the Violent Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone,” with Cee-Lo bouncing onstage and grinning as if he’d been waiting his whole career for this moment.
Franz Ferdinand were among the strongest of the main stage bands, with a sharp, note-perfect, hit-heavy act honed at countless Euro-festivals; Franz’s pogo-ing Alex Kapranos and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ manic Karen O were the weekend’s two best non-Madonna stage performers. Damian Marley’s set was a pleasant surprise; Bob’s son delved even deeper into roots-reggae than on record, with the help of a Wailers-worthy backing ban. He made the fest’s other big reggae artist, Matisyahu, sound like a sub-Sublime pretender. Meanwhile, Depeche Mode’s performance — taken directly from their current arena tour — meandered through too many new songs before finally revving into gear with a raucous, future-bluesy version of “Personal Jesus” and a mass sing-a-long on “Enjoy the Silence.”
The festival’s final act, Tool, brought no back-up dancers — in fact, they barely brought themselves. They used the main stage’s video screens only to show their bizarre, comic-book-hellish film clips — never once showing the actual bandmembers. And frontman Maynard James Keenan delivered his otherworldly vocals from a mike stand set up way back next to the drum kit, making it difficult to see him. But his stage banter was surprisingly human: “Welcome to our first show in many years,” he told the crowd of tens of thousands. “We wanted to keep it intimate, invite a few friends.”
The band debuted a chunk of its upcoming album 10,000 Days, including the ultra-heavy first single, “Vicarious,” which Keenan introduced by saying simply, “Single!” The set, and the festival, ended with the furious “Aenima,” with drummer Danny Carey unleashing an earthquake of tom-tom rolls as Keenan sang about wishing for Armageddon.
But the crowd didn’t even want the show to end, let alone the world. When Keenan yelled, “Had enough?” the masses gathered in the desert answered with one voice: “No!”