“You’ve had a long weekend, and you need to freak out,” Thom Yorke declared to the many thousands gathered for the final night of this year’s Coachella Music and Arts Festival. In moments, Yorke and his solo band, Atoms for Peace, hurled another tsunami of noise and melody across the desert floor on Sunday, serenading fans with hyper-kinetic beats and raw emotion.
The solo headline performance by the Radiohead singer was among the most anticipated of the festival in Indio, California, and its mingling of electronics and brooding, postmodern funk acted as a meeting place for Coachella’s rock and dance crowds, sharing the vast lawn to dance. The set was dominated by material from his e-centric solo album, 2006’s The Eraser, songs that are rarely played live.
That made Yorke only the latest of his generation’s leading rock figures to present their alternative selves at the festival, in his case returning six years after a staggering Radiohead appearance. Also this weekend was Damon Albarn, leading his Gorillaz, after earlier Coachella gigs with Blur and the Good, the Bad and the Queen. Jack White has rocked the desert venue with the White Stripes, Raconteurs and, this weekend, the Dead Weather. And desert local Josh Homme has played repeatedly with Queens of the Stone Age, Desert Sessions, Eagles of Death Metal and, on Friday, the supergroup Them Crooked Vultures.
With Eraser, Yorke drifted from Radiohead’s grand gestures to music of another kind of intensity. During “The Clock,” he picked up an electric guitar more for noise than melody, adding to layers of sound that descended into a brooding raga pattern. “Analyse” was rooted in classical-style piano and rolling basslines played by Flea, his high-profile sideman from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
He returned for an encore alone with an acoustic guitar, beginning with “Give Up the Ghost,” a new song he described as “One you don’t know, unless you spend too much time on YouTube,” not exactly joking. He tapped the microphone to create a steady beat, looped it, added vocal parts and looped that, then played a melancholic riff with a Neil Young twang. “I’ve had my fill, in your arms, in your arms,” he sang in a quiet, almost spooked state.
Still alone onstage, Yorke strummed through a fragile “Airbag” (from Radiohead’s OK Computer) and, on piano, “Everything In Its Right Place” (from Kid A). Then the full band was back to exotic grooves and electronic accents, as Yorke insisted in the final hours of Coachella 2010, “With all the energy you’ve got left, you’ve got to dance!”
Closing out the festival, Albarn and his Gorillaz fully revealed the gifted musicians behind the cartoons as a sophisticated band of lush, progressive pop. With steady desert breezes blowing across the landscape, Gorillaz opened with the recorded image of Snoop Dogg on the big screens rapping extra-smooth across the title song from the band’s enviro-apocalyptic new album, Plastic Beach.
Like that album, the night featured a long line of guest singers and players, with a soul-stirring moment from Bobby Womack (recreating his “Stylo” vocal on Plastic Beach) and first-gen punk from the Clash’s Mick Jones and Paul Simonon (who is also a part of the Good, the Bad and the Queen project). But Albarn himself provided some of the most moving vocal turns, such as torrid Bowie-esque readings of “Empire Ants” and “Broken.” There was also the darker “Kids With Guns,” and an endless, evocative groove of rock, reggae, funk, pop and strings.
Pavement cranked up the lo-fi to maximum strength on the main stage, returning to the site of their appearance at the very first Coachella in 1999. The band broke up that same year, but finally reconvened for a reunion tour that singer-guitarist Stephen Malkmus has already suggested is a one-off lark, not a full return to action. But the band was clearly enjoying themselves, performing Pavement’s deeply influential music from the ’90s with ease and good vibes.
There were staggering blasts of guitar, including a bruising rave-up on “Two States,” sung by guitarist Scott Kannberg, followed by a quick and quirky “Shady Lane,” with Malkmus singing and soloing like a post-punk Kinks. On “Frontwards,” he sang, “I’ve got style / Miles and miles / So much style that it’s wasted,” lyrics that he said were somehow “about California,” the band’s home-state.
Earlier on Sunday came yowling, melodic feedback from Yo La Tengo, then Spoon at dusk, pacing and rocking the big stage comfortably through the jagged guitars of “I Turn My Camera On” (from 2005’s acclaimed Gimme Fiction), shifting into some driving, Beatles-like guitar pop on 2007’s “Don’t Make Me a Target.”
Phoenix offered the excited jangle of “Consolation Prizes” and swirling, meditative waves of organ and tumbling beats underneath “Girlfriend.” The French act drew one of the biggest crowds of the day, igniting both harder-edged instrumental passages and the dance-rock of “If I Feel Better.”
Not every set paid off in the expected ways. Funk veteran Sly Stone missed his original 6:59 p.m. set-time in the Gobi tent, scattering his crowd to the night’s headliners, most fans never to return. For those who have followed the troubles of Stone in the last several years, the abrupt rescheduling was no surprise. When he finally stepped onstage at 11 p.m. in the Mojave tent, it was to deliver a mostly incoherent performance of more talk than music. It was a missed opportunity for both Sly and the young fans hoping to finally see a legendary artist.