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Coachella: Brit Bands Stone Roses and Blur Headline, But Locals, Canadians Rule Desert

Stone Roses Coachella 2013 L
Jeff Miller

Plus: A Daft Punk tease sends hundreds charging to the Gobi tent as the California festival kicks off a two-weekend bow.

It can't be said that no one saw it coming: When the lineup for the 14th edition of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival -- America's premier weekend-long music gathering in the California desert -- was announced, plenty of people tweeted variations of, “Who the f--- are the Stone Roses?”

And it's no wonder: The first night's headliner, a just-reunited, massive band in the U.K., never had a hit in the U.S. So when the band finally took the stage as it approached midnight Friday amid a monster cloud of smoke, it wasn't a huge surprise that they were playing to a field meant for (and usually occupied by) a crush of tens of thousands that only contained a smattering of about 5,000 people upfront.

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Even many of those curious festivalgoers peeled away as singer Ian Brown and the rest of the band played through stateside obscurities like “Made of Stone” -- with his Planet of the Apes haircut, mooky Manchester affect and incessant jingle-jangling coming across as confrontational rather than inviting. One could only think of triumphant, unifying Coachella headliners past -- Prince's greatest-hits set, say, or The Arcade Fire unleashing a torrent of lightbrite balls on an unsuspecting audience a couple years ago -- and shake their head while making their way toward the exit. The show, filled with aura and laser lights, must play like gangbusters overseas; here, it was the sound of a cult band, playing in a language only their faithful audience could appreciate.

Co-headliners and fellow Brit icons Blur fared much better, smartly opening their set with the disco-pop-rocker “Girls and Boys,” one of only a few U.S. hits the back-from-the-dead group charted during their peak years in the 1990s, when perennial enemies Oasis sucked up much of the attention.

It was their first U.S. show in a decade, and they played like they were making up for lost time. Original guitarist Graham Coxon, who wasn't part of the lineup the last time around in America, backed singer Damon Albarn with one-two levity, adding smiley harmonies and smart guitar licks as Albarn prowled the massive stage. “Song #2,” the sports-arena “woo-hoo” standby, blew up, of course, but lesser-known-to-the-masses songs like the slow-burning “Caramel” found the twosome sharing a very real musical chemistry.

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The day's many highlights were scattered all over the fest's six stagea. At the Outdoor Theatre, L.A.'s Local Natives melded Afro-beat pop and heavy-handed rock to a massive crowd amazingly familiar with their full, high-energy output. American-Canadian semi-supergroup Divine Fits came off more as a solid, structured band than any sort of side project. Vancouver's Japandroids (pictured below), at the Gobi tent shortly after fellow Canucks Stars wrapped up their main-stage set, and London's Palma Violets proved punk is still very much alive to small but high-octane crowds in the tents, the former blasting through can't-stop rock as a noisemaking duo while the latter added a full band for maximum shout-along fury. Alt-J, the high-buzz, Radiohead-ish, Mercury Prize-winning Europeans, drew such a big crush of onlookers to their Mojave Tent set that it was in overflow mode. And the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' nighttime main-stage set found singer Karen O confidently screaming like a Banshee -- specifically, Siouxsie Sioux.

But the day's biggest story might have been, well, not from a band at all. In the smallish Gobi tent, while the techs were setting up for an 8:35 p.m. DJ set from TNGHT, an undeniable, pumping electro number began blasting while the video screens showed surrealist images of a band playing. It was a new Daft Punk song, and as soon as passersby heard it, they reacted accordingly -- and charged. No doubt many were hoping for a surprise performance from the notoriously reclusive French producers, set to release their first new album in years next month. They ran into the tent, hoping for a miracle. Alas, it was not to be: just a commercial teasing their new record. The come-down kept with the day's theme: a promise of something that could be legendary, but ultimately felt somewhat disappointing.

Twitter: @THRMusic

Jeff Miller