Coachella: Phoenix and R. Kelly Surprise Blows Minds; Reunions by Postal Service, Violent Femmes Wow

2:00 PM PST 04/14/2013 by Jeff Miller
Denis O'Regan/Coachella
R. Kelly

An unexpected collaboration draws a massive crowd on night two of the California music festival, as the French make up for the Brits' lackluster Friday kickoff.

Thousands of sun- and substance-soaked Coachella attendees must have awoken Sunday morning with the same question on their mind: “Did that odd couple collaboration really happen last night?” Their mind might say no, but their memory ... their memory is telling them yes.

That's an R. Kelly reference right there and for good reason: The R&B crooner sat in with headliners Phoenix for a bizarre mash-up of the former's slow-jam “Ignition (Remix)” and the latter's rock anthem "1901." It's not that anyone asked for a remix to the remix to "Ignition," but they got it anyway -- and after a couple bars, the bulk of the audience, packed to the gills and entranced by offerings from frontman Thomas Mars and crew (unlike the Stone Roses' disastrous headlining turn the night before) was on board, bobbing and fist pumping by the time the band and their special friend got to the chorus.

The collaboration came after an earlier showing of “1901," which served as an easy reminder of why the French band's first major U.S. headlining show was so anticipated. And with a new album out in the coming weeks, Bankrupt!, Mars certainly was up to the festival-headlining task, making his way out into the audience and climbing atop the rafters for the second encore, then crowd-surfing his way back to the stage.

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All the while, Phoenix ran through its own catalog of catchy, off-kilter melody-driven guitar-and-keyboard dance-rockers with a passive ease. New songs (like the Coachella-appropriate “Trying to Be Cool”) fit snugly among catalog favorites like “Fences.” It must be noted, though, that the set was oddly top-heavy. After all, while the band has notched four major hits, they led with three of them, making the middle section somewhat draggy for a festival crowd best described as subscribing to passive, rather than aggressive, fandom.

Quite the opposite could be said of the hordes that packed the main stage a couple hours earlier for the first festival set ever from The Postal Service (pictured below), a side-project group that's never properly toured behind their seminal 2003 album Give Up. “We're an imaginary band,” said singer Ben Gibbard, best known (until now) as the frontman for Death Cab For Cutie. What the Postal Service offered, though, was more transcendent than any of Death Cab's myriad Coachella spots.

Backed by frequent collaborator and Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Lewis and beats man Dntel, as well as a lithe multi-instrumentalist, The Postal Service made songs like “We Will Become Silhouettes" and “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” from their sole glowy, glitchy album, into dance music for people who don't like dance music, with the crowd sharing knowing, unifying glances while singing the band's lyrics at each other. This was one of those rare Coachella moments that could serve to change a band's career trajectory: It was clear that in prepping for what's now billed as a one-off series of shows, they've nailed their performance of these songs, giving them life and breathing room far greater than the studio versions on their cult-favorite album.

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The Violent Femmes went the nostalgia route, too, deciding to dedicate the set list of their first show in six years to a front-to-back retelling of their seminal self-titled 1982 debut. Although the music is likely older than most of the people in the audience, it stands up incredibly well. “Please Do Not Go” and “Add It Up” were instant proof that the Femmes' were the progenitors of emo-folk long before artists like Bright Eyes gave that genre its name.

Also clearly benefiting from their Coachella billing were a number of very different emerging artists. Rapper 2 Chainz, already approaching superstar status thanks to a slew of radio mega-hits, packed the Mojave tent, came on 20 minutes late -- and then delivered, knocking out-of-the-park flow backed by a stellar band and oozing charisma and gratitude. Prog-rockers Portugal. The Man. added strings and horns for a lush sunset slot that culminated with a singalong of the Beatles “Hey Jude.” White-boy soul singer Allen Stone grabbed passersby with his voice in an early Gobi-tent slot, then held them close with his clearly impassioned performance.

Festival vets Hot Chip and Two Door Cinema Club also delivered similarly catchy, electronic-influenced dance-pop sets that sparked tons of impromptu on-field dance parties. And though both bands' music can come off a bit generic, the booty-shaking is all that really mattered. As a wise man once said, ain't nothing wrong with a lil' bump and grind.

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