EmptyEmpire Polo Field, Indio, Calif.
(Friday-Saturday, April 25-26)
Prince brought down the sonic purple rain to rule all during the first two days of the 2008 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif.
On a day of sweltering heat Saturday, he took the stage nearly a half-hour late (blame arty, trip-hop Portishead, also running behind), coming on like Prince of the '80s, helped by an all-star revue. Cronies Morris Day of the Time slipped into "Jungle Love," and percussionist Sheila E. sang "The Glamorous Life."
Following a Santana-like Afro-Cuban jam, he kicked into "1999," and the party was on. The hit-filled set also included "Little Red Corvette," "U Got the Look" and surprise covers of Radiohead's "Creep" and the Beatles' "Come Together."
It was all a marked contrast to Friday's kinder, slightly breezy weather, capped by top-billed mellow man Jack Johnson. His easygoing, toes-in-the-sand songs included the acoustic-based "Flake" and "Hope" plus a beach shack-style cover of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love."
Despite Johnson's headline status, the day's finest performances came on the secondary Outdoor Theatre in back-to-back sets from Ireland's Swell Season and Brooklyn's the National. The "Once" duo of Glen Hansard and musical/romantic partner Marketa Irglova were warmly engaging with their delicate yet also intense songs, including the Oscar-winning "Falling Slowly," which brought a crowd sing-along from the heart, plus covers of Kraftwerk (who also played Saturday) and the Pixies.
The National's mix of emotionally claustrophobic vocals giving way to bursts of guitar and flashes of lyrical piano punctuated by horns found the band reaching for epic greatness. New York's overhyped Vampire Weekend, on the other hand, had no teeth, no bite, just preppy party boys-do-Afro-pop with empty airy guitar lines.
Reunited after a decade, the Verve's wall-of-sound Britrock on the main stage climaxed with the inevitable "Bittersweet Symphony," while the Raconteurs, which includes the White Stripes' Jack White, showcased blistering, greasy, blues-drenched garage rock.
Saturday, the Outdoor Theatre saw Los Angeles Celtic-punks Flogging Molly deliver a winning, Guinness-worthy set. Earlier, U.K. producer-musician Mark Ronson was joined by members of Kaiser Chiefs and Klaxons, Steven Malkmus and the Jicks unleashed fuzztone-drenched indie rock, and Rilo Kiley played smartly crafted funky pop.
Some Saturday performances were good for about 15-20 minutes before restlessness set in. This was especially true on the main stage for the reunited Portishead and those electro-prog originals Kraftwerk, the German quartet saying nary a word standing in front of laptops while doing their machine-tooled robo-tech that dates back three decades. The heart-on-the-sleeve honesty of Death Cab for Cutie was earnest but a touch dull.
Other Friday artists included the chipper pop of female duo Tegan and Sara and another reunited group, Kim Deal's post-Pixies '90s band the Breeders on the main stage, as well as the stoner reggae-rock of Slightly Stoopid. On the Outdoor Theatre stage, System of a Down singer Serj Tankian delivered his wry Bush-bashing solo material in a white top hat and waistcoat, channeling his best Frank Zappa irony. The three performance tents ranged from dance innovator Fatboy Slim and soul queen Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings to the talked-about Black Kids in the early afternoon.
Saturday offered much more diversity: One could go from the U.K.'s sharp-witted Kate Nash in the Mojave Tent to Mexico's Cafe Tacuba and Dwight Yoakam's honky-tonk twang on the field stages. The retro '80s synth pop of Hot Chip created a fire-marshal-nightmare overflow at the Sahara Tent, as did Brit dance duchess M.I.A. at night to a dangerous crowd-crush point; get her outdoors, already.
By the end of the first two days, everyone had their favorites and no one was wrong, as Coachella continued its mission to deliver old favorites and new discoveries.