Music Reviews

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Empire Polo Field, Indio, Calif.
Friday-Saturday, April 27-28


Second-billed artists trumped the big-name headliners during the first two days of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, Calif. Expanded this year to three days and wrapping Sunday, the event has truly become America's answer to Britain's Glastonbury and a premier annual music destination.

More than 60,000 attendees daily braved frying-pan temperatures in the low 100s Friday and Saturday to be rewarded with invigorating musical heat after sunset each night.

Saturday night's main-stage headline set from Red Hot Chili Peppers was slick, professional and skilled but mostly by-the-hit-numbers, with songs such as "Dani California," "Otherside" and the mellow Los Angeles anthem "Under the Bridge" that have defined the band's more melody/less funk sound for the past 15 years. The most affecting moment, however, came with guitarist John Frusciante solo, singing Christine McVie's gentle Fleetwood Mac ballad "Songbird."

In contrast, Montreal's Arcade Fire was more passionate, powerful and even epic at times, drawing from its bold new album "Neon Bible." The focus later shifted to songs from its breakout release "Funeral," especially that ultimate festival hand-waver sing-along "Wake Up."

With hard-to-resist rhythms and adventurous horn and percussion seasoning, the group took its chamber-pop sound to a new level full of U2-Springsteen fervor in numbers that included "Keep the Car Running" and the older "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)." Frontman Win Butler even stepped down into the crowd, which appeared to be the biggest of the two days, covering the field.

Friday's headliner Bjork continues to be a garish fashion disaster, playing the twittering fairy queen of dreams with material from her upcoming album "Volta" as well as older pieces. While some of the horn and woodwind embellishments made for lush, cinematic orchestration, the reality is that she's an artsy, indulgent, alternative intelligentsia-approved Celine Dion, that's all -- though the crowd seemed to adore the pretentious bloat of it all.

An earlier reunion set from the influential late-'80s/early-'90s band the Jesus and Mary Chain was far more satisfying. The reconstituted Scots were full of zeal, blasting out a steady run of classic modern rock, including "Head On" and the timely resurfacing of the Phil Spector-styled "Just Like Honey," featuring guest vocals from actress Scarlett Johansson.

The group was far more punchy that New York's Interpol, which drew a sizable audience but tried too hard to sound big and important while previewing new songs that are more of the same churning and fanning guitars with dour, agitated vocals.

Other Saturday highlights on the main stage included the '70s-slanted, Southern-dipped classic rock of the Kings of Leon; warm-hearted Britpop of Scotland's Travis; singer-songwriter-pianist Regina Spektor, who came off as a more ironic new-generation Carole King; and wry pop-rockers Fountains of Wayne. Late-afternoon and early-evening performances Friday came from the frenetic, slice-and-dice propulsive Arctic Monkeys and L.A.'s hooky Silversun Pickups.

At the smaller (but still huge) Outdoor Theatre area, an appealing Saturday mixed bag included a late-night outing from the Good, the Bad and the Queen, the all-star band featuring Blur/Gorillaz mastermind Damon Albarn; the evocative, pulsating Latin symphonic-electronic dance sound of Gotan Project; Portland, Ore., prog-rockers the Decemberists; the glam rock-meets-bubblegum pop of the New Pornographers; and the equally clever off-center power-pop of Jack's Mannequin.

Friday's standouts were former Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker, who brought some self-effacing rock-star aura and was chatty and funny between his wry, yet quite crafted songs, and alt-music icons Sonic Youth, mostly playing tightly wound numbers but still unleashing some trademark feedback and distortion bursts.

As Coachella attendance has risen over the years, the once-manageable performance tents now seem to overflow in excess for almost every hot-name act. The Latin hip-hop cumbias of Ozomatli in the Mojave and the electro-thump of LCD Soundsystem in the larger makeshift dance club Sahara Tent had people moving inside and out.

In the early evening at the Gobi, guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine (Sunday's anticipated headliner) took on his Nightwatchman persona as a battle-cry leftist acoustic folk-rapper. He was joined by Farrell and the Coup's Boots Riley for Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land." Earlier, the psychedelic blues of Rocky Erickson showed why he became a Texas legend before his years of burnout, and the Scottish indie rock of the Fratellis next door at the Mojave was equally engaging.

Friday saw a captivating set of retro-soul from Britain's Amy Winehouse and the delightful pop-rock en espanol of Julieta Venegas in the Gobi, while the ever-quirky Rufus Wainwright in the Mojave went from soul revue shouter to lounge crooner to confessional folkie.

As usual, the airplane hangarlike Sahara Tent hosted various DJs including Felix Da House Cat and Justice spinning, mixing and catering to the dance culture element.

Other Saturday, post-Chili Peppers performers included atomic pile blues bashers the Black Keys and the dance-rock drama of the Rapture, while new U.K. punk punters the Cribs played early in the afternoon. Friday also featured the campy samba fun of Brazilian Girls and the gypsy-punk antics of Gogol Bordello as a late-night antidote for Bjork boredom.

And that was all just the first two days. Set for Sunday were Rage, Willie Nelson, Crowded House and much more.
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