Mixing It Up

Variety is the spice of Coachella

Which came first, our iPods or our eclectic tastes?

It wasn't all that long ago when music lovers picked a team and stayed loyal to it. Hip-hop heads devoted their eardrums to rhyme and beats, punks immersed themselves in . . . punk. If you were a fan of, say, Nine Inch Nails, the bulk of your CD collection (as well as your wardrobe) probably ran along similarly dark lines. There wasn't much reason to branch out beyond the subculture of your choice.

Now that all seems so last-millennium. These days, the cutting edge of music slices through a complicated cross section of sounds, blurring genres in its wake.

Good day sunshine: Tegan and Sara were one of many acts that triumphed on a bright Coachella afternoon.
Nathan Shipe
Good day sunshine: Tegan and Sara were one of many acts that triumphed on a bright Coachella afternoon.

Which is why the Coachella Valley Arts and Music Festival has become the platinum standard among events of its kind. The sixth annual confab filled the grassy green Empire Polo Grounds in Indio, California, on April 30 and May 1, attracting nearly 50,000 visitors a day from all over the country. Unlike so many festivals that capitalize on one sound and one audience, Coachella succeeds for the exact opposite reason. This year's lineup of almost 90 bands on five stages included huge headliners mixed with truly experimental acts, and just like your iPod, with indie rappers such as Aesop Rock working up the same crowd as indie rockers such as British Sea Power, somehow the crazy mélange of musical styles worked.

The variety was in plain sight on the main stage. On Saturday, Buck 65's earthy verse over moody, sometimes country-tinged hip-hop rhythms kicked off an afternoon that slowly segued into shades of rock from the Raveonettes (saucy), Snow Patrol (introspective), and Keane (sincere). The field of spectators bloomed before sunset, with Wilco's relaxed, warm guitar strums inviting listeners to sprawl out on colorful blankets and stare at a blazing sky full of golden clouds.

Then Weezer electrified the night with a giant W logo of purple lights, getting the audience to sing along to buoyant choruses ("Say it ain't so-ooh-oh-ooh-woah!"). After that, things took a turn toward the dramatic when Bauhaus launched into a slew of arty, spine-tingling goth classics, starting with "Bela Lugosi's Dead." Somehow the commanding Peter Murphy sang the entire song suspended upside down, bat-like, while strobe lights cast the other three members in stark black and white.

Coldplay went on last, looking and sounding larger than life, with close-ups of Chris Martin's intense expression glowing down at the audience from twin video screens. Several songs off the band's new album, X&Y, blended with anticipated older material, like "Sparks" and "Politik," making for a dreamy, cathartic end to Saturday.

Sunday's main stage offerings were even more diverse, skipping from Gram Rabbit's trippy pop meditations to The Perceptionists' clever rhymes and woozy, danceable loops, to Thrice's high-adrenaline emo-core. The Futureheads turned up their guitar amps for a loud, sharp blast of post-punk with intricately overlapping vocals, then ceded the stage to original post-punk pioneers Gang of Four. It was a nice nod from one generation to another, especially since Gang of Four's guitarist Andy Gill produced several tracks on The Futureheads' debut album.

Following the Gang on the comeback trail, New Wave pioneers New Order dove into a set front-loaded with songs from their late-'70s incarnation as Joy Division. While front man Bernard Sumner doesn't have the desolate bellow of Ian Curtis, he paid solid tribute to the late singer with aching renditions of "Atmosphere," "Transmission," and "Love Will Tear Us Apart," followed by new material from the just-released Waiting for the Sirens' Call and old hits like "Blue Monday."

Boosting the star power even more (Coachella is over the top like that) was Nine Inch Nails' performance, anticipated not only for the nostalgia factor, but because of the band's new disc, With Teeth, and a killer new single, "The Hand That Feeds." Looking chiseled and confident, Trent Reznor thrashed through a relentlessly aggressive set of unfamiliar songs that easily meshed with earlier work ("Head Like a Hole," "Closer"). The effect on fans was shock and awe -- and some dancing, too.

Capping the day's eclectic lineup was a rare appearance by hip-hop duo Blackstar, a.k.a. Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Both celebrities in their own right with stellar solo careers, Blackstar's two gifted MCs were the icing on the cake to a weekend full of hip-hop talent, including masked wonder MF Doom, Canadian groundbreaker k-os, pintsize Brit sensation M.I.A., and our favorite local crate-digger made good, Z-Trip. (His jaw-dropping set at the New Times Music Showcase couldn't be beat, but Z-Trip's Coachella debut still rocked a thousand grooving bodies into bliss.)

And in an impressive upgrade from last year, when he did a rousing but sweaty show inside a small side-stage tent, rapper Sage Francis got a prime-time spot at the Outdoor Theatre, second only to the main stage in size. This time around, he had a DJ and guest MCs backing him up, and he matched his brainy political rhymes with a bushy beard and black fatigues, looking like a junior Fidel Castro.

Among the other highlights, there was experimental noise-rock band Fantômas, which played bursts of guitar skronk and eerie sound effects while Mike Patton sang as if he was alternately a human fire engine or Yoko Ono. Kasabian churned out power chords that packed the dark Mohave tent with people who were happy to pretend that it wasn't really four in the afternoon, and the whole DJ lineup for the Sahara tent, from Josh Wink to Miss Kittin, played on our denial of daylight, with the help of a booming sound system and a high-tech laser show.

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