Coachella Highlights a New Era of Music

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  • Posted on April 19, 2011


    Indio, Calif.

    Now in its 12th year, the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival has an admirable track record for launching new musicians toward the mainstream: During the past few years, while much was made of headliners like Paul McCartney, Prince, Roger Waters and Jay-Z, or reuniting acts like the Cure, Kraftwerk, Portishead and the Verve, it showcased breakout artists such as Animal Collective, Florence + the Machine, Wolfgang Gartner, Grizzly Bear, David Guetta, Local Natives, MGMT, Santigold, the xx and many others.

    Held under a scorching sun on a massive polo field here, this year’s three-day Coachella seemed more determined than ever to be about the present and future of rock and pop. No bands from the 1960s and ’70s were on the bill, and Big Audio Dynamite and Duran Duran were the only reuniting groups from the ’80s on hand. Star power didn’t seem to mean much: Of the more than 180 acts on the bill, only Kanye West has tabloid-level celebrity status. The other headlinersKings of Leon on Friday, Arcade Fire on Saturday and the Strokes who shared the honors with Mr. West on Sundayare lowercase rock stars whose music ranges from calculated and workmanlike to, in the case of Arcade Fire, calculated and occasionally thrilling.

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    Rhydian Dafydd and Ritzy Bryan, from the Joy Formidable, performing last Saturday at the festival.)

    Thus Coachella was a level playing field for talented musicians, and attendees were best served by considering the experience an opportunity to prospect the likes of Electric Touch, which brought to mind Oasis without the condescension; Bomba Estéreo from Colombia, which married cumbia and electronica; the Twelves, an electronic duo from Brazil; or Menomena, an experimental band from Portland featuring Justin Harris on baritone sax.

    Coachella 2011 proved there’s no dominant subgenre of rock and pop these days. Hybrids presented a challenge to those who like bands that easily find a niche. Sleigh Bells married the unforgiving rhythms of early hip-hop with the power of metal-rock. On Friday, Korn’s Jonathan Davis and Munky Shaffer joined Skrillex on stage, turning his punk-influenced electronica into a momentary nod toward alt-metal. Erykah Badu blended neosoul, mellow hip-hop and airy jazz during her excellent Saturday-afternoon set.

    Tune In Rock ‘n’ Roll (Will Take You to the Mountain) by Skrillex Tell ’em by Sleigh Bells Here are the Problems by Good Old War La Boquilla by Bomba Estereo The Magnifying Glass by the Joy Formidable

    A few groups visited the recent past to revive sounds. Cold Cave explored ’80s goth-rock, while the Los Angeles-based punk band the Bronx appeared as its alter ego, Mariachi El Bronx, and offered an exuberant set of traditional Mexican music. Twin Shadow, the stage name of George Lewis Jr., and his band offered a punchy take on the danceable synth pop that Duran Duran and Roxy Music pioneered. Raphael Saadiq brought in his old-school soul review. Black Flag’s Keith Morris fronted the punk group Off!

    Americana had a major presence in the desert with performances by Trampled by Turtles, the Felice Brotherstouring behind their very fine new Tom Waits-meets-the-Band album, “Celebration Florida” (Fat Possum)and Philadelphia’s Good Old War. Delta Spirit may soon be exiting the Americana classification: Its Saturday-afternoon set illustrated how the band has toughened its sound as it showcased songs intended for its next album.

    Unlike Austin’s South by Southwest and New York’s CMJ Music Marathon, Coachella presents only road-tested acts; even some of the emerging groups already have a veteran’s presence onstagethere’s no deer-in-the-headlights expression when something goes awry. The Joy Formidable, a rock trio from London supporting its debut disc, “The Big Roar” (Atlantic), exuded confidence and a sense of control during its fierce set early on Saturday afternoon. Phosphorescent, the working name of singer-songwriter Matthew Houck from Athens, Ga., had a low-key authority that he displayed throughout his band’s satisfying Sunday morning show. Up on the main stage, Toronto’s Broken Social Scene, which prides itself on being a loose collective, was tight and inspired. And then there was Elbow, the British band whose new album, “Built a Rocket Boys!” (Fiction), continues its tradition of anthemic yet intimate rock. Led by singer- songwriter Guy Garvey, Elbow’s seven-song, 50-minute set went by in a satisfying flash, the music propelled by warm professionalism.

    Which is what Cee Lo Green failed to display. The singer, whose career is on the uptick thanks to the profane song now recast as “Forget You,” turned up 30 minutes late, then blamed the promoters for what he considered a demeaning afternoon slot. He gave a perfunctory reading of six songs, then stormed off when his time was up and the promoters shut off the sound. With the crowd’s nice buzz laying dead on the dry desert grass, Lauryn Hill followed and restored the good feelings, offering her mix of hip-hop and reggae, including an extended version of Bob Marley’s “Rasta Man Chant.” There were intermittent snafusthe sound was cut out during a promising set by Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, and the Black Keys lost their lights as Mr. McCartney watched from the wings.

    Coachella reinforced the reality that we are now in a Wild West era of rock and pop. No one knows how it will play out. But after three days in the desert this much is clear: This is a glorious era for popular music and there’s something for everybody, even if we aren’t sure what that something is.

    Mr. Fusilli is the Journal’s rock and pop music critic. Email him at or follow him on Twitter: @wsjrock.

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