Coachella is not and never will be a popularity contest, but if it was, the brilliant Stone Roses would have lost. Pegged as the headliner of the first night of the 2013 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, the recently reunited Manchester band took the main stage on Friday night (Apr. 12) without having released an album in over 18 years, and with nary a stitch of new music to play.
Meanwhile, adjacent stages featured concurrent sets by artists that have released very good albums in the last three months (Tegan & Sara and Trent Reznor’s side project How To Destroy Angels), as well as an electric MC (Earl Sweatshirt) and an EDM superstar (Bassnectar). As the Stone Roses careened toward their inevitable high point of “She Bangs The Drums,” their crowd bled dozens of disinterested attendees, wandering off to either beat the traffic, or beat the beat to Bassnectar at the Sahara tent. The Stone Roses played a headlining set to a certainly smaller crowd than the Yeah Yeah Yeahs entertained earlier in the evening, and Passion Pit might have even garnered more onlookers during its 6:05 time slot.
More than any other U.S. festival, Coachella has long sewn itself to the promise of once-in-a-lifetime reunions, subculture celebrations and critically lauded artists with minor stateside commercial success. The Stone Roses check all three of those boxes, as does the band that performed before them on the main stage, Blur; combined, the two U.K. groups made Friday at Coachella something of a “throwback night.” While a group like the Stone Roses fits snugly into the idea of what Coachella offers music fans, asking them to be a headliner sends a much different message than, say, booking Mazzy Star for the Outdoor Stage in 2012. By making the Stone Roses their flagship artist on Friday, the Coachella organizers took a sharp, anti-populist turn in 2013, one year after Swedish House Mafia united all delirious bass-drop junkies at the main stage as the Friday headliners.
The fact is, the Coachella lineup could have Smash Mouth as the Friday headliner, and the festival would still sell out — this year’s fest was out of first-weekend general tickets in a matter of minutes, and Coachella typically moves all of its tickets at a lightning-quick speed. The institution of Coachella is so strong that co-founder Paul Tollett and co. have the ability to experiment with the top line of their lineup and not face any drop in ticket sales. With that in mind, the booking of the Stone Roses’ only confirmed U.S. date of its reunion run adds to the festival’s “cool” factor — even if most Coachella attendees can’t sing along to “Waterfall,” the Stone Roses’ headlining show was always going to be surreal for the diehards and pique the curiosity of everyone else. “Who are the Stone Roses?” dozens of Twitter users frustratedly asked when the 2013 lineup was revealed. By sliding them in as the Friday headliner, the Coachella brass wanted to triumphantly answer that question. In doing so, it once again embraced the idea of an “alternative” music festival, with artists and experiences that could not be duplicated sometime later in the summer.
So Friday night’s headlining experience consisted of watching the Stone Roses perform a likable set to the stone-cold Roses fans, and not much more than that. Singer Ian Brown often stalked across the stage waving a pair of tambourine sticks, while his onlookers moved their shoulders in time with guitarist John Squire’s jangling riff. Songs like “I Wanna Be Adored” and “This Is The One” were expected highlights, and the four-person bow at the end of the set was an unexpected expression of emotion. Under the vast amount of stars overlooking the Indio desert, the Stone Roses suggested the evolution of the Coachella lineup model in the span of an hour — fans who were dying to see the Stone Roses were super-served, and who cares about the lack of an overwhelming headliner audience when it doesn’t affect the bottom line?
And yet… part of the reason to go to Coachella is to experience those massive crowds hanging onto every word from the headlining artist. Unlike Bonnaroo, other artists at Coachella are given concurrent time slots to the headliner, but there is still some underlying feeling that something huge and remarkable will be taking place on the main stage each night of the festival, whether it be a Tupac hologram or an Arcade Fire glowing orb release or Prince tackling Radiohead’s “Creep.” The Stone Roses are a special band with a tremendous album in its 1989 self-titled debut, but they did not toss out any miraculous moments on Friday night, and simply do not possess the U.S. following to merit a headlining position at Coachella (and played to a relatively tiny crowd because of it). If anything, the crowd size was a poor reflection on the band when it didn’t need to be — why not let the Stone Roses breathe easier earlier in the day or on a different stage, and cede the official headlining slot to the band that preceded it on the main stage?
That’s right, the true headliners of Friday were Blur, those scrappy London Britpop gentlemen who also haven’t released a new album in a decade and whose current career path is also set on “reunion tour.” Unlike the Stone Roses, however, Blur has a wealth of material to choose from — seven albums compared to two — and a couple U.S. hits up their sleeves (“Song 2,” anyone?). Frontman Damon Albarn is more engaging than Brown, even when he’s staring dead-eyed into the sea of people watching his long-defunct group. From the soothing hymn “Tender” to the vibrant smugness of “Parklife,” Blur torched the main stage with nearly two decades of easily recognizable hits and accessible deeper cuts, but for some reason, ceded that same stage to their fellow Brits soon after. The crowd steadily waned, and soon, after the Stone Roses brushed off the idea of an encore, it was time to go home.
There’s a lot of positivity in what Coachella is trying to accomplish by naming a band like the Stone Roses as one of its headliners: no other U.S. festival would have that opportunity or take that chance, and the favor that the Indio name has collected over the years has helped these must-see reunions find a centralized home. Let’s just hope that the festival organizers take more stock in what people want to see most from its headliners next year, in order to avoid more puzzling selections like having “I Am The Resurection” close out the night instead of Blur’s gorgeous set closer, “The Universal.”