The 10th annual Coachella Music and Arts Festival concluded Sunday with a series of challenging, dissonant sets that saw the avant-garde take center stage on the event’s final day of music. From My Bloody Valentine’s wall of noise and Public Enemy’s sonic sculptures to Devendra Banhart’s rollicking reimagining of classic rock and Throbbing Gristle’s industrial revolution, Coachella flew its freak flag high while the delighted crowd went along for the ride.
The Cure, headlining the main stage on Sunday night, was the perfect anchor for a day that seemed bent on defying audience expectations. Even after more than 25 years, the band’s massive following is as undiminished as singer Robert’s Smith’s unique voice, and the band delivered a mix of new and classic songs with a surprising level of joy. A spotty live band, The Cure seemed eager to erase the memory of its last Coachella performance that was widely panned as perfunctory and dirge-like. The taut arrangements of 80s staples like “In Between Days” and “Lovesong” proved to fans old and new why the music truly represents a new generation of classic rock.
My Bloody Valentine, the 1990’s U.K. shoegazers whose return to music in 2008 after a lengthy hiatus was spurred by an unrequited offer to play Coachella last year, made the wait more than worth it. Playing just before The Cure on the main stage, MBV’s insanely loud layers of feedback were only enhanced by the open-air setting, with the vocals of guitarists Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher perfectly centered in the mix for maximum effect. By the time the band finished the nearly 15-minute earthquake-like feedback jam at the end if its set, Coachella had witnessed the most radical, difficult and unforgettable hour of music in its decade-long history.
In fact, Coachella’s final day celebrated multiple styles of musical experimentation that have changed the boundaries of mainstream music. Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Flavor Flav may be hip hop legends and reality television stars now, but their current setup – which features a trio of live musicians along with a DJ – is intent on presenting the group’s classic material as vital, living songs. Paul Weller, who preceded Public Enemy on the Outdoor Theater stage, ripped through his proto-punk classic Jam songs like “Town Called Malice” with a celebratory fervor. Throbbing Gristle, whose noise experiments beginning in the 1970s laid the groundwork for industrial heavyweights like Nine Inch Nails led a small but rapt crowd in the Mojave tent down a dark but satisfying path. Even Etienne de Crecy, a relatively unknown-in-America dance music artist, played a synthesizer sound and light show that plumbed rave’s roots to close out the massive dance floor in the Sahara tent.
Other highlights included the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s elevation to the main stage, Devendra Banhart’s winning mix of goofy folk and hard rocking jams, Groove Armada’s curvaceous set of floor-fillers, No Age’s lo-fi ditties, and L.A. mainstay X’s punk rock charge.
If there’s a recession in the festival business, it was hard to notice at Coachella this weekend. The grounds at the Empire Polo Club were as seemingly packed as in years past with a healthy mix of older festival veterans and young Coachella newbies. With a program of music that demanded more than simple casual listening in an unparalleled setting, Coachella retains its place as the premier venue for seeing and hearing live music in the United States.