If the first day of the second weekend of the Coachella music festival begged hitting as many performers as possible, Saturday's less-remarkable roster encouraged and allowed for spending more time with chosen artists. I only caught eight acts yesterday, and while there's something to be said about all of them — I doubt Bostonian pub punks Dropkick Murphys have ever received a response outside of Beantown like the one they got at the Coachella main stage — I want to comment on four in particular.
Bat For Lashes: Natasha Khan likely has a few thousand more fans than she did two weeks ago. She is to Bat For Lashes what Trent Reznor is to Nine Inch Nails, but with a trio behind her on beat, melody and musical accoutrement duties, she's allowed to do what she does best: cast a spell over her audience. Upon seeing her emerge from backstage, you almost couldn't take her seriously, as her shimmery rainbow get-up and youthful face make her look like a Disney princess. But her voice — oh, that voice — suggests years of maturity. If her impressive range, note-perfect singing and soothing vocal tones didn't pull you in, her undeniable charm did the trick. She sold her songs even when the compositions themselves felt light and distant; just as your attention started to drift, she was right there to lure you back in, with sometimes as little as a sustained note and a beautiful smile afterward. And her projection always precisely matched the mood of the song, whether it's the soaring ballad "Laura," which would be a top 40 hit with the right marketing budget or movie placement, or "A Wall," which builds to a celebratory conclusion that shook yesterday's still, bewitched audience into a cheering section. Though her band executed more than ably, she stole both our focus and the show, and it would seem Coachella begets something bigger for her.
Major Lazer: A mere 25 minutes later, that same Mojave Tent (where I would spend more than half the day) went from a calm place to transfix on a true talent to a raging party egging on what essentially is a DJ or two and a party crew. Diplo's Major Lazer would seem square in between his former production client M.I.A. and bro-pop outfit LMFAO, churning several genres together like the former, and prompting fun and debauchery like the latter. The arrangement usually keeps Diplo and/or Jillionaire behind the decks, or CDRs, or laptop, or whatever's going on there, with hype man Walshy Fire exhorting the crowd to jump up and down (frequently), wave its hands (occasionally), or take off its shirts, twirl them around, and then throw them in the air (once). At one point yesterday, he and Diplo entered bubbles that bounced above the uncomfortably packed audience, trying to repurpose an old "Coachella moment" Flaming Lips singer Wayne Coyne used on the 2004 main stage crowd.
What about the music? Good question. Major Lazer seem content on working with the mash-up structure of a DJ set, sating short attention spans enough just to get to both the chorus and a reaction, and then it's on to the next cut, be it one of the act's productions or remixes — which usually leans toward hip-hop, squelchy electronica and reggae/dancehall — or snippets of, say, "Jump Around" by House of Pain or Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the latter prompting two booty dancers to stand on their hands and shake their asses against large speakers. Only at the end did Diplo play anything even remotely inspired or interesting: a remix of Major Lazer's midtempo "Get Free," which evolved into a drum-n-bass freakout of epic proportions. Still, that conclusion didn't make up for the gimmickry and emptiness that preceded.
Franz Ferdinand: I doubt the crowd inside the Mojave Tent expected anything more than a fun greatest-hits set programmed in a time slot against the moody XX, the youthful and exuberant Two Door Cinema Club, the R&B revue of Janelle Monae, and whatever Moby plays at a DJ. But the Scottish quartet worked in three new songs, including one number, "Can't Stop Feeling," that incorporates the famous bassline from Donna Summer's "I Feel Love." For the sake of transparency or novelty or both, Franz transitioned into the actual chorus of "I Feel Love," and then seamlessly right back into the song inspired from it. To call that a highlight amid an exhilarating, flawlessly performed set of the band's best, including new classic "Ulysses," a fantastically reworked "Do You Wanna?" and the always incendiary "This Fire" — to say nothing of "Take Me Out," which nine years on still turns a room into exploding limbs — gives Franz Fucking Ferdinand the distinction of having the sleeper set of the day, if not the weekend thus far.
Sigur Ros: Conflicts abounded for the final slot of the night. Take this opportunity to catch some German house in the intimate Gobi tent with Booka Shade? Be both aurally and visually assaulted at the Knife Party set inside the Sahara Tent? Relish in some post-punk nostalgia with New Order? Or see if French band Phoenix can earn its contested headliner status — possibly with a surprise appearance from certain helmeted countrymen and clamored-for electronic duo with a new album out in weeks?
OR, go with Icelandic atmospheric architects Sigur Ros, the least danceable act of the six, but who were slated to debut new material less languid and more aggressive than its previous output? Knowing Daft Punk wasn't going to appear with Phoenix (though I totally stationed a pal over there and occasionally checked for any text beckons), I went with the ethereal quartet, rounded out with horn and string sections, as well as a few choral backup singers.
That promised shift in sound revealed itself in two compositions, emphasizing not only more familiar guitar melodies and abrasive effects, but also more conventional rhythm structures that might finally make Sigur Ros a rock-radio prospect after all these years (don't hold your breath). At first, it sounded like a retreat to accessibility, and as a longtime follower of the band, I heard them through a filter of suspicsion. But as nuanced elements surfaced, layers and musical narrative momentum building up, it was clear this was Sigur Ros' take on modern rock, and it contrasted with the templates for which we've become all too familiar. Add those to a set list filled with the band's famously serotonin-dumping chestnuts, including the appropriate, resounding "Festival" and the always searing, always set-ending "Untitled 8," and my choice to snub the headliner was vindicated.