Best & Worst from Coachella — Saturday

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THE BEST:

Best Performance: M.I.A.
Festival gigs tend towards the tame — the crowds don’t always know the music, the sets are short, and energy gets lost in the giant open-air spaces. None of that mattered to M.I.A. Taking the stage with a posse of B-Boys in glowing neon outfits, the Sri Lankan superstar put on a show that teetered on the edge of glorious abandon. Wearing tight jeans and luminescent bangle bracelets, she threw air horns into the audience, rode on some guy’s shoulders slapping five with the people in the front row, banged out rhythms on a plastic bucket, and demanded that security let fans onstage to dance as the giant video screens showed pictures of guerillas blasting away with machine guns. Favorites like “Galang” and “Pull Up the People” might not have received their tightest airings ever, but, especially on the set-closing “Paper Planes,” M.I.A.’s music seemed like the soundtrack to the center of the world. — David Marchese

Best Timing: Fleet Foxes
Robin Pecknold’s pastoral quintet took the stage bathed in the soft rays of the setting sun, and the golden light turned out to be the perfect accompaniment for the band’s gently mysterious music. Though according to the calendar Pecknold was premature when he sang “Sun Giant’s” line, “What a life I lead in the summer,” the sentiment was spot-on. Full of ringing mountain harmonies, lush acoustic guitars, churchly keyboards, and burbling rhythms, the Seattle outfit induced a large chunk of the audience to lie down on the grass, close their eyes, and bask in the fading light. — DM

Best Campy Drag Queen Antics from Someone Born an Actual Woman: Amanda Palmer
Erstwhile Dresden Dolls singer Amanda Palmer updated her Twitter last night to inform her legions that she was skipping Paul McCartney’s set to go home and practice for her own. Brava — the extra round did her wicked act well. Her cabaret never looked or sounded sharper. Flower-power hippies careened onstage as Palmer, festooned in black corset and garters and neon drawn-in eyebrows, swigged from a bottle of red wine(fancy!) and simultaneously snarled through most of the tracks of last year’s Who Killed Amanda Palmer? The showstopper hasn’t changed — the Dolls’ “Coin Operated Boy,” the linchpin of their ‘Brechtian pop’ shtick — but she delivered it splayed across her keyboard with fresh, untethered viciousness. Palmer closed with Radiohead’s “Creep” on ukulele, led by her brutal, raspy staccato; smart money says she could’ve mopped the floor with “Live and Let Die,” too. — Stacey Anderson

Best Exhibition of Godlike Powers: TV On the Radio
“Our goal in the next hour is to set the sun!” And would TVOTR guitarist/vocalist Kyp Malone lie to you? The sky dimmed as commanded halfway through their jaunt. While Malone sounded a bit winded at the mic, his community organization was impeccable; the formidable brass, woodwinds, and percussion clusters marched brightly under his flourishes. Fellow vocalist Tunde Adebimpe proved indefatigable from the start, pulling at his plaid shirt during the howls of “Red Dress” and swaying flirtatiously at the cusp of the stage in the hard-spat stanzas of “Dancing Choose” (both from ’08’s Dear Science). And for a troupe so encumbered by the chaos and criminalities of the world, they still shout out a little mischief; the large projection video screens bookending the stage lingered on the band’s setlist but, spoiler alert, it proved wholly inaccurate. Got ya! — SA

Best Recession-Proof Dance Party: Thievery Corporation
How many people are on the Thievery Corporation payroll? 100? You probably are and don’t know it. The revolving D.C. bossa nova/jazz/classical Indian dance collective never met a singer they didn’t like and featured a new vocalist on virtually every song, but kept the disparate elements cohesive, including Perry Farrell at one point (looking clipped and disoriented, with breathy sonar intact). A surprisingly large audience coiled into the main lawn for their pre-M.I.A. set, which got kinetic immediately with “Sound the Alarm.” And, as all anthropologists know, discerning Western hipsters love a sitar, and Thievery Corp’s string-heavy “Lebanese Blonde” (best known from the Garden State soundtrack) brought plenty of glee. It was a fitting celebratory coda to the ancestry of the song, as the track’s original singer, Pam Bricker, committed suicide in 2005. She would have been moved by the swaying, communal love that answered her words. — SA

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THE BEST:

Best Change of Pace: Tinariwen
I’d originally intended to see Glasvegas during this slot, but when the Scottish outfit canceled at the last minute, I scurried to an adjacent tent and caught Tinariwen. I was glad I did. The band of Touareg tribesman — dressed in white head scarves and long, loose-fitting robes — offered a welcome change: The guitarists played skittering open-string drones, the vocalists sang winding, hypnotic melodies and danced in elegant little circles, and a hand-drummer let forth with odd-metered rhythms that the crowd tried, and failed, to clap along with. The band hails from the Sahara, but for an hour, they made the Californian desert their home. — DM

Best Rookie Stage Presence: thenewno2
“Who likes fishsticks?” Well, everyone, obviously (especially Kanye, according to South Park) but props to Dhani Harrison for asking. George’s spittin’-image son never trekked cross-campus to guest-star on Paul McCartney’s Friday gig, as feverishly rumored, but he demonstrated a cheerful experimentalism from genes that would portend nothing less. thenewno2 owes more to Massive Attack than skiffle rock and, in the musty Sahara Tent, they pasted dense keyboards and Harrison’s inherited vocals into a live-sampled collage. And while I didn’t study with the Maharishi, I can attest that Harrison has a great stage aura, very gracious and quick to smile. It does a body good. — SA

Best Band for the Class of ’93 Reunion: Superchunk
Ah, the joys of getting older: crankiness, aches and pains, those feelings that you simply can’t do the things you used to do. During their late-afternoon set under a blazing sun at the Outdoor Theatre, Superchunk acted their age: Guitarist Jim Wilbur complained that his strings were melting in the heat, singer-guitarist Mac McCaughan wasn’t thrilled with his tuning, and bassist Laura Ballance shunned hipster styles for a sensible, sun-deflecting floppy hat. But when they started playing, the North Carolina quartet flexed rejuvenated indie pop muscles, just as they do on their excellent, just-released EP, Leaves in the Gutter, their first new material since 2001. That EP’s “Learned to Surf” held up just fine against the band’s best catalog cuts, like the set-closing “Slack Motherfucker.” For an assembled horde of mostly thirty-somethings, it was totally a great reason to get off the golf course. — Peter Gaston

Most Band for Your Buck: The Drive-By Truckers
Playing in the searing mid-day heat, the southern rock juggernaut refused to wilt. (Though they did fall: frontman Patterson Hood slipped and took a hard tumble mid-set.) Storming shit-kickers like “Women Without Whiskey” and “3 Dimes Down” found the band’s ravaged twanging harmonies giving way to three-at-a-time guitar solos. There’s no doubt that Ronnie Van Zant was smiling down (or up) from somewhere. Isaac Hayes, too: The band came back later Saturday night and backed up Memphis soul legend and Hammond organ maestro Booker T. Jones on a set of gritty, greasy instrumentals that climaxed in a one-two punch of “Time is Tight” and a vocal-free “Hey Ya.” — DM

Most Freaky Frontman: Liars
The Brooklyn band’s clanging, creepy music is strange enough as it is, but seeing it delivered by Angus Andrew takes the whole weird trip even further down the wormhole. Rail thin, thickly mustachioed, and standing at least 6’5, Andrew looks like Rivers Cuomo stretched out and underfed. Did I mention that he sings in a heavily echoed trembling falsetto? About shooting people dead and bums on the street? The effect is probably even spookier in a small club with the lights down low, but even in the glaring sun of Coachella, Andrew and the rest of the Liars were the day’s most eerily unsettling act. — DM.

Best Band for Brandon Flowers to Emulate: Turbonegro
Listen up Killers’ frontman: I know you were busy attaching feathers to your sportcoat over at the mainstage, but I wish you’d seen Turbonegro instead, and learned a thing or two from their gregarious frontman Hank Von Helvete. He doesn’t ask open-ended, ambiguous questions about being human. Instead, he gets straight to the point: “You want to get it on,” surmised Helvete, clad in a bowtie, cumberbund, jeans, and nothing else to hold back his hairy girth. “And I want to get it on with you.” He’s ironic, and self-deprecating. “I am sober for the first time in my life,” said Helvete — before launching into the fist-pumping “Wasted Again.” No pyrotechnics or video walls required. Just unadulterated, campy, and fucking loud rock’n’roll.– PG

READ THE WORST FROM COACHELLA ON PAGE 3 >>

THE WORST

Worst Luck — Having to Follow M.I.A.: the Killers
Killers singer Brandon Flowers has improved dramatically as a frontman. Perhaps he’s sapping Samson-esque strength from those damn ubiquitous feather epaulets (now with sequins — who’s been reading my dreams?) but Flowers finally looks collected and flamboyant in front of his denizens, as opposed to the uncharitable amount of past gigs when he looked terrified and/or suicidal. Unfortunately, his puffed-chest parading might have been simply reactionary to the preceding calamity of M.I.A., who stopped time with her incandescent, unpolished party; next to her deranged pinwheeling, the Killers seemed hopelessly staid, darting coyly through their stage-prop palm trees to tweet out “Spaceman” and an ill-conceived, slowed-down “Sam’s Town” on piano. The slickness just didn’t jive with the madcap predecessor but, if Flowers did ratchet up the camp in rebuttal, it was wise nonetheless; they closed the night with the defiant fireworks, figuratively and literally, of knowing their own brand inside and out. And “Smile Like You Mean It” sounded pretty solid, at that. — SA

Worst Sound /Best Response to Worst Sound: Blitzen Trapper
After four albums and as many chameleon-like lo-fi folk directions, Portland’s Blitzen Trapper seem wiped clean of indicatives in repose. They’re blank slates to be molded, like Zelig. When their sound repeatedly screeched to ruin in their set, the expressions on their faces were a marvel of Zen equanimity. Singer Eric Earley shrugged. Keyboardist Drew Laughery scratched his ear. But then, nothing was tweaked and the problems renewed apace. Awkward. Their chilly, wind-whipped Americana, ominous and stark as Cascades fog, seemingly lowered the thermometer 10 degrees in the tent. A swell atmosphere, and then — shriek! — interruption, repeat ad nauseum. It was a common problem in the Coachella tents, but not every band handled it with Calvanist shrugs; I’m still debating if this makes them revolutionaries or not. — SA

Worst Juxtaposition: Jenny Lewis
Just as M.I.A. was finishing up on the main stage, adorable Rilo Kiley songstress Jenny Lewis started her set at the Outdoor Theatre (Coachella’s second largest stage). Coming from seeing a performer explode hard-banging, multi-culti R&B-rap-funk-reggae and nearly incite a riot to seeing someone dressed in dungarees and high heels play nicely melodic folk-rock was a bit too drastic a shift to handle. For her part, Lewis had a warm, friendly stage presence, and sang in a pure, high voice that was just as soothingly pleasurable live as it is on record. “Silver Lining,” performed alone on acoustic guitar, and the amber-hued “You Are What You Love,” were particularly lovely. But it all seemed sort of quaint given where I’d just come from. — DM

IMPACT

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