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Coachella 2014: The Cult keeps it obscure in the Mojave Tent

Coachella Valley Music and Arts FestivalMusical TheaterEntertainmentTheaterMorrisseyThe Smiths (music group)

There are certain long-dormant rock acts and broken-up bands that cause fans to wring their hands in anticipation of musical detente. These are bands that fairly demand to be reunited in the service of a career-defining set at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

And then there was the Cult’s performance on opening night of the fest’s second weekend: an exercise in Dad Rock gone wrong that left most of its audience dazed and disappointed with the British band’s baffling decision to omit most of its biggest hits in favor of catalog fare and new “compositions” that left the faithful scratching their heads.

Rage Against the Machine set the template for this kind of ballyhooed Coachella reunion slot in 2007, when the agit-prop rock quartet set aside its differences after a seven-year “hiatus” to rock the fest’s Main Stage before an appropriately raucous crowd.

PHOTOS: Coachella Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3

And last year, the Stone Roses were that band, coming together after years on the outs for a set that fell decidedly short of fan expectations on Weekend 1 (although on Coachella 2013’s second weekend, the Roses somewhat redeemed their reputation).

While Mancunian crooner Morrissey’s stubborn refusal to reconcile with his bandmates in the Smiths puts any rekindling of those mope-rock fires out of reach, a similarly intractable stalemate between singer-songwriter Paul Westerberg and guitarist Tommy Stinson in the Replacements recently de-escalated enough for them to rock the Outdoor Stage for two consecutive weekends in April.

The Cult -- a shape-shifting outfit that sold millions of albums in its late '80s heyday best described as a British post-punk-goth-psychedelic-heavy-metal quartet -- falls well outside Coachella’s usual dragnet for yesteryear acts. And even though it didn’t break up, per se, the Cult’s glory days are clearly behind it.

FULL COVERAGE: Coachella 2014

More problematic, though, on Friday the band quickly squandered fan goodwill in the Mojave Tent -- an event dubbed #Cultchella on its Facebook page -- by launching into a series of lesser tracks from its catalog rather than establishing a firmer audience rapport with hits such as “Love Removal Machine” or even “Sun King” (from the Cult’s hair-metal opus “Sonic Temple”). And even after eventually sprinkling the familiar tunes the sparse crowd demanded, the Cult never fully recovered.

To be sure, over the years lead singer Ian Astbury has maintained his keening falsetto -- the instrument that has allowed the Cult to transcend genres and accrue groups of fans from disparate bases like so many pairs of tight leather trousers. And to see lead guitarist Billy Duffy windmill his Gretsch Falcon in concert is still a Platonic ideal of the act.

With the exception of the guitar anthem “Wildflower,” the Cult wholly ignored its cherished 1987 LP “Electric,” the Rick Rubin-produced album that marked the group’s transition from post-punk rock revivalism to straight-ahead metal.  

PHOTOS: All of Coachella's past headliners

Not quite making up for that deficiency, the Cult spread a trio of bangers from its breakthrough 1985 album “Love” across its 40-minute set, among them “Rain” and “She Sells Sanctuary.”

But in introducing the "Love" album’s sixth song, “The Phoenix,” toward the end of the group’s 40-minute set, Astbury made clear he was at peace with the past -- just not necessarily his own Cult’s previous musical output -- cribbing a line made famous by Eazy-E in NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton.”

“You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge,” the Cult singer exclaimed before Duffy’s swirling guitars set in, triggering the evening’s biggest cheers.

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Coachella 2014: Full coverage

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chris.lee@latimes.com

Twitter: @__chrislee

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