Shining without help of spotlight

Special to The Times

The big names sell tickets, but some of the finest moments of the Coachella Music and Arts festival can often be found elsewhere, surprising fans year after year on the smaller stages, scattered across the site's 78 grassy acres. On the weekend's opening lineup, those moments included stirring sets of varying styles by Cat Power, Damian Marley, My Morning Jacket and the Eagles of Death Metal.

Several memorable musical peaks came roaring from My Morning Jacket, which played a midafternoon set on the second stage, at its best sounding something like the Band on a raw Crazy Horse jones, transforming what can sometimes seem soft and pastoral on record into some raging modern rock. It was only when the Louisville, Ky., band slowed down for several songs of atmospheric, folky, jammy tunes that the momentum began to drift.

Later, on the same stage, Damian Marley found the bridge between the classic roots reggae sung by his iconic father, Bob Marley, and the more intense dancehall sound that emerged in the generation after. As the sun finally slipped behind the mountains, Marley engaged the crowd in songs and messages that ranged from antiwar to tips on personal nutrition, hopping in place to sounds that were alternately excited and soulful, some original ("More Justice") and others by his father ("No More Trouble").

Marley proved himself a modern, master showman, melding rich reggae passages with a stage that never stopped moving, from background singers who doubled as dancers to the dreadlocked man whose only job was to wave a giant flag bearing the Jamaican Lion of Judah.

Not all the day's surprises were musical, as when actor Danny DeVito stepped out to introduce the Eagles of Death Metal, one band that could actually call the desert concert a hometown gig. The band, led by singer Jesse Hughes, erupted with ecstatic music steeped in '70s riff-rock and shoved forward by two drummers: Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age) and Samantha Maloney (Hole).

At about the same time in the nearby Mojave Tent, Cat Power -- the band project headed by Chan Marshall -- turned a too rare local appearance into an emotional, engaging survey of American roots and indie rock, from country songs complete with strings and pedal steel to a low, haunted take on "House of the Rising Sun." Thumping dance beats bleeding over from the next tent occasionally spoiled the most delicate moments, but Marshall's Memphis Rhythm Band easily overpowered them.

Earlier, on the main stage, singer Hamilton Leithauser of the Walkmen faced the desert sun with bursts of livid energy and a fine Dylanesque snarl, singing "Good for You's Good for Me" with frayed, jangled guitars and real punk ferocity. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah rocked with sophisticated melody and a singer (Alec Ounsworth) with the edgy presence of early David Byrne and the Violent Femmes. And the Like played rock-pop songs from its debut album, "Are You Thinking What I'm Thinking?," with growing authority.

The day eased into being at about noon with a performance on the big main stage with a set by the Section Quartet, performing string versions of songs by Radiohead, Led Zeppelin and Queens of the Stone Age -- which was just one more surprise that set the stage for the many to come.

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