Coachella 2011: Safe and sound

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The Internet’s instant responders sighed with contentment but did not experience hysteria when the Los Angeles Times revealed the lineup for this year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival late Tuesday. The announcement silenced the din of whispers that builds excitement for the April event -- a rumor mill that this year featured talk of the Rolling Stones headlining, Daft Punk returning and Lady Gaga luring her fan army of ‘little monsters’ to the Polo Grounds.

These tantalizing possibilities were left unfilfilled in the wake of worthy but more predictable headliners, many of whom have made big impressions at the festival before. The Arcade Fire is finally claiming the Saturday night anchor position that’s been its destiny since the band’s thrilling sunset set in 2005, and the Kings of Leon move up from the side stage the band burned down in 2007. New York’s Strokes, finally reunited, can wow the kids too young to have seen them in 2002. Kanye West, who played Coachella in 2006, adds another notch to a designer belt already marked by performances at outdoor festivals Sasquatch (2005; he slayed) and Bonnaroo (2008; he flopped).


A grumbler could go on. Duran Duran will surely entertain in the big legacy-act slot, but the New Romantic royals have been back for a while, no news there. PJ Harvey’s decision to grace the festival after a rumored multi-year courtship will surely result in fireworks -- the band’s February release, ‘Let England Shake,’ is a killer of an album -- but it’s hard to imagine Polly Harvey cutting a more stunning figure than she did in her Victorian finery during her 2007 White Chalk tour. And the overwrought ‘whoas’ issuing forth from certain indie palaces about the reunion of the Toronto-based synth-punk duo Death From Above 1979 seem to be overplaying a marginal event in the absence of more significant ones.

What this year’s Coachella line-up really does is thoroughly smack down the argument that a major music fest should stake its fortune on once-in-a-lifetime moments. Below the headliners, the weekend’s bill unfolds impressively, containing a huge percentage of the artists earning accolades and buzz on the capricious cutting edge of pop.

The bill includes fully half of the Top 10 album artists on the Village Voice’s just-published annual critic’s poll, Pazz & Jop, including the National, Sleigh Bells and the Black Keys. The poll’s singles chart topper, Cee Lo Green, and dance-pop darling Robyn will also appear. For every absent high achiever, there’s at least one counterpart, and sometimes more.

Lovers of girl-boy drone pop might have wished for Beach House; but there’s Best Coast and Sleigh Bells and the Kills. Arty freaks may miss Joanna Newsom, but they can turn to Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. The dance tent may be lonely without David Guetta, but Fedde Le Grand will fill the gap. Latin rock lovers can protest Ceci Bastida’s omission, then go drown their sorrows in the rhythms of Bomba Estéreo.

Old punks would have relished time with Gang of Four, but they’ll be happy with Wire and Big Audio Dynamite. Hip-hop heads longing for Drake or Janelle Monáe can console themselves with Wiz Khalifa and Erykah Badu. (Lauryn Hill’s on the bill too, but it’s best not to expect too much from her.)

This all adds up to the musical equivalent of a Hawaiian vacation; a satisfying immersion experience that makes up in vivid sensual fun what it may lack in adventurousness. And given Coachella’s position at the forefront of the 2011 festival season, going with what definitely works isn’t just a smart business move on the part of Goldenvoice promoter Paul Tollett. It’s the right one for pop music culture as a whole.

Last year’s slump in concert ticket sales loosened the last solid brick in the foundation of the conventional music industry. Some festivals, including Coachella, still did relatively well, and in doing so, helped build excitement for new artists and maintain the value of more established ones. With the public’s attitudes swiftly changing about what music is worth -- both financially and attention-wise -- the success of an event such as Coachella can offset a lot of bad vibes and offer hope, which translates into concrete opportunities, for musicians and fans alike.

So I’m happy to have Goldenvoice take me to Hawaii, even if I’d had my heart set on Bhutan. Tourists visiting Coachella’s alterna-pop Eden will find much to discover there. Regulars can relax amid familiar riches. That sounds like a great package deal.

-- Ann Powers

Top photo: PJ Harvey. Credit: Stefano Paltera / For The Times

[Updated, 12:22 p.m.] The original version of this post said that Kanye West would be making his first Coachella appearance. He performed at the polo grounds in 2006. We have updated the post accordingly.