The final day of the weekend’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival offered a striking reminder that there are lots of good rock bands these days but still few great ones.
While several groups on Sunday’s bill -- from veterans the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the main stage to newcomers the 22-20s in a tent -- can entertain and possibly intrigue us for a while, it’s rare when a band steps forward with the captivating originality and craft that can absorb us so fully that it actually alters the way we think about the rock experience.
Two bands that fall into the latter category, Iggy & the Stooges and the White Stripes, provided the most memorable moments Sunday with back-to-back sets on the festival’s main stage -- each act facing quite different tests.
For the Stooges, who laid a blueprint in the late ‘60s for the fury and aggressiveness of punk, the challenge was playing with enough intensity in a reunion performance to demonstrate just what was so magical about the band before it broke up three decades ago.
The Stripes, the Detroit duo of singer-guitarist Jack White and drummer (and ex-wife) Meg White, are increasingly hailed as the most compelling new American band in years. They needed to make a case for why so many fans and critics feel the Stripes are knocking on the door of greatness.
Because they have never played a Los Angeles-area venue larger than the 900-capacity El Rey, the Stripes faced an enormous hurdle in stepping up to the main outdoor stage here, where a huge chunk of the 33,000 on hand Sunday stood in the cool night air to see if the band can live up to all the buzz.
Jack White did seem a bit rattled at the start, when his grimaces made it clear that something was wrong with the sound equipment. After a brief pause for adjustments, White struggled to find an emotional groove.
White hit his stride three songs later in the haunting imagery of “Jolene,” an old Dolly Parton song about one woman trying to save her marriage from the roving eye of another, sexier and more attractive woman.
“Jolene, Jolene,” the song goes. “I’m begging of you, please don’t take my man / Just because you can.”
White sings it with the restless urgency of an earthy Robert Johnson blues number, giving the song an even more unsettling edge by keeping it in Parton’s gender.
Not only does his voice yelp and howl as he tries to convey his turmoil, he also plays guitar with an equal sense of final desperation.
The Stripes followed with “Hotel Yorba,” a bright, infectious country-rock tune that represented an emotional release from the tension of “Jolene.” The pair then shifted gears again to “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” which is set in the dark, swirling blues-rock that is the Stripes’ signature sound.
From there, Jack White moved in the hour set from the macho blues posture of “Ball and Biscuit” to the delicate sweetness of “We’re Going to Be Friends.” Throughout, he coaxed soulful, then blistering, notes from his guitar so artfully that the instrument often seems like an extension of his voice.
It wasn’t a perfect set, but it was representative of the excitement that the Stripes have been generating in clubs in recent years -- and White’s hability to transfer it to the big stage speaks well of the duo’s ability to reach a wide pop-rock audience without compromising its deeply personal music.
There is something in the restless fervor of White’s artistic ambition and instincts that is reminiscent of Prince. It’s as if they both are so under the spell of their separate muses that they don’t simply re-create their music on stage but struggle to extend it. The result is that they, in effect, take the audience into their creative workshop in concerts, an experience that is as rare in pop as it is stimulating.
The Stooges, coincidentally, are also from Detroit, and the group played with such raw obsession in the old days that the shows sometimes had a frightening aura of danger.
Iggy (whose real name is James Osterberg) used to spin around the stage with such fury and abandon during super-charged Stooges anthems like “I Wanna Be Your Dog” that he would end the night bloody and bruised.
It was a level of commitment that influenced generations of singers and bands, from hard-core punk outfits such as Black Flag to punk-rock groups like the Sex Pistols and the Clash and even to such mainstream rock performers as Bono.
In Sunday’s reunion, Iggy (now known as Iggy Pop) was joined by original members Ron and Scott Asheton (on guitar and drums, respectively) plus L.A. Mike Watt on bass. They played with the determination and pride of musicians who are as excited about being able to step back into the spotlight as the fans who have dreamed of seeing them again.
Iggy, now 56, still comes on stage bare-chested and with the tightest jeans he can find. He starts out most songs by planting his left foot firmly in front of him and then twisting his body into all sorts of pretzel-like shapes before taking off in aggressive spins.
But he’s not just about visual effects. In Stooges songs, Iggy sang the frustrations of youth in dark, desperate tones that were as influential as his stage persona.
Still, the set suffered in its final moments from the same problem found with most reunions. Instead of being transformed by the music, you find yourself wondering if the musicians and fans are bonding on the music or simply trying to remember what once made it so essential.
Across the field in one of the festival tents, the Libertines finally made their U.S. debut Sunday after seeing their Saturday set in the tent stopped after two numbers because of curfew.
The quartet, led by singer-guitarists Peter Doherty and Carl Baret, are blessed with the renegade cool of so many English bands. They, too, have a good sense of song construction and arrive with the blessings of Clash co-leader Mick Jones, who produced the group’s “Up in Bracket” album.
Of the other acts that joined the Stripes and Stooges on the main stage Sunday, the Polyphonic Spree made the biggest impression, partially because the Texas outfit consisted of a couple dozen singers and musicians, all wearing white robes.
The music has a sort of relentlessly positive feel, which leaves the Spree open to jokes about their being art-rock’s version of “Up With People.” But there is an eccentric edge to the group that gives it an oddly intriguing Bjorkian twist.
The Soundtrack of Our Lives, a band whose highly melodic music seems to incorporate every strain of ‘70s rock imaginable, proved engaging, though it didn’t generate nearly the audience response that the Hives, its more distinctive fellow Swedes, did Saturday on the same stage.
Things didn’t go as well as expected for Mars Volta, whose hyper-kinetic mix of soulful R&B;, renegade rock force and prog-rock sophistication made it the biggest buzz of last year’s Coachella festival.
The group still employs those elements, but the mix leans more on the prog-rock side, leaving the whole thing Sunday short of winning songwriting elements. It may come together on the group’s debut album, which is due this summer, but the show left some doubts.
Then again, acts as powerful as the Stooges and the Stripes can take the buzz out of a lot of people.