Pop goes a haven of rock

Times Staff Writer

You could say she was like a virgin when it comes to playing festivals, but Madonna acted as if she owned the place on Sunday in her much-anticipated, much-debated appearance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

Haughty and swaggering (in a good way), the pop star made her first appearance at a music festival, and Coachella hosted its first bona fide pop star. For Madonna it was just another notch on her career belt, but for Coachella it was the dawning of a new era.

Actually, the dawning began the previous day, when rap star Kanye West appeared on the main stage at the Empire Polo Club. Madonna, though, is a much more polarizing cultural figure, and when she was added to this year's lineup you could feel the shudders throughout the community of serious rock followers who regarded Coachella as their unsullied haven.

So the Madonna moment was more high noon, a showdown between Coachella's past and future.

Say what you will about the material girl, there's no denying her magnetism, and with no one playing the main stage opposite her, it seemed as if many concertgoers were simply pulled by her gravity to the area of the Sahara Tent, the hangar-like canopy where DJs keep the dance-music crowd sweating all day.

She sold tickets, generated conversation and finally delivered a scene packed with excitement and intensity -- like Saturday, Sunday logged a Coachella record attendance of 60,000, and an estimated 30,000 people were in the tent and on the field outside for her show.

It was one of those peak moments that Madonna lives for, and when the curtain rose about 20 minutes past her scheduled 8:10 p.m. start time, she absorbed and magnified the crowd's energy and anticipation and sent it back on the giddy, ABBA-based "Hung Up," from her recent album of disco-flavored dance music.

The singer, backed by a four-member band and a troupe of dancers, never let the energy -- nor the attitude -- flag. Playfully imperious in manner, she vamped through songs old and new, including a couple of more from the new album as well as "Ray of Light" and the vintage "Everybody." She played guitar for a good stretch of rock-flavored music, summoning feedback and bumping instruments with her bass player. And, of course, she did the sex thing, leaving no horizontal surface unwrithed upon and eventually removing her pants to finish up in leotard and tights. "Does my ass look OK?" she asked the audience.

And perhaps getting into the Coachella rock spirit, she stopped things at one point and glared at some ringside fans.

"There's water on my stage," she yelled, adding a salty expletive to describe those fans. "Don't throw [stuff] on my stage." Then she got down on her hands and knees, wiped the floor with a towel and tossed it into the crowd. Thanks for the souvenir, lady.

Gnarls Barkley, others

bring in the fun

It's not as if Madonna's presence diminished the weekend's roster of high-credibility performers, which on Sunday included electronic/dance pioneers Massive Attack, reggae wunderkind Matisyahu and the creepy (also in a good way) hard-rock band Tool, which was the headliner for the festival's second and closing day.

This was a good time for Coachella to mix things up. For the first time, it's being challenged by other festivals around the country, such as Bonnaroo and the concurrent New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, that can boast similarly substantial lineups and more notable headliners, including Radiohead and Bruce Springsteen.

The genre-blurring theme continued Sunday with the afternoon's main-stage performance by Matisyahu. The Hasidic Jewish reggae singer continued his unlikely march to prominence in the rock world, delivering his spiritually connected messages with engaging urgency in the desert sun, gesturing at the scenic mountains on the horizon as he sang about "the mountains all around Jerusalem."

Few acts in pop music mash it up like Gnarls Barkley, a new collaboration between L.A.-based producer-musician Danger Mouse and Georgia singer Cee-Lo Green. Their single "Crazy" is already on rock radio, and Sunday they drew a big crowd to the Gobi Tent for their live debut. Or maybe it was Oz. Danger Mouse was dressed as the Tin Man, while band members were done up as witches and the string players wore the uniforms of the Wicked Witch's minions. The rotund Cee-Lo fronted the party, rocking out on the Violent Femmes' "Gone Daddy Gone" and then dipping into a scary Screamin' Jay Hawkins mode.

The band showed that the return of fun to pop music is also high on the current agenda, an idea that also resonated in such acts as the funk-lounge Venezuelans Los Amigos Invisibles and the sunny soul-sampling Brits the Go! Team.

Taking the contrary position was L.A.'s Tool, which closed the day with a fascinatingly dark immersion in the recesses of the subconscious, carried on meticulous waves of anguished guitar and gracefully pummeling rhythms.

So Coachella came through the Madonna experiment unscathed, for now anyway. Whether it will result in some deeper institutional damage to its soul and credibility remains to be seen, as does the direction its new vision will take. But the audience's embrace of the winds of change over the weekend suggests there's no turning back.

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