Ronson, Harris lift spirits in the desert
The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival is about a lot of things -- chiefly discovery, but also the occasional disappointment, as well as connections with returning heroes. While part of everyone’s attention was on the Prince performance that loomed over Saturday’s schedule, that other business went on as usual. Here’s a sampler of some of the day’s notable action.
The Prince consort
It wasn’t quite time yet for Prince’s headlining appearance, but his royal presence could be felt at Saturday’s final set in the Gobi Tent, where Scotsman Calvin Harris deployed fat synth-rock hooks and chirpy background choruses in a sound that recalled the cheeky pop-funk of the vintage “Dirty Mind” era.
In the process, the singer and his three musicians detonated one of the weekend’s major happy bombs, sweeping the crowd into the kind of communal frenzy generally confined to the nearby dance tent, while adding an engaging and amusing personality to the mix.
Harris, who looks like a kid who’s been swept out of his living-room studio into the bright lights, writes songs that are simple and maddeningly catchy, and he has a nose for dynamic arrangements, often adding live bass on top of synthesized beats to push the sound over the top.
His deep, deadpan voice matched the mock seriousness of his words as he sang about such matters as his preference in girls (there are few not included) and his choice for their outfits (“Please make sure, baby, you’ve got some colors in there”). Similarly, his crowd-stirring antics were simultaneously send-up and celebration.
The idea of a “star-making” performance might be obsolete in this multiple-platform era, but one of Coachella’s charms is the possibility that a great discovery might always be just one stage away. For a lot of people, Calvin Harris was the find of 2008 Day 2.
Biggest travel bill
We’ll have to confirm with his agent, but the prize would have to go to Mark Ronson, whose evening performance at the Outdoor Theatre replicated a classic soul revue, with one singer after another coming out for a number. In this case, though, most of them were from England. And what a mix: The Kaiser Chiefs’ Ricky Wilson (whom Ronson had watched on the same stage last year), Klaxons’ Jamie Reynolds and Tim Burgess of the Charlatans U.K., for starters.
There were newcomers, such as soul-flavored Sam Sparro and Ronson production protege Candie Payne, as well as Charlie Waller of the Rumble Strips, a band that caught Ronson’s ear with its Roy Orbison-inflected recording of “Back to Black,” a song Ronson wrote for Amy Winehouse.
The Englishman won the producer of the year Grammy this year largely for his work on Winehouse’s hit album, and Saturday’s extravagant festival-within-a-festival brought to mind Grammy eminence Quincy Jones, another producer-writer-arranger with a knack for showcasing a panorama of assorted artists.
Ronson’s own album, “Version,” used the same approach, and some of the record’s participants pitched in Saturday too, including American soul singer Kenna and singer-guitarist Tiggers.
Ronson played rhythm guitar and led the band, a tight, classic-style soul group supplemented by a four-member string section.
Festive, surprising and generous to a fault, this show justified every pound expended.
A tale of split reunions
A reunion of the Clash was one of those Coachella dreams that floated around before the death of Joe Strummer, but the last two years have brought two members of the classic punk band into the Coachella brotherhood. Last year, bassist Paul Simonon played with Damon Albarn’s group the Good, the Bad and the Queen, and on Saturday singer-guitarist Mick Jones brought his current band Carbon/Silicon to the Mojave Tent.
The music was strong and pub-rock basic, as the former firebrand and his partner, lead guitarist Tony James, delivered urgent but optimistic social messages such as “The News” and “Soylent Green.”
Its real charm was in Jones’ gracious, utterly unpretentious manner, as he talked about taking the kids to Disneyland and joked about showing his psoriasis if he walked around the festival grounds in shorts. It’s a long way from “London Calling” but not a bad place to be.
Another band’s orbits converged even closer, with System of a Down singer Serj Tankian performing his own set on Friday night and the band’s Daron Malakian and John Dolmayan unveiling their new project, Scars on Broadway, in the Mojave Tent on Saturday.
System, which is on an open-ended hiatus, is one of the pillars of Los Angeles rock, and it’s one of the few metal/hard-rock bands that can claim critical respect, so curiosity was high for this debut.
Like Tankian’s lighter, more nuanced music, Scars on Broadway took System’s idiosyncratic rock in a related but distinct direction, this one decidedly more assaultive.
The headbanging opening elicited the rare Coachella mosh pit, but as the set progressed the music displayed some range. The theatrical Tankian is System of a Down’s most visible member, but guitarist Malakian is a principal architect of its sound, and he applied some of the same imagination to Scars, with some soaring harmonies, varied tempos and textures and even some Middle Eastern tonalities.
But this is music geared to the hard-rock loyalist, fired by lyrics of apocalyptic dread and delivered with pile-driver force by Malakian, drummer Dolmayan and their three bandmates. Don’t be surprised if they’re headlining a festival soon, but don’t expect it to be Coachella.
One of those buzzed-about target shows was the mid-afternoon set by MGMT (as in “management”), but by the time the budding Brooklyn band’s music reached the rear of the Mojave Tent, it had lost any of the power and psychedelic allure it might have had closer to the stage. Those qualities make the music on its album “Oracular Spectacular” intriguing, but the vibes were flat in the room until they pulled out the ones that everyone knows, “Time to Pretend” and “Electric Feel.”
Best exit line
From Stephen Malkmus, leader of the Jicks, wishing the crowd a good weekend at the end of his set at the Outdoor Theatre: “Hey guys . . . Make it count. You’ll only get to go to like 34 of these in your life.”