As late Friday night was turning Saturday morning at the Coachella festival, on-again-off-again and currently-on Brit-pop band Blur left festivalgoers with arguably the night’s most poignant moment. Hunched over a piano, lead singer Damon Albarn, with his face sometimes so low that his ears seemed in danger of hitting the keys, pounded away at a song’s handful of notes.
With the same keys struck repeatedly, Blur’s “Sing” was less about creating a melody than it was being frozen in time, a slow-moving, heavily atmospheric quest for the meaning of life. “What’s the worth in all of this?” Albarn asked, all while drummer Dave Rowntree tried to ramp up tension.
The music would struggle with Albarn’s big questions, but it wasn’t there to provide solutions. Guitarist Graham Coxon would strum a torrential effect one second, only to hush his instrument the next. And then Albarn dropped the line that lingers with the listener: “If the child is dead, sing to me. “
Albarn and Bur said little to the Southern California crowd, and considering the band played “Sing” last week, its inclusion here wasn’t tied to current events. But it suddenly felt like the emotional centerpiece in a set that could very well be Blur’s last ever in the United Sates, something akin to a moment of silence in a surprisingly low-key set.
Blur, and country-mates the Stone Roses before them, may currently be on the reunion circuit, but neither band was willing to play it safe at the desert festival. This was a risky booking by promoter Goldenvoice, one that birthed a “who are Blur/Stone Roses” Internet meme when the lineup poster was revealed early this year. Both were slotted as co-headliners, and after Stone Roses closed last week’s Coachella, Blur was handed night-ending duties this week.
Goldenvoice has stressed swapping the two from week-to-week was always the plan, noting that’s why they were booked as co-headliners to begin with. Many wondered if the change was due to the fact that the Stone Roses drew a noticeably small main-stage crowd last weekend. The audience for the Stone Roses likely wasn’t much bigger this week -– late-night picnickers couldn’t have found a better spot on the lawn -– but that’s more reflective of Goldenvoice’s continued perseverance at using Coachella to connect generational lines than it is a reflection on a cult favorite such as Stone Roses.
While huge in many parts of the world (Blur, in fact, was said to have drawn 50,000 to a gig in London’s Hyde Park this summer) neither Blur nor the Stone Roses ever became consistent stars in the U.S. But since Coachella launched in 1999, the fest has walked the line between rock and dance, and it’s a line many songs by the Stone Roses and Blur also walk, although they take divergent paths to get there.
Before “EDM” was a marketing phrase it was an underground scene, one that dipped into the mainstream in the ‘90s courtesy of the likes of Moby (who is DJing Saturday night at Coachella) and films such as “Trainspotting,” whose soundtrack featured Blur and Coachella dance vets Underworld.
Dance also appeared in the groovy, trance-like songs of the Stone Roses, such as in the hypnotic verses and communal choruses of the band’s “Made of Stone,” and it was present in the rave overtures of Blur’s “Girls and Boys.” When Coachella began more than a decade ago, the festival was not only more affordable than its current $379, full-weekend-pass-only incarnation, but it was something of a statement. It was proof that dance and independent music could draw thousands and had an audience that was underserved.
As the geek has become the mainstream, Coachella finds itself trying to have it both ways. The fest caters to a crowd that wants VIP options that can push the cost of a ticket closer to four figures, but still maintains the curatorial nature that adventurous music fans demand.
Give Goldenvoice credit here. Not all of the promoter’s bookings will work -– I’m not sure why we need the gargantuan, dumb-weighted guitar riffs of Dinosaur Jr., for instance –- but the Coachella brand is still secure because the promoter doesn’t talk down to fans. The Coachella lineup is vastly different than any run-of-the-mill radio station fest. Instead of Kesha and Macklemore & Lewis, audiences Friday could at least peek at the everyday themes that dominate the hip-hop of Jurassic 5 or the fiery rock ‘n’ roll of Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr.
And those who dared venture to see what the Brits on the main stage were up to would have seen groups that, between them, connected all the strands of all the music heard this weekend at Coachella. With the Stone Roses, it’s sometimes difficult to discern where songs end and begin, as tunes such as “Waterfall” and “Don’t Stop” slithered into one another and “Fool’s Gold” became a live remix with guitars.
The original four-minute song was stretched into one twice as long, incorporating the Beatles’ “Day Tripper” and nods to Jimi Hendrix and perhaps even Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.” With guitarist John Squire, it’s not always clear what is or isn’t intentional, and at times he would just hold up his guitar and strum for feedback. Vocalist Ian Brown’s tuneless detachment is a love-it or leave-it proposition for many, as is the band’s longstanding onstage attitude of not caring about anyone (sometimes even its audience). And whatever he said between songs needed an interpreter.
Before “Made of Stone,” he said something about urging the crowd to dance -- apparently. Yet born out of the decadent club scene of England’s Manchester, the Stone Roses are a rock band that asks the audience to feel the music rather watch it, be it the extended jazz-informed intro to “I Am the Resurrection” or revving guitars and head-shaking cymbal rush of “Love Spreads.”
Blur, however, are better showmen. The band brought out a mini-gospel choir for the moving, world-music-influenced “Tender,” and Albarn swooshed his acoustic guitar over the heavily manipulated electric sounds of Coxon on “Beetlebum,” who was crouching for maximum effect. Coxon’s ping-pong riffs sounded like they were being run through a garden of broken computers before being fed back to the Indio crowd.
Blur’s set, curiously and impressively, was one mostly for the diehards. The group didn’t seem to be here to win new fans, and stayed away from more upbeat, hook-filled numbers such as “Jubilee,” “Bank Holiday,” “End of Century,” and it even dismissed “Tracy Jacks” from its set. Instead, the band played mostly somber rock turned that bordered on balladry, focusing on songs the probe the loneliness of the modern, urban life: the work-consumed narrators of “Out of Time” and “Coffee & TV,” for instance, as well as the optimistic singalong from a pessimist’s point-of-view that is “For Tomorrow.”
Blur even brought out the seldom-performed “Death of a Party,” perhaps a cheeky nod to the end of its run in the U.S., or the fact that Coachella, Week 2, simply lacks the inspiration of Week 1. How can it, when everyone is simply rehashing much of the same material for crowds who’ve seen all the YouTube clips and are debating whether or not it’s the best time the ride the Ferris wheel?
“Death of a Party” was a showstopper, however. It’s a dance song reflected back via funhouse mirrors. Albarn was singing a lament, Rowntree’s beats were as big and Fatboy Slim-blocky as they come, and Coxon’s guitars were twisted until they were little more than electronics and feedback. “Another night,” Albarn sang, “and I thought, ‘well, well.’”
Coachella has really just begun, and Albarn has declared it over.