Coachella 2014: Beck, Neutral Milk Hotel charm a weathered crowd

Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic

Like a fisherman casting a lure, Beck on Sunday night offered a lesson in how to draw a tired, coming-down crowd and muster one more burst of adrenalin. 

Moving through the quick-tempoed party jams before going deep with songs from his new album,  "Morning Phase," the Los Angeles singer understood that nothing gets the crowd hooked like a singalong anthem with a beat. Hence a roller coaster set that was front-loaded with early jams "Devils Haircut" and "Loser," two '90s oldies that helped bridge a gap between rock, electronic dance music and hip-hop, and served the role of party starter.

In doing so, he presented a convincing argument as being a godfather to this holy Coachella mess, one in which said pop music subgenres could not only live harmoniously but also spawn a new vibe. His set, in fact, was timed perfectly -- astrologically speaking. After the rush of fast-tempo groovers, the singer paused, took a breath and pointed above.

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"See that full moon up there? There you go," Beck said mid-set before introducing "Blue Moon," a single from "Morning Phase." He was working with the same crack band he's employed for much of his career, and the musicians confidently and seamlessly shifted to slow and glum: "I'm so tired of being lonely," he sang. 

Dipping back, Beck followed the song with one of his most beautiful works, "Golden Age," a devastating "Sea Change" ballad of heartbreak and new beginning. He opened it with a simple dedication. "This is for the end of the weekend," he said, again looking up at the moon, before gliding into the song's graceful introduction. "Put your hands on the wheel, let the golden age begin."

After such raw, emotional truth, Beck took the opposite tack, offering his most ironic song, the R&B; slow jam "Debra." A wry, knowing come-on, the singer in falsetto told a story about a chance meeting in a JCPenny checkout line and the events that followed.

"I want to get with you and your sister," he pleaded. "I think her name is Debra." Despite the irony, Beck presented it all with a straight-face.

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He wasn't as straight-faced as Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel, the 1990s indie rock band reunited for the summer festival season. Performing a wonderfully loose set of songs from its influential two albums, the band at various times featured accordion, hard-strummed acoustic guitar, bowed banjo, singing saw, French horn, trumpet, toy saxophone and a general musical buoyancy.

Above it all was Mangum's exuberant voice, one able to roll across octaves while bellowing lines about two-headed boys "with pulleys and weights creating a radio played just for two." Equally convincing was his mindful pre-set plea to the crowd that they put away their phones and cameras and live in the moment. 

In fact, Mangum, wearing a big, bushy beard and cap, went so far as to point and politely ask specific people to hold off. In addition, the Coachella camera crew who'd been busy all week offering terrific coverage for the overhead video screens was called off for Neutral Milk Hotel's set.

The Luddite-leaning philosophy is to be admired, even if it was futile. The result was a host of fans farther back in the crowd cheating and taping, and many others for whom the band was nothing but specks on a stage.

Then again, these specks certainly made a convincing argument, both musically and philosophically.


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