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Coachella lineup may be its best

January 31, 2005|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

Bono, who has taken over Pete Townshend's role of resident philosopher in rock, believes the hardest thing in pop music isn't creating hits but remaining relevant -- and the challenge doesn't apply to just musicians.

As the guiding force behind the annual Coachella Valley Music and Art Festival, Paul Tollett has built the weekend affair in just six years into the most important, grand-scale rock music experience in the country by presenting the best and most relevant, not just popular, rock acts.

And this year's lineup -- which will be announced today -- may be the strongest yet. It's highlighted by such acclaimed veteran or upcoming acts as Coldplay, Nine Inch Nails, Gang of Four, Wilco and Bright Eyes.

One sign of Coachella's hold on the pop imagination is that fans look forward to the talent lineup announcement each year with almost as much fervor as the show itself. When it comes to the festival's integrity, that talent bill is as important in many ways as the actual performances.

The fear is that Tollett and his Goldenvoice team will began going for merely popular acts to help boost attendance, but there's no sign of that in the talent list for the April 30 and May 1 concerts at the Empire Polo Field in Indio. (All 80-plus acts, including the usual parade of DJs, will be announced today on the festival website: www.coa chella.com.)

Coldplay, the most heralded arena-level band from Britain since Radiohead, will headline the opening-day program, which also includes Wilco, Bauhaus, Cocteau Twins, the Chemical Brothers, Snow Patrol, Rilo Kiley, Sage Francis, Mercury Rev, Bloc Party and the Kills on various stages over nearly 12 hours.

The second-day lineup is even more enticing -- headed by the return to action of Trent Reznor's Nine Inch Nails, which stood alongside Nirvana as one of the most captivating groups in '90s rock.

The appearances by the graceful, gently melodic Coldplay and far darker and more aggressive Nine Inch Nails are especially timely because both bands will be previewing material from much-anticipated albums. (Coldplay will also be playing a KCRW-FM benefit March 12 at the Universal Amphitheatre).

There's no release date for the Coldplay album, but "With Teeth," the first new Nine Inch Nails album in six years, will be in stores two days after the Coachella show. The CD is a confident, accessible work, far more in keeping with 1994's brilliant "The Downward Spiral" than 1999's striking but sometimes impenetrable "The Fragile."

Rivaling Reznor for attention Sunday will be Bright Eyes featuring Conor Oberst, whose new albums -- the acoustic "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" and the electronica-based "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn" -- are among the most widely acclaimed collections in years.

Oberst performed on the second stage at last year's Coachella, but the buzz on him was in its infancy, which means this year's set will carry the extra tension of seeing if he can live up to mounting expectations.

Speaking of buzz, Arcade Fire, a Canadian rock band with a wonderfully original way of looking at issues of salvation and loss, has emerged in recent months as another critical darling. It will be interesting to see how the group, a huge hit in local club shows recently, responds to the larger stage. Given the Fire's passionate, highly animated performance style, the odds are it'll be well received.

Two other respected British outfits will also be reintroducing themselves to U.S. audiences: Gang of Four, the hugely influential British band from the '70s whose influence has been cited by such upcoming groups as Franz Ferdinand and the Futureheads, and New Order, the synth-pop outfit best known for such hits as "Blue Monday."

The support acts on Sunday will also include the return of the Prodigy, whose 2002 appearance at Coachella failed to jump-start its comeback attempt, plus such highly touted newcomers as M.I.A., the Futureheads, British Sea Power, the Fiery Furnaces, the Dresden Dolls, Autolux and the Bravery. Tickets, priced at $80 for one day or $150 for both, go on sale Saturday.

What makes the Coachella setting such a challenge for all these bands is that the festival crowd, which averaged 50,000 a day last year, tends to be more discriminating than the average pop audience. Thus, the word of mouth from the show -- along with the views of critics who come to Coachella from around the country -- can be unusually helpful or damaging to an act.

In fact, Coachella compresses two months of savvy clubgoing into a weekend. You also have the luxury of just moving on to another tent or stage if one band doesn't prove interesting.

As of press time Sunday, Tollett was still wrestling with adding another major American rock act to the bill before today's announcement. He also has to try to find a solution to the horrific traffic congestion that has plagued past Coachella events.

Mainly, however, the biggest hurdle has been overcome. The talent is booked and Bono's challenge shifts to the musicians, both the veterans and those so new they are known to local rock fans only as names in British pop papers. Now it's their turn to prove on stage they are as relevant in today's rock world as Coachella itself.

Robert Hilburn, pop music critic of The Times, can be reached at Robert.hilburn@latimes.com.

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