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The music gets heady in the desert

COACHELLA REVIEW

Roger Waters, My Morning Jacket, Spiritualized and others tickle brains.

April 29, 2008|Ann Powers | Times Pop Music Critic

Of the many ways to interpret the annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, one is through the metaphors of anatomy. The fest immerses participants physically and otherwise -- it's intensely hot, there's nonstop visual stimu- lation, friends and strangers are constantly connecting, and the panoply of sounds boggles the ears.

But it's possible to make a decision to honor one part of your being more than another. Hang out in the dance tent to work your hips. Seek out reuniting favorites for that rush to the heart. Or turn to the more philosophical artists if you're into the reverie-stimulating experience sometimes called "head music."

Sunday, after the ultimate body-honoring band played its main stage set -- that would be New York's Gogol Bordello, whose "gypsy punk" celebrates sensuality in both words and raucous, joyful internationalist dance rock -- head music took over much of the festival. The night built toward a dazzling, career-spanning performance by Roger Waters, the Pink Floyd composer and bassist, which included a full rendition of the ultimate "head" album, 1973's "Dark Side of the Moon."

Before that dramatic climax, other notable performers explored how pop can serve contemplative pursuits. Sometimes the music these artists made was pointedly soulful; in other moments, it reached toward the magnitude of the sublime. And sometimes its drive was unmistakably druggy, meant to simulate (if not aid) inward journeys taken with some chemical assistance.

Spiritualized countered Coachella's dominant mood of hedonism with an introverted, beautiful presentation of leader Jason Pierce's agnostic devotional songs. Pierce has been one of the most revered mystics of the English neo-psychedelic scene for a quarter-century, in this group and the earlier Spacemen 3. Though not a practitioner of a particular faith, he's obsessed with the human need to call upon forces -- gods, drugs and lovers, particularly -- that can obliterate or uplift the rational self.

This "Acoustic Mainline" show resembled last fall's performances at the Vista Theatre in Los Angeles, with Pierce and keyboardist Doggen (a.k.a. Tony Foster) backed by a string section and three-woman choir. At first, the group struggled with serious sound problems, but after those were solved Pierce and company soon found a delicate sweet spot.

In songs like "Sound of Confusion," the country-tinged "Anything More" and the new "Soul on Fire," the arrangements gently interwove Pierce's warbly voice with the ensemble's other elements, taking the shout out of gospel while maintaining its call-and-response momentum. Many moments were simply exquisite, with the choir's refrains answering Pierce's lonelier ones as Doggen's keyboard gently circled the string section's lines.

Unable to pull myself away from the calm Spiritualized created, I came late to My Morning Jacket's triumphant turn on the main stage. As I walked across the field, I could hear the roaring tenor of the Louisville, Ken., band's Jim James as he threw down some piercing falsetto lines. Like Spiritualized, MMJ (as the band is also known) pursues the deep feeling of blues and soul, but it's also very groove-oriented, reflecting the interests of a younger generation that's less afraid to dance than its immediate elders.

A five-piece band that incorporates funky rhythms and some electronic elements into its seedbed of Southern indie rock, MMJ has grown more sonically eloquent as it's become more adept. At times, its Coachella set approached the hugeness of a U2 concert, though it also had a bit of the easy transcendence of a classic Grateful Dead show.

Songs from the band's upcoming album "Evil Urges" showed exciting growth; by exploring new territory, especially R&B, the band has somehow become more focused. A few songs built a sense of tension that only great bands can manage in such a huge space. With a summer release, My Morning Jacket is set to secure its reign over American rock lovers' hearts; this big, exalting performance was the true beginning of that conquest.

We, not us and them

Of course, when it comes to big, few in the rock world can match Roger Waters. As the prime visionary behind the most successful Pink Floyd releases, he's sold more albums than would fill a jumbo jet and reshaped the thought patterns of countless headphones-wearing young thinkers. Like Prince the night before, the 64-year-old Waters came to Coachella with the intention of owning the festival, and he had the resources to accomplish that goal.

His two-set show was similar to the tour he's been mounting for a couple of years, with a high-definition screen, surround sound and a giant pig, a Pink Floyd avatar, that floated over the crowd and then floated off toward Palm Springs. (Members of this porcine clan are occasionally freed during Waters' shows; this one said "Obama" on its bottom side, with a checked ballot box nearby.)

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