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Coachella 2013 feels something like a British re-invasion

The opening weekend showcases Blur, Johnny Marr, Jake Bugg, Palma Violets and more. It's as if the festival was refreshing its alternative-music streak.

April 15, 2013|By Mikael Wood, Los Angeles Times
  • Damon Albarn of the band Blur performs at the 2013 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
Damon Albarn of the band Blur performs at the 2013 Coachella Valley Music… (Bethany Mollenkof / Los…)

Ten minutes into his band's performance Friday night at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, singer Damon Albarn of Blur realized he hadn't introduced himself. So after a hard-driving rendition of Blur's song "There's No Other Way," the frontman took a second to address the tens of thousands of music fans sprawled across the manicured grounds of the Empire Polo Club.

"For those of you out there who are unfamiliar with us," he said, "we're from England."

The audience might've guessed. Although a long-rumored appearance by the Rolling Stones wasn't to be, Coachella 2013 felt something like a British re-invasion.

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By the time Blur played on opening night, the festival that is widely viewed as America's most prestigious had already showcased a sizable number of the United Kingdom's acts, including Johnny Marr, Jake Bugg, Palma Violets and Alt-J.

On the main stage, Blur was followed Friday by the Stone Roses. Saturday and Sunday featured performances by Franz Ferdinand, New Order, Spiritualized and James Blake, among others.

The across-the-pond contingent was just one part of a carefully curated extravaganza. Coachella 2013, which runs over two weekends and includes carnival rides and giant art installations, brought hip-hop, dance music and the ho-hum presence of California rock giants the Red Hot Chili Peppers to the low desert east of Los Angeles.

Headlining Saturday night's bill, the French band Phoenix ushered R. Kelly onstage for a surprise mash-up of its "1901" and his "Ignition (Remix)." And Nick Cave, the Australian polymath, pulled double duty, fronting the deranged garage-rock crew Grinderman on Friday, then leading his long-time backing band the Bad Seeds on the main stage Sunday.

Still, everywhere you looked at Coachella — assuming you could see past the half-dressed bodies browning beneath the SoCal sun — another bunch of Brits seemed to be colonizing the place.

To some degree this felt like a way to refresh Coachella's alternative streak after recent years in which the festival has featured mainstream superstars such as Jay-Z, Madonna and Prince. But the emphasis on so many established acts also emphasized how increasingly difficult it is for the record industry to create new superstars.

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Performing in the U.S. for the first time since it reunited in 2008, Blur embraced its English-ness as fully as it did in its mid-'90s heyday, when it ruled the so-called Britpop scene that also produced Oasis and Pulp. The band's "This Is a Low" lamented the miserable British weather, Albarn said, and "Parklife" was one of the band's many wry portraits of London society.

As steeped in English life as Blur's songs are, they still connected with a heat-ravaged audience in the desert. Moving easily from the crisp guitar pop of "Coffee & TV" to the chewy disco of "Girls & Boys" to "Tender," which stretched out with bleary gospel textures, the band reminded the crowd why it was able to invade America the first time around. "Song 2," Blur's biggest U.S. hit, set off a pop-punk explosion on the polo field.

No such response awaited the Stone Roses, whose inclusion on Coachella's lineup when it was announced in January prompted widespread bewilderment among younger listeners unacquainted with the Manchester outfit and its influential 1989 debut.

But the band's obscurity wasn't entirely what led to such a tepid reception before a crowd far smaller than Blur's. Wandering through aimless, stretched-thin renditions of once potent songs like "I Wanna Be Adored" and "I Am the Resurrection," the Stone Roses lacked any kind of magnetic pull — crucial in an overcrowded festival atmosphere like that at Coachella.

Bugg, an appealingly acerbic 19-year-old singer-songwriter from Nottingham, drew more focus Friday afternoon in a brief but electric performance in the Mojave tent. The same went for Marr, the former guitarist with the Smiths who followed Bugg on Friday, mixing tunes from his strong new solo disc, "The Messenger," with Smiths oldies like "How Soon Is Now?"

Further guitar action came Saturday night from Glasgow's Franz Ferdinand, powering through its lean, propulsive dance-rock in the Mojave, and Spiritualized, which attained a kind of psych-garage grandeur in the Gobi tent.

Yet there was room too for less nostalgic sounds. Sunday afternoon Jessie Ware dazzled the Mojave tent with some of the sleekly futuristic soul songs from her debut album, "Devotion"; Blake did something similar later in the day.

These young London singers are part of a loosely affiliated crew taking U.K. R&B beyond the retro-soul fad popularized by Amy Winehouse and Adele. At Coachella that counted for innovation — even if, as Brits visiting sun-blasted California, they fit right in.


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