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Coachella 2013: The xx, Nick Cave steal spotlight from headliners

April 22, 2013|By Todd Martens
  • Nick Cave walks into the crowd on the third and final day of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
Nick Cave walks into the crowd on the third and final day of the Coachella… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

There were two questions heading into the xx's set on the main stage of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival on Saturday night. Could a band that's evolving by stripping more out of its songs hold the attention of a large festival crowd? And would R&B singer Solange make a guest appearance for a second week in a row? Both were clearly answered. Solange unfortunately didn't appear, once again making Weekend 1 the hotter ticket, but the xx continues to transfix by turning its songs into mini pieces of performance art.

The xx didn't duet. Yes, Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim give and take in each song, either trading vocal patterns or letting guitar notes disintegrate into Jamie Smith's electronic production. But these songs unfold like internal monologues, two people trying to make sense of senseless romances in a rather spellbinding dance.

Sim often seemed as if he were being pulled offstage, moving as if controlled by a puppeteer as he played guitar. He occasionally was brought back to center to answer Croft, but never directly.

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"Maybe I had said something that was wrong," Croft sang on "Shelter," delivering the line almost passively, as if she were grappling to find answers rather than demanding them. Toward the song's end, she stepped back from the mike, and Sim waded toward her, wielding his guitar as if it were  some fantasy instrument capable of untold magic, and the two stopped and stood forehead to forehead. Nothing was said, and it was perfect.

An xx song is like looking at the pieces of a broken vase -- the structure is visible but it isn't exactly present. "We used to be closer than this," the two sing on "Chains," while Jamie's production shakes and echoes like thousands of Thundersticks. 

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The following night, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds weren't as delicate. It's worth nothing that Coachella isn't the ideal place to see the Bad Seeds. This is a set that demands 90-plus minutes of attention, allowing Cave to go all fire and brimstone and take time to extinguish the tension. The 1-2-3 punch of "Jack the Ripper," "Stagger Lee" and "The Mercy Seat" isn't exactly going to calm any nerves.

Cave spent much of "Jack the Ripper" and "Stagger Lee" standing on the stage barriers, using fans for balance. Security didn't get too close to him, as when one staffer offered to help support Cave, the artist turned and spat in his general direction. Maybe it was a coincidence, but no one else appeared to be willing to take any chances. Cave was on his own, face-to-face with the Coachella masses.

He got intimate with fans both weekends, during his Grinderman and Bad Cave sets, punctuating verses with a shout directly into the face of a swan or a dismissive swat at those he didn't want body-surfing near him. When he made it back to the stage for "The Mercy Seat," Cave was no longer on the attack, now channeling a narrator ready to face the consequences. But the Bad Seeds, accompanied by a small string section and two female backup singers ("Hey ladies," Cave shouted, flirtatiously, mid-set), weren't going to let him have it. 

Cave's delivery stayed at mid-pace, but the sounds around him gradually picked up and engulfed him. Longtime Bad Seed and multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis in particular crafted a damning circle around Cave, his violin channeling the sound of violent cicadas. The ending calm of "Push the Sky Away" was pretty, but sudden.

The backing vocals, provided by the children's choir of the Silverlake Music Conservatory, gave the song an eerie calm. But after the rock 'n' roll cataclysm that had just been witnessed, it was a shock to the system.

Both the xx and Cave resonated, though each was dealing with the limitations provided by a festival setting such as Coachella. The Bad Seeds are a band whose sets ebb and flow with emotion, and with few songs under 5 minutes, their 50-minute Coachella set still felt like a teaser for something greater.

The xx, meanwhile, had an inspired pairing in Weekend 1 with Solange, a grouping that made it clear that the xx is not-so-secretly an R&B act. The band doesn't need Solange to impress, of course, but Weekend 1 guests witnessed the magic of a festival, as the act deviated from its normal set to give fans the unexpected.

Only because Coachella spans two weekends, each with the same acts and each requiring a separate ticket, could the xx's dazzling Weekend 2 set feel like a slight letdown.  

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