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Coachella 2010: Fest closes with the thrilling Gorillaz and the disastrous Sly Stone

The Gorillaz
The three-day Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival came to a close just before midnight Sunday, bringing to an end a weekend that placed rock, dance, hip-hop and electronics on equal footing. It only took closing act the Gorillaz about 10 minutes to tap into each of those genres.

The evolving band-art project -- what originally began as a partnership between Blur's Damon Albarn and comics artist Jamie Hewlett -- was at its most expansive at Coachella. Albarn acted as a composer and a conjurer, directing a mini symphony and waving his arms to inspire flashes of synthesized and electronic sounds. The Gorillaz -- aided by Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, anchors of what was once one of England's most ambitious bands, the Clash -- were, in many ways, the most perfect of Coachella bands.

Gorillaz art The weekend played host to superstars such as Jay-Z; pop weirdos including MGMT; and Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, a legend in the making taking bold experimental leaps as a solo artist. Beyond the headliners, however, were a range of offerings, electronic paranoia (Fever Ray) as well as sweet vintage pop (She & Him) and blues revivalists (the Dead Weather), and that's just scratching the surface. 

The Gorillaz view all such styles as ripe for picking, and one would have been hard pressed to find another band on the Coachella bill so eager -- and apt -- at diversifying its sound. "White Flag," off the recently released "Plastic Beach," is an elegant mix of ethnic sounds, hip-hop, modern electronic effects and an occasional symphonic flourish. 

Watching it stitched together on the Coachella stage was fascinating. A mini-band using old-world and Middle Eastern instruments was wheeled to the front of the stage, Simonon, with his bass below his waist, stalked out a dub-inspired groove in the corner, and Albarn directed violinists to strike while waving the pennant referenced in the song's title. 

Though the Gorillaz were no longer hiding behind a screen of cartoon images, the band still toyed with what exactly a live performance should entail. A cameo from Snoop Dogg received a roar from the crowd, even though Snoop was only seen and heard and not actually performing with the band in Indio. Similarly, "White Flag" was constructed around a mix of pre-recorded raps and digitized atmospheres, and guitars gave way to loops and vice versa.   

Yet Albarn right now has a secret weapon, and it isn't the cartoon ravens, however visually arresting they are. It's Simonon, and though the Clash gets plenty of respect, Simonon is still one of rock's great unheralded bassists. Comfortably navigating the jazz flourishes of "Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach" and the beat-era rhythms of "Superfast Jellyfish," which featured a guest rap from De La Soul, Simonon was the anchor of the well-paced set, ensuring that any diversion or orchestral flourish Albarn wanted to explore would be handled with a fiercely definable bass line. 

The set was full of mini-thrills. "Kids With Guns," in fact, could have fit comfortably on the Clash's "London Calling," with Jones' minor-key notes circling around Simonon's reggae-rock melody. Clash fans, no doubt, felt a moment of warmth when the two were seen smiling at each other on Coachella's big screens. 

New cut "On Melancholy Hill" was a synth-pop nugget, with Brian Eno-like ambiance framing a swift little vocal melody. The band's recent single "Stylo" was the dance song on edge. A cameo from R&B legend Bobby Womack was a much-welcome sight, highlighting the song's soul undertones but doing so without softening its edges. 

"Glitter Freeze" was downright electric, a song that could double as a sports anthem, with synths that seemed to be firing lasers at one another. Seconds later, the Gorillaz offered "Dirty Harry," a soul revue with a choir, and "Rhinestone Eyes" explored pop sounds that stopped just short of unsettling. 

It was a mistake, then, to wander off to catch a bit of Sly Stone, the funk-soul legend who was originally slated to perform earlier in the day but then was pushed to a later start time. I didn't see much -- about two songs -- but it's hard to really classify anything that went down in the Coachella tent as a song. Sly, dressed in a cop outfit, whizzed around the front of the stage in a wheelchair before his band kicked into "Higher." 

He jumped up, and it appeared he would attempt to sing the song, but his vocals, if there were any, weren't audible, and Sly stumbled off the stage not more than a verse or two in. He tried to make his way out into the audience, which was a small crowd of maybe 100 people, before security had to direct him backstage. It was a depressing moment, and fest-goers rushed to take pictures. I was told Sly was ranting and berating his band and the audience before I arrived, so it's possible I didn't even witness the worst of it. 

Yet Sly was a questionable booking from the start. The days when the reclusive and eccentric artist was a dependable performer are long gone, and promoters never should have allowed Sly to take the stage in this instance. It was nothing anyone needed to witness, and putting the artist on stage only to have audience members laugh was downright shameful.  

Afraid my Coachella experience would end on such a buzzkill, I tried to catch the Gorillaz encore. It didn't happen, as I arrived when Albarn was waving goodbye with Womack, but even that sight was a welcome one -- a brief reminder of how Coachella, at its best, can knock down genre borders and respectfully connect the past to the present.

-- Todd Martens

Photos: Damon Albarn leads the Gorillaz, top. The music-art project incorporated works by Jamie Hewlett. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (10)

When Sly and the Family Stone were scheduled to perform at Sonoma County's Wells Fargo Center for the Arts a couple of years ago, a local band from the Russian River - Midnight Sun - felt it was such a great honor to be booked as the opener for this historic music icon.
As it turned out, Midnight Sun was the hit of the show, and Sly did what he did in Coachella. He made it an embarrassing set, eventually walking off after participating in only two of the songs.
Sly is so over.

i didn't go this year, but i went last year and was amazed coachella had booked amy winehouse. i knew she'd cancel, but was so excited that they replaced her with MIA! i figured they had booked Sly Stone to replace him with someone better, but i guess they were actually expecting him to play. ridiculous. I'm glad i didn't go to coachella this year. it would have been amazing to see Die Antwoord and Gorillaz. I've already seen Atoms for Peace and Fever Ray who were top-notch. But I really wanted to see Grace Jones, Gary Numan, and Sly Stone all of whom cancelled or couldn't make it or trainwrecked. Die Antwoord clips on youtube look amazing, hope they tour with the Mighty Boosh.

You are correct. Paul Simonon was awesome. His bass was hanging low & he still has that Clash swagger. IMHO the coolest bass player in the world.

Why would anyone expect anything different from sly ? He's a dope fiend and an alcoholic and his behaviour has been consistent for years. At 66 years old, it is unlikely that he is planning to change anytime soon. If someone wants to do business with him, get used to disappointment.

I agree with John C. Sly was a disgrace and will be again in the future. If any promoter is thinking about booking him ever again, please read the blogs. I was there and Sly insulted the audience with his inane muttering and wasted mind. The crowd should have booed him off the stage. I left for a while and came back to see him come off the stage and wander to the back. Probably going to inject more stuff into his blood. He sucks. The band soldiered on and for that they deserve praise.

After Thom Yorke went off stage, an announcer said something about Sly making it to Coachella despite the ashen European skies (sarcasm NOT noted), and would play in the Mojave tent at 10:45PM "-we think", I thought, "what's THAT supposed to mean??" and I immediately rescheduled to catch a Sly song or two and a Gorillaz song or two. I had to head back to the car camping to drive my weary Aussie passengers to LAX. I had exchanged a ride out to the festival for tent space, but our agreement to stay until the last note had been soured by heat exhaustion requiring a precautionary visit to a local hospital on Saturday, and a general weariness on Sunday.
Anxious to take in one or two Sly songs in a timely fashion, I ignored the signs of doom as the sound check went on and on (-had the band JUST arrived??). Impatience transitioned to complete irritation throughout the crowd when Sly finally came out and defiantly launched into random chatter about dabbling in music technology instead of busting out a tune to reciprocate the fans who altered plans and wandered over to the Mojave tent to hear some funky tunes that would surely stave off the vibe of a party winding down. After his yammering, halting progress to make uncalled-for band critiques, and the band members’/stage crew's efforts to re-boot him, he sang some truly sweet-sounding lines only to stop the show again to note some phantom flaw in the performance.
I was embarrassed for him and angry over his utter lack of respect for the professionals on stage who were doing their best to salvage the performance. Out of respect for the musicians who had the thankless task of working with him last night anyway, I headed toward the door. Time had run out, and with regret in my steady stride, I walked past a magical Gorillaz performance.
What a disappointing way to end the weekend.
My recipe for Coachella success requires keen organizational skills matched with flexibility, but it will be helped if I am able to recall and follow good advice such as an L.A. Times recommendation last week to see Gil Scott-Heron and skip Sly. That and traveling solo may be the way to witness that last, high note.

it wasn't a wheelchair but a regular office chair. you should've gotten a closer look since the tent was half empty.

gorillaz rock!!

I saw the Sly performance thru the facebook live stream, wow what a trainwreck. felt sorry for the people who missed Gorillaz for that, but i will say, as dissapointing as it was, it was memorable. he just kept ranting, using insulting slurs, played a song or two, and then walked out of "I want to take you higher" in to the audience until he was diercted back stage and the camera cut!...I wish the gorillaz set would have been streamed like Jay Z's was. I have been going to Coachella for the last 5 years, this was the first one I missed and maybe I didnt miss out on much.

Dear Mr. Martens,

You missed nothing when it came to The Gorillaz "encore," which was basically non-existent. I will agree that about 4/5 of the performance was fine, with the first half actually being exceptional. Unfortunately, there was no ending. And when it was (sorta) clear it was time for the lame/obligatory cheering to get an encore, nothing much happened, neither in the crowd nor on the stage. And then someone turned off the electricity and that was it. By contrast, Jay-Z ended Day 1 with a HUGE finale, that went on and on and included Beyonce and a gigantic fireworks display. It was completely over-the-top. And it made The Gorillaz finale look significantly under-produced.


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