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Coachella 2012: At the Drive In leads the punk rock field

For all the attention paid to hip-hop and arena-sized EDM at Coachella this year, the resurgence of punk rock at the 2012 fest has received relatively little attention. Whether Goldenvoice was so successful with its three-day GV30 punk fest last December, or just needed a volatile corrective to glossed-up rave acts, punk acts were in good supply at Coachella 2012, including At the Drive In, Refused, fIREHOSE and Greg Ginn, suggesting that this furious, whip-smart rock has a past and a future.

Atop the field was a reunited At the Drive In, whose Sunday set was given an incredibly high-profile placement as the band second only to the headliner. The band broke up in 2001 after achieving moderate success at the experimental fringes of post-hardcore, most notably on its 2000 album “Relationship of Command.” Their songs had the dynamics and insistence of early emo, but played with the desperation of Texas border-town punks and with the cerebral quality of budding Latin-jazz heads.

The band's sound was visceral but wonky; powerful enough for arenas but screwy enough to subvert them. When the band split, forming the prog-metal experimental combo Mars Volta and the more straightforward rockers Sparta, the band's dynamic became clear in hindsight. So it must have been quite a leap of faith to assume they could carry the second-biggest slot of Sunday’s fest.

They didn’t disappoint, even though it was Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s second set of the day (he played bass in the always-amazing Les Butcherettes, the day's most incendiary act by far). Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s voice sounds better when given a bit of structure, and the band’s rhythm section had the machine-tooled precision of the best Dischord bands. While some songs seemed lost on the audience (only the slight radio hit “One Armed Scissor” got a singalong), their sheer power carried the evening for the unconverted and the long-awaiting-this alike.

The At the Drive In show built on a weekend full of worthy and interesting precedent from late-'90s peers and ‘80s progenitors. Refused’s Friday set was just as tight but maybe even more dangerous for its precision; Black Flag co-founder Greg Ginn’s sheer noise-making showed him at his most uncompromising. The reunion of Mike Watt and George Hurley’s post-Minutemen band fIREHOSE proved there was life after first-wave South Bay hardcore, and even a festival life for their alt-leaning post-punk a decade-and-a-half after the band’s heyday.

Goldenvoice, the promoter that puts on Coachella, was founded as an L.A. punk promoter; no booking firm is better equipped to expound on that legacy in a festival setting. But throughout Coachella 2012, those exposed punk roots formed a noisy edge and intriguing undercurrent to the weekend. If Goldenvoice can use its heft and money to re-introduce kids to the particular pleasures of ambitious hardcore, that could be a narrative worth watching at future festivals.


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-August Brown

Photo: Cedric Bixler-Zavala fronts At the Drive In as he performs at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival in Indio on Sunday. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

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