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Coachella 2009: M.I.A.'s main-stage surprise party

April 19, 2009 | 11:29 am


Last year at Coachella, M.I.A.'s show was a fascinating meltdown of air-raid sirens, gunshots (sampled, not "live," thankfully) and disjointed scraps of songs wedged between M.I.A.'s shouted demands that somebody dim the lights. It seemingly scrambled parts of the crowd so bad that a near-riot broke out and security shut down the Sahara Tent show.

Well, this year, Maya Arulpragasam, a new mother and a late-addition replacement for the visa-challenged Amy Winehouse, put on a marginally less chaotic set that nevertheless still befuddled many in the crowd, despite some enthralling and hilarious moments.

So much of her show exists on the fault line between performance art and disaster -- one moment it might seem a brilliant challenge to the standard concert performance where one's hits are dispensed with rehearsed passion. And then the next moment comes and you think, "What on earth is going on here?"

Wearing enough florescent color to make a crossing guard jealous, M.I.A. and her team of hype people, including protégé  Rye Rye, who sang and rapped on many songs, stalked the stage, the omnipresent air-raid siren used as punctuation or threat but mostly for comedic effect. As the Grammys proved all too well, M.I.A. is a charming presence on stage -- deadpan, unflappable and unpredictable.

M.I.A. might have graced the Grammys on her delivery due date, but that's as far as she's willing to go. "Just because I did the Grammys," she said, "doesn't mean I gone all sold out." At another point, she sang, to the tune of Winehouse's "Rehab":  "They tried to make me do the Oscars. I said no, no, no."

Later on, a baby's cry manipulated by -- you guessed it -- AutoTune took over the stage. Wearing neon-rimmed sunglasses and no expression, M.I.A. said, "My baby's waiting."

But despite her good humor, M.I.A. was clearly struggling with the main stage's distance from the audience. "I don't really know how to bring it on the main stage, but we're going to try," she said, before inviting some 50 audience members up to dance, much to the visible chagrin of security.

It was fun while it lasted, but even M.I.A. sensed that she finally should relent with the antics and give the audience what they wanted. She performed "Boyz," "Galang" and, with possibly a touch of boredom, her monster hit "Paper Planes."

Not only was her baby waiting, but her beloved dance crowd was too. "Next time, I'm back in the tent," she said as a farewell. Sure, she could have adjusted her show for the main stage by playing her biggest songs back to back with about 30% less air-raid siren, but then that wouldn't have been M.I.A.

-- Margaret Wappler

Photo by Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times