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

April 19, 2010 |  6:46 am

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