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Coachella 2010: MGMT and Muse, from one extreme to another

April 18, 2010 |  7:38 am

Eccentrics ruled on Saturday night at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival as MGMT, which had suddenly emerged as one of America's weirdest bands, had a headlining slot on one of the fest's two outdoor stages. Before the New York act finished its set, Muse emerged across the field, England's reigning rulers of theatrical head banging.

The stakes were much higher for MGMT. The band's "Congratulations" is a career-defining album, although some may argue it's career-killing one. A collection of oddball synth-rock fantasies, "Congratulations" is challenging, no doubt, but it's also a captivating release, full of left-of-center turns, melodic detours and mini-psychedelic symphonies.

To pull it off live, especially at a festival with 75,000 people ready to scream along to "Kids," would be a challenge. Make no mistake, MGMT had its work cut out for it. "Play a song we know," yelled a woman halfway through a set that was heavy on new material.

What MGMT delivered was a set that served as a mission statement. Opening with "Flash Delirium," the five piece unveiled its sugar rush of a new single, with a kaleidoscope of sounds coming from Ben Goldwasser's keyboard. It's a dizzying assault of a song, with Beach Boys harmonies, Burt Bacharach-like dips into retro-pop fluff, guitar flareups and paranoid vocals. It may not have a singalong hook, but it's stitched together with fragments of familiar sounds. Live, it could have been a mess, but it was surprisingly smooth and seamless.

When the song finished, and MGMT continued to explore its new songs with candy-colored synths, surf-rock riffs and brief moments of dance-along merriment, many of them cut short by Pink Floyd-inspired shifts, the crowd responded with politeness but also a bit of impatience. The group of seven in front of me left early, and it wasn't until the band dove into "Electric Feel" that the crowd fully warmed to MGMT. The song turned into one of the most anthemic moments of Coachella's first two days, inspiring a full-on singalong.

The reaction surely implied that the band hadn't yet sold the audience on its new material. "Please go buy our record," Andrew VanWyngarden said and then launched into "Song for Dan Treacy," four minutes of complete zaniness, with keyboards and guitars seemingly locked in a Looney Tunes-like chase. "I Found a Whistle" showed off the band's more atmospheric tendencies but could certainly turn into a future concert moment that inspires fans to wave their cellphones in the air, at least until it morphs into a guitar-led gallop.

When the set concluded, fans hung around, convinced MGMT would do an encore. "They wouldn't leave without playing 'Kids,' " said one fan, while another apologized to his girlfriend. "I'm sorry they didn't play your favorite song, honey," he said.

But MGMT didn't come back, and yes, a few fans booed that the band refused to play "Kids." Radiohead's Thom Yorke performs Sunday night, and MGMT appears to be at a crossroads similar to the one the latter band faced with 1995 album "The Bends." The fans want the hits, but MGMT has bigger ambitions that simple crowd pleasing.

When "Flash Delirium" was released, the act apologized for the song arriving as a shock to fans, but at Coachella, the band showed it was no longer saying sorry. The band also proved it had done nothing that needed forgiving.

Muse packs far more muscle than MGMT, but also loads its songs with multiple shifts in directions and changes in style. Singer Matthew Bellamy has a voice that would make Andrew Lloyd Webber salivate, and his backing band has all the subtlety of a Las Vegas-style revue. This is high-concept music, the rock-'n'-roll equivalent of a special-effects-laden Michael Bay film.

Any moments of levity are soon erased with flamboyant guitar showboating. No doubt the band has the chops, and it brought with it to Coachella a laser-light show that would make many a DJ jealous. But Muse is a band that looked excess in the face and said, "Bring it on." Unfortunately, the band has no concept of how or when to edit, and when it prefaced "Hysteria" by playing half of the national anthem, it put pandering ahead of the song.

-- Todd Martens

Photo: Members of MGMT perform at Coachella on April 17, 2010. Credit: Chris Pizzello / Associated Press