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Bjork's Pit, Beck's Set Among Few Surprises At Risk-Free Coachella – Review

To the left, a full moon illuminated a row of palm trees swaying in a mellow breeze as the Beta Band played their melodic pop. To the right, a red sun set over a gorgeous mountain range as Siouxsie and the Banshees wrapped up their first festival performance in more than seven years.

Ahead, DJ Z-Trip captivated a titanic tent overflowing with dancers by marrying Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and Rage Against the Machine’s “Testify.” It was a stereophonic moment of musical bliss. It was Coachella in a nutshell.

The third annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival took over the Empire Polo Fields (with a few horse “droppings” still on the ground) in this upscale desert town over the weekend and celebrated the unavoidable diversity of today’s musical climate.

Part rock concert, part rave, the event takes everything fans and artists love about the Europe’s summer music festivals and transports them to a Stateside locale known for spa resorts and country clubs. The result, at least this year, was 30,000 sunburned music geeks racing back and forth between four stages.

Interestingly, Coachella 2002 as a whole was far more compelling than any of the performances, which – for a festival that is supposed to be more progressive than the garden variety radio station hooplas – were relatively risk-free.

Headliners Björk and the Chemical Brothers on Saturday and the Prodigy and Oasis on Sunday lived up to their top billing by stocking their sets with hits but did little to differentiate their shows from any other night on a stage.

Björk, beautiful in a white satin dress and olive green belt, and polite in her execution during and in between songs, seemed to the be the festival highlight, judging by the size and energy (mosh pits?!) of the audience during her show, which drew heavily from last year’s sonically adventurous Vespertine.

Coachella house band the Chemical Brothers (in their third appearance at the festival) appeased the masses with near-album versions of their glowstick-toting rock anthems, such as “Block Rockin’ Beats,” opting to let Sasha and John Digweed, who performed simultaneously in the Sahara Tent, get creative with the club cuts.

In their first show on American soil in a half-decade, the Prodigy performed as though five years hadn’t passed, urging the crowd to go crazy for “Smack My Bitch Up” and “Breathe.” Many did, and for good reason since the fist-pumping tunes still sound ahead of their time, although you couldn’t help but yearn for a grander re-entrance. And what about the new music Liam Howlett and the guys have been supposedly recording in recent years?

After hearing Keith Flint’s high-pitched screams for the better half of an hour, the tunefully textured voices of Oasis’ Gallagher brothers were a warm welcome. In a set that included four new tracks from their soon-to-be-released Heathen Chemistry, the British rockers showcased their penchant for sing-along radio fare, especially on “Go Let It Out” and “Supersonic.”

Two of Coachella’s best performances were unannounced. On Saturday, at the end of DJ Z-Trip’s fascinating show, Beck took the stage to a mix of his own “Where It’s At” and sang and breakdanced to it before sitting down for an impromptu three-song acoustic set that featured the classic “A-hole.”

On Sunday, Tenacious D introduced their friends the Foo Fighters by performing a few of their most hilarious numbers. Jack Black, flapping around onstage like a drunken peacock, won over the D-Fest (as he called it) crowd with his between-song banter. “Where’s the interactive sex tent?” he asked, before closing the set with “Tribute.”

Z-Trip and the Foos were highlights, even without their special guests. The former messed with pop culture in dangerous ways (Jacko and Zacko together?) but made everything sound even cooler than before. Dave Grohl was a blast of fire in his day job, busting through most of the Foo Fighters favorites. The band also played a few new tunes, which gave nods to classic rock ditties like the Who’s “Baba O’Riley.”

In his night job, Grohl played some ferocious drums with Queens of the Stone Age on Saturday. With the former Nirvana drummer providing the beats and former Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan adding vocals, Queens sounded almost like a different band than on 2000’s Rated R. Some things never change, though, as they were definitely the loudest group of the weekend. Song-wise, the new material was as crunchy as ever, but with a more melodic twist.

Queens with Grohl was one of Coachella’s must-see shows, though not as buzzed-about as the Stokes’ performance. Attracting an audience of stars flocking from the VIP area – including Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, Robbie Williams, Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda, Crazy Town’s Shifty Shellshock, Kelly Osbourne, Andy Dick and even ex-MTV VJ Jesse Camp – the New York garage rockers busted out a solid set capped off by “Last Nite.” It was a mostly between-the-lines set, but the Strokes excited their fans by debuting a few new songs.

Another one of the festival’s hotly tipped acts were the Vines from Australia, who rocked the Mojave Tent as Björk played the main stage. Sounding like early Nirvana, the rock trio ripped through several of their rhythmically fluctuating tracks before animated singer Craig Nicholls and crew ripped out a stellar cover of Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson.”

Some of Saturday’s other standouts included Cornershop in jam-band mode, Forest for the Trees’ bagpipe pop, and the one-two punch of roots rock from Pete Yorn and Jack Johnson. The former’s “Strange Condition” and the latter’s “Flake” provided the perfect soundtrack for sprawling across the grass and relaxing.

Sunday was crammed with some memorable ensemble bands, ranging from Mos Def’s “ghetto metal” Black Jack Johnson to Latin hip-hoppers Ozomatli. The Sahara Tent was the place to be if you wanted to dance, however, boasting a raver’s dream lineup: BT, Paul Oakenfold, Pete Tong, DJ Tiesto, Bad Boy Bill and Sandra Collins in a matter of hours.

And, of course, Coachella veteran Perry Farrell took the decks, delivering a mix of tropicalia and trance perfect for a sunset as stunning as the day before.

It wasn’t as magical as the Monterey Pop Festival or the Woodstocks, but the 24 hours of music and more than 50 performances that made up Coachella were far from “droppings.”

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