Whitney Pastorek
April 19, 2009 AT 04:41 PM EDT

So, if someone asked you to headline Coachella, you’d do it, right? Like let’s say you were in a moderately successful band — a band with a colossally outstanding debut album, even! — and you were from nearby Las Vegas, and your frontman suffered from delusions of grandeur that sometimes (sometimes) he could even back up. Let’s say that five years ago, you’d sweated through an early set on one of Coachella’s smaller stages, and dreamed of the day when you’d get to play after dark with all the lights and the video and the bing-bang-boom. And then one day, someone came to you and asked if you’d like to have your name on the very top of the bill. You’d do it, right?

I cannot help but think that the Killers, despite everything they have going for them, should have said no. But I also cannot blame them for trying.

Today, the desert was hotter, and the crowds thicker, and the music louder than yesterday. There was a stretch in the early evening that was so laden with choices it was difficult to move in any one direction at all: TV on the Radio flooded the air with artistry. The Fleet Foxes hypnotized the masses into silence. Thievery Corporation put the mainstage in a dancing mood, and M.I.A. took that party over the top when she stood in the center of the pit to shoot off the blazing bullets of “Paper Planes.” When Brandon Flowers and his bandmates kicked off their set with “Human” and “Somebody Told Me,” the packed field was full of dancing bodies and waving arms and singing voices, making me think I’d vastly underestimated their current draw.

Less than six songs later, however, those bodies would almost literally diminish by half, leaving only the faithful thousands standing between the soundboard and the stage to continue the celebration — about the same number of people who’d sell out a basketball arena. Not bad… but not enough for this environment. Yes, hits were played; yes, fireworks were set off. Yet people kept streaming for the dance tent and the exits, some without so much as turning their heads. In my opinion, if you can’t hold down a captive field of people until midnight, you have no business headlining Coachella. For a variety of reasons, the Killers didn’t even come close.

After the jump, all the aforementioned bands, plus Bob Mould, Liars, Joss Stone, Paolo Nutini, and Amanda Palmer. Plus more on this awkward Killers situation, and an invitation to submit your ideas on how to fix the problem of too many festivals vs. not enough bands to headline them — because I spent my night talking to a number of really smart people, and none of us could come up with the answer.

My Saturday started with former Hüsker Dü/Sugar singer Bob Mould and noise-punk trio Liars, two acts who I believe represent the extremes of what I like to call the inner monologue/outer monologue music continuum. Mould is outer monologue: He plays straightforward grownup rock, today’s set list combining new material like “Life and Times” with old band hits like “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” (I miss high school) and Mould himself not doing anything at all out of the norm while still keeping the crowd thrilled. Liars, on the other hand, are inner monologue unleashed: Angus Andrew contorts his body and yells vagaries over experimental riffs that don’t always gel into anything resembling a melody line; their sound is more of an existential crisis in sonic form, and they have absolutely no fear of being ugly. Personally, I’m more of an outer monologue sort of gal. The many people thrashing about at the Liars set obviously preferred inner. There is room for us all, and I was glad to have seen both.

Meanwhile, the mainstage crowd was enjoying still-barefoot British prodigy Joss Stone, a late add to the lineup. (My festival buddy Josh astutely pointed out that Joss Stone + M.I.A. kind of = the absent Amy Winehouse, if you think about it.) Whether or not you’ve ever purchased an actual Joss Stone record (I have not), her preternatural voice is exceedingly pleasant to sit and listen to from a shady patch of grass, even when she’s just singing random improvisational thoughts about wanting to get down to the people but worrying about getting down there in her short skirt. “I’d never get back up again, would I…” she sang, before going ahead and popping down anyway, ending up in the photo aisle between the barricades to lead everyone in what she hoped would be a “loud and destructive” call-and-response. After successfully returning to her (excellent, Stevie Wonder-esque) band, she wrapped things up with “Tell Me ‘Bout It,” then yielded the stage to the second uncannily old soul to stand in that space, 22 year old Scotsman Paolo Nutini, who inexplicably sings music that can best be described as “Americana.” I missed another one of my favorite bands to see this kid — sorry, Drive-By Truckers — and I’m so glad I did: He’s got a weathered voice that’s occasionally reminiscent of Kelly Joe Phelps in its cracked beauty, and led his (also excellent) band through everything from Dixieland swing to straight-up soul, throwing in a couple ukelele-driven tracks for fun. (ukelele! from a non-Brushfire Records artist! weird!) Nutini also laid down the best song of the day (that I heard), a totally legit cover of Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher,” with his harmonica player lending extra muscle to the horn section and all the boom-lacka-lacka-lackas anyone could want. Glorious.

NOTE: With the exception of M.I.A., every single band I saw on the mainstage today featured a real live horn section, and yes, that includes the Killers. So again I must ask: Really, Paul McCartney? You’re gonna go with synth horns? Really. Huh.

I didn’t like Amanda Palmer‘s music, but I sure liked watching her show: The Dresden Doll has gone solo but lost none of her theatricality, and from the hand fans she passed out all morning touting “Amanda F—ing Palmer, Gobi Tent, 5 p.m.” to the human fans she convinced to strip down and paint giant letters spelling out “Amanda F—ing Palmer” on their backs, she was firing on all cylinders. Once she sat down in her gold corset and ripped stockings to bang out confessional soliloquies on the keyboard, I more or less lost interest; I rather feel that she may be what a post-Karen O Tori Amos looks like, or maybe a post-Karen O Ani DiFranco. (God forbid we bring Lady GaGa into this in any way, but whoops, I just did.) Regardless, I’m happy to see another intelligent and powerful female singer-songwriter attracting a slavish following, because that sort of sisterhood-nurturing can really never hurt.

Got spun around in here a bit: Collapsed in the grass for some Superchunk. Wandered through the ubiquitous Michael Franti and Spearhead set just as they covered a bit of “Back in Black.” Found out Glasvegas cancelled. Heard from Josh that Henry Rollins’ spoken-word set had been Henry Rollins in full-on ramble about things like the trip he took to Vietnam to dig up bones and teeth to his belief that we should bomb Israel and Palestine… with Ramones records. Ate some pad thai. Watched Perry Farrell wander by with his kid on his shoulders. Spotted Jared Leto in the field, looking bizarrely similar to the Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins.

And then it was finally time for TV on the Radio and their horn section (ahem) to hit the stage for a too-short set of songs. It is getting late and I am losing my words and really, does anyone need to further rave about this band? It’s just overkill at this point. They are brilliant. I put my notebook away and danced, reveling in the still/spazzy dynamic of the Kyp and Tunde and the gut-rattling depths of the best baritone sax use since Morphine. “Young Liars” was a thunderous slowjam, “Dancing Choose” a foot-shuffler, and “Staring at the Sun” a damn near dance remix, with crazy deep bass beats and Tunde trying to push the tempo even faster until the drummer looked about ready to explode all over his high hat. Did I use the word “glorious” already? I’m using it again. Glorious.

As Josh and I walked away from TVotR, we felt bodies rushing past us, pushing us, knocking into us, apologizing for nearly trampling us to death. Where on earth were all these children headed? Why, Fleet Foxes, of course, whose meteoric rise to fame has left poor Josh — who is from Seattle, and probably saw them busking on street corners for coffee money a year and a half ago or something — rather stricken. It was pretty remarkable to see the Outdoor Theatre’s grounds packed to the fencelines with an all-ages crowd, easily twice that which had shown for Leonard Cohen the night before, and then to see all those bodies settle and calm the minute Robin Pecknold et al snuck into the gorgeous a capella of “What A Life I Lead.” It was all the glory of the Cohen show, frankly, with about 99 percent more innocence, and as the sun sank behind the mountains — gilding them the same shade as the spotlit palm trees, lining the indigo sky in gold — the sound of the modern madrigals unfolding before me was so unbearably beautiful I actually got up and left, lest I start sobbing from exhaustion and a variety of personal issues and not be able to stop. We all know Whitney cries at music festivals, but this was going to be something else. This was going to break my heart.

Did not break my heart: Thievery Corporation. What fun this band is, even though I can’t for the life of me figure out exactly what is going on there or how many of them there are. They reminded me a bit of Gogol Bordello in that mega-crowd-pleasing way, although I’d advise them to avoid bringing Perry Farrell out as a guest vocalist again any time soon — something about the Lollapalooza founder’s reedy voice and strange roller-rink satiny gloves did them no favors. Their horn section, on the other hand, was great, and in combining hip-hop and trance and loungey European sounding stuff with dub and rock and yoga chanting, there’s something for everyone. I’m not saying I’d want to play their CD around the house, but at a festival? Sure. I like jumping up and down. Who doesn’t?

Last year, M.I.A. played Coachella’s dance tent, before “Paper Planes” had captured the heart of the universe and helped propel a cute movie to an Oscar victory and won her a Grammy and made her a household name… and last year, the crowd was so big it verged on the dangerous. So while her Winehouse-replacing mainstage set may have initially seemed like a risk for the promoters, I felt it was entirely earned, not to mention necessary to contain the immense glow-in-the-dark show she put on beneath the clear and starry sky alongside her DJ and backup dancers and special guests like up-and-coming rapper Rye Rye (but not Kanye West, who was backstage; thanks for the disappointment, rumor mill!). A dais was set up with a podium holding a dozen fake mics and an M.I.A. logo; beneath video of protesters claiming she supports terrorism (due to some complicated Sri Lankan political issues), the coolest mom on the planet emerged wearing a Franco-esque general’s cap and a military jacket and stood behind the podium for her opening number. It was a rich symbol for a devil-may-care set in which she repeatedly referred to getting herself “banned” from Coachella, sang a mock-Winehouse song (“They tried to make me do the Oscars, I said no, no, no”), informed us that she was only going to do seven songs and she missed her baby, and invited the crowd to climb over security and rush the stage to dance during “Bird Flu.” (Iggy Pop or Girl Talk? Choose your reference point!) She stopped and stalled and blew her battle horn and wandered around and didn’t seem in much of a hurry until the home stretch of “Boys,” “Galang,” and giant closer “Paper Planes,” during which she rode on someone’s shoulders into the audience and stood above the crowd, making finger-gun gestures in the air that were repeated by thousands of hands across the field. Then she left us with the following: “Next time, I’m back in the tent. I prefer people to sweat.” I hope she backs down on that the same way she reneged on retirement after announcing it at Bonnaroo. She’s too much of a showman to be kept under a roof.

Which brings us back to the Killers, who aspire to be showmen, but simply aren’t ready to play on this level yet. First and foremost, Brandon Flowers looks like he’s in a totally different band than the rest of them, like a peacock strutting between members of the Kings of Leon circa 2002. On a positive note, his stage presence has increased exponentially since its robotic beginnings. But no amount of pretty posturing can save the fact that the Killers continue to exhibit only moderate skill as a live band, causing any song that isn’t a hit to come across as muddy and non-descript, and any hit to come across exactly the same way it sounds on tape. We got bored, trotted through the other stages for a bit (messy Mastodon; what Josh called the “mystical” Gang Gang Dance; party time fun hour at MSTRKRFT), then returned in time to see fireworks go off during “Mr. Brightside” and “All These Things That I’ve Done” over a back 40 so sparsely attended that I got really, really sad. In front of me, the tight-packed fans were still waving their arms; behind me, the patchy packs of people were dancing merrily… but there were just so few of them, and when I conjure up visions of Coachella in my mind, “patchy packs” of people aren’t what I see. I see humanity joined together at the literal hip to share in a transcendent experience brought about because of that communal energy and the tangible spark that jumps between strangers when they rub up against one another. And honestly, maybe the saddest moment came when Flowers announced they were on their last song: “Let’s tear the son of a bitch open!” he said, and then kicked into “When You Were Young,” a terrific tune befitting a headlining band — tonight even enhanced with headlining-band flashpots and spark showers — but the steady stream of people going for the exits didn’t stop, didn’t slow, barely noticed. Maybe someday the Killers will make ’em stay, but for a variety of reasons (not least of which being “just not enough people are into the Killers at this point”), that day was not today.

It’s 5:39 a.m. and I haven’t accidentally typed “George Hamilton” yet but I’m about to, and so I turn to you, Mixers, hoping for your intelligence and taste: What makes a good headlining band, in your opinion? And more importantly, as more and more festivals spring up across the country, what kind of headliner does it take to get thousands of people to book a festival trip? How do we keep from burning out on the “big” bands of today? What younger bands have the chance to rise up and succeed them? (Is it crazy if I think Fall Out Boy might have a shot?) Is the headliner in fact irrelevant, since the real adventure is the festival experience itself? And if you’ve never been to one of these, what band would it take to get you here? I am on my knees, looking for the answers…

Photo Credit: Whitney Pastorek/EW.com

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