By JIM FUSILLI
In previous years, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, held here this past weekend, set a high bar for rock's subsequent annual summer events. Not this time around.
The festival lost several acts because of the volcano-related air-travel restrictions in Europe. And it featured the return from artistic oblivion of onetime rock and funk innovator Sly Stone in one of the most embarrassing debacles in recent music history.
Rather than offering tickets for individual dates, as it did previously, the festival this year sold only three-day passes at $269. This relieved the promoters from having to deliver killer headliners for each night. Saturday, the main-stage bill-topper was Tiλsto, a DJ better suited to the popular dance tent; Alison Mosshart and Jack White's new band, the Dead Weather, was on another large stage. A reunited Devo played one of the tents. A nice mix, but it wasn't Coachella 2008, when Prince, Portishead and Roger Waters went on after dark. Last year, Paul McCartney, Morrissey and Leonard Cohen performed on Friday night.
Seventy-five thousand passes were sold to this year's event, and at times it felt like 75,000 people were packed into a space within 100 yards of the outdoor stages. On Friday and Saturday nights, the pitch felt dangerously overcrowded in places. And while reuniting relative old-timers like Faith No More, Pavement, Public Image Limited and the Specials were booked to play the main stage throughout the weekend, new, popular bands, including Florence and the Machine, Gossip, Grizzly Bear and Yeasayer, were presented in tents that couldn't contain their fans in attendance. The sound outside those venues was unacceptable.
What saves or damns any festival is the depth of performing talent. Though Jay-Z, Friday night's headliner, brought ample star power, Coachella's most satisfying moments came from artists early in their prime. Already a fine, adventurous band, Portugal. The Man has upped its game through tighter musical and vocal arrangements it flashed on tunes from its new album, "American Ghetto." Steven Wilson's Porcupine Tree seemed an odd choice for an early-afternoon set on Saturday: prog-rock under a blazing sun? But clouds appeared, the sky darkened and Mr. Wilson's band attacked his compositions with ferocity. The singer-songwriter Frank Turner made the most of a Saturday noontime slot. His fans sang along with glee to "Photosynthesis" from his 2009 album "Love Ire & Song": "And I won't sit down / And I won't shut up / And most of all I will not grow up."
Coachella isn't known for Americana music, but on Saturday the Old Crow Medicine Show, fortified by Benmont Tench of Tom Petty's band, played bluegrass and folk that prodded the audience into some of the sloppiest and most joyful country dancing the Nashville-based band is likely to have witnessed. On Friday, Deer Tick played loose-limbed alt-country in a set it introduced as "Welcome to Deer Tick Bizarro World," perhaps because singer John McCauley was silly in a sundress and green straw hat.
Now and then, the festival offered bands on the same stage that seemed to complement each other. Hot Chip, working its straight-ahead blend of bubbly dance music and singer-songwriter introspection, was followed by festival favorite MGMT, which showcased its zig-zagging new album, "Congratulations." Hours after Owen Pallett ended his dazzling set of chamber pop, Jσnsi of Sigur Ros took the same stage to perform music from his new, wonderful "Go," which, along with Mr. Pallett's "Heartland," is an early contender for album of the year.
Thom Yorke's Atoms for Peace project has grown into a groove machine with Flea on bass and Joey Waronker and Mauro Refosco on percussion. Sunday, following Mr. Stone's failure to appear for his 7 p.m. show, Atoms for Peace reworked Mr. Yorke's largely electronic album "The Eraser" by rebuilding it with rock instrumentation. As a treat, Mr. Yorke played a solo set that included a gorgeous reading of "Airbag," which he recorded with Radiohead.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a musician who's come as far from down as Gil Scott-Heron, who served time in prison for drug possession. But on Friday, gray hair and beard circling his face, the lanky 61-year-old stepped to the microphone, smiled and said, "Those of you who bet I would not be here, you lose." Then he sat behind a Fender Rhodes and with a three-piece band played his blend of jazz and poetry with flashes of his old power.
As for Mr. Stone, the 67-year-old finally turned up on stage nearly four hours after his allotted time, which can be attributed either to an exaggerated sense of his current status in the rock world or an aftermath of reported drug abuse in decades past. Wearing a policeman's uniform and what appeared to be a woman's silver wig, he lay down on the stage and mumbled a bit, then struggled at the electric piano through abbreviated and disjointed versions of some of his classics as his band, featuring three original members of the Family Stone, looked on uncomfortably. Finally, he was led away.
For anyone who remembers Sly and the Family Stone in its glory days in the '60s and early '70s, or believes in human dignity, the debacle was a heartbreaking way to end a weekend that was less than excellent but had wonderful moments.
—Mr. Fusilli is the Journal's rock and pop music critic. Email him at email@example.com
or follow him on Twitter: @wsjrock