The electronic dance music line-up at the 11th annual Coachella festival was decidedly ho-hum, drawing its large audiences from huge names (Tiesto, Deadmau5, Kaskade), but eschewing next-wave talent.
Perhaps one exception was the inclusion of Plastikman, a.k.a. Richie Hawtin, the techno titan who has reinvented himself as one of the club scene's most forward-thinking, taste-making and technologically driven artists. Hawtin broke out in the early 1990s as he rode the “second wave” of artists to come out of Detroit (he's actually from Windsor, Ontario, across the Canadian border).
His sound was sparse and bass driven, a spawn of beatbox bravado and digital dreams. Where Detroit techno's first-wave inventors (Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May) were middle-class, suburban black kids reaching beyond the whiteness that surrounded them, Hawtin was a white shoe gazer tuning in to the afro-futuristic airwaves from across the river. In both cases the same magical lightning strike of black and white that unleashed rock 'n' roll struck to electrify the techno generation.
On Sunday Hawtin brought back his early '90s alter-ego, Plastikman, for a mesmerizing experience of rib-cage-rattling low frequencies and pupil-shocking white light. While the earlier performance by '90s mainstay Orbital in the same Sahara tent seemed like a nostalgic rewind, Hawtin's performance almost served as a told-you-so. Tracks from his seminal statements on “minimal techno,” Sheet One and Musik, needed little remixing or contextual explanation: The ghetto pulses and snake-rattle snares seemed absolutely contemporary and totally at home in the brooding, dark-wave sound of now that emanates from Hawtin's new hometown of Berlin. We wonder if some of the kids in the tent had any idea that the tracks he was playing were, at 17-years-old, almost the same age.
To up the tech quotient, Hawtin rolled out his own iPhone app, Plastikman Sync, that was intended to allow users to input musical directions for the set (ours simply stated the track and beats-per-minute, unfortunately). The app ended up being a distraction for what was arguably Coachella's most-thrilling and pop-forward dance performance. The audience was absolutely enveloped in Hawtin's deep-space experience. The DJ was shrouded by a cylindrical screen that flashed red and white Plastikman logos and heart-monitor-like wave-lines that pulsed to the electromagnetic rhythms.
It was a little ironic, then, that the most relevant dance artist at a festival once known for its edgy booking policy was a guy who drew inspiration from a time before Coachella. That's fine: The thread of brooding dance-floor hedonism, one represented today by such Hawtin acolytes as Chris Liebing and L.A.'s own Drumcell, desperately needed to be represented at the desert festival. That it was.