Of all the electronic gear crowded onto the Coachella Stage Friday night for LCD Soundsystem's headlining set, the most eye-catching was not an instrument but a digital clock. (OK, maybe it wasn't as visually arresting as the massive disco ball that slowly rose over the stage during opening song "Us v. Them," but thematically, it was just as important.)
The clock started at 1 hour, 50 minutes, and counted inexorably down, like the timer on a bomb in a cheesy spy thriller, over the course of the band's first festival appearance in more than five years. Throughout LCD's 14-song set, that clock was a constant reminder that, however much the dance-rock group's loopy electronic jams might seem to stretch time, their return to Coachella would be finite.
"I talk too much," LCD mastermind James Murphy explained to the audience later in the set, "so we have a clock over there that warns me when to shut the fuck up."
In reuniting LCD just five years after their heavily hyped breakup, Murphy has weathered accusations that the whole thing was orchestrated from the start, a clever ploy to squeeze more juice from what was really intended all along to be just a hiatus. But I don't think Murphy is that calculating. The man behind the lyric "I hear everybody that you know is more relevant than everybody that I know" (from LCD's brilliant debut single, "Losing My Edge") has always been obsessed with the idea that bands and musical trends follow a natural arc — that behind every artist's career lurks a ticking clock.
By breaking up LCD when he did, Murphy clearly hoped he was beating that clock. And now that the band is reunited, he clearly feels, on some level, like he needs to earn a fresh countdown.
So Murphy and his current incarnation of LCD Soundsystem — which includes his longtime studio partners Nancy Whang and Pat Mahoney, along with bassist Tyler Pope, synth wizard Gavin Russom, keyboardist Matt Thornley and guitarist Al Doyle — attacked their nearly two-hour set with an almost punk-rock level of intensity. After opening with the hypnotic grooves of "Us v. Them," the band tore into a version of "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House" that pushed the original's tempo and added layers of additional guitar and serrated electronics, over which Murphy sang-shouted the lyrics with the fervor of a guy who, at this point, probably could get Daft Punk to throw down a DJ set in his living room.
Guitar has always played a more important role in LCD Soundsystem's musical palette than they get credit for, but it was a particularly forceful element on Friday — thanks mainly to Doyle, also a member of the British electro-pop group Hot Chip, who is clearly relishing the opportunity to rip a few more leads, solos and energetic riffs in the rebooted LCD. His playing was particularly vicious on "You Wanted a Hit" and "Movement," back-to-back rockers that brought the first part of the band's set to a searing climax and left little doubt that Murphy and company have shaken off whatever rust they accumulated during their five-year "retirement."
After the surging, emotionally charged anthem "Someone Great" and a cleverly retooled version of "Losing My Edge" (complete with updated lyrics like, "I heard your band sold your turntables and bought an Ableton suite"), Murphy announced, "We have a couple more songs and then nothing happens up here. That's so fucking weird." Just as he often seems like a reluctant frontman, he also seemed a bit awkward with the notion of being the day's headliner. "The last time we played here, Jay-Z played after us," he later added. "We were honored, because we really like him. But tonight he's not here and we're sorry."
Perhaps because they're still unused to being festival headliners — or perhaps because, in their eagerness to prove they're still a live act worth caring about, they fired on all cylinders too early — the band's energy level seemed to flag a bit over the "couple more songs" (in reality, six) that made up the rest of their set. A brief riff on Guns N' Roses' "November Rain" at the end of their own "New York, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down" was clever, and got a rise from the crowd. But slowly unfolding versions of "Home" and "Dance Yrself Clean" felt oddly flat. Then again, as the hour approached 1 a.m., the Coachella crowd probably was running out of steam, too.
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Only when the band brought out a horn section and launched into a reverent version of David Bowie's "Heroes" — a surprise addition to the set, as they hadn't played it at warmup shows in New York City and at Pomona's Fox Theatre — did both the band and the crowd seem to get their mojo back. When they finished with the jangling piano and head-rush tempos of "All My Friends," the vast crowd (50,000? 60,000? At Coachella, most crowd size estimates are bogus; let's just say that LCD Soundsystem had a shit-ton of friends last night) was a sea of bobbing heads and waving arms.
They finished with three minutes to spare on that countdown curfew clock and all the proof fans needed that LCD Soundsystem is still as relevant as they're ever been. Maybe this time, Murphy won't feel the need to beat that clock and prematurely pull the plug again on what remains one of the best live dance-music bands in the business.