Ryan Adams ended his sunset set at 2015’s first weekend of Coachella on Sunday evening, after a great finale of “Oh My Sweet Carolina” and “Come Pick Me Up”, by hoping that fans were reasonably satisfied, and that might have been a running theme for the festival. With the exception of Run the Jewels (which, uh, some of us missed because we were watching an unexpectedly bad set from Belle and Sebastian), the 16th Coachella settled neatly into an inoffensive realm between the unforgettable and intolerable, where expectations and investment factored in greatly to the takeaways.
From a historical standpoint, there was some pleasure to see the festival stay firm in support of artists they have invested in at all points of their career. All of the second-billed artists, The Weeknd, Tame Impala, and Florence + the Machine, made it to the main stage for the first time, after previously performing key Outdoor Theatre, and all lived up to the increased faith from the fest. Others, from Jenny Lewis to Desaparecidos’ Conor Oberst to Jack White, are desert veterans whose repeated appearances speak to the appeal of Coachella. Year after year, the prestige of the festival is as much a currency as the actual performances. Acts like Drive Like Jehu or Ride may not have filled their tents, but simply appearing there ahead of any other festival is a shot to their relevance, a springboard back into the music conversation.
Of course, if you are going to talk about packing stages, Coachella was again fought and won by DJs. During Kaskade’s main stage performance, the polo fields were a virtual ghost town, to which Jamie xx reaped the dividends, his heavy beats acting like fishing nets for Kaskade fans returning to the Sahara tent. Others, from Nero to Flosstradamus, stood as significant arguments that the face of Coachella has completed its metamorphosis, that the caterpillar and butterfly that became the face of the festival through art installations was simply a metaphor for what the festival has now become on a larger scale.
Still, the mantra of attendees making their own experience held true, and whether that meant enjoying Lykke Li or Brand New in packed Mojave tents or subtle, sparsely populated but nonetheless awesome appearances from Squarepusher, Angel Olsen, and Touche Amore, the idea that there was something for everyone felt ever more relevant and true this year. All demographics were present at Steely Dan’s first Coachella performance, and while Sturgill Simpson’s classic Stagecoach country sound and Joyce Manor’s Warped Tour pop punk didn’t feel out of place, audience sizes that begged to differ.
And while the idea of special guests has been a recent staple of Coachella, this weekend felt light, with Madonna’s awkward as fuck visit to Drake the most notable, Bryan Ferry’s stop by an excellent Todd Terje the most sensible, and Jenny Lewis’ reunion with Blake Sennett from Rilo Kiley the most important. By now, YouTubes of all these spots have made the rounds. With no late adds of note either, Coachella chose to rest on its laurels this year, which, with laurels like Coachella has, can’t be seen as a mistake. Sometimes being reasonably satisfied is enough. Even as we list 41 acts from worst to best, none were terrible. None blew it. None were literally the “worst.” But, despite reasonably satisfying, some were better than others.
Click ahead to see Coachella’s first weekend acts from worst to best.
Here and there throughout Coachella’s history, some cheese-ball flash in the pan draws a massive audience despite having little more than a radio hit or two to speak of. Remember Gotye? This year’s entry: Hozier. Maybe he’ll stick around a la Jack Johnson and even return to headline. But his set on Saturday evening did little to convince anyone but the infatuated that he was worth the attention.
Toro y Moi
Toro y Moi is now a five-piece band, with Chaz Bundick now playing guitar as often as keys, and the overall scope of the project fleshed out and ready for big stages. The stars would seem to be aligned if in weren’t for Bundick’s lack of charisma as a frontman, the songs’ hit-and-miss memorability, and vocals that ranged from flat to simply passable. Still, Toro managed a respectable crowd, and the atmosphere was positive, mostly thanks to the fluidity of the five musicians.
Belle and Sebastian
Belle and Sebastian are Coachella vets and were given the plush sunset slot on Saturday evening in the Outdoor Theatre, but saw a minimal turnout. Still, frontman Stuart Murdoch is an expert entertainer and worked the crowd, dancing, tightrope walking on the railing, and offering classic banter: “I saw you in 2002 on the same stage” someone yelled to him at one point. “You look like you’ve been here since 2002,” Murdoch responded. Still, the band couldn’t overcome technical errors with the sound and video, plus miscues from the musicians themselves, to the point that inviting the audience up to dance on stage for “The Boy with the Arab Strap” and “Legal Man” seemed like a last-ditch effort and not the planned finale it was in reality.
Cloud Nothings are a band with defined strengths and weaknesses in a live capacity. Fans at Coachella got both. There was the awesome in a jammed-out “Pattern Walks” that showcases Dylan Baldi and drummer Jayson Gerycz’s unlikely ramshackle chemistry, while a song like “Stay Useless”, one of Baldi’s best, lives up to its name in concert, with the tunefulness the track demands not being within Baldi’s live range.
Lil B’s set had songs, sure, but none were as memorable as his endless banter about being a legend, his hyper-positive proclamations about “today being the best day ever at the best Coachella ever in the best life ever,” and his urging to not buy Lil B products from anyone but Lil B. And to be honest, this was all fine, as, in the words of Lil B, it’s all about him being Lil B. I guess there are worse things you can do than watch Lil B be Lil B.
It’s hard faulting Cashmere Cat for not getting Ariana Grande to guest in his set, as the rumors were not the DJ’s fault and proved to be merely the speculation of fans. But Cashy’s set proved disappointing for more logistical reasons: it was over-crowded and in the daytime, when his music is moody, nuanced, and fit for something much more atmospheric. Both the over-hyped expectations and the poor placement forced Cashmere Cat into the forgettable column at Coachella, which is in no way a reflection on the music he was playing. The music was quite good.
The conflict of Jack White vs. fka Twigs vs. Tycho vs. Tyler, the Creator had one definitive loser, and it was Twigs, every bit as dramatic and precise as she should be, but simply overwhelmed by the immense sound of everything happening around her. It was a set that could have worked if it didn’t sound like a Tyler/Jack mashup, but on this day, it was a set that failed to deliver on the power of her music.
Lights’ loyal following was in full support of her afternoon Gobi set, shouting happy birthday at the beaming pop singer. And while she is an ace as a performer, the booming pop lacked the dynamics that seem prevalent in the music world at the moment.
Sturgill Simpson may have country songs about drugs, but dude still wore white New Balance tennis shoes, creating no illusion that he is somehow a hipper incarnation of some very traditional sounds. The audience was exactly the size you’d expect of a country singer playing at Coachella, but those looking for variety and some surprisingly solid acoustic guitar chops found refuge with Simpson. A remarkably strong finish with a cover of “Listening to the Rain” gave credence to the questionable booking.
MØ’s set could have been catastrophic when sound cut off from her vocals during opener “Pilgrim”, but despite a five-minute delay, the Danish singer bounced back easily. “Thanks for staying,” she said before completing an energetic set of about as many pony-tail twirls as one ever expects to see.
Reports that Benjamin Booker lost his voice were tough to confirm being that sandpaper and rust are what his voice does. Performing mostly with his eyes squeezed tight, Booker didn’t need to see to have great chemistry with his two band mates, blending a swinging rock sound with punk sensibility.
Joyce Manor’s set on Sunday afternoon earned a small but enthusiastic crowd, featuring moshers, fans singing along, and some of the more good-spirited, non-drug-inspired dancing to take place at the fest. The L.A. band is still getting used to these types of events and could use a little more ease on stage, a little more looseness and charm, as their music is full of warmth and deserves a presentation to match.
Conor Oberst’s “Deport Conor Oberst” kinda gave it away, but Oberst still let the audience know that “most everything that comes out of my mouth today” is either sarcastic or negative. He made an exception for “Manana”, one of the many classic songs from the long-shelved outfit that made its way into the set. The band was spirited, Oberst in full rock mode, and if it weren’t for an absurdly loud low-end, it might have matched the shows the band has been putting on for the past couple years. Still, with a new album coming out on Epitaph, this set did more than enough to build anticipation.
Built to Spill
If you were wondering whether Built to Spill’s tradition of testing their own equipment held true to Coachella, it did, leading right into “Strange” and “Goin’ Against Your Mind”. Before you blinked, 20 minutes had passed. The band was tight, adventurous in their jamming, and everything fans have grown to expect and appreciate. Still, having come off a transcendental set at FYF last year, it was easy for Built to Spill to seem slightly lacking, though that was mostly just the afternoon sun melting away everyone’s good graces.
Drive Like Jehu
It is kind of surprising that Coachella still is pushing acts like Drive Like Jehu, where the majority of fans stoked the post-hardcore band is back together haven’t been to Coachella in a decade. But the fact that bands like Jehu, Ride, and Swans are still brought in out of tradition and the festival’s taste level is a good thing, and even if Jehu played to a vastly open tent, they still impressed by plugging away, as if in preparation for a set at this summer’s FYF where people will actually care.
Along with acts like The War on Drugs, Jenny Lewis, Run the Jewels, and many others, St. Vincent arrived at Coachella at the end of her album cycle, amazing with her technical skills, charm, songwriting, and dancing skills. The biggest problem was that at this point, there is little surprise left in her set, coming off as an inessential moment from an essential artist. The mismatched vibes of Kaskade and Jamie xx at the same time didn’t help.
Of the two Friday night performances that earned plenty of skeptics, AC/DC’s enormous crowd certainly quieted anyone who wondered whether there would be interest in the band at Coachella. It helped that very little was going on at the same time, with both the Mojave and Outdoor Theatre quiet by 11 p.m. Still, despite the wall of amplifiers and signature rock star moves from Angus Young and Brian Johnson, AC/DC also wasn’t going to convert the skeptics with their Coachella set. People who complained that their hits, all on display from “Back in Black” to “Hells Bells” to “TNT” to “You Shook Me All Night Long” (obviously the best of the bunch), sound too similar, are right. At worst, watching AC/DC became a bucket list experience, something to cross off and never think of again. At best, the set was an argument for the populism of Coachella and that people love the familiar and the easy to digest. AC/DC is music for the masses, and here, at a quintessential gathering of the masses, it should be no surprise that they found success.
“Why do you think I’m out here acting crazy?” Action Bronson asked on “Actin’ Crazy”, as he hopped along the rail, interacting with his fans, smoking their weed, and playing songs from his major label debut, Mr. Wonderful. Maybe the best of this was him asking a stranger, “You wanna touch my beard, you weirdo?” There wasn’t any judgement here, and he let the fan touch it. For a set that was as much about high fives as rhymes, Action Bronson fans got the best of both worlds. Bonus points for shouting out George Lopez, who ran out to wave to the crowd.
Possibly Coachella’s best set that felt like a letdown. Drake’s new mixtape, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, got a proper live rollout, with Drake unabashedly parading out his new material along with many of the expected hits. What was also expected was some special guests, as Drake has collaborated with so many people, and even The Weeknd should have been easy to nab, playing just the previous evening. Instead, Madonna was the only real “surprise,” playing like a ploy to grab headlines and really doing nothing for the set but cause confusion. It was a bold (and correct) assumption of Drake to presume he just needed himself to satisfy the fans, but it is also safe to say that it wasn’t a set to win over the skeptical and seemed like a missed opportunity to turn in something truly special.
Touche Amore didn’t draw the largest gathering for their 1 p.m. set of thoughtful post-hardcore, but they did draw one of the most dedicated, inspiring a mini-circle pit of fans shouting their lyrics back to them. With the impressive lighting display of the Mojave, it was the most vivid, brimming with potential that the band has likely ever been. Should they ever want to make the leap into technicolor, Coachella was a good testing ground, proving the transition could be more natural than jams like “Just Exist” and “Anyone/Anything” would indicate.
Panda Bear may have drawn some fans dressed as panda bears, but don’t let that fool you into thinking Noah Lennox got overcome by the spirit of Coachella. Pandy did amp up the visual conception of his set, though, utilizing the big stage if not so much the big sound capabilities, resulting in an entrancing set that demanded focus, but rewarded the more patient festival goers.
North Carolina-based duo Sylvan Esso drew one of the surprisingly massive crowds on day one, and in retrospect, it shouldn’t have been surprising. The pair are full of energy and lack onstage inhibitions, gladly dancing, posing, and taking their role as instigators as seriously as their roles as musicians. The electronic beats that provide a backbone to their songs acted like a siren call of Sahara refugees, and the beaming smiles that greeted anyone that attempted to pile into the Mojave were worth the stop all by themselves. And, on a way minor note, Amelia Randall Meath’s gold platform sneakers were a sight to behold, all the more impressive when coupled with the fact that she danced non-stop in them.
Wearing a white beanie in 90-degree heat didn’t seem to bother the Australian electro-soul singer from pushing himself much harder than he was doing just a year earlier, when he was first nabbing attention stateside. Chet Faker’s collaborations with Flume and rising stock may have earned him an atypically large Outdoor Theatre daytime showing, but it said a lot about his ability to wow with both his voice and the technicality of his set that he kept people engaged. The “No Diggity” cover didn’t hurt him, either.
Royal Blood have vocal supporters in Arctic Monkeys, are opening for Foo Fighters in arenas, and sound like Queens of Stone Age. Sounds like something you might read about at Consequence of Sound. And with a performance that incited an honest-to-god Royal Blood chant in the middle of the day, this band seems like the safe bet to be the next in line in tradition of wildly successful rock.
Where Coachella has a reputation for having long ago lost its appeal for adults and having become overrun by teens and college students, the scene at Steely Dan told a different story. Gray hair became a common sight, and the demographics suddenly seemed a lot more diverse than at, say, Lorde or Lana Del Rey or Pharrell Williams’ sets at similar times last year. Still, Steely Dan didn’t let the fact they were old men go unnoticed. In a rather lengthy, rambling speech, Walter Becker referred to themselves as Uncle Walt and Don, referring to the audience as “you kids with your pacifiers,” all coming off as charming in the process. But, maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t the novelty or the nostalgia that drew a sizable crowd to see Steely Dan. Maybe it was their impressive, massive band, their funky grooves and foot-tapping melodies. Maybe good songwriting and good musicianship win in the end? Or, maybe people were just trying to get a good spot for Nero.
Ride didn’t have the biggest crowd to start off their reunion set, which at this point in Coachella’s history, isn’t a huge surprise, as the audience and tastes continually skew younger with each passing year. But it was a testament to the warm blasts of noise that the crowd built as Ride played, never quite giving the shoegaze legends the response they deserved, but at worst turning the Gobi into a sanctuary or sorts.