Photography by Philip Cosores
When the New York Times published their assertion that Coachella (along with other major festivals boasting many of the same acts) wasn’t necessary for their publication to cover, it didn’t take long for counterpoints to arise. But coming out of the 2016 edition of the festival, the Times piece still lingers in the ether. Granted, Coachella didn’t set out to prove the newspaper wrong; it would never have to respond to broad criticisms like that. But throughout the first weekend of its seventeenth installment in Indio, California, the enormous gathering of musicians and fans felt like a solid punch to the guts of critics everywhere.
Obviously, some aspects of the knocks on Coachella hold weight. In terms of the lineup, Calvin Harris did not work as a headliner. The draw was huge, but no lasting impression was made as the DJ leaned on songs written by other people, coming across as a glorified club DJ performing on the biggest stage in the world. EDM drew tons of folks elsewhere, too, with acts like Zedd, Flume, and The Chainsmokers drawing some of the biggest crowds of the weekend. For the most part, these big name DJs co-exist with other genres of music at the festival in an organic, even beneficial way. But for a moment during Harris’ set, the spotlight shone brightly on contemporary populist electronic music, and it wasn’t a pretty sight.
The best of the DJs made their sets one-of-a-kind with special guests. None of them could top Disclosure, who brought out a parade of featured vocalists including Lorde and Sam Smith, or Zedd, who got an assist from Kesha, one of the music industry’s most talked about figures in recent months. Sure, Harris welcomed Big Sean and Rihanna, but they were too late in the set to alleviate the boredom that set in on a large scale.
And these guests have become a defining feature of Coachella that serves as one of the biggest rebuttals to critics that would call it just another music festival. When the lineup is announced, it’s now a given that there will be many unannounced appearances that offer up special moments for fans. This year included the likes of Kanye West (appearing with both A$AP Rocky and Jack Ü), Bernie Sanders (showing up by video to introduce Run the Jewels — which also saw Nas and DJ Shadow as guests), The Eagles’ Joe Walsh (welcomed by The Arcs), Kristen Wiig, Paul Dano, and Maddie Ziegler (who all assisted in Sia’s incredible spectacle), AC/DC’s Angus Young (previewing Axl Rose’s upcoming gig during Guns N’ Roses’ set), and Janelle Monáe and Aristophanes (collaborating on-stage with Grimes). Coachella’s poster would have looked a lot different if these (and the many other) collaborations had been announced ahead of time, but not knowing all the details of what will happen is part of what makes the event so special.
Music aside, what many don’t consider about Coachella is just how beautiful the festival is. Over 17 years, the organizers have honed their craft at throwing a singular party, and everywhere you look while bouncing from stage to stage is a stunning piece of art or the area’s natural landscape. At night, the palm trees light up in reds, blues, and greens while illuminated balloons fly into the sky. Coachella, for a couple weekends each year, manages to develop its own universe, and while many other festivals attempt such a feat, the amount that actually achieve such a spectacle is a rarity.
Who knows if FOMO has struck the New York Times in the wake of Coachella, but for both journalists and fans, the fact is that if you weren’t there, you did miss out. Live streams are no substitute for being there. Nearly two decades later, Coachella hasn’t lost the ability to create lasting memories and exhilarate the senses. That’s why we keep coming back, and why we’re always happy when we do.
While Consequence of Sound couldn’t see everything this weekend, we did manage to catch quite a bit. Click ahead to view our rankings of Coachella’s sets, from worst to best, along with an exclusive photo gallery.
Let’s not mince words: It was the worst headlining set in Coachella history. Quantifiably and objectively worse than the previous champ, Drake’s stiff turd of a performance last year. Calvin Harris’ utterly pointless 70-minute finale to an otherwise consistently solid day dotted by very few crap turns was so nearly a complete waste of time and money that it was easy to imagine far more ludicrous Coachella headliners who would nonetheless be more entertaining — El Bieber, for starters. Not that anyone among the massive crowd (surely the largest ever on the Polo Field) would agree. They just kept on dancing and cheering for an exceptionally ordinary mix synced to a ginormously generic light show. They didn’t care that T-Swift didn’t come out for a couple songs, like so many were hoping Harris’ girlfriend to do. Doesn’t matter, because look! There’s Rihanna! Up on that platform by the sound booth! Like Kanye was five years ago! She’s even kinda singing! Couple lines, at least. Well, who cares if it’s mostly fake? The whole thing’s fake. Only positives about it were the fireworks and the rings of lights on the speaker towers. Looked cool. The rest was passé bullshit. Seriously: “Eat. Sleep. Rave. Repeat”? How played out is that? Where’s Daft Punk when you really need ’em? –Ben Wener
If scientists were to somehow engineer a hipster android but get the formula for “cool” slightly wrong, they’d end up with something that looks and sounds like 21-year-old electropop superstar Halsey. Don’t get us wrong: Halsey has a knack for writing memorable hooks, and her stage show features enough pyrotechnics and pole dancers that the spectacle alone is worth the price of admission. It’s just that everything else about her is so damn corny. Halsey sings about getting drunk in Bed-Stuy as if she’s living out the highest form of poetry, but even those missives from la-la land are preferable to deeply unsexy, trying-too-hard lyrics like: “If you wanna go to heaven, you should fuck me tonight.” At every turn, Halsey drops a reminder that she’s young and prone to embarrassing ideas. Speaking of embarrassment, how about that surprise guest? “When I was a kid, there was one band that changed my life,” the singer told her rapt audience. Then she brought out Brendon Urie of Panic! At the Disco. Let that soak in for a moment, then light yourself on fire. –Collin Brennan
Years & Years
If he appeared anywhere other than on stage, it would have been easy to mistaken Olly Alexander for just another fashion-forward festivalgoer. The Years & Years frontman emerged wearing a strange (but perfectly Coachella) outfit that combined basketball shorts with an elaborate ring of feathers draped around his neck. “I didn’t take into account the wind when I put on my feathers this morning,” Alexander joked before ditching the birdman look about halfway through the group’s set. But the wind ruined more than just the affable singer’s aesthetics. Years & Years are fine as far as electronic pop goes, and some of their songs (“King” and “Shine”, for example) could become 18-and-up club hits for years to come. But they’re not strong enough performers to warrant the main stage at Coachella, and Alexander simply didn’t have a strong enough voice to contend with the wind that literally took his wings away. To make matters worse, Alexander didn’t even have the best feathers on Friday. (He can thank Sufjan Stevens for that). –Collin Brennan
A scheduling quirk made Saturday Coachella’s unofficial “Australian Appreciation Day,” with Courtney Barnett, RÜFÜS DU SOL, and even AC/DC guitarist Angus Young (a surprise Guns N’ Roses guest) appearing at the top of the lineup. But the Aussie love affair began early in the afternoon with a set from DMA’s, a group of young blokes (and recent CoSigns) who apparently have their own love affair with a little Britpop band called Oasis. No, DMA’s isn’t just a carbon copy or a glorified cover band, but it’s hard to deny the lineage when listening to their debut album Hills End. If only the band could be bothered to show a little effort on stage — even if that meant fist fighting each other — they might have been remembered beyond their set. But DMA’s lackadaisical nature failed to charm most everyone in the crowd and left us wondering, They flew all the way from Down Under for this? –Collin Brennan
Coachella’s first weekend got off to an inauspicious start for those who arrived early enough to see the first set of bands. Festival organizers didn’t open the gates until well past noon, leaving Philadelphia punks Sheer Mag to hold what was essentially a glorified band practice while fans sprinted to catch the end of their set. Led by wrecking-ball vocalist Tina Halladay, the band made the best of a bad situation by blitzing through their collection of no-nonsense rock songs as if they were playing a packed basement rather than a nearly empty tent. But Sheer Mag’s full-steam-ahead energy might have ironically been their undoing. The band wrapped up their set with a good 10 minutes to spare, meaning only a handful of people caught more than two songs. What a bummer. –Collin Brennan
You never know quite what to expect at a Deerhunter show, thanks to mercurial frontman Bradford Cox and his penchant for letting whatever current mood he’s in dominate the proceedings. Playing to an absolutely packed Mojave tent, Cox indulged the least interesting of his many moods, delivering a sleepy, listless set that didn’t leave the crowd much to get excited about. The rest of the band tried to liven up Fading Frontier highlights like “Breaker” and “Living My Life” with a more jammy, percussive sound, but the result lacked any kind of emotional resonance. It wasn’t quite groovy enough to dance to, either. A disappointing set from a band that could (and should) have been one of Saturday’s stronger acts. –Collin Brennan
No one enjoys picking on a living legend as kindhearted and uplifting as the Staple Singers’ shining star. Yet the usually marvelous Mavis Staples wasn’t at her most dazzling during Friday afternoon’s set in Gobi. Blame the elements — clearly the high winds and desert air had taken a toll on Ms. Mavis’ typically heartier roar, reduced here to guttural howls on classics like “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There”. Her scattershot performance wound up more engaging between songs than during them, whether proudly recalling her family’s participation in the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery or sweetly saluting Sunday night attraction Sia with a snippet of “Chandelier”. (“That little girl is gonna come after me. I best cut that out.”) Only in the thick of a swampy take on Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” did she really catch fire; the gems from her new M. Ward-produced album Livin’ On A High Note lacked luster. As this grand dame of spiritual soul might say: “Shucks.” –Ben Wener
The 1975 get a lot of shit, and they deserve some of it. Led by preening frontman Matthew Healy, the Manchester band is one part irresistible synthpop hooks and one part insufferable fashion show. They’re as hard to like as they are to get out of your head, and both qualities were on full display during the band’s sundown set on Sunday. It started out a bit rough, with Healy playing to the cameras rather than the audience, as he is wont to do sometimes. But as soon as the band settled into their new environs (this was the first show of a full US tour), they showed why they just might be the most ambitious pop band working today. All of the set’s highlights came near the end, starting with the troupe of backup singers that led the crowd through new single “The Sound”. The band then brought it back to basics and closed with their earliest hit, “Sex”, a reminder that once upon a time they were the heirs apparent to Jimmy Eat World instead of INXS. –Collin Brennan
Bat for Lashes
Unveiling new music at Coachella is expected, even eagerly awaited, especially from an artist as captivating on record as Natasha Khan has been. So opening with a fresh cut isn’t necessarily a buzzkill. But slotting so many others alongside it certainly can be. From the teasers offered here, Bat for Lashes’ forthcoming effort — July’s The Bride, her first in four years — sounds intriguing and possibly insightful, the way PJ Harvey can be in her most introspective mode. It also smacks of conceptualism preferably heard under headphones and with just enough candlelight to illuminate a lyric sheet. In the thick of the hot desert air, and in front of only a thousand or so tired stragglers fading impatiently with each delicate passage, it made for a difficult connection, even with Khan looking lovely and singing beautifully. –Ben Wener
Gary Clark, Jr.
On paper and in person, Gary Clark Jr. makes a ton of sense on Coachella’s main stage. The Austin-based bluesman isn’t out to change the world, and he’s content to blow minds the old-fashioned way: with riffs so thick you could spread ‘em on a slice of Texas toast. Gaggles of righteous dude-bros gravitated over to the stage as soon as their ears got a taste of the aforementioned riffage — a reminder that technical virtuosity still goes a long way toward winning the day at major music festivals. There were moments in Clark’s set when he soloed for so long and with such intensity that applause felt like a foregone conclusion, and maybe that’s its own kind of problem. The sheer force of Clark’s guitar work often overshadows the songs themselves, which aren’t particularly memorable or unique enough to stand out in the crowded field of blues rock. Even if his own set failed to make a lasting impression, Clark served as the weekend’s unofficial all-star by lending his riffs to Run the Jewels, Anderson Paak., and (presumably) countless backstage jam sessions. –Collin Brennan
If you were looking for a sharp, hard-working, easy-to-like singer-songwriter who’s been hopelessly aged out of Coachella, Jersey boy Pete Yorn was your guy. You and about 200 of your friends could have chilled in the shade of Mojave, wondering what this dude in red-tinted Roy Orbison glasses was doing here, virtually unchanged 14 years after his last appearance here. You probably wouldn’t know anything off his first work in six years, Arranging Time, and you probably wouldn’t have remembered what he played from it 10 minutes after he was done. But you did remember those catchy oneS from his first album, like the rollicking “Life on a Chain” and the still-winsome “Strange Condition.” And you loved the spot-on cover of Morrissey’s “Suedehead”. –Ben Wener
Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes
By nightfall on Sunday it’s expected that most of the crowd will appear exhausted, but the talent they’re still zombie-trudging across the field to see shouldn’t be. Leave it to Alex Ebert, who has never been remotely as focused as he was six years ago in the Magnetic Zeroes‘ fest-stealing Coachella debut, to turn a perfectly wonderful neo-hippie vibe-along into a bumbling mess that limped to a finish. It started off so stirringly, like so many Sharpe sets before, this time with an impromptu bit of hand clapping leading into “Somewhere”, a new track evoking the Jefferson Airplane having a folk freakout inside a stained-glass church, and then carried on livelier with the sway of “Forty Days”. After that, and a drag off a joint handed up from the crowd, Ebert, who always seems to be trying a little too hard to become the new Wayne Coyne, instead seemed as random as a unmedicated ADHD kid. As usual, for every inspired moment — like the sincerity of one fan (“you changed my life, man!”) when Ebert turned the mic over to the audience in place of banter with much-missed Jade Castrinos on “Home” — there were twice as many scatterbrained distractions. And damn did “Home” drag. –Ben Wener
London trip-hop group HÆLOS may market themselves as a trio, but their live show benefits immensely from the addition of two percussionists who lend a backbone to prop up all that heavy atmosphere. Dressed all in black and playing in front of a thick curtain that blotted out the early afternoon sun, the group came across more like a force of nature and less like the lightweight version of Massive Attack they sometimes sound like on record. Of the three credited vocalists — Lotti Benardout, Arthur Delaney, and Dom Goldsmith — Bernardout is the clear standout, with a voice that communicates vulnerability but clearly asserts itself in the mix. Still, HÆLOS are at their most interesting when all three vocalists play off each other, taking different tracks in the verse and then meeting up again in the chorus. –Collin Brennan
Wolf Alice may be gearing up to support fellow Brits The 1975 on their upcoming North American tour, but they seem much less concerned with cultivating a fashionable image. Led by a powerful vocalist in Ellie Rowsell, the quartet turned Coachella’s Outdoor Theater into a demonstration of why they might one day be Britain’s band to beat. Breathless rockers like “Fluffy” and “Giant Peach” — both off 2015’s My Love Is Cool — found the band firing on all cylinders and staring straight into the afternoon sun without so much as a flinch. Wolf Alice hasn’t quite made it to the point where they can captivate an audience for more than 30 minutes at a time, but give them a few more albums and they’ll more than earn an invitation to the main stage. –Collin Brennan
Two years ago, Ellie Goulding was still on her way to becoming radio-omnipresent and a favorite of EDM button-pushers, and her Coachella stage performance felt like it, bursting with gotta-prove-something vocal gymnastics and boundless energy that would make any Pilates instructor envious. But now the spritely “Love Me Like You Do” singer is a bona fide stateside star capable of selling out vast spaces coast to coast. Which is the very reason she shouldn’t have been booked for a return, at least not so soon: Her set, though chock-full of hits that had multitudes (of mostly women) chanting along, still came off as just her touring production condensed for maximum festival impact, replete with Madonna-style turns on guitar and arena-ready visuals that prove how prepared Goulding is to eventually join the ranks of celebrity CoverGirl models.
Much to her credit, she didn’t wilt in the heavy winds, braving it with gusto even as it rendered her vocals raspier (a plus) and increasingly adenoidal (a minus), although a low-key, piano-led version of “Lights” only underscored how wispy her pipes can be without all that studio sweetening. And still it’s hard to hate the chanteuse in a crop-top and flowing cape to match her running trainers, even as she becomes something of a danceable Celine Dion for the electro scene. She may not have the command or presence Florence Welch showed in this same time slot last year, but her popularity isn’t a fluke, either. –Ben Wener
The pummelling San Francisco metal group known as Deafheaven drew one of the smallest crowds of the weekend, but don’t go pointing fingers at them. While everyone else was off watching Calvin Harris add beats to a mediocre mix CD, these guys were busy tearing down the Mojave tent so the grounds crew wouldn’t have to. Frontman George Clarke screamed and snarled as if he was playing to a crowd of thousands, and drummer Daniel Tracy showed off why his double bass drum hits rank among the heaviest in the business. Still, the band was never going to be an easy sell on this lineup, and the late start time only added to an atmosphere that seemed a bit sapped of energy. If we could watch from the front row without having to squeeze through sweaty bodies, this was something less than a proper Deafheaven show. –Collin Brennan
Underworld’s Friday evening set marked probably the first time anybody over the age of 19 stepped foot inside the audio-visual orgy known as the Sahara tent. The long-running British electronic group definitely stuck out from their younger counterparts, but for reasons that show why they’ve managed to stay relevant for three decades and counting. Led by frontman Karl Hyde — who definitely had some swagger in his step — the group wasted no time luring bodies to the dance floor with “I Exhale”, the lurching lead single from their new record Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future. The sounds and flashing laser lights only got crazier from there, leaving one to wish that every set could have taken place in the immersive Sahara tent. It certainly would have helped LCD Soundsystem (not that they needed help, but still…). –Collin Brennan
Courtesy of Coachella
You never know what mood Vince Staples will be in when he takes the stage. The volatile Long Beach rapper has a reputation for getting surly when the crowd doesn’t immediately respond to his demand to “Bounce!”, but the crazy-ass Sahara tent proved up to the challenge. With nothing to get mad at, Staples channeled his manic energy into a tight set filled with hits from last year’s Summertime ‘06. He didn’t waste any of Coachella’s considerable resources, calling on special guest Jhené Aiko early on and plastering his typical video collages across Sahara’s dozens of screens. Not sure how many of the kids appreciated the Vanilla Sky montage, but we sure did. –Collin Brennan
On her debut album Long Way Home, the 19-year-old Liverpudlian who goes by Låpsley rarely sounds comfortable. Like all teenagers, she’s exploring just exactly where she fits in the world, and this sometimes means pairing organic melodies with transparently synthetic blips and beats. It turns out that Låpsley is just as uncomfortable in person — and quite charmingly so. The singer experienced technical difficulties almost as soon as she appeared on stage at the Mojave tent, but she powered through the brief mishap with the grace of a performer twice her age.
She then proceeded to pepper her set with some hilarious stage banter (“Someone said before that I was dressed like a giant vagina, but I thought nudes were in!”) and at least three or four songs that deserve to be hits. OK, “Hurt Me” kind of is already a hit, but tunes like the soulful “Operator (He Doesn’t Call Me)” allow Låpsley to communicate the same heartbreak in a way that’s altogether more fun. If she ever gets those backup dancers she jokingly asked for during a lull in the music, she’ll be an even bigger joy to watch in person. –Collin Brennan
There were moments during HEALTH’s Friday afternoon set when the LA noise rock trio sounded as if they were going to tear the whole Mojave tent down. And then there were moments of industrial pop bliss that lured in passersby unaware of HEALTH’s precarious balance between hooks and outright chaos. The band’s sound has grown sleeker and more refined with each passing record, but it would be unfair (and just plain wrong) to say they’ve lost their edge. As they did on 2015’s underrated Death Magic, HEALTH continues to explore new ways to communicate “heavy” in a live setting. Bassist John Famiglietti still calls forth sounds from the depths of hell with his pedalboard, but nobody’s more responsible for keeping the band’s bone-crushing tendencies alive than drummer BJ Miller. Both guys were on point in the unfamiliar festival setting; in fact, their performance felt like the moment Coachella officially started. –Collin Brennan
If you aren’t already a true believer, Foals can be a tough sell at a festival like Coachella. With so much AV porn to be had over at the Sahara tent and closer-to-home indie heroes Lord Huron holding it down at the Outdoor Theatre, why waste an hour of the afternoon humoring yet another generic English rock band? Well, because it turns out “generic” is a dead-wrong way to describe these guys. Led by frontman Yannis Philippakis, Foals really brought the heat to their Friday set on the main stage, bursting out of the gates with a series of thick, bluesy riffs that punched a hole in the tepid atmosphere left behind by Years & Years. Not long after playing the first notes of Holy Fire standout “Providence”, Philippakis worked his way down to the crowd and stood above the front row like a conqueror demanding respect from his subjects. But it was the quieter, groovier moments between these rock ‘n’ roll highs that really won us over to Philippakis and Co.. Knowing how to work a festival crowd is one thing, but it helps when you have a stable of consistently dynamic songs to lean on. Foals do, and they rank among Friday’s pleasant surprises. –Collin Brennan
Algiers play a strange blend of gospel, soul, and post-punk that skews political and stands a few feet to the side of Coachella’s more typical offerings. The Atlanta trio’s penchant for sonic dissonance reflects frontman Franklin James Fisher’s lyrical themes, which touch on racial tension and the cold sensation of being displaced in one’s own home. Speaking of displacement, Algiers were an odd fit in their early Saturday slot. Other than Savages, no band at Coachella could hope to match their intensity, and it would have been interesting to see what kind of atmosphere they could have conjured up with a late-night set. It might have saved them some dry-cleaning bills, too, because the afternoon sun caused Fisher to soak right through his brown leather jacket by the end of the second song. –Collin Brennan
Man, did Coachella need Death Grips in 2016. While undeniably impressive overall, the festival’s lineup seemed a bit too clean and polished this year, offering fans precious few opportunities to rub their ears in pure filth. The abrasive punk/hip-hop group took care of that just in time, transforming the Gobi tent (chandeliers and all) into a noisy, sweaty affair late Sunday night. As per usual, MC Ride and co. didn’t leave their audience much room to breathe, diving into song after song with enough force to knock the wind out of those moshing in the front rows. None of this is particularly noteworthy as far as Death Grips shows go, but in this context the band made everyone else sound like total wimps. –Collin Brennan
It’s entirely possible that Zella Day looks back on Coachella 2016 as the moment that launched her career in earnest. It would be fitting, too. No other artist in the lineup feels more at home in the desert than the 21-year-old singer-songwriter, who grew up in Pinetop, Arizona and has the whole hippie-chic aesthetic down pat. Day was one of Saturday’s pleasant surprises, delivering a tight set of anthemic indie pop that stuck in our heads for the rest of the afternoon. Day is an undeniably powerful vocalist, and at several points in her set she achieved a nice vibrato effect that recalled Stevie Nicks for all the right reasons. How perfect, then, that she would cover “Rhiannon” and dedicate the song to the original “Queen of Coachella.” Day’s still got a long way to go, but it’s not crazy to think she could one day claim that throne. –Collin Brennan
Whoever was buzzing about the long-overdue return of this essentially French but mostly West African outfit, who last came to Indio back in 2001 … yeah, well, none of them were actually in the desert to witness it. When the group began, with The Kills and Of Monsters and Men still pulling large crowds elsewhere, there couldn’t have been but 300 people inside Gobi; by the end of their vibey melange (think global sophisticate acid house), that number had maybe grown to a thousand. What everyone else missed, as this past weekend’s more adventurous ears discovered, was a sundown peak to a slow-burn afternoon that had been punctuated by primo world beat, starting with Congolese outfit Mbongwana Star as the fest got underway and gathering steam with French-Cuban twin sisters Ibeyi later in the day.
St Germain, however, arrived with the most hype, and matched it convincingly. Its mastermind, Ludovic Navarre, kept to the rear, easily mistaken for a mispositioned mixing engineer while his ensemble of highly estimable players (including Senegalese superstar Cheikh Lo on the many-stringed kora) grooved fluidly. Occasionally they lined-danced and even played patty cake through one heady jam after another, from the jittery signature “Rose Rouge” to the frothier “So Flute”. Give it another 15 years. This turn will probably be just as cultishly regarded as their first. –Ben Wener
For a band playing their very first show on American soil, Mbongowana Star took little time making themselves at home on the Gobi stage. One way to look at the soulful Congolese soukous group is as an inspirational story — co-frontmen Coco Ngabali and Theo Nzonza are both paraplegic, and the mere fact that they made it from the streets of Kinshasa to the tent at Coachella is worth celebrating. But roughly everybody trickling into the festival on Friday afternoon had no idea about the band’s origins; they just wanted to start the weekend on a good note, and Mbongowana Star obliged by providing one of the most danceable — and certainly one of the most distinctive — soundtracks of the day. The band’s songs mix traditional Congolese soukous with elements of funk, reggae, and R&B, but once again, the details matter less when you’re so busy getting down. –Collin Brennan
Unlike so many Coachellas past, this one was gratefully overrun by hordes of talented women, from pop to performance art and every stop in between. Too few of them, however, embody traits beyond diva-in-training posturing, and even fewer merit that so-overused descriptor “badass.” But then there’s Alison Mosshart, who you can slot next to Savages for sheer badassness. From the outset of The Kills‘ starkly powerful performance, as the galloping digital beat of “No Wow” began to lure lookie-loos over to their mean side, it was apparent the sultry Englishwoman in black leather pants had braced herself for battle against hair-whipping, dust-spewing zephyrs that would have done in most mere mortals.
Can you imagine the helium-high falsetto of new R&B sensation Gallant (duetting with Seal on “Crazy” in Mojave at the same time) surviving the same conditions? No, you can’t. But Mosshart thrived in that mix, even if her vocals were never as high as they should have been. Whether coiled in a white guitar cord during the churning windup of “Kissy Kissy” or blasting full force through the fresh track “Doing It to Death,” she and her partner in starkness, Jamie Hince, remained relentless, reminding pit onlookers like Katy Perry and Jared Leto what a torrential force they can be under any circumstances. –Ben Wener
There has been solid reason to suspect that Anthony Gonzalez and his rearranged troupe (farewell, Morgan Kibby, you’re missed) might have peaked five years ago when the earworm “Midnight City” lifted the group from cult adoration to almost mainstream level. Milking that success for all it was worth and then taking an eon (in indie/pop terms) to follow it up hasn’t helped instill confidence that M83 wouldn’t simply, perhaps happily, sink back into soundtrack obscurity. Their Coachella return, however, was strong enough to silence doubters.
True, Dallas draftee Kaela Sinclair is half the compelling addition that Kibby was (her contributions aren’t as deeply felt) and “Do It, Try It”, lead single from just-released seventh album Junk, is a long way from being as catchy as their breakthrough hit. But as a live entity Gonzalez and his cohorts haven’t fallen backward even a step, providing better visuals for this packed polo field appearance than their fellow Frenchmen in Phoenix did once they reached the main stage.
Ringed by levered light sabers and with a Pink Floydian spectral backdrop that surely sucked a good share of stoners into its vortex, M83 drew big and delivered, dynamically (at one point dropping the sound down to almost sonar pings) and with measured nuance for such epic scale. Deftly blending trademark atmosphere and a still-developing knack for grabbing melodies into a seamless experience, Gonzalez’s group reaffirmed its standing as one of the better oversized attractions these days. –Ben Wener
Tim Timebomb and friends may be looking ragged in their old age, but they remain one of the most consistent bands working today. This is the irony that has kept Rancid relevant (OK, mostly relevant) for two decades: The more face tattoos they get, the more professional they seem to become. The band used their afternoon set on the main stage to blast through all the usual hits from 1995’s …And Out Come the Wolves, a record that creeps further into the “punk classic” category with each passing year. Between songs, Armstrong and co-frontman Lars Frederiksen gave their usual schpiel on honor and family, and they even snuck in the title track from last year’s sort-of-comeback album Honor Is All We Know. But this was largely a nostalgia trip, and a reminder that Coachella’s small subset of true punk believers will not go gently into that good night. –Collin Brennan
Ardent followers who crammed in close to the barrier at the Outdoor Theatre just to get a better look at Victoria Legrand’s sparkling black hood and wild eyes could provide a dozen deeper reasons why this return visit from Beach House was so outstanding, be it the noticeable swelling forcefulness that coursed through the set (“Space Song” and “Myth” and “Sparks” benefitted the most) or the sound mix overall, dreamy and sublime. For those of us who lounged toward the back, laying down to gaze at the stars or finding our attention diverted by lights and colors streaking across the perimeter palm trees in hypnotic waves that seemed almost precisely timed to the music, well, the explanation for such a memorable performance was pretty simple: After three days of rushing madness, everything about Beach House’s set made for the perfect comedown. The smart ones stayed for Sia’s stroke of genius, hopefully a slice or two of Miike Snow, and then bounced before Calvin Harris hit play. –Ben Wener
Run the Jewels
Year-after-year appearances at Coachella are extremely rare. But in the case of fiery rap duo Run the Jewels, a back-to-back booking made sense, as last year’s combustible sets inside Mojave drew overflow crowds and, thanks to guest shots from Zack de la Rocha and Travis Barker, became the talk of the fest. This time commandeering the main stage, Killer Mike and El-P had even more help: a sure shot from Nas on one of his staples, “Made You Look”; a deliciously raunchy turn from Gangsta Boo; a DJ Shadow cameo for their collaborative cut “Nobody Speak”; some more shredding from Gary Clark Jr., wicked during his own set right before RTJ, on closing cut “Angel Duster”; plus, most talked-about of all, a video introduction courtesy of Bernie Sanders, their pick for president.
Fierce as ever before a sea of red bandanas handed out by street teams shortly before their start, rap’s most rewarding pairing in years dropped hard-earned wisdom and relevant social commentary along with ripping new material — and smartly got signature jam “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)” out of the way fairly fast, quickly quashing hopes of de la Rocha reappearing on the biggest Coachella stage for the first time since Rage Against the Machine reunited in 2007. A first-rate set, yet it still felt lacking compared to the explosiveness of their previous outing here. –Ben Wener
No matter how much The Arcs’ single “Outta My Mind” resembles a Turn Blue outtake, this latest project from Dan Auerbach has its own distinct approach apart from The Black Keys, just as the bearded ginger’s solo output has. The blueprint for this unit’s organ-coated, two-drummer sound is less drawn from Chicago blues and monster riffage. Instead, it’s soaked in late-’60s psychedelic garage rock and Southern hospitality, with jams — and they do jam, far more than the Keys — taking on sliding shades of the Allmans and Skynyrd, not to mention the lulling paranoia of “Smiling Faces Sometimes”, that slippery Motown side the Arcs covered in a segue out of “Chains of Love”.
As enticing an introduction to them as this was, however, their desert set will be remembered by classic rock enthusiasts for the unexpected appearance of Joe Walsh and the stage resurrection of Glenn Schwartz, the endearing, seemingly toothless 75-year-old guitarslinger that Walsh replaced in the James Gang. All three axemen soloed simultaneously on two old obscurities, “Fear and Doom” and “Waterstreet”, and even though a good chunk of the crowd had no clue who they were watching, the rousing cheers of support were still genuine and clearly felt deeply by Schwartz, who hadn’t performed live in decades. –Ben Wener
Of Monsters and Men
Critics tend to dismiss Of Monsters and Men as just another symptom of the stomp-and-clap disease that has pervaded alt-rock radio for the past few years. But this Icelandic group has a different kind of meat on their bones, and they might just be one of the premier acts working the festival circuit this summer. For one, co-vocalists Ragnar Þórhallsson and Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir have a perfectly balanced rapport that plays off each of their strengths; neither could carry the weight of the band themselves, but neither has to. Add in the fact that they’re just as likely to spin an Icelandic fairy tale as they are to bemoan their broken hearts, and these guys become even easier to like. The crowd at Coachella seemed to think as much. No other band received a warmer reaction from passersby, many of whom sprinted toward the stage when they heard a tune they recognized from the radio. And with these guys, that’s a fair amount of tunes. –Collin Brennan
What else is there to say about Savages at this point? I’ll leave it to the bearded guy on acid who grabbed my shoulder halfway through “Husbands” and shouted, “Oh my God, I love these guys! You love these guys!” It wasn’t posed as a question. Standing in the midst of the crowd while frontwoman Jehnny Beth calls down her own kind of thunder, it’s impossible to fathom not loving these guys.
A heavy post-punk band is bound to stick out on Coachella’s lineup, and judging from the relative emptiness of the Mojave tent, plenty of folks didn’t even bother seeing what Savages were about. Their loss. For those who did show up, Beth and co. put on one of their most furious festival sets to date, slicing through the late-day listlessness like a knife on fire. The band opened with a standout from 2013’s Silence Yourself, “I Am Here”. With the song finished, Beth confronted her audience, asking if they could say the same for themselves. “We are here, are you here?” At a Savages show, there’s nowhere else to be. –Collin Brennan
Chris Stapleton must have gotten lost on his way to Indio’s Stagecoach Festival. How else to explain his inclusion on this Coachella bill, which featured exactly zero country music artists not named Chris Stapleton? In all seriousness, country fans were forced to wait until Sunday night to see one of their own on stage, and they made every last minute of Stapleton’s set count by cheering as loudly as any crowd at Coachella. The bearded guitarist did his part, too, drawing on every inch of his large frame to make his presence felt on songs like “Traveller” and “The Devil Named Music”. He even made this writer’s eyes a little moist when he brought out his wife Morgane to close with a duet cover of George Jones’ “Tennessee Whiskey”. Nah, those aren’t tears. That’s just some strong-ass whiskey. –Collin Brennan
The true standout in a day filled with Australian acts, singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett made the Outdoor Theatre feel a little cozier with a set that oscillated between her two strengths: playful, stream-of-consciousness wordplay and no-nonsense DIY guitar rock. Barnett played to a much smaller crowd when she first visited Coachella back in 2014, and the huge influx of new fans has a lot to do with last year’s critically acclaimed Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. While it’s nice to see young kids mouthing out the words to “Depreston” and even forming a modest circle pit for “Pedestrian At Best”, Barnett herself is just as charmingly awkward as she’s always been. The set’s high point came when she tripped over her guitar stand, landed flat on her back, and hardly skipped a beat, turning the accident into a chance to flail around on the ground for a while. Barnett may have looked out-of-place among Coachella’s more image-conscious performers, but she clearly feels right at home in her own skin. –Collin Brennan
One of few genuinely brilliant scheduling moves this time in Indio — on a slate rife with questionable time choices and stage placements — was the planning of a pretty historic Saturday night pairing. Not in this lifetime, as their tour tagline goes, yet Guns N’ Roses’ astonishing comeback to mega-hype their stadium tour, so galvanizing and legacy-restoring it ought to shut up the haters, was only half of this LA story. Equally important — and drawing a similarly huge crowd — was Ice Cube‘s all-star Westside revue, which in its hardest-hitting moments emerged as a testament to the enduring strength and relevance of Compton-launched hip-hop.
Specifically N.W.A., as the legendary gangsta crew opted not to perform after their recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and delivered a crushing blow in Indio, instead, with Yella and Ren joining Cube for takes on “Straight Outta Compton” and “Fuck the Police” that were nearly as incendiary as the original recordings. Seeing Dr. Dre at their side might’ve been nice, but what would he have done exactly? Pretended to DJ? Snoop Dogg surfacing at the end of the set for “The Next Episode” was a welcome surprise that helped overcome the off-putting Barbershop branding that accompanied an unremarkable pairing of Cube and one of his former beef-eaters, Common. (A guest shot from his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., might not have been so hardcore, but it at least was endearing bit of torch-passing.) Yet it was primarily when this sprawling crowd once more witnessed the strength of street knowledge — in rhymes that still ring harrowingly true for our brutalizing times — that this hour-long package ascended to the ranks of Coachella lore. Cube may never deliver such a significant performance again. –Ben Wener
Anderson Paak. & the Free Nationals
No performer this weekend worked harder than Anderson Paak., even though the California-based rapper got some nice pinch hitting from T.I. and Gary Clark Jr. Really, to call Paak simply a “rapper” is to misrepresent all the other talents he brings to the table. After getting the crowd moving with his lightning-fast flow, he sat down at the drum kit and gave himself all the rhythm he needed to bring hit track “The Season / Carry Me” home. Even when his mic cut out, Paak hardly skipped a beat, single-handedly willing the Sunday crowd into a state halfway between frenzy and euphoria. Look out for this dude on the main stage next year. When he gets there, he’ll deserve it. –Collin Brennan
The Last Shadow Puppets
God bless Alex Turner, who has found and pursued his calling in life with such vigor that he’s almost impossible to dislike. The Arctic Monkeys frontman and better half of The Last Shadow Puppets is the consummate rock star, and he played the part to perfection during the Puppets’ Friday night set on the Mojave stage. Strutting, posing, and crooning in front of a string quartet, Turner brought so much swagger to the stage that he threatened to overshadow co-frontman Miles Kane (and it’s not easy to overshadow a very good guitarist dressed in snakeskin).
Arctic Monkeys may be Turner’s main gig, but The Last Shadow Puppets comes across like his passion project, allowing him to indulge his more extravagant tendencies on songs like sexy crooner “Sweet Dreams, TN”. And hey, wouldn’t you know, a sexy and extravagant Alex Turner is the very best kind of Alex Turner. Coming after a long day of mostly self-serious acts, the Puppets’ antics were the exact kind of refresher we needed to help us power through the night. –Collin Brennan
New Coachella niche: 21st century jazz fusionists. There were more than a few of them on hand this year, though on Saturday you had to either arrive very early to catch edgy U.K. import GoGo Penguin or stay late to take in Toronto’s BadBadNotGood. Kamasi Washington and his brotherhood of lifelong friends, however, function so intuitively that they ultimately land on an entirely higher plane. Within minutes of their hourlong set Sunday afternoon at the Outdoor Theatre they had cooked up a frenetic blend steeped deep in Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade but layered with traces of George Duke when he played with Zappa strewn through the jams.
“Henrietta, Our Hero”, a paean to Washington’s grandmother that featured his father Ricky on flute, shuffled and swirled to Bacharachian heights until it cranked up to a cyclonic finish. The final piece, “The Ribbon Changes”, was given a double-time feel, sped-up and red-hot, the tenor saxophonist leading a front line of tremendous horn players. Someone say they could rival the Roots? Anyone else think they’ve already surpassed them with just one mondo assortment and a wicked guest shot for Kendrick Lamar? Decide for yourself if you’ll be there next weekend. “Come back next week,” Washington implored his steadily growing crowd. “We’ll do it again, only different.” –Ben Wener
No question that creatively restless Grimes is one of the most intense (and intensely idolized) artists to emerge this decade, an enlightened firebrand and meaning-seeker whose sometimes deceptively shiny/happy/giddy electro concoctions (like the seemingly wispy “Flesh Without Blood”) are stuffed with lyrics worth poring over to unlock potential secrets and layers of unanticipated depth. But her superb, big-drawing Mojave set opposite Guns N’ Roses on the main was most memorable for three reasons, only two of which have so much to do with Grimes herself: 1.) Janelle Monáe’s surprise assist on collaborative cut “Venus Fly”, which raised the crowd’s response to a deafening roar as she spun about in a feathery-fringed coat (black-and-white of course) and a broad-brimmed hat that made her look like she’d just come to life from the inner sleeve of Prince’s Sign o’ the Times. 2.) The manic shrieking of pint-sized Aristophanes, who might as well have spat out a lung by the time she was done Yoko Ono-ing it up on “Scream”. And 3.) Grimes’ own minute-long modulated banshee howl, a terrifyingly distorted sound, just before Monáe surfaced. She can be as fascinating to watch live as St. Vincent or Björk. What sets her apart is the interjected horror of it all. –Ben Wener
They were slotted third from the top of the main stage bill, at sunset, but based on sheer turnout alone, the overwhelming majority of Coachella’s nearly 100,000-strong 2016 population considered the affable, multifaceted Lawrence brothers the Day 2 headliner. In what may well have been the single most guest-heavy day in the fest’s history — four of seven acts on the main had drop-ins, and the number more than doubles when you add in everything else — Disclosure wasn’t about to be outdone, and thus delivered two of the hottest new stars that you could sense the crowd was banking on seeing: Lorde, in her main-stage debut, delighting with “Magnets”, and rapidly heralded Sam Smith, whose two-song turn to end the set had as much impact as the rest of Disclosure’s set combined. Justifiably among the top tier of the new falsetto power vocalists (from Timberlake to Gallant), he excelled at what very few others dared: clarity and purity. His singing on “Omen” and especially the high cries of “Latch” often came through naked as a newborn yet remained totally on point.
That the Lawrences could host so many supporting players — including AlunaGeorge for “White Noise” and compelling Kwabs for “Willing & Able” — while still seeming the dominant force on stage is a testament to how assured this young duo already is. Calvin Harris would have been wise to copy their formula: more star power, less incoherently assaultive visuals. –Ben Wener
Photo by Erik Voake, Courtesy of Coachella
All y’all who paid obscene amounts to be there for the long goodbye five years ago at Madison Square Garden, you lucky bastards still so sore that the shelf life on your I-was-there!!! snobbery expired far sooner than expected — quit your griping. You know you want this incredible groove machine back in action as much as the rest of us, and if the shoe were on the other foot, you’d have been clamoring for their return, just like the tens of thousands who flooded the field (initially, anyway) to witness the most highly anticipated hiatus-ending Coachella set since Rage Against the Machine’s regrouping in 2007.
LCD Soundsystem, as tightly coiled and quicksilver as ever, as if they’d never stopped, didn’t disappoint for a moment, although halfway in, after a sublime “Someone Great” that had minions chanting its final line but long before the less-devoted could enjoy the closing anthem “All My Friends”, the audience thinned dramatically. For the hardcore, the whole thing was manna from heaven: a demonic “Get Innocuous!” bathed in movie-blood red lighting, a rapid-fire “Tribulations” treated to scalding white, the commentary of “Us v. Them” and “You Wanted a Hit” more pointed in 2016 than in, oh, 2010, not to mention the miracle of James Murphy’s impossibly-timed instincts on “Losing My Edge”, the retelling of which couldn’t have resonated more stingingly at such a thorough millennial takeover of Coachella.
And then there were the moments that made this set extra special, the bits that will eventually help elevate its already high status to legendary. One was fleeting but almost stoically sincere, when toward the end of “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” Murphy and Nancy Whang and the rest of LCD sang a verse from next-night headliner Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain”. The grander one was a full-length, note-perfect, profoundly heartfelt cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes”, with every detail of the original replicated in faithful salute to the late Starman. Pretty much the best tribute that’s been attempted, one that should now place a moratorium on more. You’re right, gripers: You didn’t get anything like that at MSG. And we also didn’t get half as much material as you. Let’s call it even. –Ben Wener
Guns N’ Roses
We were ready for pretty much anything Guns N’ Roses could throw our way: an Axl Rose meltdown, a mid-set fistfight, even a straight-up no show. We were especially ready for mediocrity, even before news broke that Rose had broken his foot and would be performing the entire set in Dave Grohl’s ridiculous Game of Thrones-style booster seat. The idea that Guns N’ Roses — one of the most volatile rock groups from an era defined by volatility — could pull off a reunion without turning into it into a dumpster fire seemed improbable at best and laughable at worst. So you can imagine our surprise when Rose, Slash, and Duff McKagan delivered a consummately professional set that soared way above competent. By the time they left stage a few minutes after curfew, even the skeptics had to agree: Guns N’ Roses are back.
The band’s career-spanning set started off with a weird Looney Tunes intro that left more people confused than enthralled, but it’s hard to find fault in anything that happened from the moment they blasted out the first notes of “It’s So Easy”. Rose’s limited mobility posed a problem in terms of visuals, but his swagger was apparent at least in his bejeweled torso and his voice stayed strong through the set’s latter half, when AC/DC guitarist Angus Young joined the band to rip through covers of “Whole Lotta Rosie” and “Riff Raff”. The rest of the band’s covers ranged from The Misfits’ “Attitude” to Wings’ “Live and Let Die”, hammering home the fact that G N’ R was once the strongest bridge we had between punk and classic rock. That bridge was in various states of disrepair over the last 25 years, but it’s been patched up enough to resemble the glory days for two hours at a time. So, as Rose sang in his typical glass-shattering pitch, “Welcome to the Jungle”. Better yet, welcome back. –Collin Brennan
Was she really singing? Yes, gloriously so on “Breathe Me” and “Chandelier”, and most of the rest of the time without extra vocal tracking, or so it seemed. Could you ever tell from the screens? Not really, and it’s likely only those jammed along the rail close to the stage actually saw Sia‘s mouth move. Was there a band hiding somewhere? Nope. Was Kristen Wiig actually there? Nope again. Nor was Paul Dano, nor Tig Notaro, nor any of the other famous faces that appeared in odd-fitting wigs and inspired costumes to flesh out inward pains and outward insecurities of Sia stand-ins and symbolic Everymen, all via rivetingly choreographed pantomimes that engulfed the screens. Except yes, there were non-famous dancers and avatars for the artist’s id recreating these routines almost exactly in real time.
So what was really happening up there on that almost blank canvas of a stage? What the hell did we just watch?!? In short, a work of fake-out genius that would make Orson Welles beam with pride, a marvelous performance-art piece that will have people raving (or ranting) for years to come. Savvily culling cues from masters of this particular form — Bowie, Madonna, a whole lot of Pet Shop Boys, early Kate Bush — Sia concocted the most stunning sight on the Coachella stage since Kanye’s triumphant 2011 production. This one might top it in terms of leaving everyone guessing. We’re still wondering how she could take it to the next level on tour — add a camera crew swirling around the action to further blur the surreality, or back it with a real band to take it next level. One thing’s certain: If you streamed it at home, you didn’t really see it. –Ben Wener
What a stunner, and maybe that’s exactly what Sufjan Stevens’ most rabid devotees knew to expect. But it’s fair to say a huge chunk of Friday’s turnout for this idiosyncratic visionary moseyed to the Outdoor Theater anticipating something altogether mellower, more of a twee, acoustic-based set culled from his latest treasure, Carrie & Lowell, complemented by a few pearls from his catalog. You might even have been lulled into thinking that was still the plan as “Seven Swans” got this unmissable set underway, considering its hushed, dam-about-to-burst construction. The adoring faithful, however, surely picked up on what was about to happen well before Sufjan’s wings extended like Icarus fired up for a meltdown. And by the time he smashed his banjo in a high leaping stage crash at the cataclysmic end of that piece, everyone knew: This was going to be something incredible.
“Welcome to the Church of Coachella,” Stevens announced, donning an outrageous suit that made him look like a life-size homage to Keith Haring. For much of the set, however, he more resembled a colorful, less-bleak Trent Reznor, bouncing excitedly at his keyboard or mic stand. Stevens is certainly every bit the auteur that his darker forebear is, which this impeccable 50-minute overview of his endlessly eclectic career proved. Everything about the performance delivered on the promise of such an auspicious opening, with more than a few highlights revived from The Age of Adz, including the mind-boggling suite “Impossible Soul”, which at 20-plus minutes ate up almost half his time. Every twisty detour of it was magnetic, though, from Sufjan’s frenzied guitar solo (“This is for Slash,” he half-smirked) to the elaborate, Peter Gabriel-esque outfits he quick-changed into by the conclusion. Each new array enhanced the multilayered music; each song inspired wilder imagery. An extraordinary talent, none quite like him, in full flower. –Ben Wener
Photographer: Philip Cosores