As last year’s CoS Coachella reviewer Ben Wener noted, this year’s second weekend of Coachella will celebrate the 100th day of music that Goldenvoice has thrown on Empire Polo Fields. That includes all the Chellas, the Stagecoaches, the Desert Trips, standalone events featuring Pearl Jam and Phish, and the Big Four metal show. So understandably, there is a clockwork aspect to the festival that has been present for years, with each edition now fixed on the question of how Coachella can adapt and evolve to the ever-changing marketplace. Or, more often the case, how they can shift the marketplace to their advantage.
In part, that is what made Friday night’s much-discussed Radiohead debacle all the more unexpected. With the experience that everyone involved with throwing the SoCal fest has, having a set maligned by a major technical issue felt like a freak occurrence, one that especially stung during the weekend’s one headliner that hearkened back to old-school Chella. The turnout reflected that, as the sparsely attended performance confirmed what many have suspected for a long time: that not even Radiohead, one of the most respected and prestigious rock bands of the last quarter century, can slow the culture change at Coachella.
Coachella’s reaction to their shifting audience has been both subtle and transparent. When bombastic EDM pushed the heady techno that runs deep in the festival’s DNA out of the Sahara tent, the festival built the Yuma, a safe space for IDM. This year, another new tent was birthed: the Sonora. This stage answers complaints that punk music has lost its foothold by featuring an assortment of bands from garage, hardcore, and other less commercial rock tributaries. Air-conditioned, couched, and featuring glowing graffiti on its walls, the tent acted as a savior for a segment of the music world that no longer makes sense on the big stages, but remains an inherent part of Coachella’s identity.
And that’s been a big debate of late: What is Coachella? If you read the news, you’ll find a lot of people trying to define the festival when they clearly don’t know much about it. These are the types that blast AEG owner Philip Anschutz for his shitty politics without considering the actual extent of his involvement in the festival. Others criticize founder Paul Tollett for not booking Kate Bush based on an out-of-context quote in a New Yorker article. Interestingly, both of these subjects were raised on Sunday. First, Ezra Furman gave in an insightful speech about Anschutz that served to at least raise questions about what attendees dollars support (though it skirted the fact that Furman himself is still cashing the festival’s checks and providing entertainment at the event). Later, Lorde slyly used Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” as her intro music, which saw virtually no reaction from her most dedicated fans (maybe Coachella fans really wouldn’t get Kate Bush).
The truth is, when you are the premiere music festival in the world, you’re set up to be the villain regardless. People love to see the powerful fall, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that naysayers flock to the first sign of weakness in Coachella’s armor. When DJ Khaled shouted his mantra on Sunday evening, letting everyone know that “all he does is win,” Coachella as a festival could have been saying the same thing. In a year where adversity struck from all angles, the end discussion was of a legendary Kendrick Lamar set, built around a new album that was basically released with his festival-closing set in mind. What other events can have one of the most highly regarded artists on the planet do that? The ending discussion was on appearances by the likes of Drake, The Weeknd, Lauryn Hill, Pharrell, and Migos, the last of which showed up as guests so many times that they probably would have come out with Hans Zimmer if he asked.
It won’t get easier for Coachella. The festival is increasing capacity; its cousin event, Desert Trip, was a paradigm shifter last year; and another LA festival, Arroyo Seco Weekend (basically Coachella for Generation X), will launch in June. Goldenvoice keeps winning and everyone who is not a believer will keep trying to knock them down. But with the biggest headliner on the planet, Beyoncé, already locked in for next year, Coachella should continue to push the boundaries of what music festivals can be.
No question about it: Travis Scott drew the largest audience of any Friday artist to the Outdoor Theatre. Unless you claimed a prime spot early, it was nearly impossible to ascertain just what was happening on stage, especially given the excessive smoke bursts and pink neon video treatment that made any projected image look like the result of an excessive molly dose. We do know that the Houston rapper/singer performed his first few songs (“Skyfall”, “Mamacita”, and “Don’t Play”) from a small platform positioned halfway between the stage and the soundboard and at one point fed what appeared to be a moss-covered effigy to an enormous animatronic bird, whose wings were occasionally visibly flapping behind the smoke plumes. Perhaps these maddeningly disorienting visuals were responsible for the ranks upon ranks of once-curious festgoers turning on their heels and bailing long before the set ended.
But more likely the uninterested reaction stemmed from Scott’s complete lack of momentum throughout the set. Much like Drake’s 2015 performance, Scott blazed through plenty of tracks (19), but each of them was just a snippet, and long pauses between their abrupt starts and stops stifled any mojo he might’ve hoped to achieve. Surely, all those that stuck around to get turnt for set closers “Antidote” and “Goosebumps” would disagree – it’s easy enough to dance to dope beats with garbage lyrics when you’re high enough – but with no extra star power (nope, Kendrick didn’t turn up early for that latter hit) and an atrocious speaker delay that made it impossible to tell where his droning backing track and horribly over-Auto-Tuned voice began, the result was one of the most disjointed and confusing sets of the weekend. –David Brendan Hall
Landing third in a lineup of Latin-influenced bands who played early afternoon in the new Sonora tent, Rhode Island’s Downtown Boys served up the only legitimate dose of in-your-face punk rock that I witnessed all weekend. For each song (standouts among them: the ska sax-laden “Poder Elegir”, the Spanish shout-along “Somos Chulas”, and the mosh pit-inducing “Future Police”), there was an overt political message, with some sort of half-shouted preface from frontwoman Victoria Ruiz about issues ranging from white supremacy, overcoming self-loathing, and police brutality. But no matter how fiercely she and her band mates performed, only a small handful of Coachellans looked ready to rally. Maybe kids just don’t know how to mosh properly anymore, or perhaps a bougie, air-conditioned tent with couches and bean bag chairs to lounge in just a few feet back from the stage wasn’t the ideal performance space for such an earnest punk act. Not the band’s fault, but the whole affair came off more silly than serious in light of the circumstances. –David Brendan Hall
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard
It’s easy to understand why the punk-inclined kids love King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard: They consistently dish out a psych-infused rollick that incites moshing en masse with their two-drummer, erratic-vocalist setup. (Stu Mackenzie’s screeches, high-strapped guitar shredding, and tongue-wagging is oh so similar to Thee Oh Sees’ “John Dwyer”.) Sure enough, as they launched into a quartet of tracks off their upcoming 10th studio album, Murder of the Universe – “Alter Me I”, “Altered Beast II”, “Alter Me II”, and “Altered Beasts III” – the teenage throng gathered at the front of the Outdoor Theatre dutifully started a circle pit.
But their sound over the course of their 50-minute run was about as varied as those song titles. Even when they busted out older numbers like “Gamma Knife” and “Cellophane”, Mackenzie’s up-and-down cadence, which always matched a guitar or keyboard riff note for note, melded into a cacophony that ultimately felt like one monotone tune. If you weren’t losing your shit in the pit, your mind (and subsequently, your body) were likely meandering mid-set, which doesn’t bode well for their THREE upcoming albums, purported to explore similar sonic patterns, set for release before 2017 is finished. –David Brendan Hall
There’s one understandable reason why people enjoy Future Islands live, and that’s frontman Samuel Herring, who incited wild cheers from the Sunday afternoon crowd at the Outdoor Theatre with his animalistic dance moves and improvised growls over pristine, synth-driven soundscapes. His antics alone (the rest of the band generally don’t move much) are worthy of the graduation from the Gobi tent of the Baltimore-based band’s 2014 Coachella debut. But by the end of their 12 songs – a good handful of them off fifth album The Far Field – all the high-kicks, lunges, and impassioned theatrics weren’t enough to mask the feeling that the same sounds were being repeated over and over, with only slight variation. The droves of people who walked away mid-set after hearing breakout hit “Seasons (Waiting on You)” were proof enough that the band’s listenable notoriety is based mostly, if not all, on that single. If they don’t take serious strides to advance sonically beyond those one-hit-wonder vibes, Future Islands’ popularity could soon be a thing of the past. –David Brendan Hall
When you’ve got a Coachella performer that has about as much charisma as the water bottle sitting on his DJ stand, one of the only possible routes of recovery is bringing out some special guests as consolation. Such was the case with Canadian hip-hop/trap artist NAV on Saturday night as he paced the Gobi stage as slowly and unenthusiastically as an ailing old man, delivering cuts like “Fell in Love”, “The Man”, and “Myself” in mind-numbingly monotone fashion. No, it wasn’t fellow Cannuck and XO label mate Belly that did the trick during “Re Up” (ZZZzzzZZzzzz), but the imprint’s boss man himself, The Weeknd, who saved the day. If not for Abel Tesfaye’s high-energy, three-song appearance (“Party Monster”, “Starboy”, and “Some Way”) to close out the set, Nav’s prime-time evening slot would’ve been an atrocious waste of time. –David Brendan Hall
The concept behind DREAMCAR feels like a pretty big ask. The men of No Doubt, adrift while Gwen Stefani is off being a TV star and tabloid fodder, unite with AFI singer Davey Havok to relive their collective youth in a fun new wave revivalist band. Still, given that degree of proven star power, it’s somewhat easier to at least give the outfit a fair shake. Anything’s possible, right? They arrived at Coachella a shiny and well-oiled machine atop an expensive-looking stage setup complete with two female backup singers and another woman on keyboards. The songs are snappy and precise, with grand, operatic choruses courtesy of Havok. There is a strong Duran Duran influence, with one song sounding about a key change away from launching into that band’s early-album track “Nightboat”. There was even a big saxophone solo from the backup keyboardist, which was glorious, of course. Altogether, DREAMCAR is a clever reinvention for the men of No Doubt and allows Davey Havok the chance to try on yet another persona for size. With songs like “All of the Dead Girls” and “Kill for Candy” screaming for KROQ spins, this band is gonna be just fine. –Scott T. Sterling
The Japanese-American singer-songwriter and bassist Mitski led her power trio through a somewhat muted set of highly tuneful indie rock with a decided early ‘90s grunge edge. Older songs like “Francis Forever”, “I Will”, and “Townie” make up the majority of her set, thick with disarmingly intimate and brutally honest lyricism. The singer also had jokes, remarking proudly that she now outranks the MIT ski team on Google Search. The band’s slightly off-kilter arrangements recalled alt-rock totems like The Breeders, though the set could’ve benefitted from a little more volume. Any lack in loudness was more than made up for through Mitski’s sheer will, as she charged through a powerful version of “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” alone with just her guitar. –Scott T. Sterling
“They don’t want us to win!” The human meme machine DJ Khaled hit Coachella with his best shot, taking the vast Sahara Tent to a hero’s welcome as he declared that by set’s end Coachella would offer him a headlining slot next year. He blazed through a seemingly endless stream of snippets from his catalog of hits, performing a verse or two and a chorus before moving on to the next track, to the growing chagrin of some fans. Continually teasing “so many surprises,” he brought out a string of guests, including 2 Chainz, French Montana, the ubiquitous Migos, and ultimately, Rick Ross. As expected, it was a completely over-the-top spectacle that kept the crowd jumping, as the buzz grew that Drake would eventually appear. He didn’t. Instead, Khaled, Rick Ross, Wale (who’d arrived to reprise his verse on Ross’ hit “Trap Trap Trap”), and the growing crew onstage just kept dropping hits until the sound was unceremoniously cut off for going over the allotted time. While not a total win, it was definitely a whole lot of sweaty, hands-in-the-air fun. –Scott T. Sterling
Porter Robinson and Madeon
As far as the new wave of electronic musicians go, North Carolina’s 24-year-old Porter Robinson and France’s 22-year-old Madeon are, as they say, doin’ it right. Though they generally didn’t appear as much more than dots amid the larger-than-life light display and consistent fireworks bursts during their Sunday sunset main stage show, their music evoked all positive, non-drug-fueled vibes throughout their 18-track set. Also to the duo’s credit, their sound stemmed from much more than just pressing play on laptops. The pair are musicians in their own right, playing live electronic drums, the occasional keys, and even singing live (though he’s got some effects over it, Robinson’s voice sounds angelic when he sings the hook on Madeon’s “Finale”). In that sense, they aren’t quite as engaging as similarly operative electro-wizard duo Disclosure, but at least they’re making efforts to break the mold of lazy, push-button EDM. –David Brendan Hall
It’s hard not to love Mac DeMarco, at the very least for his carefree character if not his generally upbeat music. He was full of his usual facetiousness Friday on the Outdoor stage, making it feel like a small club show by bantering often with front-row fans. But going into it, I was prepared to be bored for much of the Canadian indie rocker’s set – it’s just that he’s basically played similar stuff for the past couple of years, and I was expecting much of the same crowd-pleasing cuts in this instance. Thankfully, he and his ace band embraced the spirit of experimentation and showcased plenty off his upcoming third album, This Old Dog, which conveniently leaked online Thursday.
New tracks played – “One More Love Song”, “One Another”, “On the Level”, and “Moonlight on the River” – were all cut from a R&B-infused cloth, leaning heavily on smooth, jazzy keys and more guitar-less, sultry vocal forays from DeMarco than usual. Though, there were still plenty of older, jangly guitar tunes to appease the core fans: set opener “Salad Days”, “Chamber of Reflection”, normally reserved for “later in the set,” and “Freaking Out the Neighborhood”, which featured former bassist Pierce McGarry as guest crowd-surfer (DeMarco typically rides the wave of hands himself). “Moonlight on the River” was somewhat of a sleepy closer for a fest set, but kudos to DeMarco and his gang for risking something slightly different instead of finishing on same ol’ “Still Together” – the alternative slow jam certainly lived up to his chill-as-fuck, anything-goes ethos, at any rate. –David Brendan Hall
There’s nothing like a heartwarming love story to infuse an already resplendent Coachella set with even more impact. “I don’t mean to show my age,” began Alaina Moore, vocalist for Denver-based indie-pop outfit Tennis, who made their Coachella debut early Friday afternoon in the Mojave tent. “But 13 years ago, Patrick [Riley] and I separately attended Coachella, and Radiohead was the headliner. We both watched the set, but hadn’t met yet … we met six years later and now have this band on this stage on Radiohead day – we never thought we’d be that band, and it’s fucking amazing.” That nostalgia translated into smiles shared aplenty between the audience and the husband/wife-led quartet and added a sense of uplifting genuineness to an already sunny set – perfect to usher in chill vibes on a relatively mild first afternoon of Coachella – that highlighted the disco-meets-psych grooves of key cuts (“Fields of Blue”, “Baby Don’t Believe”) off new album Yours Conditionally. –David Brendan Hall
Father John Misty
Whatever your opinion of Father John Misty, this set was unlikely to change your mind. While his current album campaign for Pure Comedy found Misty attacking the indie rock world with the zeal of a superstar rapper, there were no shenanigans on this night. Like, at all. Charging through a selection of tracks from the new album, he played it straight the entire time, not once breaking character or regaling the crowd with his notoriously existential onstage banter. He seemed content to bounce his updated take on 1977 Laurel Canyon vibes and sardonic proselytizing across the vast main stage crowd. Things really heated up along the back nine of his set, when he delivered the one-two punch of “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” and “I Love You Honeybear”, all lounge lizard swagger and GQ style. Appropriately, Lana Del Rey was in the crowd taking Instagram videos of Misty’s performance. –Scott T. Sterling
Already a sensation overseas, the buzz had definitely reached the desert as British soul upstart NAO arrived with a legion of eager fans packed into the Gobi tent primed to see her make her Coachella debut. Her young, fresh take on R&B was an ideal late-afternoon salve, with songs “Happy” and the funky “Inhale Exhale” generating a big dance party. Simmering “quiet storm” numbers like “In the Morning” and particularly “Girlfriend” showcased her vocals, with show closer “Bad Blood” eliciting the biggest cheers of her set. –Scott T. Sterling
Based on their sorta arbitrary name, Pond is probably one of the bands most Coachellans decided to pass up early Sunday afternoon, unless of course they were already fans, or curious because they’d heard there were two members of Tame Impala (one, former frontman/guitarist Nick Allbrook, and the other, current keyboardist/bassist Jay “Gumby” Watson”). The one-fifth-filled Gobi certainly gave the impression that only those in the know – faithful followers of psych jams – had turned up. All the better – the intimate vibes made the incredibly catchy Moog and guitar-octave duels over heavy-yet-sunny beats (see key cuts “30.000 Megatons”, “Giant Tortoise”, and “Sweep Me off My Feet”) feel like well-kept secrets, despite the fact that the Australian outfit have released six albums since 2009 and have a seventh, The Weather, due out May 5. Those averse to overcrowded, half-interested fest audiences will be pleased to know you’ll likely have plenty of chances to catch Pond in such close quarters again before word of their stellar stylings get overhyped and their shows overrun. –David Brendan Hall
Flanked by a drummer and guitarist (AKA “the twins”), Shura delivered a bouncy and upbeat dance-pop that was a refreshing sound early in the afternoon. Leaning heavily on her 2016 debut album, Nothing’s Real, songs like “Indecision” revealed her early Madonna influence, while “What Happened to Us” shared the same warm, radio-friendly sheen of HAIM. Lovely ballad “2Shy” was a set highlight, packed with ‘80s synths and earnest, heartfelt sentiment like a long-lost Cyndi Lauper single. Shura’s onstage energy was palpable, as she made the most of the space, descending down into the crowd to get up close and personal with her fans with a rousing run through the groovy, dance-floor celebration of being different “White Light”. –Scott T. Sterling
Over the past few years, Coachella has earned a reputation for its special guests, who, in some cases, end up being more of a headliner attraction than the act officially booked. As runner-up to Bon Iver and Lady Gaga, Future’s main stage Saturday night set wasn’t necessarily headline status, but his gargantuan audience and his guests – Georgia-bred hip-hop group Migos and the 6 God himself, Drake – made it so.
The former trio appeared sharper than ever during “T-shirt” and “Bad and Boujee”, while Drizzy’s brief yet galvanic cameo (“Jumpman” with Future, then solo turns on “Gyalchester” and “Fake Love”) felt downright redemptive. After essentially bombing his Chella debut two years ago (let’s be real, the Madonna French-kiss made things even worse during his stifling, start-stop set), he had some mileage to make up and handily achieved it by inducing deafening, Beatles-worthy screams and leading the loudest sing-along of the weekend. Though his fierce appearance constituted a bona fide Coachella moment, it was also Future’s downfall – his solo follow-up of “Mask Off” fell flat by comparison. Truthfully, it’s ridiculous that anyone could love that song so much. I’ll concede that Future is one of the most energetic, talented players in the trap game, but ending a set by leading a field (mostly) full of teenagers in a chant about abusing pharmaceuticals – “Percocets/ Molly, Percocets/ Percocets/ Molly, Percocets,” goes the chorus – is as deplorable as it is lackluster. –David Brendan Hall
Scanning my notes from Róisín Murphy’s Saturday evening set in Gobi, there are tons of seemingly non-sequitur descriptions like “giant, black puffball Eskimo head-collar,” “three-headed doll hat,” and zebra/red intestine squid headdress.” These were all my attempts to describe just a few of the various items tried on (and inevitably discarded) as the eccentric Irish singer powered through a mind-bending mix of house music crossed with funk, psychedelia, and trip-hop. Though the seven-song set included only a couple of tracks off 2016 release Take Her Up to Monto (“Thoughts Wasted” and “Whatever”) and even tapped a cut from here former project Moloko (“Tatty Narja), it felt like a fluid body of work, perhaps because – underneath the frequent costume changes and sometimes erratic sonic shifts – one could sense a consistent, fiery, and uncompromising energy behind those bright, blue eyes, sultry/slightly raspy voice, and seductive dance moves, all so obviously influenced by avant-garde auteur Grace Jones. Once her transformation was complete through music and movement, so it was for the audience: All around me, initial confusion gave way to fandom.
–David Brendan Hall