There’s a lot to be said of Coachella and I’m sure much of it will be said elsewhere. To attempt to comprehensively cover an event so massive and so sprawling is an exercise in vanity, and to be there yourself, while jaw-dropping and overwhelming in the best of ways, is an exhausting, notably sweaty affair. All of the above makes the prospect of experiencing this mammoth event from the comfort of air-conditioned society all the more appealing. However, just because something is gargantuan doesn’t mean it all warrants conversation, so instead of a scope, this aims to take some of that desert heat, the very best parts of it, and transport you to the moments that everyone will be talking about. So come on in, Coachella awaits.
The undercard of Coachella is often something bands book to have a better press release for their next album, this cynical (albeit truthful) take is only reinforced by the countless billboards announcing the latest album of each performer. All of the above certainly sours the initial approach to Coachella, at least from the Los Angeles side. But feeling a certain way, and then actually experiencing something are two completely different beasts. The undercard, in particular, is a knotty web to untangle, with bands ranging from mediocre to the next big thing, and that hope is what keeps people arriving at Coachella early each day.
Kicking off the festivities for us at the Gobi stage was rising Americana sensation Hurray for the Riff Raff. Despite being later in the day than Let’s Eat Grandma, they surprisingly found themselves playing host to a significantly smaller crowd in the same tent at the Gobi stage. Their set time was slightly delayed after a longer than expected sound test, pushing the set back an ultimately inconsequential five minutes. Once everything was sorted out they sounded excellent and proved to be a relaxing primer for the more intense festivities to come. Unfortunately for the band, they were unable to attract much of a crowd at all but their sound quality was deeply impressive. Nearly every lyric could be heard clearly and the drums and guitars came through crisp, while the synths twinkled brightly in the background, making the short delay well worth it if this sound quality was the ultimate payoff. The highlight of their set was a charged performance of “Kids Who Die” and an emotional rendition of “Pa’Lante” that inspired equal parts shock and dancing from the sparse audience.
Even among the current rash of super festivals where each genre gets a piece of the pie, Coachella remains unique in that they manage to make all these disparate genres feel as though they belong, be it Latin music, hip-hop or country, it all plays an equally valuable role. But even at Coachella, some genres refuse to play nice, particularly metal and punk. The solution? Put them in their own enclosed tent. The Sonora tent was its own little desert oasis that played host to the bands that didn’t quite fit out in the open. Turnstile, being one of those bands was our first excursion into this tent and by the time they were already tearing the house down and starting mosh pits at 3:45 pm, which would be inadvisable in a typical setting but it certainly worked in the dark, stage light blue soaked tent. Turnstile was plainly at home in the venue and saw themselves play host to an impressive crowd for a small stage in the early evening. No matter what, no one could accuse them of lacking energy, and that intensity cleanly translated to the audience who abandoned all pleasantries away from the unrelenting sun.
Over at the Gobi stage, Beach Fossils started off their chill set with a hilarious imitation of the Saturday Night Live opening before launching into the lazy sand and salt sound that brought them to fame. Both the band and the crowd seemed to be letting loose and just having fun, which worked well for the group. While nothing, in particular, was wrong at all with any of the set (the sound was especially excellent), there was nothing particularly notable about the set itself, and a number of people towards the mid-back of the tent politely bobbed along to the music, with a majority of their attention directed toward whatever was on their phones. Ultimately the set was a nice place for people to stop at on their way to the next thing, or for people who were already big fans of the group to start with.
Punk and more intense genres are always difficult from a live event perspective. More often than not the quality of any individual show is due to the crowd and not so much the band, because unless the group is truly cutting edge or completely massive, most of these shows are more or less the same. That held true for RAT BOY, who, despite providing a powerful and energetic set, they could never really overcome the small crowd that barely filled one-tenth of the already small Sonora stage. The crowd itself seemed to enjoy the music but when compared to the infectious engagement of turnstile, it was tough to see this set as impressive.
JPEGMAFIA started out hot with “VENGEANCE” from Denzel Curry’s latest album TA13OO, and even sang the end part before jokingly cutting the music saying, “cut that shit I can’t sing.” Then the whole show turned up to 11 when he jumped into the crowd to perform “Real N*gga” and the set became absolute magic. As the set progressed he moved dynamically around the stage with an unreal amount of energy and while he continuously joked about how tired and hot it was (and how high he was), it never affected his set in the slightest as he laid down the performance to beat for the night. As far as the sets preceding this one, they may as well not have happened, no slight to them but the bar was clearly raised. Just as it felt the bar was too high he jumped over it with a vitriolic freestyle aimed at cops before finishing it with, “and when Donald Trump dies we gon’ throw a party!” Which was met with raucous cheers from the absurdly hyped audience, who only got more excited when he casually mentioned he has a lot of new music coming. Anyone who wants to know how to put on a great mid-festival set needs to check this one, anyone who wasn’t a fan of JPEGMAFIA before jumping into the crowd either was one when they left or got scared away, and Peggy clearly couldn’t care less who he scared, and neither should anyone else.
Each year the Coachella lineup produces some oddities. Kacey Musgraves won the award for strangest scheduling this year with a mid-afternoon set beginning at 5:50 pm. While her set was on the main stage, usually people who win Album of the Year at the Grammy’s receive enough positive buzz to push themselves into the evening. But this perceived snafu clearly didn’t bug Musgraves who laid down an incredible set with the best stage production of the night so far. The crowd gathered at her stage was easily the largest of the day at this point, doubtlessly spurred on by her stunning Oscar win, though her high-quality music and the impossible to miss giant disco ball were, of course, major factors. The star, also known for her eye-catching fashion was wearing a glimmering red fringe dress that twinkled with every movement and will, of course, be the topic of much discussion in the pop and country communities. But ultimately beyond the production values and the massive crowd the most impressive element of her set came in the form of her peculiar ability to emotionally connect with nearly every audience member and make them feel as though they were alone in this field with her, and that’s something special. She also sounded exactly like she does on the album, so there’s that too.
Most of the time it’s unlikely any given person will be intimately familiar with every single artist at a festival, that likelihood drops drastically when it’s a festival as big as Coachella. However that problem usually contains itself to the undercard, but sometimes an artist like Billie Eilish shows up just to make people feel old and out of touch. Then there are artists like Gorgon City who may not translate far out of the EDM community, but tonight Gorgon City proved they were more than just some artist on the bill to play to fans of a genre. Near the main stage, Gorgon City was laying down a startlingly punishing electronic set that promised to warp the minds and rattle the chest cages of everyone in the audience. At points, their performance could even be heard by those in the thick of the Kacey Musgraves crowd. Luckily in this case punishment and pleasure were walking about with clasped hands, the crowd, to say little of their energy level, registered out past the stage areas and eclipsed the entirety of the left side of the fairground, serving as a fitting transition to the night portion of the concert.
Coming hot off of the same day release of his latest album Ventura, Anderson .Paak found himself faced with an eager crowd, many of whom no doubt spent the morning listening to Ventura on repeat to prepare for this very set. Luckily for those people, Anderson .Paak has spent the years since his rise to stardom becoming one of the best live performers in R&B, a skill that handily translated to his early evening set. Those who were expecting this to be a special set would have their expectations more than met, because not only did .Paak bring on the Free Nationals, who turned this from being just a good R&B show to an eye-opening one, he himself would jump on the drums from time to time seemingly just to remind everyone that not only is he an excellent singer and rapper, but he’s a better drummer than most too. As he was on the main stage he had an excellent set up that featured twin staircases and a large center platform allowing those in the back to get a good look beyond just the wrapped LED screens that took up the wings on either side of the stage, and of course pyrotechnics. His set consisted of a strong mix of new material and crowd pleasers like “Come Down” and “The Heart Don’t Stand a Chance,” but it honestly didn’t matter what he was playing, his energy was magnetic enough that it could draw anyone in, and draw people in it did.
It’s not uncommon to see Spanish language bands on the Coachella lineup, as time has gone on those in charge of the festival have realized the Spanish language market exists in Southern California and they’re willing to spend money on a festival (see: Tropicalia). But typically Spanish language bands feel like an afterthought to fill out the undercard, which is what makes Rosalia’s late evening placement so special. Towards the front of her set, she stuck to playing songs most people may have heard, including James Blake’s, “Barefoot in the Park.” While her crowd draw was small compared to the acts on the two larger stages, that she drew a crowd at all with Ella Mai, Anderson .Paak and The 1975 as her competition was a feat in and of itself. Between songs, she would address the audience and ask to practice her English with them, a charming request that the crowd happily obliged. Rosalia’s set may not have been among the eye-popping exhibitions that had come and were yet to come, but there was an intensity and interconnectedness that few sets were able to match on that day.
US Girls late night placement was one of the more peculiar things about the lineup for Friday, and as soon as anyone walked into the Sonora tent it was apparent that their placement in the evening ultimately screwed them over. While the rest of the festival-goers were busy gawking at The 1975 or dancing the night away with Rüfüs Du Sol, US Girls found themselves playing to a tent that was barely one-tenth full. The crowd may have been diminutive but the band clearly gave it their all delivering a charged and exciting performance that the lethargic crowd was unworthy of. The US Girls clearly garnered a few new fans and proved themselves even more impressive live than they were on their latest critically acclaimed album In A Poem Unlimited. However, they found out the hard way that not every set can be special, and sometimes you’re put on a bill to fill the space, making an ignominious affair out of something that had the potential to be truly special.
SOPHIE is the kind of artist who makes music so good that everyone should be listening to it, but at the same time makes music so abrasive that most people will write it off at first glance. In that way, she’s the musical equivalent of ultra-spicy food, but as far as anyone can tell fans have a “no-worries, more for me then” attitude about the whole thing. The middling crowd at the stage reflected that ideal. While SOPHIE stood almost completely still, trapped in a cage of lasers surrounding a DJ station that looked as though it were designed by HR Giger, playing music that amounted to building towards nothing, most of the crowd stayed, despite the set feeling almost custom built to push people away. After about fifteen minutes of having their patience pushed to the limit, SOPHIE finally snapped over to the bombast noise bombardment that fans have come to love, and the effect on the crowd was all the more powerful for it. If SOPHIE noticed this however she certainly didn’t act like it and moved back into an endless build or plateau for a majority of the remaining time. The set had its high points, like “Ponyboy” and “Whole New World”, but ultimately so much of the set was focused on building towards nothing that it netted out to something of a disappointment when compared to her excellent albums.
Being nearly the last major act on the main stage it’s no surprise that Janelle Monáe was one of the most anticipated acts of the evening. Not only did last year see the release of her long-awaited and critically acclaimed Dirty Computer but she’s known to have a penchant for the theatrical, a penchant that joyfully bleeds into her live shows. And if anyone needs a reminder of that theatrical nature they certainly received it with an opening that included both “Also Sprach Zarathustra” from 2001 A Space Odyssey and part of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech before firing into a dance filled, well-choreographed performance of “Crazy Classic Life.” Monáe did an excellent job of making each meticulously choreographed routine feel natural and engaging, despite the clear amount of work that went into each instance of the show. Even her throne sitting rendition of “Django Jane” which featured a costume change and at least 15 dancers still contained all the seething rage and personal fire that the version on the album did. One of the absolute highlights of the song was “Pynk” which again featured Monáe rocking the vagina pants that shook the Grammy’s.
Beyond the eye-popping wardrobe though, Monáe appeared to be having the time of her life, which carried over to the crowd, who began rushing to get even an inch closer to her awe-inspiring presence. She also showed some love by bringing Lizzo and Tierra Whack to dance during “I Got the Juice.” Of course, the peak of the set was the immaculate Prince tribute “Make Me Feel” which proved to be even more impressive on stage than it was in the perfect music video (which played in the background), a feat not easily accomplished, but made to look effortless by Monáe. Effortless would’ve been a good name for the set as every move, every note and every second was simply perfect, with none of it looking like it took any work at all, no matter how much it actually did.
As our last medium act of the night, Charlotte Gainsbourg was a welcome palate cleanser from the high production value main stage shows. That’s not to say her stage had no production value though, there were a number of square LED frames that pulsated along with the music, giving the small audience something nice to look at while Gainsbourg’s set progressed. While her music was fairly interesting, much of the audience was there to rest before the big finale, which was made clear as many of them sat or laid down, even in the main area mere feet from the crowd barricade. The crowd here was on average a good deal older than most of the others at this point in the night as well, and they all seemed happy to just sit and absorb the music, which appeared to be just fine with Gainsbourg.
As the night began to reach its finale there was palpable electricity in the air that cut through the exhaustion that could be felt only a few sets ago. This excitement was of course building towards Childish Gambino’s set, which, if it was to be anything like Donald Glover’s recent projects and tracks like “Atlanta,” “This is America” and the Coachella premiered Guava Island short film, the show promised both a high level of execution and more than a few shocking surprises. Of these two elements, the show delivered on the former, though the latter did fall short, with few, if any real surprises being delivered. Before the set even started the staging area was packed to the brim, with countless other festival-goers string towards the back in an attempt to hold their place while they rested.
The show began with a recently cut video of people at Coachella talking about their opinion of Childish Gambino, including a lot of middling to negative opinions before he unexpectedly rose from behind the sound booth on a scissor platform adorned with lights, causing a massive shift in the crowd distribution before walking along a catwalk to the main stage where a robe-clad gospel choir awaited him. After wrapping up the first song he listed his two rules for the show which boiled down to “vibe with me” and “no phones,” which did lead to there being fewer phones than is typical at your average highly Instagrammable Coachella headliner set. During the earlier portions of the show, things proceeded more or less as expected, Gambino danced goofily about the stage while an undeniably impressive light show took place behind him on the main stage. The only oddity that took place during the early part of the set was when he said he usually smokes before the show but was gonna smoke during the show this time, before lighting a joint and taking advantage of California’s legalization with an unsuspecting, completely awestruck, and eventually very high fan. After that, and a very long instrumental break he launched into a (literally) firework studded performance of “Me and Your Mama” which kicked the energy back into high gear.
During “Me and Your Mama,” the through-line of all the best acts from this day became clear, no matter how produced or methodical the performance in question was, the best performers were the ones that actually had fun with the audience. A standout moment was when he launched into a strange intermission where he whooped and howled at the audience in a call and response before driving into a new song accompanied by surging pyrotechnics and flashing red lights. If that new song is any indication of something new on the horizon, then the music world is in for quite a treat. But the real treat was a cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” which took the upbeat tune and turned it as dark as the lyrics truly are. He eventually moved over to a newer song “Human Sacrifice” that had a fun pop-tilt but occasionally tended toward MBDTF era Kanye in its best moments. Of course, the set couldn’t finish without a fantastically energetic rendition of “This is America” that fulfilled the dreams of every fan in the crowd and begin closing out the surprisingly standard set on a high note. Overall the set, while fun, lacked the impact that people expect from a headlining Coachella set, which is odd considering Donald Glover is known for pulling out all the stops. And while his performance was excellent, everything surrounding it felt unfortunately average at a time when it should’ve felt fantastic.
Childish Gambino setlist:
“The Worst Guys”
“Me and Your Mama”
“Have Some Love”
“Crazy (Gnarls Barkley cover)”
“Feel Like Summer”
“This is America”
Photo Credit: Sharon Alagna