One of the hardest things to do at Coachella is wake up in time to get to the festival early to catch the first few bands. Usually this isn’t too big of a problem – rarely has a band I’ve loved been set too early. Sunday was an exception, as Phosphorescent took the Mojave tent stage at 12:15. Missing out on the extra sleep was a great decision – Matt Houck and his band played their whiskey-strained alt-country with a steel guitar riffing and piano-pounding passion that enervated the sleepy residents of the tent and woke me up for the day better than any energy drink.
The only thing worse for a band’s Coachella audience than an early start time is extreme heat, and as Sunday afternoon stretched on and temperatures reached the highest they’d been all weekend, it wasn’t all that surprising to see Menomena’s set at the Outdoor stage less than packed as concertgoers scrambled for the tents. Menomena, after all, aren’t the same band as they used to be – with founding member Brent Knopf leaving the band this past January, songs on which he sang lead vocals were nowhere to be found. But what they did play, sticking mostly to songs from 2007’s Friend and Foe and last year’s Mines, was up to the rabid fans’ standards who braved the 100 degree heat. Closer “TAOS” was the obvious favorite.
It wasn’t easy staying at the Outdoor stage, but Sputnik favorites fun. were up next to a clearly reduced crowd. Besides the obvious difficulties of Googling the band, the power-pop group was going up against Jack’s Mannequin on the main stage, leaving many unaware of just how effective a show they were going to be treated to. The heat didn’t deter Nate Ruess and company from launching into a number of handclap and ooh-ahh-powered songs, getting what little crowd they commanded to sing along to Aim & Ignite favorites like “All The Pretty Girls (On A Saturday Night).”
After catching some of Jack Beats brand of uber-wobbly bass lines and frantic electro house at the Sahara (note to people popping pills at 4 in the afternoon on the third day of the festival: slow your roll), not to mention some much-needed shade, I headed back to the Outdoor stage to see Jimmy Eat World. They had just launched into “A Praise Chorus,” finally getting all the sun-shocked masses to get up and sing a long. Their set was solid, but vocalist Jim Adkins’ voice didn’t always seem up to par for the huge festival environment, and the band occasionally drowned him out. Regardless, the crowd was one of the more into it I’d seen all weekend, and the band obliged them by playing fan favorites from “Coffee and Cigarettes” off their new album Invented to classics like “Sweetness.”
Heading over to the main stage, I managed to see the end of Nas & Damian Marley’s dual set, where the haze of pot smoke left over from Wiz Khalifa’s earlier performance only grew. The pair seemed more like separate entities playing together than a complete duo, but most of the crowd was there to either see Nas rap or Marley play “Welcome to Jamrock,” not hear songs from their recent collaborative album. It was great to see them nail songs off Distant Relatives, but when Nas killed “If I Ruled The World” and Marley broke into “Welcome to Jamrock,” the festival grounds really came alive. Or as alive as thousands of stoned onlookers could.
Those lacking in testosterone then went over to catch Best Coast at the Outdoor stage, but I stayed to see the reunion set of two-piece punks Death From Above 1979. After hearing that their set at South by Southwest ended in a riot complete with some good old-fashioned police brutality, I was expecting some furious drum and bass work. I wasn’t disappointed. DFA made the rest of the main stage bands look like a bunch of pansies, laying rumbling, violently technical bass lines over Sebastian Grainger’s pained wails and relentless kit assault. It was about as subtle as a brick to the head, but that’s what DFA do: they punish. Aside from the mosh pit that broke out close to the stage, it seemed like a lot of the concertgoers didn’t know what to do, like they didn’t expect exactly this from DFA. But for a little less than an hour, the pair reminded us that a little violence is always good.
A change of pace brought dusk and the National to the Outdoor stage for one of my most eagerly anticipated sets of the weekend. What could have been a legendary performance as the sun set instead turned into one of the greater disappointments of the festival, as vocalist Matt Berninger’s normally calm and collected baritone turned ragged and, well, sort of drunk. The band was on point as ever, particularly drummer Bryan Devendorf, but Berninger slugged his way through a lackadaisical “Fake Empire” and a painfully out of key “Mr. November” before Justin Vernon of Bon Iver came on to close things out with “Terrible Love.” I’ve heard good things of the National’s show before, so I’m going to chalk this one up to a bad night and only hope they come back for a better set next year.
After catching the tail end of “disco-house” pioneers Duck Sauce and their ubiquitous hit “Barbra Streisand” as well as the beginning of groove alchemists Ratatat (neither, sadly, of whom could convince me to stay longer than a few minutes), I walked back over to the main stage to get a good spot for the Strokes. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the band; would they play a lot from Angles, which I wasn’t that into; would the band be as good as I always heard they are live, as good as I imagined when I listen back to Is This It?’s raw garage rock energy; would Julian Casablancas be drunk and capable of a coherent performance? Well, Julian Casablancas was drunk, and commenting on everything from how much Kanye sucks to “the fine looking tail in the audience tonight,” but when it came time to sing, he and the rest of the Strokes absolutely slayed. A tight, sixteen-song set that featured only five Angles tunes (including a fiery “Under Cover of Darkness”), the Strokes seemed content to play their hits, even though Casablancas did seem a little disgusted with it all throughout. But from the reckless guitar solos that laughed at all the naysayers who said the Strokes couldn’t really rock, to Casablancas’ flawless performance despite his obvious inebriation (something Matt Berninger could take notes from), to their no-frills light show, the Strokes exceeded all my expectations. Casablancas didn’t do anything crazy like climb up onto the stage rigging, but watching the entire festival grounds bounce along to closers “Last Nite” and “Take It Or Leave It,” I couldn’t ask for a more complete show.
Orchestral music began wafting up across the main stage thirty minutes after the Strokes’ set ended, a bare white stage unadorned with anything but a DJ booth and a staircase leading up to a massive stone-shaded painting, one that wouldn’t have looked out of place in some Aztec temple. As the music built a cadre of white-robed dancers ran on stage, dispersing into a complex dance routine that centered on the staircase. The music built and built, and as the first strains of “Dark Fantasy” became audible all eyes were directed towards the staircase . . . until screams and pointed fingers finally directed everyone to where the event really was: Kanye West and a microphone, being lifted up above the middle of the crowd on a crane. No one actually expected Kanye to come down a simple staircase, right? By the time “Dark Fantasy” ended and “Power” began, Kanye was on the proper stage, directing the audience and the dancers as his choral orchestra, lifting them up every time he spat “no one man should have all that power” as fireworks burst into the air with each mention of the word “power.”
And, for the most part, that was the extent of Kanye’s stage show. This performance was about the man and the music, the extraneous dancers disappearing and reappearing on command only to add a brief chorus to his verses, the fireworks the only bit of extravagance he needed. He was surprisingly modest, always thanking the audience and occasionally delving into the story behind songs, like when he opened up about his mother’s death after “Say You Will.” Few could find any fault with his set list; from “Gold Digger” to “Runaway” to “Stronger,” West at one point yelled, “we ain’t done with the hits yet!” Perhaps the only thing missing was a little star support; much anticipated special guests turned out to be Bon Iver on “Monster,” an addition made weaker by the fact that Vernon had already performed earlier with the National. But the set closed as it probably should have: just the man and his music, alone on a stage, singing “Hey Mama” to a rapt audience. It seemed like the antithesis of Kanye, no flash or frills, but it brought all the attention on the music, and when it comes to West, isn’t that what we all come for? Cut away all that egomaniacal bullshit and what you have is a true artist, and no one else was better suited to close a festival obsessed with celebrating art. And who can be disappointed with a festival like that?
Top 5 Sets
1. The Strokes
2. Cut Copy
3. Arcade Fire
4. Kanye West