Where Friday was cold, dreary and windy, Saturday was merely cold and windy. The sun maintained a long vigil during the day, but razor sharp gusts and a high that barely cleared 70 degrees made sure Coachella kept making a pretty penny on hoodie sales. 2:30 in the afternoon is not necessarily morning, but it always feels like that, with the majority of the festival still in their tents or beds recovering from the night before. Destroyer didn’t seem to mind, though; playing a seven song set heavy in Kaputt cuts, Bejar was in fine form for the afternoon mood. Many enjoyed the suave jazz of “Chinatown” and the hazy “Bay of Pigs” from blankets in the grass, an appropriately dreamy soundtrack as the sun beat down on them and most people unwillingly began their day.
After that I kicked up the energy a bit for Zeds Dead’s set at the Sahara. Already way past full, the Sahara tent was rocking with the Mad Decent duo’s eclectic mix of hip-hop, dubstep and straight-ahead electro. Although Zeds Dead killed it, the already rowdy antics of much of the Sahara’s population had me swearing off the tent for the rest of the day, a decision made easier by future Sahara tenants (David Guetta, Martin Solveig, Sebastian Ingrosso … ehh, I’ll pass). I managed to catch the end of Britpop castaways Kaiser Chiefs on the Main Stage, where the band still made a go of it in front of a diminished crowd with a raucous version of “Oh My God.” They still had energy in spades, but a trip to a lower billing isn’t too far away for the Chiefs.
The coveted sunset spot on the Outdoor Stage belonged to Andrew Bird, one of more anticipated artists given his excellent new record Break It Yourself and the fact that I had never seen him before (sorry, Manchester Orchestra in the Mojave tent). Although I had doubts about his wispy voice and whistling translating well to an open live arena like the Outdoor Stage, his voice carried well, and his deep backing band never overwhelmed. It was a treat watching him and other members of his band switch instruments deftly between and even during songs without a hitch, and production-wise it was one of the more flawless shows put on the entire weekend. The string work on “Orpheo Looks Back,” in particular, sounded crystal clear in the air and could have been ripped practically right off the vinyl.
The elusive Jeff Mangum, meanwhile, took the stage in a solitary chair shortly after Bird left, the sun struggling to stay over the horizon as the crowd struggled to shuffle closer to the stage in order to hear this almost exclusively acoustic set. Mangum’s hermit reputation is well earned – this was the only set during which a worker asked the audience beforehand to refrain from photographing or filming the performance (good luck!). The Outdoor Stage didn’t do Mangum any favors, either; the acoustics often got lost, particularly to those sitting in the rear of the lawn, and the sizable crowd promoted more talking than listening, which likely would have been prevented in a hushed, enclosed club (or a smaller tent). Regardless, the fans cheered the Neutral Milk Hotel leader emphatically after every song, which included nearly every fan favorite from In the Aeroplane Over The Sea. When Mangum brought out a French horn and a trombonist for the titular track from that album, it was damn near magical when set against the purple dusk.
Although I had a decision to make between St. Vincent (very tough), Kasabian (not so hard) and the Shins, it was really a no brainer when the chance arose to see one of the favorite bands of my youth. Surprisingly playing Coachella for the first time, James Mercer and a bolstered backing band (with a number of female backing vocalists who nailed some of the trickier multi-part harmonies) cherry-picked all of their hits, running the gamut from a bouncy “Australia” and the cathartic climax of “Sleeping Lessons” to the note-perfect orchestral flourishes in “Saint Simon” and, of course, “New Slang,” which held the entire audience spellbound and nearly silent (a miracle in itself). Although this new incarnation of the Shins has only been around for this year’s Port of Morrow, given their impeccably taut playing you’d be forgiven for thinking this band had been playing together for years. Mercer threw in a bonus curveball with their cover of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe,” a suitably trippy rendition and a nod to the amount of psychedelics Mercer jokingly noted were probably being consumed by the crowd. Easily one of the best performances of the weekend.
Over at the Outdoor Stage I caught the last thirty minutes of Feist’s set, and judging from the massive backing band/orchestra/crew that swelled out behind her on the stage, you would have thought the entirety of Broken Social Scene and their families had come out to jam with the waifish songwriter. Her last album, 2011’s Metals, took a while to grow on me, but I now think that its spartan soundscape and carefully boiling songs are some of the best work of her career. This was reaffirmed with what I saw from her set, which transformed Metals standouts like “The Bad In Each Other” into full-blown Americana epics, playing up a western tinge that the Outdoor Stage and her orchestra enhanced nicely. Feist also connected with the crowd effortlessly (props to the soundstage for keeping her voice very clear at all times), at one point cracking that “Caught A Long Wind” was an outtake from Dr. Dre’s The Chronic.
While Bon Iver would have seemed like a good idea in the afternoon, the night made Flying Lotus seem like a much more reasonable choice, and although I only caught the last twenty minutes of his set in the Gobi tent, I wasn’t disappointed. Of all the artists I saw over the weekend, FlyLo seemed the most genuinely happy to be there, thanking the audience after almost every song, shouting out his drummer and bassist (Sunday performer THUNDERCAT), bringing a bunch of Odd Future members on stage to dance along, and giving out a palpable, heartfelt acknowledgement to the crowd’s support of him. That was after he had already premiered bits of his new album (slated for a September 2012 release), gotten the crowd moshing every which way with his signature blend of hip-hop thump, space-age sonic gear-shifting and hard-hitting remixes (“Niggas in Paris”), and dropped a ferocious rip of Waka Flocka Flame’s “Hard in the Paint” to close things out. White people have rarely danced so hard at Coachella.
Having seen Godspeed You! Black Emperor during their reunion show last year, I only stopped by for a few minutes of the band’s drone, which was fantastic when I saw them in a theater a year ago but didn’t have nearly the same lose-yourself appeal when the insistent four-on-the-floor bass from the nearby Sahara kept bleeding over. Electro group Miike Snow, closing out the Outdoor Stage, meanwhile, did everything they could to sell their new album to a festival audience, and at times it worked (“Paddling Out,” in particular, was a legitimate party). But when they crushed old favorites like “Silvia” and the acoustic intro mix into “Black & Blue,” there was really no contest.
British drum ‘n bass producer Sub Focus, closing out the Mojave, endured one of the rougher mishaps that I saw over the weekend. His potent blend of hard electro, filthy drops, and speed-friendly rhythms (aka robots having sex) nearly shorted out several of the speakers, causing noticeable clipping and distortion. Luckily, while the emcee cooled the crowd, techs were able to fix whatever was wrong and got the rest of the party rolling smoothly along. It was a good thing, too, because short of Amon Tobin, Sub Focus easily had the coolest light show of the festival (although Kaskade’s floor-to-ceiling lights next door at the Sahara looked appealing). Situated in a spiral of constantly shifting LED lights and two screens that moved in and out of focus in groove to the music, Sub Focus did a fantastic job combining fluid drum ‘n bass with a light show that amplified rather than detracted from his show. It helped that this was probably the filthiest set of the festival, an atmosphere reinforced by the grimy diehards who chose this over A$AP Rocky, Kaskade, and, of course…
The much-anticipated Radiohead closing set on the Main Stage was predictably epic, the band’s new addition of a second drummer paying immense dividends and allowing them to recreate some truly intense drum machine beats. The setup didn’t disappoint, particularly on “Karma Police,” where the stage was taken over by nine massive video screens showing close-ups of the band, and second encore (total encore time: nearly an hour) closer “Paranoid Android,” which alternated between black-and-white melodrama to a frenetic blast of multicolored arrangements per the song’s transitions. The setlist was everything a Radiohead fan could ask for, unless you were heckling them to play “Creep” (I think this person would have been murdered), ranging from newer tunes like the undeniably sexy “Lotus Flower” to older classics (“Lucky,” “Idioteque”). Of course, I’m the first to admit I’m not the biggest Radiohead fan (blasphemy!), yet the patently brilliant musicianship, particularly the drumming, was easy to get lost in. Furthermore, it’s tough for me to describe this set in words – Radiohead is a band meant to be seen in full Technicolor glory, and while there’s a number of videos online where one can see the full set, you really can’t get a feel for the full immersion of their sets unless you’re there, calm and drifting in one of the most involved light shows I have ever seen. The final glorious blast of color that they left transfixed on the stage and imprinted on my retinas as their set ended was the perfect representation for their performance. Not sure what Thom was thinking with that ponytail, though.