It was only appropriate that Axl Rose lasted all of one night of Guns N’ Roses’ ballyhooed reunion tour before breaking his foot, resulting in Rose taking a cue from a less fatter veteran in Dave Grohl and performing much of the band’s headlining Saturday set at Coachella in a throne. After all, a solid majority of Coachella 2016 attendees were likely barely able to walk themselves when Axl last performed with this lineup of a formerly great band. Instead, we were treated to Rose bringing out Angus Young (an appropriately shameless tie-in for Rose’s new role as frontman of AC/DC ) and a bloated (rimshot!) setlist that most of the crowd only joined in for the karaoke favorites. That Goldenvoice, the promoters behind Coachella, recently announced plans for a new festival of some of rock’s heaviest (and greyest) hitters was a happy bit of corporate synergy for a festival that has succeeded in mining nostalgia to its further extent.
2016 was a year of disappointing headliners – the joy of seeing LCD Soundsystem again was dampened a bit by them hitting literally every festival on the planet this year, while Guns N’ Roses and Calvin Harris symbolize Coachella’s ruthless pandering to its most profitable audiences at its worst. Lucky, then, that Coachella has improved in most every other facet since I started attending seven years ago. The food is downright gourmet; the security experience is more streamlined, save for the occasional inexplicably misuse of personnel standing around and gawking; the scheduling has largely improved the traffic between various stages. And while I complained about this lineup featuring a ton of bands I had already seen, it allowed me to see a number of bands I had never heard of and reaffirmed that Coachella is truly better than any other event at shuffling diamonds out of the great undercard rough. Not only that, but it remains a singularly beautiful experience, a desert landscape and inhospitable environment that appears harsh but is transformed into something stunning and unique for two weekends every year. For those reasons, I can forgive Spicy Pie for giving my friend the runs on Saturday and security for making me throw out one of my fake lotion/bourbon containers on the very last day. At least they let me drink it first.
Even on the first day of a festival, Sheer Mag at noon is a lot to ask for, but I made up for my laziness/additional time to pregame by buying tickets to see them and Ex Hex in Los Angele later that week (a happy side effect of Coachella being held in southern California). At least I caught HEALTH, one of my favorite live acts. Although they lose a little something in a daytime slot, the top-flight sound got their message across more than effectively. It’s still a bit hard to take bassist John Famiglietti’s rhythmic hair-tossing seriously, but his work on the pedalboard and zoothorn complemented drummer BJ Miller’s predictably crushing kit nicely. While Death Magic has caught flak for smoothing down the rougher edges of HEALTH’s sound, no one walked out of that tent saying HEALTH had gone soft.
Goldroom is named after one of my favorite bars in Los Angeles, so it made sense to head to the Gobi tent to check them out after having heard only one of their EPs. Josh Legg’s electro-pop project didn’t disappoint, supplementing his nominally electronic productions with an extensive live band and a strikingly talented singer in vocalist Nikki Segal. Segal crushed Goldroom’s remix of “Leave A Trace” by fellow Coachella performers CHVRCHES, belting it out arguably better than Lauren Mayberry herself. For a band that I knew very little about – and that I expected to be a particularly funky DJ set at best – Goldroom’s energy and impressive rapport with the crowd created one of the best sets of the weekend.
After catching a few minutes of hyped dance music duo Bob Moses (think deep house + catchy guitar riffs), I resisted my inbred indie rock instincts to seek out the Lord Huron and the Kills combo that was about to take over the Outdoor stage (both bands I had seen before) and instead traveled to the Sahara to check out DJ Mustard and 2manydjs. A word about the Sahara: while I began judiciously limiting my time in this nominally EDM-centric tent years ago when it became clear it would be packed far beyond capacity by shirtless frat stars and glassy-eyed women under legal age, the 2016 schedule actually dispersed the usual DJ Mag suspects around the festival. Of course, DJ Mustard was still a shitshow – it was nearly impossible not to be grinded on by some sweaty individual, man or woman, given that there was literally inches of breathing space. Mustard put on one of the best sets of Outside Lands last year, but in the smaller confines of the (still massive) Sahara tent, his brand of hip-hop hits and trap beats was less fun, although still appropriately bass-heavy. It became far more apparent that his DJing style was more about changing songs every 40 seconds instead of artfully working through transitions, however.
2manydjs, aka the guys from Soulwax, however, killed it. While a majority of the crowd departed the Sahara after Mustard got off the decks, those who stayed were treated to two bonuses: a retro set of soulful house and acid-inflected funk, and a tent that allowed for far more room for dancing. The remix of Tame Impala’s “Let It Happen” that they saved for their set’s climax was a festival highlight, one that I returned to almost every night when I got back from the festival. Their music also served as a reminder of how versatile dance music can be, standing in stark contrast to the usual drop-heavy grime or reheated big room house that normally is served up in the Sahara. The darkly inventive and trippy visuals that played behind them only accentuated how weird electronic music can be while still wanting to making you want to dance your ass off.
Underworld continued the good vibes immediately after to a similarly roomy Sahara tent, likely persuading some of the older crowd at Coachella to finally step foot into that seizure-inducing space. Unfortunately, I left only fifteen minutes in to check out M83 on the main stage, if only because I had to know how Anthony Gonzalez would translate his love letter to ‘80s cheese, Junk, to the main stage. He did that by avoiding it nearly altogether, playing only singles “Do It, Try It” and “Go!” while sticking to a setlist of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming tracks and hits like “We Own The Sky.” There were no complaints from an appreciative crowd, particularly given the big-budget visual spectacle that accompanied it; after all, festivals expect the songs they know. I was disappointed, however, that Gonzalez wasn’t able to bring Steve Vai out to melt some faces with that ridiculously bombastic solo from “Go!”
Weirdest set of the weekend certainly belonged to Sufjan Stevens, who deviated from the acoustic-heavy set I saw on his Carrie & Lowell tour with a seven-song performance that included “Seven Swans” and “Too Much” (both last performed live in 2011) and a generally heavy Age of Adz bent – including the full version of “Impossible Soul” and only one track from Carrie & Lowell. He also wins the best-dressed award, coming out in a space-age tracksuit, sprouting angel wings, and eventually transforming into a giant disco-ball/balloon monster like out of Prince’s darkest nightmares. Sufjan has always subverted expectations – when he smashed his banjo into pieces at the conclusion of “Seven Swans,” you could certainly tell you were in for something that wouldn’t (and probably couldn’t) be replicated.
While Goldroom, 2manydjs, and Sufjan made Friday the best day of the weekend, my favorite set belonged to yet another Friday act, London post-punk act Savages. I had seen Savages perform at FYF Fest in Los Angeles last year and automatically made them a priority, but their commanding show here blew me away. Jehnny Beth is a firecracker live, pulling the crowd on a string and teasing them with controlled bursts of fury before letting them have it, screaming inches away from their faces and crowd surfing while still belting it out. Guitarist Gemma Thompson is the epitome of stony cool, and the intensity of the band’s rhythm section was matched only by the obvious joy they had in performing to a steadily swelling crowd. “We don’t like your money. We don’t like your soul,” Beth said to the audience at one point, a middle finger to Coachella’s guiding ethos. Savages succeed by going against the grain. And damn if I didn’t make my first stop Saturday at the merch booth to buy one of their shirts.
Coachella marked the first of a seemingly endless parade of stops on the festival circuit for LCD Soundsystem, but any doubts as to the band’s desire to put on an authentic performance were put to rest by an epic two-hour set. James Murphy is a born performer, controlling the tempo of the set and the energy of the crowd with effortless confidence and a showmanship that allowed him to sneak Guns N’ Roses “November Rain” into “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” and provide a touching David Bowie tribute with “Heroes.” The best ones, of course, were those same songs that always kept the fans coming back – “Tribulations,” “Someone Great,” a raucous “Dance Yrself Clean,” and, predictably, closer “All My Friends,” lit up by a colorful kaleidoscope of shifting colors set against a massive disco ball. In both LCD Soundsystem’s return and in his marathon vinyl-spinning sets in the Despacio tent all weekend, Murphy proved that he could throw a far better dance party than any of the other big-font EDM superstars Coachella now makes the majority of its money off of. It was a happily real close to a Friday, one that proved nostalgia could just as often be a unifying experience rather than a crafty hook into someone’s wallet.
- While I missed the Kills, friends and Youtube videos confirm that Alison Mosshart is probably one of the very few performers who could stand up to Savages in intensity, even while 25 mile-per-hour winds buffeted her on the Outdoor Stage.
- Rising R&B star Gallant bringing out Seal for a duet on “Crazy” in the Mojave tent was the first of many high-profile guest turns for a weekend that seems to have developed a guest-star problem. This was one of the good ones.
- House legend Sasha having to cancel his set at the Yuma Tent for health reasons was unfortunate and the primary reason I didn’t make it to the club-esque Yuma until Saturday. Hopefully he can make it out to weekend two.
- Kanye West teasing the crowd by coming out for Jack U’s set, grabbing the mic, and then shaking his head and retreating back offstage without saying a word. Like the rest of Jack U’s set, it was an exercise in blue balls.
- Purity Ring closing a packed Mojave tent with an epileptic light show and Megan James’ authoritative vocals. Although the duo are always a pleasure to see live, the tent setting didn’t give their impressive visuals the grand scale it deserved, and the fact that their set was nearly identical to prior festival performances I had seen them at was a tad disappointing. Still, any live Purity Ring is a magical experience.