Loaded with artists I wanted to see but cursed by conflicts, Saturday was a bit of a disappointment. The breeze that made Friday such a blessing in disguise (no dust storm!) fell away to a typically scorching April sun in the desert. My first stop was no stage but a hefty order of crab fries lathered in disgustingly pungent/delicious garlic aioli – my one true love and certainly the most consistent item at Coachella. After that came Canadian indie poppers Alvvays, who have somehow avoided the Coachella hype train and were making their festival debut. I had seen Molly Rankin and company multiple times in the past year, and their set was enjoyable but, at this point, sort of workmanlike. In hindsight, checking out a new face – SOPHIE in the Yuma or Strangers You Know at the Mojave was probably the move.
As a respite from the heat and the uncomfortable roiling feeling the crab fries were bringing to my stomach, I headed to the Despacio tent, a new attraction that appeared to be a one-time-only event for Coachella. Despacio is a bit of an oddity at Coachella, although it fits right in with the festival’s aesthetic. Designed by James Murphy and the Dewaele brothers from Soulwax along with audio engineer John Klett, Despacio is billed as the world’s best listening experience, a cutting-edge speaker system specifically suited for spinning vinyl classics. It’s a small tent lit by a series of lights and a quintessentially ‘70s disco ball, with seven futuristic speaker stacks bumping out 50,000 watts of sound. Given the enclosed space, it was almost too loud, but with the kind of music Murphy and Soulwax were playing (the Despacio operated continuously from about 3:00 p.m to 10:30 p.m. each day), it quickly became my favorite place to enjoy the air conditioning and dance.
And I do mean Murphy and Soulwax – each time I was in there, there they were only inches away behind the dance floor-level DJ booth, meticulously combing through stacks of vinyl and switching off on the decks. The music was an eclectic mix of shimmery Studio 54 disco, classic club tracks, and ‘70s and ‘80s remixed gems as disparate as Queen and the Steve Miller Band. For Despacio’s North American debut, it was a brilliant showcase of both the technical artistry involved and the artists’ dedication to their craft: spinning in what was certainly a hearing hazard for more than seven hours a day while stunned concertgoers snapped photos wouldn’t have been everyone’s cup of tea. It was so good that I allocated 90 more minutes Sunday to watch them work.
Most egregious scheduling of the weekend arrived late afternoon, when festival organizers apparently thought it was a good idea for Run the Jewels to bombard the main stage while duo Rhye attempted to convey their wispy, achingly beautiful strain of R&B to a huddled Outdoor Stage crowd. Instead, what most were treated to was consistent sound bleeding from El-P and Killer Mike, a sharp contrast to the hushed and delicate tones Rhye specialize in. At one point, Milosh, one half of Rhye, glanced over at the main stage and sarcastically remarked, “Well, Run the Jewels sound great.” I’m still not sure how Goldenvoice didn’t fix this problem for Weekend 2, but there Rhye remains.
Rhye’s sound issues were even more unnecessary considering fuzz rockers Deerhunter were in the Mojave tent around the same time. I’m not a professional sound guy, but it would appear to make more sense to let a band that could actually compete with Run the Jewels’ noise onto the Outdoor Stage while Rhye treat their fans to an enclosed tent show. Perhaps it was for the best; while dressed nattily enough, Bradford Cox seemed more content to sleepwalk through his set, barely bothering to liven up otherwise lovely songs off last year’s Fading Frontier. Cox sometimes comes off like he’d rather be doing anything but sing to the audience, and whether it was the somewhat lackluster crowd or the heat, this was one of those times. Luckily, Deerhunter’s killer rhythm section brought a significant amount of groove back to the proceedings for the ending combo of “Helicopter” and “Snakeskin.”
I stopped by AlunaGeorge in a wall-to-wall packed Sahara tent to see one of the more impressive choreography routines of the weekend, as well as an amusing feat of festival desperation. After watching Ms. Francis kill “White Noise” at her own set, I headed over to the Outdoor Stage to catch the second half of Courtney Barnett’s resolutely ‘90s-oriented set (for a singer I can’t really stand, she puts on some very interesting live guitar parts). While heading out after to grab dinner, I passed by the main stage, where what did I hear but Aluna Francis again singing “White Noise,” this time for Disclosure’s benefit. AlunaGeorge’s set ended at 7:30; Disclosure’s began at 7:35, when they opened with “White Noise.” Which essentially means Ms. Francis finished her set, hustled off stage and (presumably) into a waiting cart, which must have sped like Lindsay Lohan across the entire breadth of the festival to deliver the singer to the main stage in time for her to belt out “White Noise” again for a (much larger) crowd. Never underestimate the lengths Disclosure will go to to get their singers to perform live (Lorde, Lion Babe, Brendan Reilly, and, of course, Sam Smith also showed up).
Before catching the end of Disclosure, though, I had to see Long Beach rapper Vince Staples at the Sahara. Another sign of Coachella’s concerted effort to diversify the EDM tent, Staples drew a somewhat small crowd to what is a massive tent, but was ready for it with an impressively hallucinogenic visual display (hello, Vanilla Sky montage?) over dozens of screens behind him and a sound system that could finally let him test the lower limits of his beats. Staples was certainly full of energy, bouncing around the stage and bringing out guest Jhene Aiko to perform, and the music had people swaying. Eventually, though, you can only be screamed at by one person and what sounds like a million watts of bass for so long before you need to move on.
Ice Cube’s hotly anticipated set on the main stage was an exercise in delayed gratification. While the crowd held out hope until the very end that Dr. Dre would make an appearance, they instead had to content themselves with those other guys in N.W.A., MC Ren and DJ Yella. Also, uh, Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea, Jr., who virtually no one at Coachella wanted to see rap, and a consistent stream of promotional shout-outs from the always commercially-minded Cube – his reference to Barbershop when bringing out Common was unintentionally hilarious. Things turned out ok by the end, though, when professional guest star Snoop Dogg arrived to lock down “Go To Church” and “The Next Episode.” For all the street cred shattering moves Ice Cube has made lately, he is still a natural-born performer. And that ‘90s movie announcer intro was undeniably badass in a cheesy sort of way.
When I last saw Grimes, at Coachella 2013, I had to walk out. Claire Boucher is a talented artist, but her abrasive live show – at that point, pretty much just her raving around the stage with a synth – was a disaster. Her show hasn’t gotten any less abrasive – in fact, I’m pretty sure her throat-searing performance of “SCREAM” with pint-sized rapper Aristophanes was the most bizarre effort played to a full tent all weekend – but the production has improved, the music has been fleshed out, and her knowledge of how to connect to an audience has never been clearer. That’s what having one of the most popular records of last year will do to you, I suppose. I was prepared to leave again, but Grimes put on one of the best sets of the weekend at the Mojave. Her duet with Janelle Monae on “Venus Fly” was an early highlight, shifting nearly into rave territory with intense visual accompaniment and sound that exploded out far past the tent. Even when Grimes slowed down, she excelled: “Butterfly” was certainly an odd live choice in this setting but its sugary peaks were ecstatic, and the guitar-heavy “Flesh Without Blood” was at odds with the heavy electronic womps of the rest of her set, although no less fascinating given the numerous interweaving parts Grimes worked on stage. By the time “Kill v. Maim” closed things out, Grimes had revealed herself as one of the most complete performers at the festival, dancing seamlessly to a complicated routine, singing powerfully, and delivering a hectic and thrilling set that encapsulated all the best parts of her batshit Art Angels persona. I’ll be seeing her again.
- DIRTYBIRD record label co-founder Justin Martin absolutely throwing down a vicious two hour closing set of house at the Yuma tent, which has really stepped up its game from previous years. Almost as big as one of the tents outside, the air-conditioned virtual club sported a cavernous dance floor and, best of all, massive beds that could fit dozens of tweaked-out festival-goers with thousand-yard stares. Desperate to rest for a few minutes. Crashing there for the last hour Saturday was a blessing.
- Iranian techno producer Dubfire bringing his critically acclaimed liveHYBRID show to close the Mojave tent. His music is typically darker than your typical Coachella EDM-head could appreciate, but the visually striking box he performed within was one of the coolest sights of the weekend.
- A friend of mine’s girlfriend getting her phone stolen at RL Grime’s packed closing set at the Sahara. Not very PLUR…
- Rüfüs (aka Rüfüs du Sol in North America) is a huge-in-Australia deep house/electro-pop group that had the Gobi tent bursting far beyond capacity late Saturday night. Their sound is a bit a dime a dozen for my taste, but they handle playing live far naturally than many of their peers.
- Up and coming EDM sensation ZHU performing in what looked like a cross between a monk’s robe and a KKK uniform. Not sure it was the best look.
- High school vibes were in full effect when I caught the latter half of Silversun Pickups’ set at the Mojave. Never been a huge fan of these guys, but their live show sounded about as similar to their record as you could hope.
- The less said about Guns N’ Roses, the better.