The last day of the weekend, as is tradition, came in searing hot with temperatures hovering around mid-90s. Fairly balmy as far as the desert goes (I seriously do not know how Weekend 2 does it), in fact, but for a Coachella with some of the best weather I’ve ever experienced – no wind storms! – this must have been penance. Those who shook off the accumulated dust, depleted serotonin and residual hangovers of 2+ days were rewarded with the finest lineup of the weekend, all surging to King Kendrick’s closing set that you could feel as a palpable anticipation over the grounds. The rapper’s coming out party had some serious competition beforehand, though, thank to two shockingly lovely sets on the Outdoor Stage from an old favorite from Ed Banger and a fish-out-of-water composer better known from the red carpet.
First, though, I made it a point to play through the pain and get to the festival earlier rather than later to catch the indoor set from under-appreciated Brooklyn indie band Caveman. The Fat Possum rockers remain firmly under the radar after last year’s War on Drugs-aping Otero War, but their live show showed a band ready to take the next step. The same goes for singer-songwriter Ezra Furman, whose rough-and-tumble set on the Outdoor Stage not only made dancing under the sun somewhat tolerable for a few minutes, but was also the only artist I saw all weekend who had the balls to call out AEG owner (and co-owner of Goldenvoice) Philip Anschutz for his well-publicized issues with funding anti-LGBTQ groups. A bold move for both the setting and the time slot, but props to Furman for seamlessly integrating it with his politically woke brand of raw indie folk.
Retreating to the Gobi tent to check out Australian psych-rockers Pond, I was treated to another, less cohesive statement by clearly wasted frontman Nick Allbrook, who, after mumbling some banter to the crowd midway through their set, reminded the crowd that Coachella was “stolen land.” Presumably talking about the impoverished Native American reservations that used to dot the Coachella valley, Allbrook didn’t really resonate with the exhausted crowd, but the band’s slick live performance – few bands I saw all weekend were able to mix seemingly on-the-spot improvisational jams with such tight chops – won plenty of people over. And when he wasn’t talking, Allbrook was charmingly sloshed.
Spanish teenagers Hinds, who I caught immediately afterwards in the blessedly cool Sonora tent, played it far more straight. Fairly still unknown in the States, their rickety garage pop was like a contagious elixir for the crowd. While I slouched in one of the many bean bags planted around the tent, more and more audience members climbed onto the stage, either to crowd surf, stage dive (generally with disastrous results) or dance with the girls, who almost became lost playing amidst the quickly swelling stage. Hinds has often been accused of being sloppy live, but songs like “Castigadas en el Grenaro” and “Leave Me Alone” are supposed to be played sweaty and loose. For a few distorted chords, it was a note perfect set.
Although I was only lukewarm on their album, Chicago group Whitney put on one of the most affecting performances of the day at the sweltering Outdoor Stage, playing the entirety of their debut Light Upon the Lake, as well as a new track and a cover, to a good sized, receptive crowd lounging on the trampled field. Julien Ehrlich, the rare drummer who sings and the unicorn who actually sounds beautiful while doing it, was the star of the show, but the band was smooth and the music the sort of ideal, calming indie that plays so well on the Outdoor Stage in the afternoon. While Whitney has only been together since 2015, they seemed like well-worn professionals to new electro-pop duo SOFI TUKKER, who parlayed one EP and a Grammy nomination into a prime afternoon set in the Gobi tent. Their set was predictably uneven, and the nervousness flowed off the New Yorkers in waves, but the crowd forgave them for most of it because they both seemed so damn happy to be there. And “Drinkee” remains an inescapable crowd pleaser.
Last year, Coachella had the Despacio tent, an audiophile’s wet dream catered by James Murphy and the guys from Soulwax, a place I could have very well spent my entire day in just to watch those three spin wax and just look like they were having the time of their lives playing whatever the hell they wanted. This year, Coachella got the slightly more cynically corporate Antarctic Dome, a 360-degree, riveting show of art, music lights in an 11,000 square foot dome. You waited in what looked suspiciously like a holding pen while each show went on, and then were led into a massive, IMAX-esque space where you picked a reclining bean bag chair and basically stared up at the ceiling as the show started. As the guy in front of me, who looked like a homeless Matthew McConaughey said: “you’re gonna wanna lie these horizontal for this one.” It’s hard to describe the roughly 10-minute show here, but suffice to say: while I initially felt like it was pandering a little too hard to the people on specific mind-altering substances, things quickly escalated to the point that I was both a stunned, melted mess by the end and a little concerned for the mental health of everyone else who witnessed what was one of the most intense “sets” of the weekend. Bravo, Coachella’s corporate overlords.
When I first saw Future Islands at Coachella in 2014, the band had just played a career-altering performance on David Letterman and Singles was about to establish the band as a major threat on the festival circuit. Longtime fans had always known about frontman Samuel T. Herring’s idiosyncrasies and singular stage presence: by this year’s sunset performance on the Outdoor Stage, some might say it’s become old hat. But as much as a Future Islands setlist tends to all end up sounding like the same up-tempo synth-pop jam, with some spectacularly good bass playing keeping the groove moving, Herring remains perhaps the best frontman in indie. His everyman banter is second to none; his dance moves remain convincingly sexy; his passion is completely unbowed by the rigorous touring schedule the group has been through since Singles and seem ready to embark on again with new release The Far Field. Herring remains game as ever: everyone in my group swore they saw actual goddamn tears when he finished up “Tin Man.” If Future Islands are on a bill, I’m not ready to skip them yet.
It was perhaps the single oddest booking of the festival: Hans Zimmer, the German composer legend who has worked on over 150 films, including such indie gems as The Lion King, Gladiator, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Interstellar, playing the second-to-last set on the Outdoor Stage with a full orchestra. Oh, and a Pharrell cameo that could not have been more out of place if he had actually showed up in The Dark Knight. Goldenvoice need not have worried about reception, as Zimmer pulled in one of the biggest crowds of the day in recreating a number of classic film scores to technical perfection. Zimmer himself shredded some guitar, and the crowd was fairly enraptured by all of the interlocking parts, carefully constructed and wound up as tightly as a clock. The ten-minute panic room feeling that was the Inception theme was a particularly moving highlight for all the weekend warriors staring down the next couple of days at the office. German engineering, indeed.
The word around the festival Sunday night was that, once again, Justice killed it when they closed the Outdoor Stage in support of new album Woman. That album isn’t particularly great, but Justice have really always really been a live band at heart, and a punk one at that. Nearly impossible to see under the hyperactive lightshow they engineered, the French duo have truly fulfilled their dreams of arena rock stardom, taking the retro cheese of their last couple of albums and expanding it into a soaked, blisteringly loud electro house mosh pit in the live setting. With elements of drum ‘n bass and disco liberally sprinkled in, Justice still make live dance music sound less like a commercialized package (see: Marshmello closing the Sahara), and more like something young, vital and mean. I was less interested in them, though, when the Gobi tent was practically empty for Real Estate. I’ve never been to the rail before for a Coachella show, mostly because it’s far too damn packed to do so. To be able to do so now, at the largest Coachella ever, is some pleasant irony. Watching the group run through a number of tracks from the typically superb new record, In Mind, from a few feet away was intimate and astounding: the perfect antidote to a physically and mentally exhausting weekend. And keeping in tradition with their recent live shows, the band closed with new track “Two Arrows,” a deceptively gentle song that turns into a distorted hurricane of spinning, sawing guitars. Easily one of my favorite guitar groups to check out live.
It’s hard to get people to stand up and dance at the end of three days of sun baked debauchery, but Kendrick Lamar was more than up to the task. Drawing liberally from new album DAMN – and boldly, given that the attendees had had only two days, at most, to process the album – K-Dot gave the fans what they wanted. The highlights from Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, the fan favorites from To Pimp a Butterfly and Untitled Unmastered, and plenty of ammunition for anyone positioning Kendrick as the best rapper alive right now. The tracks from DAMN, unheard by me until this performance, slayed, in particular the machine gun patter of “GOD.” When he unexpectedly rose up in a cage in the middle of the crowd while performing “LUST” and then “Money Trees,” it was the kind of power move that hadn’t occurred at a headlining set since Kanye in 2011. This was readily apparent when Schoolboy Q and Future appeared for separate guest spots, as both paled in comparison – I suppose that’s what happens when you perform next to a star being born. Brutally honest in rapping about police violence and crises of race and spirit, hilarious when play-acting through some of his “Kung Fu Kenny” skits, Kendrick was the ideal artist to close Coachella, a maximalist blend of high-end production value and piercing, precise lyricism. All the while he succeeded in what Goldenvoice hopes for most: bringing these tired, filthy degenerates to stomp their feet one more time while making them think, at least a little bit, about what it is they’re all rapping along to. In other words, it was the perfect close for a festival that continues to expand at all costs, while still trying to retain that old, sharp edge, that subversive spirit buried underneath all the sponsored Heineken and $15 gourmet fries. With an artist like Kendrick, that will still play.
- Lorde calling out the recent PR mini-storm that occurred when Goldenvoice organizer Paul Tollett said Coachella did not book Kate Bush in the past because fans would not “understand it” by using “Running Up That Hill” as her intro music. Incidentally, Bush was never in talks to play at Coachella, and the quote was badly out of context.
- Australian DJ Anna Lunoe making a rare appearance for the women side of EDM in the Sahara tent with a trap-heavy set, although Goldenvoice did her no favors with a 2:15 p.m. start time.
- The saddest casualty of Coachella’s expanded size was the massive crowd that spilled far out the sides of the Sahara tent and made it next to impossible to catch Kaytranada’s set at dusk. Here’s hoping in a couple of years he’s playing the Main Stage; at this point, I think it’s impossible to make the air hangar-sized Sahara much bigger.
- The quintessential bar band, Chicago’s Twin Peaks, busting out an equally infectious set to match Hinds shortly after those girls headed off stage in the Sonora tent.
- Wrinkling legends New Order and S.O.L. closing out the Mojave and Sonora tents, respectively.
Top 5 Sets
3. The Avalanches
4. Future Islands
5. Real Estate