Coachella 2017 rolled on with another weekend of desert sun and booming tunes. Here’s some of the best things we saw on our second time around.
Outside of Lady Gaga’s main stage set, Coachella’s most startling pageantry could be seen in the epic costume drama that was Empire of the Sun. As the Australian electronic act’s set began, frontman Luke Steele emerged slowly beneath black, flame-shaped headgear and octopus-armed epaulets on his shoulders. He took his place behind an alien-themed dais as four dancers writhed in sparkly mermaid blue. While Empire of the Sun is a big name in the electronic dance world, the group is just as quick to lift an electric guitar for a genre-blending riff. Steele tossed the guitar aside as the dancers returned dressed in headgear illuminated with light, and he sang the group’s “We Are the People” as he struck a pose between geysers of fog.
Radiohead is not normally a band with anything to prove, but last weekend’s sound production meltdown overshadowed their headlining performance. Weekend Two, however, provided a welcome chance at revision. What the band delivered Friday night was what we’ve come to expect from Radiohead: 22 songs of sweeping elegance and noise, forward-leaning and primal, exploring the complicated landscape of the human psyche. The band again opened with three songs from last year’s A Moon Shaped Pool, starting with “Daydreaming,” a forlorn piano ballad sung by bandleader Thom Yorke. On the hyperactive “Ful Stop,” Yorke stood anxiously with a handheld keyboard and wailed to the overlapping bursts of guitar from Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien. There was more controlled tension in “15 Step” (from 2007’s In Rainbows) and cutting guitar lines on “Lucky” from Greenwood, who sliced a bow across his guitar strings on an eerie “Pyramid Song.” It was a career-spanning set reaching back to 1995’s aching “Fake Plastic Trees,” updated subtly with new effects and textures along the edges. “Maybe this time you can hear me,” Yorke said early in one of his few between-song remarks. This time it all unfolded flawlessly.
Coachella vets Justice closed this year’s “Outdoor Stage” on a grand scale, beginning with the soaring “Safe and Sound,” the first track on last year’s Woman. In 2017, Justice have expanded their amped-up funk with new accents of alluring pop hooks. Both Xavier de Rosnay and Gaspard Augé (in a red satin Bowie tour jacket) bounced in silhouette with a glowing wall of Marshall amps behind them as they roared through “Canon” and “D.A.N.C.E.,” colliding beauty and noise amid a stage overflowing with smoke and lights.
“How many of you know I turn 22 in a few hours?” said Oakland R&B singer Kehlani. “This is the coolest birthday ever. This is amazing.” She returned to the Mojave Tent ready to celebrate, dressed in a white trench coat to sing of gangsta romance to an overflowing crowd. With a Lauryn Hill tattoo on her arm, Kehlani sang with attitude and toughness, while the range and warmth of her voice revealed human vulnerability beneath the bravado. “Too Much” (from her new SweetSexySavage) challenged a lover that she was “Too much of a boss, baby, it’s your loss.” On “Do U Dirty,” she warned the armor remained even if “you see the good in me.” She was tough, but still managed a real smile when fans sang an impromptu “Happy Birthday to You.”
As the clock edged toward midnight on Saturday, the New York-based producer and performer built a flowing musical landscape of intensity and drama. Songs were built and receded in layers as he stood in silhouette on a dark, smoky stage. While much of the crowd danced to the epic beats from last year’s Sirens, other fans simply stood and stared, mesmerized by the throbbing soundscape.
Norwegian duo Röyksopp showed a gift for the flamboyant and ethereal during their packed Sahara Tent set, as Swedish singer (and frequent collaborator) Jonna Lee emerged high up on a platform behind them in flowing fairy-queen garb. Her searing vocals added an emotional counterpoint to the intense electronics of the Röyksopp DJs, who came to Coachella dressed in matching white suits and black ties. DJ/percussionist Svein Berge stepped away from the electronics to sing a downbeat “Sordid Affair.”
On Coachella’s opening weekend, kaleidoscopic Aussie band Avalanches made its first-ever U.S. performance – more than 16 years after the acclaimed sample-obsessed LP Since I Left You. The euphoric act returned to the desert a week later for another 50 minutes of dance pop and hip-hop layered with a mountain of beats, effects, guitars and many, many samples. The group’s creative core – Robbie Chater, Tony Di Blasi and James De La Cruz – sent the crowd bouncing from their first moments behind their instruments and sequencers on a stage draped with American flags and their own flowery rainbow flag. They were joined by a pair of charismatic vocalists, singer Eliza Wolfgramm and rapper Spank Rock, who both appeared on last year’s long-awaited Avalanches sophomore album, Wildflower. They dove into a cover of the Clash’s classic “Guns of Brixton,” sung by Wolfgramm as she swung a baseball bat overhead to the dub beats, leading into a sample of the Clash’s “Know Your Rights.” From the first album came “Flight Tonight,” Spank Rock shook his dreads to the bleeps and beats and delivered his lines like Melle Mel on “White Lines.” Just as joyous was the newer “Frankie Sinatra,” which had Wolfgramm sing a live take on the record’s sample of “My Favorite Things.”
Berlin-based crew Moderat makes electronic music that thrives in the shadows – gothic and mysterious, balancing monumental beats and atmosphere with some lively, even hopeful melodies. Group member Apparat stepped out to sing their surprising ballad “Eating Hooks,” gripping the mic with both hands to share the grim news: “Meditation, medication/I’m eating the hooks that tear me.” It was smoky like Sade, but with words and beats like industrial-strength machinery.
“Keep it moving! Keep it moving!” shouted Warpaint singer-guitarist Emily Kokal to the early Saturday night crowd as her band began another song of experimental indie rock ready for the dance floor. Two basses rumbled in tandem as drummer Stella Mozgawa kept a clubby kick-drum rhythm in bare feet for “So Good.” On their return to Coachella, the L.A.-based quartet performed nine songs from their three albums, recreating sounds that were consistently forceful but subtle. Theresa Wayman put down her guitar to sing to the dark, spectral funk of “Love Is to Die,” before the band slipped into “New Song,” another flinty but danceable tune. They were joined by producer Jacob Bercovic on bass as their voices blended dreamily into an eccentric pop harmony: “You’re a new song, baby, you’re a new song to me. …”
“You guys are my people!” declared Robert Pollard, leader of the proudly ragged and lo-fi Guided By Voices, notorious indie rock forefathers. He was referring the modest crowd in front of him in the Sonora Tent, alluding to competing acts across field and to come later that evening. “Radiohead is back,” his stream-of-consciousness ramble went on. “It’s their first album in 25 years. We put out five albums a year!” Still defiant and full of beans, Pollard just looked happy to be there with a chest full of light beer, performing dozens of tunes with the current five-piece at a rapid clip. He repeatedly kicked a leg over his head and handed out beers to the front rows. The band’s 1997 anthemic single “I Am a Tree” remained forceful and catchy, riding a tumbling beat. “Glad Girls” was upbeat, fuzzy guitar rock, and during “I Am a Scientist” Pollard reached down to shake some raised hands.
“It’s good to see you all here. I know there are lots of places to be,” Allah-Las singer-guitarist Miles Michaud told a nearly full Sonora Tent. “More of you than last week. That’s rad.” He was midway into a set of mid-Sixties guitar jangle with the six-man band from L.A., who play with echoes of vintage acts from the Velvet Underground to Buffalo Springfield. Michaud, lead guitarist Pedrum Siadatian and bassist Spencer Dunham all wore dark glasses as the band stretched out on instrumental windouts, no words needed. On a shimmery “Catalina,” Michaud sang to a Byrds-ish riff, followed by percussionist Matt Correia taking the mic to sing a cover of “Calm Me Down,” a vintage single by short-lived SoCal psychedelic rockers the Human Expression.
Bishop Briggs is a singer of smoky post-modern pop, and she showed a flair for the dramatic in the Gobi Tent. As she began singing “The Fire,” she sat on a riser and snarled “I’ve been a devil, I’ve been a saint” to a piano rhythm. With a gold chain snug to her throat, long braids bouncing with every step, the British-born, Los Angeles-based singer ran hot and cool to a band of crashing electronics, live drums and slashing electric guitar. Her “Wild Horses” (unrelated to the Rolling Stones classic) was confident and joyful, while her breakthrough single “River” launched her happily across the stage as fans sang along.
The Seattle punk rock quartet Tacocat delivered a charming, messy mix of anxious beats, indie rock guitar, bits of surf and biting vocals on modern life. Singer Emily Nokes could be disarming and fierce at the same moment, introducing songs with subversive social commentary. Of the self-explanatory “Men Explain Things to Me,” she wondered, “Maybe it happened to you yesterday. Maybe it happens to you all the time.” As a wave of small bubbles blew across the stage, she offered: “This next song is about street harassment” or “This next song is dedicated to anyone whose on their period right now.” The sound was excited poppy punk in its classic form, endlessly vicious and effervescent.
Chicano Batman dressed for the intense desert heat the way they always do: in matching blue wedding-band tuxedos. Mid-afternoon Saturday, the quartet looked hot … and hot. The L.A.-based quartet collides soul, surf and Tropicália into a raging blend of fire and excitement. Singer-organist Bardo Martinez swung his long hair during molten guitar solos by Carlos Arévalo. Performing songs from their new Freedom Is Free album, Chicano Batman stretched out in all directions: near the end of their set, Martinez peeled off his jacket and frilly shirt and dove deep into the crowd for a triumphant moment of surfing while Arévalo unfurled one more wah-wah solo in the sun.
One of Coachella’s great traditions since its earliest days is the DoLab, a free-spirited gathering of tribes with DJs, acrobats and more adding to the hypnotic, feel-good vibes. One of the highlights from Weekend Two was the Saturday set by house DJ Justin Martin, who played to a full tent as late afternoon sunlight shined through the mist and a pair of women spinning parasols danced on either side. His remix of Henry Krinkle’s “Stay” and his own “Back to the Jungle” sent the crowd into motion. The Dirty Bird crew DJ also shared some new tracks completed just for Coachella, as a female acrobat was slowly lifted for several minutes of aerial dancing.