50 Best Things We Saw at Coachella 2014 - Rolling Stone
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50 Best Things We Saw at Coachella 2014

Surprising cameos, sizzling superstars and real-live desert rock: the most memorable moments from Weekend One


Koury Angelo

For two weekends every year, there is an oasis in the California desert, when the Empire Polo Club in Indio transforms into the music festival known as Coachella. This past weekend, around 90,000 fans a day came to see a couple of hundred musical acts (and nearly as many special guest stars). From Skrillex, Arcade Fire, and Pharrell Williams to the artisanal ice cream, our team found the very best parts of the festival. Join us for the 50 greatest moments of Coachella — just like being there, but without the sunburn and sandstorms. By Steve Appleford, Matt Diehl and Gavin Edwards


Dana Distortion

Best Sunset Moment: Neutral Milk Hotel

The mythic time at Coachella is sunset: the festival has even compiled stats on bands who have been playing the main stage when the sun dips behind the mountains (16 from the U.S., eight from England, one from France). This weekend's sunset moment belonged to Neutral Milk Hotel, who at 6:57p.m. yesterday were playing the title track to their beloved 1998 album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea: a song about falling in love but knowing that someday it will end, like all things, in death.

The crowd was rapt, almost silent, knowing they were witnessing something rare. Jeff Mangum, leader of Neutral Milk Hotel, vanished for well over a decade before reuniting the band last year, and he came onstage looking like Howard Hughes in recluse mode, with a long beard and a baseball cap pulled down low. He greeted the crowd by saying, "Would you mind putting the cameras and cell phones away? Let's just be together, OK?" People complied, for the most part.

Neutral Milk Hotel lovingly recreated their old songs, drawing on both Aeroplane and the earlier On Avery Island, bolstering Mangum's guitar with a motley assortment of instruments: accordion, trombone, saw, even a banjo played with a bow. The group (as many as seven strong at some points) matched the dense tangle of Mangum's lyrics with music that veered between drones and melodies, and felt like ecstatic prayers, as if the fastest path to divinity was making a joyful noise.

A few hours later, Coachella would end the weekend with a triumphant set by the Arcade Fire: another artistic collective fond of instrument-swapping, Salvation Army aesthetics and ambitious theme records. But although the Arcade Fire had Debbie Harry onstage to sing "Heart of Glass," their predecessors owned the day. Neutral Milk Hotel's set climaxed with Mangum doing "Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two" solo, singing about "secret songs that you keep wrapped in boxes so tight." In a corner of the Coachella grounds, Mangum unwrapped some of those secret songs and gave the 2014 festival some evanescent but indelible memories.

Dana Distortion

Hardest-Rocking Acoustic Guitarist: Frank Turner

"Who's up for a fucking sing-along?" Frank Turner asked an afternoon crowd. "It'll be like we were simultaneously seized by the spirit of rock & roll." Turner used to sing for a British hardcore band, but now he rocks almost as hard on songs like "Wessex Boy" with an acoustic six-string. With his backing band, he pounded his way through songs about life, death and music, pulling off the tough punk-folk combo, and so winning over the audience that he convinced them that it was a good idea to do jumping jacks during one song. "I would take you home to meet my mum," he told the crowd. "Maybe not all at the same time."

Karl Walter/Getty Images for Coachella

Best Cover: Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion — more grizzled these days, but having lost none of their aggression — bashed their way through an excellent version of the early Beastie Boys single "She's On It" (from the Krush Groove soundtrack). Runners-up: Ms. Mr, doing LCD Soundsystem's "Dance Yrself Clean," only with more spastic dancing and pink hair, the Afghan Whigs' muscular take on "Heaven on Their Minds" from Jesus Christ Superstar, and Capital Cities' union of the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" with Weezer's "Undone – The Sweater Song."

Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Coachella

Best-Represented Decade: The Eighties

"Some people said we didn't belong here," Ian Astbury, the iconoclastic frontman for the Cult, said onstage. In truth, bands that made their name during the "greed decade" tend to draw well at Coachella, and 2014 proved no different. In addition to the Cult, day one also featured the Replacements, along with Bryan Ferry crooning through some of his best known Eighties hits; day two, the Mojave tent headliners proved to be Pet Shop Boys and a strong set from the newly revamped Pixies, who kicked the asses of Kim Deal loyalist naysayers with new bassist Paz Lenchantin. And even if they don't actually hail from the Eighties, some of the most buzzed-about new acts — Blood Orange, Chvrches and the like — sound like they might as well be…

Koury Angelo

Best-Represented Fashion Statements: This Top 10

1. Crocheted bikinis 2. Crocheted anything else 3. Body paint 4. Beards 5. Fringe 6. Bandanas 7. Flags 8. Lace tops 9. Ironic T-shirts 10. Capes

Koury Angelo

Best Proof Coachella’s Dance Scene Isn’t Just About Brostep: The Yuma Tent

Lasers, beats, bass — works every time! Far from being a fair-weather trend, EDM seemed more pop-culture entrenched then ever from its hands-in-the-air popularity at Coachella 2014. The Sahara — Coachella's traditional dance tent — was continually the most packed square footage of the fest: Day one saw Glitch Mob absolutely destroy with dayglo synths, speaker-bursting low end and relentless beat barrages, not to mention face melting, arena-ready visuals. Dutch superstar DJ Martin Garrix followed with a pounding set of 4/4 electro-house, and the main stage was rocked with prime-time sets from Girl Talk and Calvin Harris. Even better, many dance artists made sly references to other popular Coachella genres in their sets, from Martin Garrix remixing Blur's "Song 2" to Glitch Mob freaking classic Prodigy during their sets to Girl Talk mashing up Lorde and M.I.A. to Skrillex dropping a mini-set of old-school hip-hop during his headlining appearance (not to mention bringing out A$AP Rocky for their collaboration, "Wild for the Night"). Even more shockingly, dance music at Coachella 2014 wasn't just for brosteppers: the clubtastic acts drew more women than almost any other, and even, gasp!, hipsters may be returning to the EDM fold. Enclosed and air conditioned, with a feel of a dark, sweaty nightclub, the Yuma tent was the coolest place to be, figuratively and literally. Indeed, even before the sun had set, the Yuma vibe felt like a little slice of Berlin at 4:00 a.m. in the desert, as more tastemaker DJs like Nina Kraviz and Damian Lazarus rocked ecstatic crowds with some of the most underground sounds heard at Coachella 2014.

Koury Angelo

Best Guest-a-Thon: Pharrell

Pharrell's set truly proved the height of sonic namedropping, with a deluge of hip-hop royalty launching just a few songs in. First Nelly appeared to kick up some superstardust rap on his 2002 hit "Hot in Herre," which Pharrell produced as part of hitmaking duo the Neptunes. Next up was a kinetic Busta Rhymes, who tore up the stage with his performance of another Neptunes joint, "Pass the Courvoisier." That was followed by a rebellious performance of "Lapdance" from Pharrell's group N.E.R.D., enhanced by a suitably bugged-out turn by Odd Future mastermind Tyler, the Creator. But when Snoop Dogg showed up to spit his two smash collaborations with Pharrell, "Beautiful" and "Drop It Like It's Hot," everything truly went to a higher level (see what we did there?) and the crowd was chanting along to every word. But that wasn't even it: He brought out Diplo for a version of Major Lazer's "Aerosol Can," then Gwen Stefani reprised "Hollaback Girl" to a mass sing-along. 

Joseph Llanes

Best Blue-Eyed Soul: John Newman

John Newman comes from the rich tradition of British blued-eyed soul, and his set at Coachella was an example of real excitement and reserve. Dressed in a bright white suit, Newman sang his newest U.K. single "Out of My Head" and then stopped for a long dramatic moment; then his legs buckled and he lunged across the stage in passion and agony, using the mic stand as support. Newman has already sold well over 1 million records in the U.K., and at Coachella looked determined for the work to get a few fans in the U.S. as well, looking sharp and feeling downhearted.

Koury Angelo

Best Way to Feed Short Attention Spans: Wandering

Since Coachella has six stages and acts adhere pretty closely to their posted performance times, it's totally possible to wander around and keep catching the last 10 minutes of various musicians' sets. Sure, you'll spend half your time in transit and you'll have trouble getting good sightlines. But you will get to see one alterna-hit after another: the Pixies doing "Vamos," Superchunk playing "Slack Motherfucker," MGMT busting out "Electric Feel."

Koury Angelo

Best Song Debut: A$AP Ferg

It wasn't a huge surprise that A$AP Ferg was rolling with other members of the A$AP Mob crew, but when he finished his set by bringing A$AP Rocky onstage, nobody expected they would debut a new song called "Multiply" — or that it would be an incredibly hot jam. By the end, the crowd was chanting "Even in my will/Keep it trill."

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