Phoenix pulled off a major Coachella surprise on Saturday, but it wasn’t the Daft Punk cameo that festival-goers had been buzzing over: About three-quarters of the way through the band’s joyous, two-years-in-the-making headlining set, R. Kelly – the Chicago R&B star who shares little if anything in common with the French rockers – belted one of his best known lyrics from offstage, shocking virtually everyone: “My mind’s telling me no! But my body . . . my body’s telling me yes!” Seconds later, Kelly and Phoenix leader Thomas Mars were arm in arm and duetting on “Ignition,” Kelly’s sexy 2003 Chocolate Factory smash, as the band jammed out to its own “1901” riffs, then segued into the even-loucher “I’m a Flirt.” The whole thing lasted less than five minutes, but that was plenty of time to send fans into a frenzy – not that Phoenix needed the help. They were tight, propulsive and supremely confident all night, their painstakingly-planned set demonstrating exactly how to hold an overstimulated Coachella crowd’s attention.
Phoenix’s giddiest synth-pop singles, from “1901” to “Fences” and “Lisztomania,” came sprinkled between new tunes from their upcoming Bankrupt! LP that venture into more far-out places, but never sagged live. A romantic at heart, Mars was obviously feeling extra mushy on this night, bounding about the stage and hugging his bandmates at the knees. “For the last two years, we’ve been thinking about tonight,” he gushed. By the time Mars ended the night by running to the lighting riser and crowd-surfing his way back to the stage, Springsteen-style, fans were more than happy to lift him off into the stratosphere.
The second day of Coachella 2013 was marked by a series of other surprise, high-profile pairings that often took acts into exciting uncharted stylistic territory. John Legend did a cameo during a Benny Benassi DJ set. Likewise, the XX added to the hushed indie-electronic eroticism of their prime nighttime main-stage slot by bringing out Solange to duet on a cover of Aaliyah’s “Hot Like Fire.” Following the XX, the recent reunion of the Postal Service drew what appeared to be the largest crowd of the day to the main stage, and the audience was pleasantly stunned to see Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis in a prominent role. While Lewis appeared on the Postal Service’s sole album, its beloved 2003 debut LP Get Up, and toured with the band at that time, onstage here she seemed a creative equal to the duo of electronica producer Jimmy Tamborello and Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard. Lewis powerfully complemented Tamborello’s skittering beats and synths and Gibbard’s wallflower vocals with angelic yet powerful singing, sinuous guitar playing, and overall charisma; at times, she and Gibbard would dance together like they were in an old Human League video, which proved quite charming. Gibbard, meanwhile, evoked an electro-pop Don Henley as he simultaneously sang and played drums on Postal Service favorites like “We Will Become Silhouettes.” (Gibbard also stoked intrigue about the band’s future, introducing “Turn Around” by stating “We’re an imaginary band called the Postal Service”; before the last song, “Brand New Colony,” he also told the crowd, “We might see you again, and we might not.”)
Discovery has returned as the festival’s major theme during Coachella’s first two days this year. Frankly, the 2013 headliners are not on the mega-star, household-name level of previous years. 2012 had Dr. Dre, Radiohead, Bon Iver, and the Black Keys; 2011 featured Arcade Fire and Mumford & Sons, and Kanye West; 2013, meanwhile, had toplines the likes of . . . the Stone Roses – a gutsy and historically significant choice, but one largely lost on Coachella’s current audience. What that has meant, however, is a return to the festival’s core values of turning its attendees on to music they might not have ever checked out previously – as well as setting up those unexpected pairings that result in performances one simply could never see anywhere else. That means that the action this year is in the smaller tents and stages, as opposed to the main Coachella Stage on the field. This is reflected in the size of the crowds: The Stone Roses’ draw was relatively empty, as was a daytime slot yesterday on the main stage for Violent Femmes. However, the smaller Mojave and Sahara tents and the Outdoor Theatre were often crammed no matter who was playing. While there was no problem finding a vantage point for Violent Femmes anywhere on the field, it was damn near impossible to get into the at-capacity Yuma Tent to see experimental electronic-music iconoclast Four Tet.
That’s resulted in more excitement for younger or less established acts, which is really when Coachella proves most exciting. A successful early Coachella appearance in a band or artist’s career is, in a sense, a benediction – the ultimate stamp of approval, and often the introduction to the wider U.S. music scene. Think of that thrilling moment, say, in 2007 in the Sahara Tent, watching a fairly unknown Justice open for a buzzy but still underground LCD Soundsystem: The excitement that followed signaled that those artists had really arrived in the pop culture consciousness. In 2013, that band at Coachella was Savages. An all-female post-punk quartet from London, Savages arrived at the festival with few songs made widely available to the public (their full-length debut, Silence Yourself, won’t be released until May 7th). What they did have, however, was massive hype in the British press as the next big thing, as well as a record deal with prestigious indie imprint Matador. Other than a few lower-profile gigs at CMJ Music Marathon and South By Southwest, Coachella was Savages’ real U.S. coming-out party: The band’s afternoon set in the Mojave Tent yesterday lived up to the hype and then some.
Savages’ performance was possibly the most visceral, compelling live experience of the festival yet. Lead singer Jehnny Beth powerfully subverts androgyny – despite her boyish haircut and all-black anarchist-meeting outfit, she stalked the stage in pink heels with a ferocity that belied her choice in footwear. Beth’s resonant caterwaul conveyed a passion as jagged as her Ian Curtis-style stage moves; it floated over a bed of martial basslines, spiny guitars soaked in feedback and effects, and thuddingly tribal drum tattoos. (Savages drummer Fay Milton proved a force unto herself, punishing her kit with brutal intensity.) When the band launched into “She Will” – the mesmeric first single from Silence Yourself – the crowd’s euphoric response suggested that this was indeed Savages’ Coachella breakthrough.
Hip-hop is also experiencing an evolution at Coachella. While there were no rappers on the bill with the stature of, say, Jay-Z (who played an astounding main-stage set at the festival in 2010), hip-hop acts were more integrated into the festival, and felt less like stunt casting for the indie-rock hipster legions. Friday featured a highly-anticipated solo set from Odd Future’s previously exiled boy wonder Earl Sweatshirt, indie-rap mainstay Aesop Rock, and the return of old-school savants Jurassic 5; the Saturday lineup, meanwhile, featured the likes of Action Bronson and Danny Brown. (While he played Coachella in 2012, Kendrick Lamar’s omission was notable considering the impact and acclaim his major-label debut good kid, m.A.A.d city enjoyed last year.)
Kanye West pal Pusha T took a victory lap in the Gobi tent with a hit-stacked set that ranged from Clipse‘s 2002 breakout “Grindin'” to G.O.O.D. Music smashes “Mercy” and “New God Flow.” “My career done had so many peaks and valleys,” shouted Pusha, who, despite an occasionally overpowering backing track, easily gave the fest’s most impassioned hip-hop performance yet. The biggest hip-hop name in the 2013 lineup, however, was 2 Chainz.
Set times are rigorously enforced at Coachella, down to the minute; the Georgia-bred MC star, however, delayed his set for twenty minutes, causing a packed Mojave Tent crowd to start booing. All was forgiven, however, when 2 Chainz appeared onstage exactly at the auspicious time of 4:20 (the significance of which was not lost on the fully-blunted audience members). This proved to be the most enthusiastic, participatory show at Coachella 2013 yet: While 2 Chainz may be the hardest working man in rap today, he often let the crowd chant whole verses of his hits like “I’m Different” and “I Luv Dem Strippers.” “Let’s go to the motherfuckin’ strip club” is how 2 Chainz introduced the latter, and he successfully made that bump-and-grind atmosphere tangible among the sweaty bodies lapping up his every word. Sporting an ironic high-fashion throwback jersey, flip-up nerd glasses, and, of course, two gold chains (with two gold watches to match), 2 Chainz’ raw charisma owned the day. Fronting a live drummer and guitarist with gusto, he threw his trademark dreads all over the stage as he worked the audience up into a fist-pumping, lyric-shouting fervor. With that reception, he would have easily owned a main-stage slot.
It was also easy to spot hip-hop’s influence on other genres on display during the festival. Overlapping with 2 Chainz’ appearance was a DJ set one tent over in the Sahara by trap-music popularizer Baauer. If you resemble a member of the Spring Breakers cast, you were probably among the over-capacity crowd wearing neon bikinis and multicolored Ray-Bans singing along to Baauer’s rave revisions of rap hits by Rich Boy and Notorious B.I.G. The crowd went nuts for every internal-organ-rearranging bass drop Baauer unleashed; when he inevitably brought forth his pop-culture-phenomenon breakout smash “Harlem Shake,” one could literally feel and hear the audience going buck in the adjoining tents.
Later that evening, U.K. synth-pop wizards Hot Chip brought more heady dance tunes to Coachella’s main stage, as the sun set over the festival grounds. Looking like Buster Bluth in a fisherman’s cap, singer Alexis Taylor crooned through songs like “One Night Stand” and “Ready for the Fall,” anchoring the band’s disco grooves with wistful longing.
As Major Lazer, producers Diplo and Switch brought crowd-pleasing beats to the Mojave tent mid-afternoon, shifting seamlessly from other acts’ hits like “Harlem Shake” (a couple of hours after Bauuer’s own set) to original tracks from their next LP. Switch’s MC’ing turned the set into a soca-style jam when he somehow convinced half the crowd to take off their shirts, twirl and eventually hurl them into the air, no doubt leaving some fans highly susceptible to chilly breezes a few hours later.
Another spectacular rumor percolating around Coachella this week was that New Order were going to play with Johnny Marr – it was probably the second biggest rumor after Daft Punk’s. That did not happen, alas, but New Order’s show may have been, if social media is to be believed, the most emotionally satisfying of the Coachella experience so far. In it, they played nearly nonstop emotional hits touching different areas of their career, featuring the band’s classics like “Regret,” “Bizarre Love Triangle,” “Ceremony,” “True Faith,” “The Perfect Kiss,” and “Blue Monday,” as well as four legendary tracks from their previous band Joy Division, “Isolation,” “Atmosphere,” “Transmission,” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” all behind a visual stating “Forever Joy Division.” It was quite a moving tribute when it was finished, recalling a line from “Bizarre Love Triangle” earlier in the set: “Why can’t we be ourselves just like we were yesterday?” In fact, maybe you can – if not be exactly yourselves, then a very convincing facsimile.