There was no moon in the Coachella sky as Roger Waters stepped onstage for the final headline set of the festival on Sunday, bringing his own airborne props, exploding fireballs and the elegant, mind-expanding music of Pink Floyd. Embedded in Waters’ set was Floyd’s entire 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon, still one the best-selling albums ever, with songs of madness, hope and outrage.
At 64, Waters may have been an unexpected choice to headline a festival with roots in the alternative nation, but Floyd’s soaring waves of forward-looking sounds have been echoed in different ways by the likes of Radiohead and Massive Attack, both Coachella alums. And as huge clouds of stage-fog drifted across a field packed with festival-goers, Waters strummed an acoustic guitar for “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” a song from Floyd’s earliest days, accompanied by old black and white footage of the band wandering an English beach. The tune marked the beginning of a major theme of the evening: the genius and tragic breakdown of founding Floyd leader Syd Barrett, who died in 2006 after spending three decades fading into drug-damage and madness.
During “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” blurry psychedelic images of Barrett appeared behind Waters as he wailed, “You were caught in the crossfire of childhood and stardom . . . come on you stranger, you legend, you martyr, and shine.” Waters turned “Wish You Were Here” into a British folk ballad, sitting with a guitar, his vocals clenched and deeply felt. The dreamy “Brain Damage” had Waters singing softly “the lunatic is on the grass . . . There’s someone in my head and it’s not me” as the image of multicolored pills tumbled across the big screen.
Waters’ other main obsession had a geopolitical bent, emerging on “Mother” (from 1979’s The Wall), asking “Mother do you think they’ll drop the bomb? . . . Mother should I trust the president?” to a roar from the crowd before stepping back and mouthing the words “No fucking way!” He spoke of a Lebanese family that once took him in as a young traveler, leading into “Leaving Beirut,” an Internet-only solo release in response to the invasion of Iraq. And he did two songs from his final album with Pink Floyd, 1983’s underrated The Final Cut, on which he railed against the foreign policies of that moment: Reagan, Thatcher, a war in the Falkland Islands, nukes everywhere.
Perfected after a week of rehearsals at the Forum arena in Los Angeles, all of it was matched with the sort of special effects and spectacular images Waters and Pink Floyd are known, like the giant inflatable pig covered in graffiti (“Don’t be led to slaughter”) that floated above the crowd during “Sheep” to explosive sparks of electric guitar by Dave Kilminster before being allowed to break free as spotlights crisscrossed the sky. Waters’ night ended with songs from The Wall, with fiery virtuosic soloing by violinist Lili Haydn taking over Gilmour’s original leads on “Comfortably Numb.” During “Run Like Hell,” a pair of dudes in baggy shorts responded on the grass with a lengthy interpretative dance — falling to one knee, finger pointed in the air, stepping forward and back, bowing and swinging their hips — a routine no doubt practiced back home between multiple bongloads.
Earlier, My Morning Jacket arrived just in time for sunset and were ready to rock, erupting with “One Big Holiday” as singer Jim James traded thundering electric guitar riffs with Carl Broemel. MMJ is known for wild improvisation during its live shows, but this was about musical fire and brimstone, not jam-band noodling. The Louisville, Kentucky act mixed fan favorites with songs from the upcoming Evil Urges album, balancing modern rock with a southern accent, like a post-grunge version of the Band.
New songs dabbled in new forms and beats, stepping out of the country-rock groove, even when setting Broemel’s pedal steel against a spare 4/4 beat, before exploding again with loud slabs of guitar. James was still ready to slow things down at times, falling to his knees during the vulnerable “Wordless Chorus,” wailing to a soulful southern rhythm, “We forgot about love, but weren’t brokenhearted.” The reggae-flavored “Off the Record” had James sounding a little bit Joe Strummer at the microphone, with guitars swelling into a big rock groove around the bright green drum-kit of Patrick Hallahan. Just as impressive was the quintet’s ability to slide into complex instrumental jam-outs without getting lost there.
For die-hard Coachella-goers, the final moments of the festival took place in the Sahara tent, as dance act Justice fired off rapid beats, electronic riffs and vocal samples to an overflow crowd well after midnight. In fact, they went a half hour over curfew, which means that for last night alone, Goldenvoice owes the city of Indio $300,000 (it’s $10,000 per minute you go over, according to sources). Three days in the desert were just about over, but the hardiest fans weren’t ready to leave, still bouncing to the beats and twirling their glow gear, as if the party was just getting started.