It was a cool and cloudless desert night at the Coachella Music and Arts festival Friday the moment Jay-Z emerged suddenly from the floor of the main stage in cool shades and black leather. He shouted, “Everybody bounce!” as his band pounded an earth-quaking beat, sending the entire crowd moving, and right into the rapper’s hands.
Headliners in recent years have often been surprising left-turns from Coachella’s traditional alternative comfort zone, stretching out to include the sexy, eccentric funk of Prince and the classic rock icons Paul McCartney and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, and each delivered on a massive scale. Jay-Z joined that company with explosive energy and grace, performing a 90-minute set powerful enough to convert any remaining doubters.
He brought a big band of turntables, horns, keyboards, guitar, bass, and two drummers to collide hard funk and big guitar on “U Don’t Know.” Jay-Z dedicated a fiery “99 Problems” to producer Rick Rubin, who was watching from the wings, and “Jigga What, Jigga Who” erupted with attitude and urgent vocal hooks, with excited call and response with the crowd. He reached further back for an onstage career “tutorial,” leading fans in the “Annie” chorus on “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem).”
More moving was the band’s full-bodied take on “New York State of Mind,” Jay-Z’s anthem for the city of his birth, written and recorded with Alicia Keys. Singer Bridget Kelly filled in well for Keys as vivid images of the Manhattan skyline glowed behind them. Near the end, he brought out his wife, Beyoncé, for a charming duet on “Forever Young,” climaxing with fireworks exploding into the air.
Before Jay-Z’s epic set, LCD Soundsystem performed beneath a huge disco ball the size of a small moon, as James Murphy led the group through an anxious, exciting collision of live musicians and electronics. He was a humble, chatty host in a white suit, a kind of David Byrne for a new millennium, but in some disbelief that his band was on the main stage, despite playing Coachella twice before. “Let’s be honest, we’ve always been the mixed nuts of the meal.”
He dedicated “Losing My Edge” to Gil-Scott Heron, who performed earlier in the day, and rushed through a litany of great, random moments from the underground: from CBGB to the Modern Lovers to DJs and white label vinyl, finally barking (without much elaboration), “Is being a DJ so hard you can’t carry some fucking records?” His “All My Friends” was searing, danceable riff-rock, and the set closed with the pained “New York, I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down” (from 2007’s Sound of Silver), performing it like something Morrissey could sing, set against a romantic piano melody and a weeping electric guitar.
Them Crooked Vultures filled the big stage like a gathering storm, with a heavy rock sound that was smart and intensely delivered from the super-power trio of singer-guitarist Joshua Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), drummer Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters) and multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin). The band (with touring guitarist Alain Johannes) ignited tightly wound sci-fi guitars on “Mind Eraser, No Chaser” and the eccentric twang and groove of “New Fang,” as wisps of stage fog blew past them in the desert breeze. Fans held up signs spelling out “Fresh Pots,” in honor of a recent video documenting Grohl’s nasty caffeine habit.
Vampire Weekend brought their good vibes and jangly, cross-cultural party rock, some of it enjoying the same irresistible flavor of “Pressure Drop” by Toots and the Maytals. Newer songs included “Cousins” from the band’s second album, last-year’s chart-topping Contra, which demonstrates how well their Afro-pop influences are becoming more their own. Singer Ezra Koenig sang with urgency and abandon, dancing in place with his guitar. Newer track “Run” was playful and romantic, with shimmering organ melodies. “Is your weekend off to a good start?” Koenig asked from the stage. “Ours, too.”
At the end of the night, and after Jay-Z’s main-stage set came to a close, John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd. were still throbbing and raging on another stage across the polo fields. Lydon led the crowd in a shout-along to “Rise,” spitting out the provocative vocal hook himself: “Anger is an energy!” He also noticed his audience swelling after Jay-Z’s farewell. But the show was over. “For all of those who missed it, you missed a fucking great evening,” he sneered happily. “For those that didn’t, not bad, eh?”