The desert landscape of the Coachella Music and Arts Festival has become a setting for epic gestures though the years, and no way was Kanye West going to let that opportunity pass him by on Sunday night. As anyone might have expected, the visionary rapper brought all he had to the giant stage – drama, bravado, tragedy, redemption – and found a genuine connection to the massive crowd.
As his two-hour performance began, fans saw a large troupe of dancers in flesh-colored costumes setting the stage for a soaring theatrical experience, and then West himself, surveying his crowd from atop a large crane sweeping above the venue. This wasn’t going to be a simple gathering of hits but a musical statement of self on a par with last year’s ground-shaking Coachella appearance by his essential comrade Jay-Z. Confrontational songs like “Monster” and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” told one part of West’s story, while the warmer “Say You Will” and “Hey Mama” revealed the vulnerable artist behind the controversial media sensation.
There were rockets and a cascading shower of fireworks behind him at times, and occasional vocal support from indie rocker Bon Iver (a.k.a. Justin Vernon), but the set’s focus never strayed from the issues of West’s struggles and victories and his life of faith and torment. From the hedonistic “Hell of a Life” to the bold “Jesus Walks,” and with the fuel of hard beats and genuinely moving and elegant musical flourishes, West shared the good and the bad on a stage big enough to host it.
The superstar rapper’s festival-closing set marked another peak in a weekend heavy with great live bands, world-class DJ sessions, the many kinetic sculptures scattered across the lawn and general good vibes. Coming a year after the 2010 edition saw real overcrowding caused by increased sales and widespread ticket counterfeiting, Coachella was back to its usual high standards: memorable, forward-looking music on an exceptionally humane playground.
Earlier, on the Outdoor stage, PJ Harvey brought her own distinctive sound and vision, mingling songs that were at times haunted or joyous from throughout her 19-year recording career with material from her typically uncompromising new album, Let England Shake. Standing in a white Gothic dress that glowed beneath the stage lights, she was a striking presence as she strummed an Autoharp and sang songs inspired by the horrors of geo-politics. During “Words That Maketh Murder,” Harvey and her rock trio were playful and dark, mocking the notion of simple solutions to mind-numbing atrocities, as she sang: “I’ve seen things I’d rather forget … What if I take my problem to the United Nations?”
More than 80 other acts were on the closing day bill, from the inspired indie-rockers the National to reggae and hip-hop from Nas and Damien Marley. On the big stage, the Strokes offered a tightly wound hit-parade, and not even some distracted, nonsensical wisecracks from singer Julian Casablancas could distract much from the joy of well-executed and crisp guitar hooks.
Duran Duran looked right at home on the big main stage, playing to a field of many thousands. The BrItish pop act returned to the flavor and sound of their chart-topping years not only by performing the likes of “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “Girls On Film,” but also with songs from their new album, All You Need Is Now, produced by Mark Ronson.
In the Mojave tent, singer-songwriters Ben Harper, Joseph Arthur and Dhani Harrison convened as the group Fistful of Mercy, recreating the lush three-part harmonies of their self-titled debut album from last year. With Jessy Green on violin behind them, the trio performed the tormented “Restore Me,” matching jangly acoustic guitars with Harper’s lap-slide – then shifted suddenly into a muscular passage of bluesy slashing and pounding, with an effect not unlike when Neil Young sits in with Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Daytime in the Southern California desert provided other rewards. Los Angeles-based indie-rockers Best Coast roared with an explosion of noisy, catchy hooks, led by singer Bethany Cosentino, slashing at an electric guitar and warning fans, “Stay hydrated if you do drugs in the desert.” The band’s two-guitar, one drum kit attack on “Each and Every Day” was a highlight of Coachella 2011.