This weekend, Coachella returned to Indio and the small Southern California town once again became the center of the music world. Guns N' Roses turned the desert into the jungle, Calvin Harris found love with Rihanna, Sia had some video help from Kristen Wiig, three-fifths of N.W.A got together and Diplo did double duty with Major Lazer and Jack Ü. Our team went in search of the festival's most memorable performances, moments and meals. These are the 30 best things we saw.
"You know where you arrrrrrre?" shrieked Axl Rose during one of the indisputable wins of Guns N' Roses' imperfect but well-embraced reunion set. "You're in the jungle, Coachelllllaaaa!" Sure, that was one way of looking at it, and not a wrong one. When the Sunset Strip metal icons whipped out the biggest and loudest heaters in their holster – "Paradise City," "Sweet Child o' Mine," "Live and Let Die" – this barely legal crowd crowed like Eighties heshers jagging on trucker speed. But there were a few distractions from the uncut GN'F'nR experience. For instance, the fact that injured Axl was glued to his guitar-flanked "throne" on loan from Dave Grohl (though he did manage a confusing number of T-shirt, jacket and hat changes), and, more to the point, that he and Slash barely acknowledged each other's existence. That real deal guitar hero could have carried the night with his wildly expressive shredding alone (his solo cover of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" was proof enough), but Axl didn't seem truly fired up until he brought out his new axe-wielding bestie, Angus Young. A couple of hours after AC/DC confirmed Rose as their new frontman, there he was hollering "Whole Lotta Rosie" like his busted leg depended on it.
Calvin Harris' Coachella-ending performance was a series of hands-in-the-air EDM cool-outs where the recorded voices of singers like Ellie Goulding ("I Need Your Love"), Florence Welch ("Sweet Nothing") and Ayah Marar ("Thinking About You") sang pretty platitudes about love and togetherness between hard and heavy barrages of electro house. Basically, it was epic feel-good stuff made for raving, transmitted from mid-air, center stage, where the Scottish DJ was just a wee silhouette atop an LED boomerang, surrounded on all sides by racing images of mechanized wormholes and squiggly lines. Though, in a shift from joy and romance, Big Sean, in neon palm tree shirt, did stop by to cleanly execute a pair of spiteful breakup anthems, "Open Wide" and "IDFWU." English soul howler John Newman closed the set with a fierce rendition of "Blame," but it was the night's biggest guest, Rihanna, who best encapsulated Harris' theme with their ode to hopeless romanticism, "We Found Love." And not for nothing, RiRi outdid Sean's outfit with fringe and sequin-spangled USA jacket. When she spread her arms, she looked like an eagle, and the starry-eyed audience swooned all over again.
The monumental, moon-sized disco ball was back above the Coachella mainstage on Friday, as the reunited LCD Soundsystem delivered a headline set that was as forceful and eccentric as ever, the band's fourth performance since reconvening after a five-year break. In many ways, LCD Soundsystem is a mashup of many qualities of the Coachella tradition: adept at both rock and electronics, danceable and thought-provoking, idiosyncratic and down to earth. Leader James Murphy is a man obsessed with culture and a good clattering beat, leading the New York band through a 15-song set with anxious ease. On "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House," he frantically banged intense percussion into his mic and later paid tribute to a musical hero with a cover of David Bowie's "Heroes."
He was a typically amusing host. As the undulating rhythm of "Yeah" began, Murphy looked across the field to a row of palm trees bathed in colored blinking lights and joked that the band "spent a lot of money" to get those lights shining on the trees. "They're a little out of sync." Late in the evening, he revealed that he'd been working on limiting how much he talked between songs (which is usually a lot), and that the band had earned enough time to add an additional song to the set. "I don't know if that's good for you," he said, "but it's good for us."
"How many of you heard of the World's Most Dangerous Group?" Ice Cube shouted to a crowd already bouncing in front of his main stage performance. He was talking about N.W.A, who have already enjoyed an eventful year: the acclaimed feature film, Straight Outta Compton, induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and an amusing war of words with Gene Simmons about the definition of rock & roll. A reunion at Coachella seemed inevitable. Cube was joined onstage by his onetime collaborators DJ Yella and MC Ren, ripping into "Straight Outta Compton," "Dopeman" (with son and film likeness O'Shea Jackson Jr.) and the notorious "Fuck Tha Police," which Cube claimed he'd been warned backstage not to perform. The song remained jarringly current with images of black men famously killed in recent confrontations with police. The one disappointment, obviously, was the absence of Dr. Dre, but Snoop arrived on a low-rider bicycle draped in a robe and jewelry to flow with style through "Go to Church" and Dre's solo epic "The Next Episode."
When the lights went up on Sia, topped by her signature outsized bow and black-and-white wig, it was clear this would not be a typical Coachella set. The Australian ballad queen appeared perched atop a gigantic billowy dress that soon began to ripple and flap as if it contained a monster. It did, of sorts: Maddie Ziegler, the pint-sized dancer capable of conveying such emotional extremes through movement that the 13-year-old has become the personification of Sia's id in a handful of music videos and, now, onstage. She wasn't alone, either. While our hostess stood stock still in the corner belting out powerhouse pop hits like "Big Girls Cry," "Chandelier" and "Diamonds" (which she wrote for Rihanna), small plays were acted out for each song starring the likes of Tig Notaro, Paul Dano and Kristen Wiig. Except, as the set progressed, there were more and more hints – small differences in motion, impossible camera angles, odd lighting – indicating that what played onscreen was recorded earlier despite its similarity to the action onstage. If that was disappointing at first – people screamed when it seemed Wiig was in their midst – in time, the possibility that it was dancers pretending to be actors added another layer of winking mystery to the proceedings, making for a magical reality that is, perhaps, all the more indicative of the internal workings of the artist. Or, you know, maybe she was just messing with us.
As abused as the term "trendsetter" is, the Jack Ü dudes are nothing if not that – forward-thinking producers bringing the hyperactive sounds of modern rave (that's Skrillex) and an arsenal of international body music (Diplo) to the pop charts. These are the guys who made the Biebs relevant, after all. And while Justin didn't appear, other of-the-moment vocalists did, like AlunaGeorge, Kiesza and Post Malone, while the dÜo blasted out their throbbing cacophony of warped horns, pitched up voices, hi-hat clatter, laser zaps, bass and big hooks. However, Jack Ü's future-crunk battle-station was perched atop a gigantic replica of a boxy Apple II computer, complete with a floppy disc that, at one point, proved itself big enough to cover Diplo's entire body. ROYGBIV graphics and grayscale games played across the bulbous screen – one subbed in umlauts for asteroids while another sent the Ü snaking through a Wolfenstein-like maze – with breaks for the ancient operating system to call up jiggling images of pointillist palm trees and sadly rendered spheres. The only modern prop was Kanye West, who stood in front of the console and nodded his head during a remix of his 2010 cut, "Power."
A$AP Rocky took a trip into the strange during his short Coachella set Friday night. It began with a recorded message on the big screen from singer-actress Juliette Lewis, dressed as a flight attendant: "You are about to embark on a musical journey… If at any point people start to get unruly and push and pull, just push those motherfuckers back!" "Make some noise if you did some mushrooms tonight. Make some noise if you took LSD tonight," he said, as he began "LSD" (a.k.a. "Love, Sex, Dreams"), a cosmic romantic track that sent him slowly levitating above the stage, rapping. Soon after, during "Jukebox Joints," he rapped against the old-timey harmonies of a live barbershop quartet in striped vests and boater hats. Then came a cameo by Kanye West on "Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1" but his mic seemed to go out after a few beats. Afterwards, himself cut off after his set ran overtime, Rocky threw his mic and stomped off.
"So, like, two years ago, I was a 19-year-old girl from New Jersey," Halsey said to an adoring audience. "That's not something I was proud of then but I'm proud to tell you that now." That intimate moment came about halfway through a set that rivaled anything else for emotional intensity, provocative flare and brow-singeing pyrotechnics. Her style of arena-pop – panoramic electronic soundscapes that rumble to thick bass synths and shimmer with cybernetic frippery – was well-matched by rains of sparks, spurts of cold white flame and massive projections that placed her at the center of world-ending cyclones, android armies and Dune-like wastelands. She wrapped herself around a pole as a black-clad dancer spun circles above, duetted with her childhood hero Brendon Urie on Panic! At the Disco's "I Write Sins Not Tragedies" and led the crowd in a sing-along to her own "New Americana."
Since its debut in 1999, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival has made sure to emphasize "art" in many forms, from performance to large-scale kinetic sculpture. Right in the center of the polo fields this year is something called "The Armpit," an off-center, multi-level structure built from scrap wood. Like five other huge sculptures onsite, it was commissioned especially for Coachella. Festival goers lined up to walk inside, go up the steps, and discover rooms with video screens and footage of young and old men working on metal and wood or just sweeping out the garage. One screen read: "This is a place to just be." It was also a place to get a rare view of the festival grounds, with a patio to take in the landscape and the sounds rising from the two outdoor stages, as the festival roars into the night.
Major Lazer's dancehall-razing riot of a set was basically a fitness session. USC's drumline opened the show (the horn section showed up later for stutter-stepping moombahton bomb "Bumaye"), and project mastermind Diplo stalked the stage in an all-white country club getup armed with a cricket bat while four gold spandex-spackled dancers twerked and jerked to the nonstop beat. Major Lazer and their many guests did more to inspire sweat in the audience than Sunday's sweltering sun: Sean Paul assisted Jamaican toaster Nyla on "Light It Up" and teamed with soca star Machel Montano for "One Wine" and Danish indie-pop upstart MØ dropped in for "Lean On." Hype man Walshy Fire issued most of the orders, which ranged from the standard, "Jump! Jump! Jump!" to more involved moves, like taking off a garment and whipping it overhead, getting ground-level low before leaping at the next air horn blast, and actually running several paces in either direction in the middle of a thousands-strong crowd. That last one happened during the sprightly "Sound Bang," and the result wasn't tiring so much as giddy-making, as everyone erratically pinballed off of one another to the relentless clash of steel drums.
When Matthew Healy and his band the 1975 last played Coachella in 2014, their sound and vision were still taking shape, leaning toward a vaguely rock & roll vibe, the singer writhing his tattooed torso in the desert sun. This year, the hit-making band wore colorful suits and had "Love Me" scrawled across the singer's belly as they began playing a pop song of the same name. It was a more natural fit for the Manchester act, without surrendering any bad attitude earned through impressive chart action along the way. Early in Sunday's set, Healy leaned into a video camera so his image was blown up on the big screen pointing to himself, the implied message being: "Keep your eyes on this."
Grimes is a do-it-yourself kind of artist, fully engaged as both charismatic singer and mad scientist behind the control panel. On Saturday night, Grimes sprinted to the stage with fists in the air to excited fan cheering, before jumping immediately behind her gear to set the beats and dancing in euphoric motion. She was accompanied by a pair of tireless dancers and a single guitarist-keyboardist, but as the originator of the beats, melodies and sound experiments, Grimes often reached back herself to twirl a knob or send a new song tumbling forward, fully in control. One of those tracks was "Scream" (from last year's Art Angels), performed with Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes, their voices blending into the track's intense climactic screams, once sending Grimes falling happily to the floor. Janelle Monáe also stepped out in a shirt reading "Wild Feminist" to sing on their duet "Venus Fly."
An entire lineup's worth of special guests showed up for Run the Jewels, but one in particular stood out. It wasn't Three Six Mafia's sorely unsung Gangsta Boo, who had the crowd whooping it up as she told 'em what they could do with her ladyparts on Run the Jewel's bawdy banger "Love Again." It wasn't elusive Queens mike-slayer Despot subbing in for Big Boi over the apocalyptic boom-bap of "Banana Clipper." And it wasn't even Nas who ripped a clanging remix of "Made You Look" and called RTJ his "favorite group." In a fiery set of smart agitprop rap and bleak-banging beats, the fest's greatest cosign came before the music even began: Bernie Sanders on the big screen, greeted by wild cheers, letting us know that, "One of the highlights of running for president […] has been getting to know Killer Mike." Also: "El-P, keep up the great work." Aw.
Outlaw country star Chris Stapleton arrived onto the desert landscape of Coachella, offering a preview of his upcoming set at the event's sister festival, late April's Stagecoach. But he was comfortably at home in front of the gathered masses of rock, dance and hip-hop fans in Indio, California. He sang of "Tennessee Whiskey" and played guitar as wife Morgane sang lead on soaring honky-tonk ballads that left her in tears – either from the genuine sadness of the words, or the raw emotion and warmth from of the crowd. Stapleton is a major rising figure in contemporary country and has crossed over to a new, wider audience without softening or over-polishing his songs. He remains a true outlaw who happens to also rock convincingly when he wants to, and he speaks fluent blues on his guitar. On Sunday, "Might As Well Get Stoned" began with a riff Keith Richards would appreciate and vocal eruptions not far from Lynyrd Skynyrd, filling the crowded Gobi tent with vibrant, heartfelt sounds.
Things can always get a little hotter in the desert, and Gary Clark Jr. turned up the heat even higher during 50 minutes of molten blues, funk and soul guitar on the uncovered main stage on Saturday afternoon. "You gonna know my name," he growled on a smoldering "Bright Lights," trading guitar solos with trusted sideman Eric "King" Zapata. Stories of power, sadness and rage were told in one bluesy solo after another, flowing like lava over the sunbaked Coachella landscape.
Three hours after Gary Clark Jr. set the polo fields aflame, the Arcs delivered their own kind of blues explosion, closing their early evening set with a three-guitar jam representing multiple generations. The blistering, garage-y blues-rock side-project for Black Keys singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach released a debut album last fall. But Auerbach is already expanding on the concept by collaborating on a still-unreleased recording featuring Joe Walsh and his mentor Glenn Schwartz, who both turned up as surprise guests on Saturday. Walsh introduced the denim-clad Schwartz, 78, as the man who taught him guitar, and the elder musician took centerstage to immediately begin shredding. (Schwartz quit an early lineup of the James Gang, making room for a then-unknown Walsh to leave his mark.) Schwartz, his long graying hair beneath a bandana, stood between Auerbach and Walsh as their trio of guitars raged and snarled. Auerbach and the band were also joined by three members of Mariachi Flor de Toloache on backing vocals, but it was the striking appearance of the ecstatic aging guitarist unhooking one supercharged riff after another that will be remembered the longest.
"We believe in three things," Michael Poulsen of Volbeat declared during the band's midnight set Friday. "We believe in Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and fear." With that last word he lifted the devil horns on his left hand and ripped into another pulverizing riff of heavy rock & roll. Volbeat originated in Copenhagen in 2001, but their interests couldn't be more American and high-octane. Their presence on the Coachella bill continues a loud-heavy precedent set by Motörhead's celebrated concerts at the 2014 fests, and AC/DC headline shows last year. Poulsen slashed at his guitar with a Social Distortion tattoo on his arm. Part metal, part punk, part Americana, Volbeat brought noisy intensity to the opening night's final moments.
The slicing, reverberating guitar rock of the London-based Savages was both devoted and confrontational. "You ever have the feeling you're in love and you're doing the wrong thing?" asked singer Jehnny Beth. "This is the song that says fucking do it anyway!" At that, Beth began roaring of doubt and desire on "When In Love," sounding like she was ready for a fight. It was one part of the quartet's 11-song set that was searing and direct, blasting in the Mojave Tent through just three amps, as if the band were playing a basement party. For "Husbands," Beth climbed atop the barricade holding back the crowd to sing into their faces and upraised hands, while the band accelerated to a frantic pace. She grasped the hands in front of her and was soon crowd surfing, tumbling overhead, getting up close with fans in equal measures of affection and danger.
Would Death Grips actually show up at Coachella 2016? They did, as raw and explosive as ever, with singer-shouter-rapper MC Ride a furious tattooed force at their center, stomping the stage and waving his arms, looking like he might throw the mic at any moment. Behind him, Zach Hill on drums and Andy Morin on noisy electronics collided to make increasingly intense noise for your trance state.
DJs didn't invent the drop, they just made it less messy. Leave it to L.A. shoegaze/indie-rock holdouts Silversun Pickups to vehemently drive that home via songs like "The Pit," where big swaths of cool sonics – steady rhythm, chilly synths, sustained guitar hits – suddenly exploded in fiery frays of shred, pound, crash and shout. The source of those controlled blasts was leading man Brian Aubert, whose fleet-but-beastly fretwork was central, and whose voice existed at two poles with precious little gradation between: from the high, genderless wisp that's earned him so many comparisons to Billy Corgan, to the Jeremy Enigk-like screech he unleashed at the end of "The Royal We." The crew's loud-quiet mastery owed as much to Nikki Monninger's meaty bass lines, drummer Chris Guanlao's steady hand (and flying hair) and Joe Lester's mad scientist sound manipulations. You don't get to groove and rip like a krautrock band – as they did on "Panic Switch" – without being almost psychically in sync.
LCD Soundsystem shut things down Friday night, but that was neither the end nor the beginning of James Murphy's Coachella run. Alongside the two acid house upsetters of 2manydjs, the man was putting in work all weekend at Despacio, the trio's storied 50,000-watt vinyl-only sound system. They spun for a total of 20 hours across three days, digging feverishly through crates upon crates of LPs (to-go boxes of grub by their side), while seven 11-foot-tall custom McIntosh speaker towers rained sweet strains of rare, vintage dance music down on a slippery black and white checkered floor. Overhead: a disco ball big enough to crush a bear, slowly rotating through the fog, sending a thousand beams of light out at the planetary mockup hanging from the ceiling, and down to the satisfied patrons, who seemed to be grooving in zero gravity in the midst of all that analog warmth and mid-tempo bump. The best part was how nondescript this almost mythical travelling club (last seen in London) was from the outside: a plain white tent near the front gate, jammed between the lockers and the record shop.
The Last Shadow Puppets looked like they stepped off the pages of British GQ at their Friday night set. No rocker has looked that suave at the festival since Bryan Ferry graced the Coachella stage in 2014. Likewise, none of that would matter if not for the band's dark effervescence and richly crafted songs of romantic disaster. The Last Shadow Puppets are the fitfully active side-project from Miles Kane (formerly of the Rascals) and Alex Turner (of Arctic Monkeys), and they've just released their second album, Everything You've Come to Expect. The five-piece touring band was joined by a string quartet as the core duo delivered with swagger and flair, inspired by Scott Walker and maybe a bit of classic Tom Jones as Turner stood at the front of the stage, rolling his hips singing the aching throbbing come on "Sweet Dreams, TN." As the Mojave tent crowd cheered their approval, Turner responded, "You said it, sunshine."