I didn’t see Guns N’ Roses. Well, OK, that’s not exactly true. I plopped down for about a half hour of their big headlining reunion set on Saturday (not during Angus Young’s appearance), and they sounded exactly how I expected them to sound: good, but probably not worth all the fanfare (and drama) of them getting back together. More than anything, the small crowd that was gathered there reminded me of the sad local concerts that my parents used to drag me to in the park where rock cover bands of the same era would overeagerly run through the hits. I guess it was cool that I got to see “Sweet Child O’ Mine” played live? My parents would’ve been proud, at least.
But otherwise, the temptation of seeing Grimes and Shamir perform back-to-back was much too good to pass up, so I opted to pay attention to the fresh and exciting thing as opposed to the old and potentially disastrous, and I think I made the better choice. So take the fact that I didn’t stick around for all of GNR into account when you peruse the list. Oh well — can’t possibly see everything. But what I did manage to catch yesterday was good — maybe not Sufjan good, but up there. Check out the best moments of day 2 below (unranked and in chronological order), and watch the livestream for the final day of Coachella’s first weekend here.
Alvvays Stare Down The Sun
The Toronto-via-Nova Scotia band with a perpetually sunny disposition fit right in with the row of palm trees swaying gently in the wind in the background of their first (but probably not last) Coachella set. They’re a good early-in-the-day band for when the desert is still hot and all anyone is looking for is a momentary oasis. Molly Rankin, in an appropriately orange jumpsuit, ran through the tracks from their self-titled debut plus a few new Moog-heavy ones (presumably from their follow-up) that they’ve been trotting out live for a few months now. Alvvays had time to spare in their set as they closed out with “Archie, Marry Me,” but their best song to date lit up the crowd with a surprisingly on-rhythm clap-along as the Canadian band proved to be the perfect start to many people’s day two, mine included.
Dynamic Duo: Run The Jewels
This is Run The Jewels’ second consecutive year playing Coachella (a rarity), and they didn’t take that privilege for granted. The duo is more than used to the festival circuit at this point, and it should come as no surprise that they brought the same energy that they do to every performance. Killer Mike and El-P are one of the best duos we have right now, but filling up their set with a ton of special guests speaks to how overwhelmingly generous they are with their many collaborators as well. They’re eager to please the audience — there’s no other reason to make a set as star-studded as they did yesterday: Nas, Gangsta Boo, Gary Clark Jr. (who played the same stage right before them), DJ Shadow, Despot, and BOOTS all made appearances. Oh, and they opened their set with a very earnest greeting from presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders and a new track from the upcoming RTJ3 (release date still unknown). What more could you ask for? It feels like Run The Jewels have played pretty much every single festival over the past few years (mostly because they have), but if they keep turning out invigorating moments like they did yesterday, let them come back to Coachella for a third year in 2017.
The Mystifying Bat For Lashes
It’s spellbinding how a song like “Laura” can suck the oxygen out of the room. Natasha Khan isn’t a very flashy performer, but pretty much every song in Bat For Lashes’ set came across as vital just because of how stunning the highlights of her catalog are. Her newer material isn’t up to par just yet — she did “In God’s House” and a few more from her upcoming The Bride, all of which fell a little flat — but watching her run through classics like “What’s A Girl To Do,” “Sleep Alone,” “All Your Gold,” and the aforementioned “Laura” — was more than worth it. Khan wore a blue wedding veil at the beginning of her set — a nod to her recent nuptials and the theme of her upcoming new record — but quickly shed it as she dug into her older songs about hope and alienation and the spark of new love. It’s in that headspace where Khan shines the brightest.
Courtney Barnett’s Consistent Excellence
Has Courtney Barnett ever had a bad set? I’m starting to think not, because every time I’ve seen her has been so effortlessly polished and carefree that it’s difficult to imagine her ever slipping. The Australian knew just the right amount of pep to give the crowd in the middle of the second day, and Barnett rolled through Sometimes I Sit… highlights with no muss, no fuss. She has a storyteller quality about her where you can sense that it’s worthwhile to hang onto her every word, even when you know how it’s all gonna play out because you’ve heard the record a million times. There’s something admirably professional and workmanlike about her and her band that doesn’t come across as boring as that description sounds. Or, as the person I glimpsed Snapchatting her set in front of me put it: “I appreciate the fuck out of you 😻.” True.
Vince Staples Amps Up The Spectacle
I’m so glad I didn’t step into the Sahara Tent until Vince Staples’ set, because I’m not sure what I would’ve made of the spectacle otherwise. It’s a towering, futuristic-looking collection of screens pointing in all different directions, repeating the same visuals so that it feels like you’re being subsumed by them. In years past, it has primarily been used as the locale for the big-name DJs of the night, and that’s understandable because it’s a complete audiovisual overload meant to stimulate all the senses and overcompensate for a dude behind a laptop. But this year, Coachella has begun to extend the Sahara Tent’s unique qualities to non-electronic sets, rap in particular, and Staples took advantage of the technology afforded him to put on an unreal show. He performed his recent collabs with the non-Diplo half of Major Lazer (“Ghost“) and Flume (“Smoke & Retribution“) to appeal to the festival’s primary cohort — plus brought out Jhené Aiko for an unassuming guest spot — and it worked to amp up the energy for the Summertime ’06 tracks surrounding it. Some of the intense politics of the songs was lost on the massive stage, and Staples’ typically entertaining/enlightened stage banter was swallowed up by the tent, which is a shame, but his tracks have a strong enough dance backbone that they can pretty much withstand any environment. Staples could rap in a dark room to a single person and be compelling, but the overwhelming maximalism of his set last night certainly didn’t hurt, revealing new strengths in his existing catalog.
Grimes’ Perfect Imperfections
Grimes is a sloppy performer. There’s no getting around that fact. She’s improved vastly over the years, but there’s still a lot during her sets that seems to go haywire — vocals too low in the mix, technical glitches, stilted stops-and-starts. Thankfully, Claire Boucher is someone you want to actively root for on stage, and those imperfections just serve to amplify the coiled-up anxieties of her best songs. During her Coachella set last night, she was the most confident and in-command that I’ve ever seen her, and the new songs have only gotten tighter since the last time I saw her shortly after Art Angels’ release. It seems like it takes a while for her to nail down the live arrangements: “Flesh Without Blood” and “Butterfly” — my two faves off the album — still need some work, but I’m sure they’ll get there. Look at how hard “Oblivion” and “Genesis” go now this many years on. They’ve been perfectly engineered for maximum audience enjoyment, and there’s no reason to think that the rest won’t catch up. “Kill V. Maim,” “Venus Fly,” and “Scream” are already at that level, and the latter two had an extra boost last night with appearances from Janelle Monáe and Aristophanes in the flesh. Last night’s performance felt like the start of a new chapter for Grimes’ live performances, in which she stops relying on the old standbys and starts to really embrace the euphoria of Art Angels. The only minor disappointment — no “California” in California!?! — was offset by the abundant joy that Boucher displayed on stage.
Shamir’s Luminous Nightcap
“This is my first Coachella,” Shamir Bailey excitedly told the crowd as he took the stage for his late-night set opposite Guns N’ Roses blaring from the main stage. “And I’m from Las Vegas, so that means I was poor,” he added before proceeding to open with the smooth and sultry song named after his hometown. At SXSW 2015, I wrote about Shamir and Courtney Barnett’s similar trajectories, and it’s no coincidence that both made their Coachella debuts in the same year. They’ve both made good on the promise of their early performances, and everything about Shamir’s set last night showed how far he in particular has come. His live band added an extra thump to his songs that filled the massive tent he had been granted, and his voice was characteristically alluring and smooth as butter. He bounced around the stage with a nervous energy, constantly asking what’s next, and filled the space in between songs with charming and endearing stage banter that made you glad we have Shamir around as one of pop music’s most promising luminaries. His second-to-last song of the night was a tender cover of Alex G’s “Harvey,” and it was a fitting tribute to demonstrate how far Shamir’s come from his underground roots while still staying true to himself.