There’s every other festival in America, and then there’s Coachella. Every year, it feels like it matters just a bit more than the others. It’s the oldest, dating back to the final moments of the ’90s, so its infrastructure is tight and its organizers know what they’re doing. It’s first, so all these bands are debuting the sets they’ll play at about a million other festivals. And it has more potential to pull off a big moment than any other festival; Bonnaroo still hasn’t had its Tupac Hologram situation. So every day of this year’s festival, I’ll look at everything I saw and pick the best moments. (Before you ask, I didn’t see Flying Lotus, Interpol, Todd Terje, or a few others, so that’s why they’re not here.) Check out the words with photographic proof above, and when you’re done stream the fest here.
Young Chicago rapper Vic Mensa was going places as a sort of lite version of his friend Chance The Rapper, but he's going places faster as a futuristic dance-rapper. Opening up the main stage early in the afternoon, he looked like a minor character from the movie Hackers: bleached hair, Doc Martens, all-black clothes. The soul-rap remnants of his set left over from his pre-makeover set didn't fit well with the music he's making now; the Common-esque goofy freestyle was especially unfortunate. But when he morphed into a child of the bass, on tracks like his Kanye West collabs "Wolves" and the awesomely brand-new "U Mad," he looked like an absolute force. Late in his set, he covered Kid Cudi's "The Pursuit Of Happiness" and in effect showed where his career should go. He should be the version of Cudi who doesn't absolutely blow it. And he went straight from that into his best song and his closest thing to a "Day N Nite," the liquid Chicago house banger "Down On My Luck." It destroyed.
I flew into LAX on Thursday evening, and it was dark for my entire three-hour rental-car drive down to Indio. That meant that I didn't actually see what this place looks like until I went out looking for breakfast, and when I did, I had to catch my breath. You've probably already seen pictures, so you probably already know what this place looks like: A desert valley, surrounded by sandy mountains on every side, palm trees anywhere. But if you've been, then you know it's a whole other thing to see it for yourself.
There are plenty of things to be annoyed at during Coachella: The deeply confusing parking situation, the inexplicable trend of carrying around cardboard celebrity heads at the end of swimming-pool floater noodles, the Australian guy who came up behind me and tried to lift me up by grabbing my legs. (It finally happened. I finally met an uncool Australian. Didn't think they existed.) But beyond all that petty nonsense, you have to admire the scope of vision and the actual achievement: Finding this stunning place, plunking down a titanic music festival at a damn polo field, building this whole institution in this remote little desert town. For a big music festival, Coachella goes out of its way to make sure regular asshole like us have fun: Laudably adequate bathroom situation, not-too-expensive bottled water, cool stuff to look at everywhere. And the sheer work it must've taken to set this thing up boggles the mind. Good job, everyone.
I was only dimly aware that rockabilly guitar hero Horton Heat was still out there doing it. But he is, and his retro-two-times-over-now kitsch blitzkrieg outdrew Cloud Nothings, who were playing one tent over. It's easy to see why: Cloud Nothings seemed completely overwhelmed by their surroundings, sounding lost and muddy, while the Rev. brought a level of showmanship that Dylan Baldi hasn't yet even considered. Other than Angus Young, in fact, the Rev. had the day's best guitar pyrotechnics. My favorite person in the crowd: The guy taking the opportunity to do impressive windmill routines to some grimy '90s rockabilly. Do you, that guy!
Bronson knows how to make an exit. On the ground, leaning back onto the front-row fans against the barricade, in a Jesus Christ pose, he waited for the guitar solo on "Easy Rider" to come in. When it did, he flipped his microphone backward over its shoulder, and it arced prettily and landed maybe eight rows behind him. It was so badass. Bronson had other strong moments: Coming onstage to Metallica's "Creeping Death," allowing his goon buddy Big Body Bes to recite entire album skits word-for-word, shouting out "the fucking George Lopez" and then actually bringing George Lopez out onstage. (I missed Bryan Ferry with Todd Terje, so this was really the only big-name surprise guest I saw all day.) But that mic toss was the moment where he best owned his whole dirtbag gimmick. Best part: After he left, a stagehand type jumping on the PA, saying, "Guys, guys, I really need that microphone back."
For years, I've seen people writing about Coachella's Sunset Bands -- the festival's innate ability to pick the exact right act for that beautiful moment where the oppressive sun goes down and the sky does amazing things. I'm glad the War On Drugs were my first. People come to Coachella to party, so when bands make music that isn't conducive to partying, they can find themselves in tough spots. (Ask Ride, whose tiny and sleepy crowd was pretty sad to behold.) Whereas people like Tame Impala and Lykke Li found ways to project their downbeat music, TWOD just played their beautiful blank-faced glassy guitar zone-outs into the void. They were rewarded with the smallest main-stage crowd I saw anyone draw all day. But that just meant there was more room to find an unclaimed spot, sit on the ground, and take it all in. Even if you're not going to see the War On Drugs at any festival anytime soon, this is a pretty great way to hear them, and you can do it at home.
Sylvan Esso are folk musicians making Purity Ring-core dance-R&B -- all of which is to say that they're practically made for festivals. And it makes a big difference that Amelia Meath has swagger, and that she knows how to dance. Wearing entirely functional clothing other than her gigantic glittery clomping platform shoes, she'd do this robotic body-rolling thing during all her group's instrumental parts, and it would be awesome. And when she threw a couple of seconds of Beyoncé's "Flawless" into one song, it didn't seem like a desperate crowd-pleasing move. It came off like a simple statement of badassery. (Shout out to all the groups of girls absolutely dumbing out to Sylvan Esso; you might've been my favorite people at the whole festival.)
Azealia Banks' festival set is an impressive thing, tough and melodically generous and capable of inciting some really good dancing in the crowd. I was enjoying it, but then she started up with her Ariel Pink collab "Nude Beach A Go-Go," and my legs just started walking in the opposite direction. I didn't think about doing it; I just did it. That song is bad enough that it forced me to vacate the premises, like it was an involuntary reflex. That meant, though, that when Banks stopped that malarky and pulled out her big hit "212," I got to see all the people who said "holy shit, that's my song" and rushed over to the stage. That's one of the great things to see at festivals: People hearing a song they love and then go barreling in the general direction of that song. (I rushed right back, too, because of course I did.)
Like the Caribou set that was ending when theirs began, Tame Impala's big-stage almost-headliner stand was a study in head-nod immersion. They play psych-rock so sweet and soft and gooey and funky that it becomes chillout-tent material. But the standout, at least for me, was them bringing "'Cause I'm A Man" to the stage for only the second time. "'Cause I'm A Man" is a mid-'80s Madonna power ballad dressed up as Rundgrenesque studio-prog. It's only been in the world a few days and it's already my favorite Tame Impala song. Tame Impala, and Parker in particular, seemed a bit nervous in the second-from-headliner spot, but it's impossible to sound nervous when singing a song this smooth.
Sad music can be a hard sell at festivals, when people are there for a good time, but Lykke Li took a devastatingly sad breakup album, last year's I Never Learn, and sold it like it was top-shelf arena-pop, which it sort of is. Her whole set was just fantastic -- icy and controlled and powerful. Her voice is huge, but more impressive than that is the way she projects a heavy intensity all the time -- hair sweat-plastered across her face, a slash of glitter on her cheek, a look on her face like she could fight the whole audience and walk away without a scratch on her. The songs from I Never Learn sounded better than I've ever heard them, to the point where I want to spend a whole lot more time with that album, and she was ballsy enough to cover Drake ("Hold On We're Going Home") at a festival that Drake is headlining. Her stage set was all beautifully designed darkness -- sheer black curtains hanging from the ceiling, huge plumes of smoke-machine fog, black-clad wraiths doing backing-musician duty. And even her big finale had some beautiful darkness working for it: An explosion of black confetti filling the air.
When AC/DC figurehead Angus Young plays a guitar solo, something seems to take over his body. His eyes bug out, his hair gets even more wild, his face does this thing where it looks like he's trying to eat flies. He is an incredibly strange-looking elderly man who looks like he smells like piss. He still comes onstage in a schoolboy outfit, then gradually sheds clothes and looks even more insane by the time he's down to just shorts and orthopedic shoes. He is awesome.
For AC/DC's pre-encore closer "Let There Be Rock," Young started out playing a fractured, staccato, endless solo, and then he disappeared from the stage. Then, suddenly, he jumped up on a glass platform right in front of me, maybe 20 feet away. I hadn't even realized this thing was there, but it turned out to be a hydraulic lift, one that lifted Young a couple of stories into the air while confetti shot out all around him. For a few moments there, my face hurt from smiling so much.
People were weirded out when Coachella announced AC/DC as a headliner, and I get it. They're older than dirt, they're a nostalgia act, they have zero to do with the climate of music as it exists today. But they're also one of the greatest, most singleminded party bands in history. There's never been a stadium rock band in history with their level of hammerhead focus; they rival the Ramones for pure simplicity. And they remain an impressively strange hit machine. Brian Johnson looks like Popeye and walks like a boxer. The other guys in the band look somehow feeble and terrifying at the same time. They have a gigantic inflatable Rosie and a bell that hangs from the stage ceiling during "Hell's Bells." They shoot off real cannons during "For Those About To Rock." They're an anachronism, but a glorious one, and Coachella is lucky to have them.