From over 40 miles out from the festival grounds on Interstate 10, there are billboards advertising sets over the two weekends. Most are presented with little context — Foals: Friday; Bauuer: Sunday. You already know what they’re for. Everyone does. The Coachella Valley turns into a black hole during the weeks surrounding the festival — all roads, all conversations lead to it. It’s the first question out of everyone’s mouth in pharmacies, coffee shops, hotels: “You’re here for Coachella, right?” Of course you are: Why else would you be a fish out of water in the middle of the desert? There’s an electricity in the air; it’s the biggest festival of the season, the fest to kick off all the rest. My journey to Coachella marks the first time I’ve ever been to the West Coast, which naturally means it’s also the first time I’ve been to the event that’s taken only a little over a decade to sprawl out into the behemoth it is today.
Did it live up to the expectations? How many floral headdresses did I see? Kind of, and a lot. In what I sense is a rarity, the first day of Coachella actually contained the most sets I was excited to see. Take a look at the most memorable moments below (unranked in chronological order) and check out the livestream all weekend long here.
The One Sheer Mag Song I Managed To See
The last two times I saw Sheer Mag were late at night on a bridge overlooking the Colorado River in Austin during SXSW. The Coachella stage is a big step up for the notably DIY, publicity-averse Philly group, but it turns out that an opening festival slot on the first day of Coachella isn’t very different from an underground punk gathering, especially when festival mishaps get in the way. Coachella gates ended up opening around 12:15 — Sheer Mag were scheduled to go on at noon — and by the time I high-tailed it over to the Mojave tent to see them, they were nearing their last song to a small audience of people who were lucky enough to get there just before me, and certainly fewer people than were huddled around an Austin bridge for two concurrent years. (I guess they played to a near-empty tent before that?) But the lack of a crowd didn’t stop Sheer Mag from giving it their all; in fact, it seemed to only galvanize them to prove how much energy they could fit into a short amount of time. Christina Halladay’s stage presence is infectious and inspiring no matter the scene, and the one song I managed to hear more than justified their inclusion on this list. Sheer Mag just have that kind of power.
Låpsley Makes The Jump From The Screen
The internet-born hype of Låpsley could go either way live: dreadfully boring or enticingly intriguing. Thankfully it was the latter for the XL signee, who exhibited a surprisingly grounded stage presence considering the insulated nature of most of her songs. “Station” is still the standout years on — and hearing Holly Fletcher sing it live with her voice pitched down to a growl in one mic and lofty in the other even approached something nearing transgressive. The other songs from her debut are a little more open and conducive to the tent atmosphere, and those are the ones that connected with the crowd yesterday. Låpsley was charming and engaging throughout, joking about her young age (born in ’96) and how out of place she feels at Coachella (she got a spray tan before coming). It was a perfect early afternoon set to see how online hype translates to real-life talent, and Låpsley is a rare one who didn’t disappoint across the divide.
HEALTH’s Bid For The Sunset Slot
Give HEALTH another few years and another great album under their belts, and the Los Angeles trio would be prime candidates for the coveted Coachella sunset slot. The mix of hardcore noise, jagged synth-pop, and expansive rock that solidified on last year’s DEATH MAGIC is tailor-made for that kind of setting, and their song structures hew closely enough to the build-drop cycle that’s so ingrained in Coachella’s main EDM export that it’s easy to see them having some crossover appeal with rave kids. HEALTH certainly seemed to be playing to a crowd that expanded beyond its typical fanbase, and they all fucked with what HEALTH were selling hard, because they’re pretty undeniable.
Years & Years Queer Up Coachella
Most major festivals, Coachella included, are suffocatingly straight, so it was nice to have at least a little bit of a respite in Years & Years. The audience wasn’t very large considering the UK pop group was playing Coachella’s biggest stage, but Olly Alexander knows how to fill up a stage and work a crowd, and he did both well as they ran through highlights from last year’s debut Communion. Alexander started off the set with a feather neckpiece before getting annoyed by it midway through — when he asked one of his band members to help him take it off, he joked to the crowd, “he’s used to undoing my harnesses” — and performed most of the set with little flashiness and few gimmicks. Particular highlights were an inspired mash-up of “Dark Horse” and “Hotline Bling,” and (of course) album standout “King.” You couldn’t ask much more of a pop act at Coachella, barring maybe this next one…
Christine And The Queens Have Something To Prove
At one point during her set, Héloïse Letissier — the woman behind French electro-pop outfit Christine And The Queens — picked up a bouquet of flowers that was sitting onstage in response to a question from the audience (“Why are you here?”) and tried to explain her place in the crowded pop landscape. One flower was a Beyoncé, the other was a Rihanna — she sang a few bars from “Flawless” and “Kiss It Better” to solidify her point — and then the littler one was her, adding something to the effect of: “I’m small, but I’m still here and we have to prove to you that we’re good.” And Letissier seemed on a mission to prove just that yesterday: Between her earnest but charmingly stilted stage banter, some impressive minimalist moves in lock-step with a crew of dancers, and the impossibly catchy and accomplished songs from her debut, Christine And The Queens more than earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath as the two foremost divas of pop.
Kanye West’s Surprise Appearance
I’ve seen A$AP Rocky festival sets before, and they’ve been scattered and disappointing. This one was no different, but I was lulled into watching him again by the availability of an open wall to lean against and a few beers. (Festivals are long and hard!) Thankfully I was there, though, because just when I thought I’d reached peak complacency after a sleepy ScHoolboy Q guest appearance for “Electric Body,” none other than the opening bars of “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1″ starts playing. Rocky starts hyping up a special guest, but I wasn’t convinced: No way. There’s no way he’s coming out. But lo and behold, Kanye West appeared in all His Glory. He didn’t know the words and his mic was barely working and he had basically zero stage presence, yet it was the most electrifying moment simply by virtue of Kanye being who he is. (Later, he’d join Jack Ü and race Tyler, The Creator backstage.) All necks craned to try to catch a glimpse. During the set, people around me speculated who Rocky would bring out: 2 Chainz, Future, Drake?! None of them, I figured, and of course he goes and brings out someone bigger than all of them. So goes Coachella.
The Majestic Sufjan Stevens
I came to the Sufjan Stevens set ready to cry — excited, almost, for the emotional release after a long day of standing around in the desert’s demented hot wind dust. But instead of rolling through with the heartbreaking songs of his latest album, Carrie & Lowell, Stevens decided to make the most of a slot sandwiched on the same stage between A$AP Rocky and Jack Ü and deliver a spectacle. “God is in the house,” he announced during his set. “Welcome to the church of Coachella.” He mostly stuck to songs off of The Age Of Adz, breaking out “Impossible Soul” and “Too Much” for the first time since the end of that album cycle in 2011, and brought along a dazzling mix of outfits and lights to accompany the experimental pop of his most divisive album. Sufjan went through many costume changes — the giant disco ball, the angel, the rave astronaut, the piñata with a million balloons attached — but he never lost his sense of himself, and it made for one of the most exhilarating and bewildering sets of the night. “I was never homecoming queen or anything, but I feel like one now,” he said at one point. For his first-ever Coachella set, Stevens certainly delivered, and maybe set the bar for performances for the rest of the weekend. He even smashed his banjo after “Seven Swans.”
Savages’ Jehnny Beth Goes Out Into The Crowd
Savages have never really connected with me for whatever reason, even though they contain all the elements I like in a band — loud, political, not made up of straight dudes — but their set last night was an undeniable force. I’ve seen the London band live, but never like this. The black backdrop of the Mojave tent where they played last night made it hard to see the ground, but proved the ideal environment for the group’s clean and utilitarian post-punk. The most intimidatingly awesome moment was Jehnny Beth’s venture out into the audience towards the end of their set, goading them with a “Will you catch me when I fall?” refrain before jumping straight in and screaming all the way through. It was nauseating and thrilling and entirely too dangerous. It was a perfect punk moment in the midst of a festival full of anything but that, and it made me admire the band a hell of a lot more than I had prior.
LCD Soundsystem’s Big Return (Sort Of)
Leave it to James Murphy to make LCD Soundsystem’s big Coachella-headlining reunion set feel just a bit anti-climactic. After two warm-up shows in New York and one in Pomona in the weeks leading up to the big event, there wasn’t that same electricity in the air one should feel when a huge band comes back together for the first time in five years, but that didn’t really matter when it became clear how excited Murphy and crew were to be there. It was readily apparent that Murphy was in a reflective mood, even as he tried to keep talking down to a minimum so they could power through more songs. (I get the sense the extra time allowed them to debut their rousing cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” toward the end of the night.) An omnipresent countdown clock that could be seen in the background on the big screens kept Murphy’s wordiness in check, and his most extensive banter was dedicated to talking about the last time that they played Coachella, on the same stage that Jay Z would take later that night. Before launching into their last 40 minutes of material, Murphy announced: “We have a couple more songs and then… Nothing happens up here. That’s so fucking weird.” And there was a glint of genuine joy in his eyes. I’ll admit I had some hesitation when LCD Soundsystem got back together so soon after a belabored farewell, but seeing the band happy and back at it after I was convinced I’d never get to see them live in my lifetime made all those doubts fall away. Whatever comes next for LCD after this bout of reunion shows is over, I’m glad they’re still around.