Before concertgoers from around the world descended upon the California desert near Palm Springs for Coachella II on April 22-24, they received shocking news: Prince had died. Back in 2008, the music superstar co-headlined the festival and set the internet abuzz with a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” during his late night set.
Many Prince fans that attended Coachella II wore the multi-faceted artist’s old concert t-shirts, wrote messages across other ones or accented their attire with purple in his memory. Meanwhile, various acts paid tribute by singing entire Prince songs (Sufjan Stevens, Gallant, LCD Soundsystem), doing short snippets (Pete Yorn, Mavis Staples, Ellie Goulding, De Lux), or adding classic Prince hits to their mixes (Major Lazer, Gabe Real).
Electronic Dance Music (EDM) played a major role in the ’16 festival lineup, with such heavy hitters as LCD, Zedd, Disclosure, Underworld and John Digweed spread across the six stages. Founding Guns N’ Roses members Axl Rose, Slash and Duff McKagan’s reunion after 20+ years apart was the biggest story leading up to the event. Heavy winds throughout the weekend had some effect on the outdoor stages’ sound and musicians frequently commented about it.
With nearly 200 acts to choose from, dozens of food vendors, plus clothing and memorabilia booths, there was never a shortage of things to hear, eat and do. Once the sun set each day, such art installations as Portals (Phillip K. Smith III, Palm Desert), couples selfie magnet Besame Mucho (R&R Studios, Argentina) and Tower of Twelve Stories (Jimenez Lai, Taiwan/Canada) really came alive.
Having witnessed partial or entire sets by 27 acts at the Empire Polo Grounds over the weekend, I got a good taste of the action on four stages. Here are some examples…
Arriving right when the gates opened, I had plenty of time to make it out to the Mojave tent for Haelos’ early afternoon set. Despite a muddy sound mix, atmospheric tunes from the London trio’s new album “Full Circle” still seeped out and translated well live. They frequently recalled 1990s electronica artists like Massive Attack and Portishead on the doomy, danceable “Pray,” haunting “Full Circle,” a moody and propulsive “Spectrum” and enticing “Oracle.”
Over in the food court nearby, I overheard three scantily clad young women debate the merits of taking illicit substances.
Scheduled at the Outdoor Theatre amid the sweltering midday heat, LA-based electronic music artist Robert DeLong was a revelation. After an altered Seal music video to “Kiss from a Rose” played on the screens, he took the stage and immediately started mixing or looping his songs in the moment. DeLong moved back and forth between electronic drums, MIDI keyboard, videogame controller (!) and laptop. Everything was framed by bizarre visuals on a backdrop. Set standouts included the opening title track from last year’s “In the Cards” album, “Don’t Wait Up” and the sprightly sonic manipulations of “Jealousy.”
British electronic dance pop sensation Years & Years drew a large crowd to the Outdoor Theatre stage and had plenty of people dancing along. Playful, glittery-faced front man Olly Alexander (who could be mistaken for a teenager) was totally animated. He ran around, kneeled, gestured and even did some pelvic thrusts while singing. Clad in one of the festival’s more memorable outfits (self-described as “Justin Timberlake, circa the ‘90s, at an alien sex party”), Alexander brought to mind a less dramatic Sam Smith at times (chill tune “Eyes Shut”) and engaged in some suggestive between song banter. Years & Years was augmented by two female backing singers, who helped drive the soulfulness. Even with a bass-heavy mix, the infectious “Worship,” an energetic, tribal “Desire,” the effusive “King” and “Shine,” not to mention a fine take on Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse,” were all highlights.
While listening to Lord Huron’s stellar latest effort “Strange Trails,” one could visualize tumbleweeds blowing across a barren stretch of land. Heavy winds that made whistling sounds into microphones only added to the LA indie folk band’s mystique at the Outdoor Theatre stage. Leader Ben Schneider basically let the music do the talking, but what a glorious reverb-drenched sound it made – especially during “Fool For Love” (with an outro jam a la My Morning Jacket), “Ends of the Earth,” the dark, shimmering “World Ender” (punctuated by Schneider’s frantic yelps) and a soaring “Meet Me in the Woods.”
Back on the Coachella stage, Foals was halfway into their hard rocking set when I showed up just in time to catch their U.S. alternative radio hit “Inhaler.” With an elastic groove, Yannis Philippakis’ falsetto-to-primal scream-to-whisper vocals and his monstrous guitar tandem with Jimmy Smith defined “intense.” Fans waved a large flag and the singer encouraged moshing. Melodic alt-chart topper “Mountain at My Gate” provided a breather. Then the English band launched into a fierce “What Went Down” (which was cut off at the first Coachella the previous week due to a set time overrun). Philippakis, hunched over the crowd as he sang, eventually crowd surfed to cap things off.
M83 made fine use of the new wraparound screens at each side of the Coachella stage, with celestial imagery that perfectly matched their dreamy electronic music. Opening with “Reunion,” leader Anthony Gonzalez’s keening vocals were clear as ever. “Steve McQueen,” also off 2011’s acclaimed “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming,” was majestic. A syncopated piano-led “Do It, Try It,” from the new album “Junk,” definitely seemed influenced by the singer’s native France.
Inside a well-attended Mojave tent, the chamber pop stylings of Last Shadow Puppets was often like watching a John Barry film soundtrack from the 1960s come to life. I half expected Shirley Bassey to pop up to sing “Goldfinger” or something. Boasting a small string section, the band’s co-lead vocalists Alex Turner and Miles Kane traded lead vocals and sang together; the pals’ onstage chemistry was undeniable. Turner seemed comfortable in suave crooner mode (“Sweet Dreams, TN”), while Kane reveled in his madman rocker role and a few guitar freakouts (Nick Cave-styled “Bad Habits,” a crashing “In My Room”). The title track to latest album “Everything You’ve Come to Expect” and “Miracle Aligner” were pure Burt Bacharachian bliss. Yet the real treat came at the end when Kane called an audible and they did a sizzling cover of the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”
They definitely took the prize for best of Day 1.
Over at the Outdoor Theatre, Sufjan Stevens’ wild night time party was unlike anything I’d seen before at Coachella. His freewheeling indie folk set defined “theatrical” with bizarre outfits (one was made from balloons), synchronized dance moves alongside band members, prodigious use of vocoder, inflatable figures blowing around and more colorful antics. “Chicago” featured a group chorus and “All of Me Wants All of You” (from 2015’s “Carrie and Lowell”) was extended live. Finally, R&B singer Gallant (who’d done his own set a couple hours earlier) joined Stevens for their version of Prince’s “Purple Rain.” It was admirable, if a bit shaky.
Early Saturday afternoon, Phases – a keyboard-driven pop supergroup of sorts from LA – got the Mojave tent proceedings off to a strong start. Z Berg was all smiles as she danced around the stage and sang fun, frothy numbers like “Silhouette,” “New Illusion” (Nu Shooz immediately came to mind), the catchy Chic-styled “I’m in Love with My Life” and “Betty Blue” with her male bandmates. They saved the best for last: effervescent earworm “Cooler,” saw Berg belt out the vocals, jump into the crowd and exit the tent.
The second-most talked about reunion at Coachella II was Lush. The British shoegaze band missed the prior week’s festival due to visa problems. So the packed Gobi tent set marked their first California gig in 20 years and fourth overall since returning to active duty. “We made it,” exclaimed co-lead singer/guitarist Miki Berenyi, as they took the stage. “Better late than never, eh?” With Silversun Pickups’ Brian Aubert watching from in front, the group kicked things off with divine hit single “De-Luxe.” That famous Berenyi and Emma Anderson vocal blend still sounded seamless during “Kiss Chase.”
And Lush was definitely loud. “Thoughtforms” was pure bliss; “Ladykillers” retained its sinister undertow. New tune “Out of Control,” from the just-released “Blind Spot” EP, boasted a great melodic sway and fit in perfectly with the older material. Afterward, Berenyi said, “I hope it was worth the wait.” For sure. Lush closed with the chiming guitars and heavenly vocal interplay of “Sweetness and Light.”
Another strong female singer performing Saturday was Lauren Mayberry, who fronts Chvrches. Holding court on the Coachella stage, the Scottish synthpop trio had no trouble commanding the prime spotlight. With one eye painted silver, Mayberry bounded out to skittering opener “Never Ending Circles.” She was quite spirited, at various points shaking her long hair to the music, noting all the people wearing GNR t-shirts up front and gently taking aim at Donald Trump and Ted Cruz (“We come here a lot and I would be sad if one of them were elected…girls: watch your ovaries!”). Standouts included the racing “Empty Threat,” a high energy “Keep You on My Side,” fiery “Bury It” (where Mayberry turned in circles and dramatically hurled herself to the ground) and “Leave a Trace.” Chvrches was sharp from start to finish and killed it on Day 2.
The Arcs played to a packed Mohave tent before sunset. Frontman Dan Auerbach and company delivered a solid set of psychedelic-tinged rock and R&B tunes from 2015 debut “Yours, Dreamily.” It was all about old school grooves, particularly the swelling organ of “Put a Flower in Your Pocket,” the soulful “Stay in My Corner” (featuring some tasty Auerbach slide guitar), an idyllic “Chains of Love” (heightened by guest female backing vocals from Mariachi Flor de Toloache) and “Pistol Made of Bones.”
Later that evening, the Gobi tent featured The Damned, the longest tenured band at Coachella. Zany guitarist Captain Sensible wore shiny silver attire. Always ready with a quip (however dated), he said, “we’re here to save you from the likes of Simon Cowell.” Then the pioneering English punk group started with a dramatic “Street of Dreams.” Vampiric singer Dave Vanian carried a bullet mic while pacing around the stage. A massive mosh pit erupted amid the blazing “Love Song.”
Keyboardist Monty Oxymoron got to shine with a whimsical solo during “I Just Can’t Be Happy Today” (and later, a crazy dance). But the tail end of the set is when the band really elevated the intensity and the mosh pit got more crazy. Their 1987 hit modern rock radio cover of Love’s “Alone (Again Or) – which Sensible dedicated to “wonderful ‘60s bands like The Seeds and Love, a fast and furious “New Rose” (the first punk single from 1976) and “Neat Neat Neat,” where Sensible played the guitar behind his head, all were enthusiastically received.
Toward the end of Joywave’s excellent set on Sunday afternoon in the crowded Mojave tent, singer Daniel Armbruster asked the audience whether it liked hits. Screams followed. So the Rochester, N.Y. alt-rock band proceeded to do two of its biggest ones: the dynamic “Somebody New” and bouncy “Tongues.” Before that, the musicians kept everyone riveted, thanks to some shrewd visuals and Armbruster’s ultra-enthusiastic delivery on songs like the danceable “In Clover,” the Killers-esque “Now,” driving pace of “Nice House” and ominous “Destruction.” They dwarfed most of the competition on Day 3.
Pete Yorn can always be counted on to put on a solid show, no matter the location. The sensitive New Jersey folk/rock artist started out in the Gobi tent doing the first verse of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” on acoustic guitar before segueing into a dramatic “Summer Was a Day,” that was leavened with lush keyboards. Then Yorn and his band did a raucous take on his first radio hit from 2001, “Life on a Chain,” where he added some wicked harmonica work. After giving a shout out to his mom, who was likely listening on the Sirius XM radio simulcast, the band’s performance of “She Was Weird” proved intriguing with all the unusual keyboard sounds and sleek backing vocals. It was a standout.
The chiming “Lost Weekend,” also from latest effort “Arranging Time,” was equally compelling. “I go to Palm Desert a lot to clear my head when the big city gets to be too much,” explained Yorn, about the nearby city. Strident rocker “Black” (with some fine distorted guitar) and the rapturous “Strange Condition” (including more harmonica playing from Yorn) kept fans excited.
Out on the Coachella stage, a huge crowd awaited The 1975. Some people were obviously there early for EDM act Major Lazer though because they had weird rave-style gear. I spotted a young dreadlocked man wearing a dress, scarves, scuba mask and a stuffed Winnie the Pooh around his neck. Another young guy sported an Obi-Wan Kenobi look, including a crowd of thorns.
Britain’s The 1975 immediately got into high gear with the infectious “Love Me,” propelled by Adam Hann’s clean guitar lines (he looked super cool in pink suit, sunglasses and Jackson Pollack-styled splattered instrument) and synth sounds a la David Bowie’s “Fame.” Front man Matt Healey, in contrast, was very casual in a retro Moody Blues t-shirt and high heeled boots. His androgynous look and stage presence is vaguely reminiscent of a young Michael Hutchence (INXS).
The funky “Ugh!” saw Healy gesturing and shaking his wiry hair with abandon. Still on a roll, the chugging “Heart Out” was a perfect example of their soul/pop/alternative music blend with a memorable sax solo. The dreamy “A Change of Heart” featured smooth keyboards and Healy clutching a glass of wine while singing. Simply mesmerizing. Soon after, Healy changed into an unbuttoned flannel shirt and smoked a cigarette amid the nearly six-minute chill out R&B tune.
“This is about a universal lack of compassion,” said the singer, before the rapid fire wordplay of “Loving Someone.” Catchy as hell hit “Girls” made the crowd go wild. Some backing singers emerged for the long R&B slow jam “If I Believe You” and the energy dissipated slightly. Still, the final lively stretch, including a sumptuous, percolating “Chocolate,” joyous gospel-leaning “The Sound” and driving U2 rock guitar strains of “Sex,” more than made up for it. Healy projected nonchalance, but he concluded by saying, “we’re deeply humbled by these experiences.”
All told, it was another winsome Coachella Music and Arts Festival, with a chance to experience longtime faves, become reacquainted with others and find several new acts to seek out.
Additional Photos from Coachella
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