One of the laziest journalistic tropes ever is: “This (supersuccessfulthing) isn’t nearly as cool as it was back when it was (underground, lesser-known, hardly a blip back in the day, etc.).”
This is what LCD Soundsystem sent up so effectively with “Losing My Edge” and has been a theme we’ve heard associated with “Chella” over and over again in recent years. It’s a giant financial ecosystem of which music is only a part (in 2016, Coachella sold nearly 200,000 tickets and grossed about $100 million, not to mention all of the tangential revenue generated by sponsors, merchandise sales, concessions, etc.), there’s too much corporate largesse creeping into the picture, the bookings aren’t nearly as edgy as they were, it’s more fashion show and social media mirror than cultural statement, I saw your dad there last year, yadda yadda.
One way to think about Coachella: it’s a festival whose humble beginnings date back to when Pearl Jam was warring with Ticketmaster and booked itself into the Empire Polo Club in 1993, as lighting-oneself-afire an act of anti-careerist stubbornness as has existed in the music industry’s recent history. Another, perhaps more practical way to think about it, is that the festival has become a way for largely niche acts in indie rock, hip hop and various flavors of EDM to reach a broader audience that wouldn’t otherwise be accessible to them given present course and speed of their organic development. When you think about artists such as Long Island’s Lemon Twigs, Seattle’s Tacocat or even the legendary Belleville Three (Detroit techno OGs Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson), the kind of affinity they can create with two weekends’ worth of energetic performances might eclipse everything else they’re capable of generating in a typical album/touring cycle. So: Coachella serves a useful purpose (as do other festivals of its type: Pitchfork, SXSW, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, Glastonbury, etc.) no matter what the self-proclaimed cool kids may think or how snarky their Tumblr posts may be.
It was with this framing in mind that we packed our rucksacks and caught the party plane down to Palm Springs for this year’s opening weekend. Gloriously bathed in 90-plus degree sunlight, the Empire Polo Club hosts what is no doubt the most thoughtful and, if possible, comfortable long weekend of live music in the U.S.: There is ample space for the crusty campers, backdrops for the Instagrammers, food and drink for all, and if it’s possible to call 330 acres of desert oasis “lush,” these guys have figured out a sensible way to make it so. Therefore, two generations of duBrowa festival attendees took in the three day weekend of with a tacit agreement in place: We would humor each other by attending the other guy’s sets-of-choice to the extent it was logistically possible—your Louis The Child showcase vs. my GBV fix. It’s unclear who got the better of this particular deal, but it made for a fantastic weekend at the musical deli tray under near-perfect conditions, all the same.
Friday split the difference between a typically Angeleno party night and a visit from the touring artists of the Empire. Having opened with the Raspberries-meets-Walker Brothers stylings of Long Island’s Lemon Twigs (a plaid-suited Brian D’Addario jogging crazily around stage like a Faces-era Rod the Mod), we then transitioned to the first of several British acts who killed it with their particular brand of music: London-based grime superstar Stormzy, whose “big man wif a beard,” high-energy 140-BPM rap set the table for everything else that followed. L.A.-based party collective Brownies and Lemonade hosted a showcase EDM set at the LCD-festooned DoLab Stage, with producer Alexander Lewis adding some festive trombone to a series of trap tracks while the duo Louis The Child slayed a packed tent full of Stevie Nicks hippie-chick lookalikes with a sparkling set of future soul. Every festival produces its share of surprises and disappointments—British soul-man Sampha definitively qualified as an unexpected delight, packing in a sweaty tent and filling the VIP area up front (we saw Gwyneth Paltrow, Stormzy, Kevin Abstract and half of his Brockhampton rap collective boogying away) with a crew who came for his Drake hit “4422” but left singing the praises of his virtuoso solo keyboard performance “(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano.” Expect huge things from this London-based R&B artist down the line.
As for Australia’s Avalanches—making their first U.S. appearance in 15 years on the back of their 2016 global comeback smasheroo Wildflower—the show proved that their real strength is as a studio creation vs. live act, with a catastrophic rig failure in the middle of “Subways” making for an interesting moment of improv for a band that isn’t really built for that sort of thing. Guided By Voices proved that Bob Pollard and Co. can still come correct with the old-school, serrated-guitar indie rock, their set ranging from brand-new material to songs unearthed from the Bee Thousand era. While Richie Hawtin and DJ Shadow demonstrated that ’90s-era techno and sampledelic hip hop can still summon a passionate audience in 2017.
Without doubt the spotlight act of the day was Radiohead—the band played before a sea of humanity and opened with slower, more contemplative material from A Moon Shaped Pool before suffering through three different sound stoppages, leaving the main stage twice before returning in a much feistier mood, with Thom Yorke changing the band’s setlist seemingly on the spot to troll festival organizers with the much-maligned “Creep,” blaming the various failures on “aliens.” L.A.-based EDM superstar Dillon Francis closed out the evening with a set heavy on moombahton jams, reprising his signature style from about 2013-ish for what appeared to be the largest single audience we’ve ever witnessed at a festival, filling an entire airplane hangar with sweaty, jiving fans who spilled out into the surrounding area with dayglo sticks, humorous hand-cobbled signs and a ridiculous number of “Christmas lights as costumes,” creating an undulating pool of people that washed rippling into the desert night.
If Friday was about new discoveries, then Saturday was devoted to surprise features—meaning, the time-honored tradition of bringing special guests onstage for a social media-amplified star turn. After taking in Mitski’s offbeat, Helium-like charms, the day turned to the half-Interpol/half-Wu emo tangle of Banks + Steelz and the hard, dark beats of French producer Brodinski, whose 90s-inspired techno would have been perfect in the midnight time slot (as it was, he packed the hangar-like Sahara venue full of writhing sparkle-face-paint kids). Portland’s Car Seat Headrest held to the indie-standard party line—guitars, attitude, skinny suit in a pastel color, more guitars—and then the parade of features began, with Angeleno six-string bass jazzbo Thundercat weaving his magic for an overflowing crowd before bringing out yacht-rock hero Michael McDonald (yes, that one, the silver-topped, golden-throated Doobie Brother) for a trio of beautifully ’70s-touched Fender Rhodes numbers that brought the house down when the familiar strains of “What A Fool Believes” wafted into the air.
British producer Mura Masa then proceeded to make a virtue out of his rotating backstage holding pen, with Desiigner, Charli XCX and finally A$AP Rocky all hitting the stage for their respective radio hits, which sent bodies overhead (Desiigner crowd-surfing his way into the front rows, and various kids in their desert finery passed back over the barrier in return) and produced probably the single best set of the day—dude is not only the owner of a golden set of ears, he can multitask with the best of ’em (keyboards, guitar, drums). Atlanta’s Future played to an ocean of fans before bringing out Ty Dolla Sign and then Drake out to close his evening set; while not to be outdone, fellow ATL resident Gucci Mane coaxed an appearance from hot-rap-kid-of-the-moment Lil Yachty and performed “Black Beatles” with guests Rae Sremmurd to wrap up his Coachella timeslot. Canadian rapper/producer Nav marked an otherwise low-key performance by inviting prior-night-headliner Travis Scott and the Weeknd to the stage, while French producer DJ Snake brought Migos to the stage for their ubiquitous radio anthem “Bad And Boujee,” then dropped the jaws of about half of the night’s attendees by conjuring the notoriously fickle Ms. Lauren Hill for a series of Fugees tracks (“Ready Or Not,” “Killing Me Softly”) before wrapping her cameo turn with a spin on her solo classic, “Lost Ones.” The night wrapped with Lady Gaga’s insanely produced and highly calibrated replacement slot for Beyonce (who bowed out months ago after announcing that she was expecting twins; Gaga returned the favor by dropping a surprise single, “The Cure,” just as she left the stage), and a fantastic, sunny-day-disco nightcap from L.A. production duo Classixx, whose admixture of electro, indie pop and straight-up ’70s dance music leaned heavily toward Disclosure territory and would have made the perfect soundtrack for Brodinski’s mid-day slot. All told—a day full of other people’s talents attached to a series of sets that were perfect for the 95-degree heat that baked the valley.
Our flight back to Seattle left early evening Sunday, so in an abbreviated day, we managed to catch the perfect Sunday comedown set from EDM producer/DJ Chet Porter, an experimental guitarfest from ragged-but-right Aussie indie-rockers Pond, a high-energy show from London grime artist Skepta that brought the house down, backed by a ridiculously bouncing set of pure party hip-hop from Lil Uzi Vert before wrapping up our weekend with a rare side-by-side-by-side performance from the aforementioned Belleville Three (unfortunately missing evening sets from OC OG punks TSOL, New Jersey indie-pop craftsmen Real Estate, a reimagined New Order, and rapper-of-a-generation Kendrick Lamar, whose amazing new full-length Damn will no doubt appear on many year-end lists) before heading back to civilization. We literally saw a little bit of everything over the course of three days: ferris wheels and freestyling, fairground food and fiery funk, famous features and FOMO-inducing moments of pure “you had to be there” magic. We see you, Coachella. And we promise we’ll be back to do it all again next year.
—Corey duBrowa and Tanner duBrowa
More photos after the jump.