And so the sun sets on the first big music festival of 2019. With a slate of headliners that all had something to prove, it really was anyone’s guess how things would pan out. Could Donald Glover, Kevin Parker, and Ariana Grande rise to the occasion?
Friday ended up being stolen by the ladies – with nearly the entire day being jam packed with incredible female performers who gave it their all. Hot off her Album of the Year Grammy, Kacey Musgraves took to the main stage for an aptly timed set at golden hour, with nothing but pure swagger. She opened to the psychedelia-tinged folk tune “Slow Burn,” and blew through a set of cross-over country, culminating in her disco hit “High Horse.” Even the most stoic of haters couldn’t help but let out a “yee haw” and join on the dance party.
Twenty-three year old Tierra Whack absolutely eviscerated the Gobi tent, performing her 15 minute, 15 track album Whack World in its entirety, before diving into a slew of new singles. With a goofy confidence and an insane stage setup involving what appeared to be slimy sludge monsters, Whack showed all the way up.
Rosalia brought her brand of future flamenco to Coachella – one of many international acts over the weekend – bringing an astonishing stage show filled with lights and dancing. As she performed the dreamy “Barefoot in the Park” (from James Blake’s Assume Form), a shower of lights on the stage mimicked her form, twirling in a constellation of pure joy, and was undoubtedly the day’s standout act.
I went into Childish Gambino as a skeptic, having only really been grabbed by a handful of his tracks. But Donald Glover brought nothing but pathos and raw energy to his set – proving that his billing was far more than a novelty booking.
Things really got going on Saturday with Four Tet – who performed his entire set in total darkness. Something about the move just felt totally right, letting the attention fall on his actual music, more than colorful enough to beam the crowd to a place where the visuals didn’t matter. A blend of experimental ambient, new age dance music pulsed out of the Mojave tent for a transcendent hour. And when word traveled that he would be back for a set in the Do-Lab later that night, it was clear where the night was going to end.
What followed was the unholy onslaught of Aphex Twin, performing one of his first shows on the West coast in twenty plus years. Over an hour and forty-five minutes, Richard D. James brought the hammer down, unleashing a barrage of lights and sounds that never seemed to let up. At times it felt like he was actively trying to give the audience a bad trip – morphing live footage of the crowd into hideous, deranged faces. Within the first thirty minutes, half the crowd thinned out, clearly getting more than they bargained for, but those who remained were rewarded with arguably the best set of the weekend.
At a midpoint in Tame Impala’s headlining set, the always aloof Kevin Parker looked out into the crowd and said “Maybe it’s all the wind flying around me, but I’m really feeling you guys right now. Maybe it’s some deep down theory I have that… we’re all here for the right reasons, this weekend.” With a strum of his guitar and a torrent of seemingly endless lasers, he launched into the rolling thunder of “Elephant.” It was a moment that stuck with me – not just for the insane visuals (yes, it looked like Kevin was the 50 foot tall Iron Giant with beams shooting out of his eyes and it was cool as fuck), but because it was such a pure reminder that rock music isn’t going anywhere. By the set’s end, the halo light rig atop the stage started swirling, practically abducting the band into the stars.
And so Easter Sunday rolled around, and boy were we tired. The day started off with Kanye’s “Sunday Service” in the blaring sun. It perfectly encapsulated the jarring hypocrisy of West’s identity, at times moving and powerful and as often stunningly frustrating. As the gospel singers belted out music preaching acceptance and love, it was hard not to be confused when lined up with any of Kanye’s statements over the last two years. Grievances aside, it was a worthy addition to the lineup and surprising omission from weekend one.
It was hard not to get a rush of energy from Lizzo’s set, performing a mix of songs off her new record and singles from her past. Beyond the infectious pop hooks, her self love message was on point and impossible not to get behind.
Gesaffelstein brought the outdoor theater down with a heavy and dark set – pulling almost exclusively from his older material and shelving his shiny major label debut tracks. A smart move, and the crowd ate it up, drawing comparisons to fellow Frenchmen Justice’s set a few years prior.
Maybe the biggest surprise of the day came in the form of J-Pop trio Perfume, who brought a choreographed spectacle of shadow play (and yes more lasers) to the Gobi tent. I couldn’t help but try to mimic their flamboyant twirls and motions, it was just too much fun to watch. And the joy on their faces as they finished their set made it clear they were getting as much out of the performance as the audience was.
Jon Hopkins brought the strongest set of the night, a pummeling hour of IDM that built to an epic crescendo that totally swallowed me up in noise. Perfectly synched dancers swirled lights to the rhythm of Hopkins’ sounds, making it all too difficult to pull myself away to catch the last headliner of the weekend.
While she didn’t quite reach the heights of the previous night’s top-billing acts, there was something truly impressive about Ariana Grande. Just two years after surviving the Manchester bombing at her show that claimed the lives of 22 people, Grande stepped onto the biggest stage in the US, unafraid, poised and at the top of her career. Ariana Grande isn’t afraid of terrorists. Ariana Grande will fuck you up. Having lost most of my group by the end of the night, I couldn’t help but smile as she closed the festival out with the self love bop “thank u, next.”
All in all, Coachella 2019 exceeded every expectation. It was without a doubt the best layout of the festival ever with smart relocations of the Antarctic Dome and beer gardens. And the art this year was totally spot on, with the H.i.P.O, rocket ship lab bringing some of the festivals biggest laughs. The lab was fully staffed with around 20 hippos at any moment, conducting various experiments and featuring an especially hilarious interactive whack-a-mole game. The return of the giant mobile spaceman even featured a smashed hippo under one of his boots (RIP).
I could go on and on… but right now all I’m thinking about is the wait until next year.
Peep the “Best Of” playlist below:
Featured image by Ashley Williams