Abel Tesfaye's dark, twisted album is at odds with the glossy pop world he's been thrust into
Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival
Indio, California, April 13-15
Coachella is supposed to be all sunshine, hippie chicks and palm trees swaying in the breeze. A world away from UK festivals, right? Well, on opening day – Friday the 13th of course – wrong. It’s like a British festival: the weather is grim, shouty men ramble around in ill-fitting dresses and public urination is common. But much like its UK counterparts, Coachella won’t let drizzle stop play.
“Clap your hands, Coachella. Don’t be a dick about it,” implores Alex Turner, slicking back his T-bird bouffant, opening up a Steel City double header under portentous skies. ‘Don’t Sit Down ’Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair’ is impeccably heavy, bringing a hint of those headliners that could have been, Black Sabbath, to proceedings. The rest of Arctic Monkeys’ set is a rare greatest hits outing, leading into much the same from Pulp, who finally give America a taste of what Europe was treated to last summer: a reunion worth the hype.
Frank Ocean’s only concession to showbiz flamboyance is a backing band in welding masks, but even so, his turn is a superstar-making show, astounding a crowd that go nuts for that Coachella shout out in ‘Novacane’. Ocean’s shy banter about setlists indicates this is no Kanye-sized ego, but rather a self-effacing talent who doesn’t even let Tyler, The Creator’s embarrassing uncle shirt upstage him when his Odd Future cohort bounds on for ‘Analog 2’.
Mazzy Star’s ‘Fade Into You’ sees gooey-eyed couples embracing to Hope Sandoval’s sleepy desire, making for a mushy warm up for The Black Keys, who more than justify their somewhat unexpected headline slot. Their tight, prog-free performance rolls out the beefier full band sounds of ‘Howlin’ For You’ and ‘Lonely Boy’, and sees them wilfully whack their way through a clutch of older tracks including ‘Thickfreakness’ and ‘Your Touch’.
The sun – and the dreary likes of Paris Hilton – deign to come out today, which begins with Azealia Banks leading a ferociously filthy singalong, with a few thousand punters rhapsodising the joys of cunnilingus as she whips her mermaid locks before belting out The Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’ in a questionable English accent. Childish Gambino must have heard the lewdness because straight after, he mumbles something about doing that very deed “on the Coachella bus” at the end of a strapping ‘Heartbeat’.
Tune-Yards’ ragga-jazz yodelling is dampened by sludgy sound, which is a shame, as the tribal-print shoulder-padded Merrill Garbus looks magnificent against the turquoise skies and pink mountaintops. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds then swoop into action with a bells and whistles-free set, amping things up with an Oasis four-way, dedicating ‘Half The World Away’ to the countless English folk in the crowd.
Sporting a fluffy blonde mohawk, Justin Vernon and Bon Iver’s mellow moods should have most of the punters blubbing into their beer – if you were allowed to drink and watch a band at the same time here, that is. The pomp of ‘Holocene’ thrills but it’s ‘Skinny Love’ that dazzles, cutting through any pretension with its simplicity.
Radiohead dutifully dish out ‘Karma Police’ and ‘Lucky’ along with their post-millennial beats and glitches, but Thom Yorke seems to be strangely morphing into Axl Rose. For something a little less contrived, it’s over to A$AP Rocky. Under a veil of weed smoke, he leaves his multitudinous crew and rolls delightedly with fans down the front, which makes a nice alternative to his notorious SXSW booze-flinging barney.
The final day sees Wild Flag whip out their discordant post-punk pop hits before The Hives’ Howlin’ Pelle flips their modesty 180 degrees, airing his gargantuan ego and new single ‘Go Right Ahead’. In top hat and tails, he’s Coachella’s Fred Astaire, an unhinged hype man who knows the likes of ‘Main Offender’ and ‘Hate To Say I Told You So’ will never fail to be lapped up. “People say I’m an annoying asshole,” he hollers. “Do you agree, Coachella?!”
Things take a turn for the slushy with The Weeknd’s slightly naff soul grooves causing a sea of mooning teenage girls to flutter eyelashes at Abel Tesfaye. Swoons are swapped for glowsticks for Justice, who prove Coachella is as much about mixers as guitars. Handily, the guitars here are some of the finest. At The Drive-In may not be happy about reuniting at such a celeb and fashion-fest, with Cedric Bixler slagging off the event’s more ludicrous style choices, but even so, they put on a compelling performance. A riot of phlegm and micstand flinging, their post-hardcore riffs are as imposing as the hills around us. ‘One Armed Scissor’ has lost none of its vitality and ‘Lopsided’ and ‘Napoleon Solo’ provide a solid grounding for the outrageous hip-hop all-stars show which follows.
The Tupac hologram accompanying Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg’s show is stranger in the, erm, flesh, than any YouTube clip. The crowd reaction to the shirtless second coming of a man who died 16 years ago is a mixture of disbelief, awe and downright WTF-ism. In a set packed with anthems, from ‘Gin And Juice’, ‘Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang’, a 50 Cent-aided ‘In Da Club’ and an Eminem-abetted ‘Forgot About Dre’, it makes for a poignant moment of darkness in a festival oft-derided for style over substance. Which is a good thing.
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