“It’s really a motherfucking party in the desert tonight, huh?” Baby Keem observes midway through his boisterous debut appearance at Coachella. It’s a statement that rings true for much of the festival’s first weekend (there’ll be another run from April 22). After two years of cancellations and livestreams, its return signals the restoration of a “normal” summer for music fans in the States and they’re not letting this moment pass by quietly.
Celebration is in order. Though the pandemic still rages on, the fact that we’re able to gather in large crowds and indulge in live music again is a relief that colours many sets, fans and artists alike rapturously overjoyed with the reunion. Experts in sweeping epics Arcade Fire do what they do best, uniting the Mojave tent crowd on Friday evening with euphoric renditions of ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ and ‘Wake Up’, between dropping new songs. “It’s been a pretty fucked up last couple of years and I can’t say enough how beautiful it is to see you all,” frontman Win Butler gushes, moments later getting so caught up in emotion that he has to restart the band’s preview of fresh cut ‘Unconditional (Lookout Kid)’.
Over at the Outdoor Theatre, Omar Apollo is getting into the party spirit under the late afternoon sun, pairing some sensual slow jams and tender sad songs with hyped up shout outs to the crowd. “Turn the fuck up!” he tells them after a fizzing version of ‘Useless’, before immediately asking: “Where my homosexuals at? It’s about to get real sexy in this bitch.” As he and his band slink into hopelessly devoted ‘Ugotme’, it’s clear he’s not wrong.
Friday night headliner Harry Styles ratchets things up several notches, offering up a vibrant jamboree of fun as he darts across the stage in a multicoloured sequinned catsuit, pulling out all the stops like the greatest showman on Earth. He brings with him humongous anthems (‘Adore You’, a rocked-up version of One Direction’s ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ and, of course, the irresistible ‘Watermelon Sugar’), new songs (the first performance of ‘As It Was’, folky ‘Boyfriends’ and ‘70s slicker ‘Late Night Talking), and a genuine surprise guest. When Shania Twain appears at the top of a white staircase as Styles’ band bashes out the opening notes of ‘Man! I Feel Like A Woman’, the crowd is momentarily stunned before embracing the seemingly random cameo and belting out the lyrics to the hit.
Good times aren’t the only thing worth celebrating at Coachella 2022. The festival’s line-up feels more inclusive than ever, be that Raveena becoming the first Indian woman to perform at the event with a compelling set on Friday afternoon, or 88rising taking over a primetime slot on the main stage to showcase brilliant Asian and Asian-American talent.
The set is an embarrassment of riches that weaves a thread from stars-in-the-making like charismatic Indonesian rapper Warren Hue or the magnetic Thai newcomer MILLI, through more established names like Indonesian singer-songwriter NIKI, and on to bonafide legends, like J-pop icon Hikaru Utada and K-pop soloist CL. The label’s time on the stage ends with a seismic shock – the reunion of the revered Korean girl group 2NE1, who cap off the show with a version of their 2011 hit ‘I Am The Best’ that gets the whole crowd jumping for one last time.
Elsewhere, there are sets that act as markers of how far some artists have come since they were first announced for the doomed Coachella 2022, and a farewell to others. Over on the Sahara stage on Saturday, boyband Brockhampton give their penultimate performance in front of an inflatable blue gorilla and a mountainous landscape. Though their set is full of brilliant highs (particularly a party and pit-starting ‘Boogie’), it ends anti-climactically, with the group trudging out of sight unceremoniously.
Megan Thee Stallion draws a huge crowd to the main stage on Saturday night, acting as main support to headliner Billie Eilish, but falls victim to letting the momentum drop. A lengthy outfit change filled by DJ Jay Bone dampens the excitement for her performance somewhat, taking her back to square one even with the likes of ‘Body’ and ‘Hot Girl Summer’ in her arsenal. On Sunday, Doja Cat doesn’t fall into the same trap, squeezing in a handful of costume changes without letting the vibe drop for a moment. Her performance finds her crafting an entire world of her own on the main stage, taking the Coachella audience into a surreal land where dancers are dressed like strange creatures and perennial smash ‘Say So’ is reimagined as a rock anthem.
When Coachella was last held in 2019, Saturday headliner Eilish was one of the festival’s biggest draws, but still a fledging artist riding the wave of acclaim around her debut album, which had been released one month earlier. “I should not be headlining this shit – what the fuck!?” she exclaims early in this year’s set, but her performance says otherwise. It’s a brilliant display from an artist fully in control of her vision and with more than enough songs to propel her to even greater heights, be they the acoustic urgings of ‘Your Power’ or the fiery ‘All The Good Girls Go To Hell’. Not wanting to be left out of the fun of surprising your audience, Eilish also conjures up an appearance from Damon Albarn for a poignant ‘Getting Older’ and a riotous version of Gorillaz’s ‘Feel Good Inc’.
As revellers try to regain their stamina, the third day of weekend one feels more subdued, but Maggie Rogers’ joyous set of alt-folk provides some healing and a healthy dose of punchier new songs, like the driving ‘If You Want’. Joji amps up his hip-hop-tinged R&B while juggling a “medical issue” that causes him to disappear from stage for a lengthy time, turning the likes of ‘Pretty Boy’ into effervescent euphoria.
It’s a mood that continues for the final act of the weekend – or at least when Swedish House Mafia eventually make it on stage 35 minutes late. The reunited DJ trio deliver ground-shaking EDM bangers before inviting co-headliner and collaborator The Weeknd on stage, the two acts merging for ‘Sacrifice’ and ‘How Do I Make You Love Me?’ before Abel Tesfaye takes the wheel.
When he’s in control, the hits come rolling out, from a dazzling ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ to the mammoth ‘Blinding Lights’. While The Weeknd’s only guest is the return of SHM for the closing ‘Moth To A Flame’, he evokes the spirits of other big names, dropping covers of Kanye West (‘Hurricane’), Future (‘Low Life’), Ty Dolla $ign (‘Or Nah’) and Drake (‘Crew Love’). It’s a masterful selection of tracks that eases away the final day aches and pains and makes you want to jump straight back into another weekend of celebrations right away.