Coachella, the three-day mega music festival in Southern California's Indio desert, has always been a massive affair, but leave it to this year's final headliner, Kanye West, to elevate it to a whole new level: literally, by entering the main stage via a glowing crane, rotating 30 feet above thousands of amazed spectators, and asking the musical question, "Can we get much higher?"
Kanye never does anything on a small scale, anyway, so his Coachella show was of course the stuff of festival legend. As far as history-making Coachella moments went, his airborne entrance topped even the Flaming Lips' man-sized plastic habitrail ball (Coachella '04) and Bauhaus frontman Peter Murphy's descending to the stage suspended upside-down in a vampire bat straitjacket ('05).
While Coachella lineups usually lean toward the indie side of the musical spectrum, there was little that was indie about Kanye's epic spectacle, which featured ballerinas in nude-toned body-stockings dancing interpretive routines to the "Chariots Of Fire" theme, piles of fireworks, one costume change, and cranked-up volume that drowned out all the other acts unlucky enough to be playing at the same time on the other side of the field. Kanye made Coachella look like the VMAs, basically, and it was hard to believe that five years ago on these same festival grounds, he for all intents and purposes opened on the main stage for Icelandic post-rockers Sigur Ros. While some purists probably didn't appreciate Kanye's grandiosity and pomposity, the sheer entertainment value of his 90-minute set was undeniable.
The only thing that could've made Kanye's show more massive would have been if all those rumored guest stars had actually showed up. While frequent 'Ye collaborator Justin Vernon of Bon Iver joined him onstage for "Monster" and "Lost In The World," and Pusha T from Clipse rapped on "Runaway," for the most part Kanye flew solo (sometimes literally, on a crane!) at Coachella. And although Rihanna and Katy Perry were both reportedly spotted backstage, neither came out for their obvious cues (when Kanye did his RiRi collabos "Run This Town" and "All Of The Lights" or Katy's new single "E.T."), and gossip that robot-helmeted Coachella faves Daft Punk would join in on "Stronger" were also sadly unfounded. And why didn't Kanye take up the offer of Best Coast's Bethany Cosentino, who during her second-stage set earlier in the day had announced, "Kanye, if you hear me, I'd love to guest-vocal on one of your songs"? Maybe his ego was just too big to share the stage. Should one man have all that power? Well, 'Ye certainly did this evening. But as it turned out, this born performer carried the show easily, without any help.
But there were humanizing moments as well. "This is the most important show to me since my mom passed," Kanye told the crowd midway through his set, referring to his beloved mother Donda West's sudden death in 2007. "To see all of you who still love me...to have fans that were here since 'Through The Wire,' I really appreciate y'all tonight." And when he closed his show (surprisingly a half-hour earlier than advertised, and with no encore) with "Hey Mama," he declared, "This show is dedicated to you, Mama." It was somber and sudden way to conclude a concert that had started with such a big bang, but this provided a nice and perhaps needed counterpoint to all his God-complex posturing and Vegas-style theatrics.
Kanye dominated Coachella, obviously, but the festival's final and arguably strongest day boasted plenty more acts worth the triple-digit price of admission. New wave legends Duran Duran--who are currently riding a wave of hipster revivalism thanks to their critically heralded, Mark Ronson-produced comeback album All You Need Is Now--played their first Coachella, smartly opening with the perennial crowd-pleasers "Planet Earth" and "Hungry Like The Wolf" before easing the crowd into their new (but ultimately very well-received) material. "We have been looking forward to this moment for weeks and weeks, and it's gonna go off!" shouted a very-on-his-game Simon Le Bon. The band's mashup of "Girls On Film" and Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" was a bit of a misfire--why mess with a classic?--but the cameo by Ana Matronic from Gaga's current tour opener the Scissor Sisters, on the AYNIN Duran/Ana duet "Safe," was a smashing success. ("I'm onstage with Duran Duran and I'm freaking out!" squealed Ana, who looked like a Patrick Nagel painting come to life with her bright red cocktail frock, equally crimson hair, and alabaster complexion.) And an unexpected revision of another classic song--a symphonic, slowed-down rendition of D2's James Bond theme "A View To A Kill," mixed into a medley of other Bond songs as a tribute to recently departed composer John Barry--was a truly goosepimply moment. (It didn't hurt that Simon changed into a 007-worthy white tuxedo, either.)
Meanwhile, over on the second stage, moody Brooklynites the National played a stunning sundown set, assisted by the aforementioned Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, who guested on the far-from-terrible "Terrible Love." With Coachella cameos like these, clearly Justin was too busy to book his own festival slot this year.
Another marquee-name-artist who impressed was British songstress/goddess PJ Harvey, who was saddled with a most unfortunate timeslot on a competing stage between the Strokes and Kanye, but still drew an audience of diehards and delivered a set filled with quiet but raw sexuality, feathered headdresses, and autoharps. (Only Polly Jean could make that staple of kindergarten music lessons, the autoharp, seem cool.) She looked disarmingly tiny on the big Outdoor Stage--itsy-bitsy little body, lollipop head, pipecleaner-thin arms--but she still had a big voice and big presence, and it was shame that she didn't get to play on the even bigger main stage. It was also a shame that her vintage material packed a much bigger punch than tunes off her mellow new record Let England Shake, but hey, kudos to Polly for at least reinventing herself more times than even Madonna.
Speaking of the Strokes, New York's finest continued their comeback at Coachella (after recently releasing their first album in five years), although the tracks from their breakthrough debut Is This It drew the most elated audience response. "Hard To Explain," "Last Nite," "The Modern Age," "Someday," "New York City Cops," and "Take It Or Leave It" all sounded so fresh, so relevant, so freakin' cool, it was mind-boggling to realize that these songs were recorded (prepare to feel old) TEN YEARS AGO. The Strokes truly set the blueprint for the indie-rock revolution of the 2000s; many baby bands playing Coachella '11 owe them a huge debt, and a huge amount of respect. And their Coachella concert, with sunglassed-at-night, trucker-hatted singer Julian Casablancas in fine surly form and Albert Hammond Jr.'s distinctive guitar as tinny and angular and, well, Strokes-y as ever, was a welcome reminder of their influence and impact.
Recently reunited dance-metal duo Death From Above 1979 also lived up to their indie-rock legacy, making an incredible racket for just two people and making the concept of a singing drummer seem suddenly cool. (DFA79's howling Sebastien Grainger has precious little in common with, say, Phil Collins.) Bristling with the same visceral energy and menace that incited a riot at their very first reunion gig at South By Southwest last month, this time their set went off without a hitch, other than Sebastian angrily throwing one of his drumsticks at an errant soundman. But the dastardly duo still got the crowd all riled up with their thrashing, bludgeoning, eardrum-perforating noise-rock. Let's hope this reunion lasts; long live Death From Above 1979!
As for newer, smaller bands, supergroup Fistful Of Mercy (aka troubadours Ben Harper and Joseph Arthur plus rock-royalty progeny Dhani Harrison, George Harrison's spitting-image son) charmed the Mojave Tent crowd with their desert-appropriate, sunny California folk-rock, complete with gently strummed guitars and lovely three-part, CS&N-esque harmonies. (Obviously, their heavy-metal-ish band name was a bit misleading.) Joseph and Ben sounded wonderful, but they were unavoidably upstaged by Dhani, simply because even with his face half-hidden by a straw fedora and wacky wayfarer shades, his eerie and uncanny resemblance to his late father was impossible to ignore.
Brazilian party girls CSS returned from their hiatus with a fun-in-the-sun afternoon set filled with costume changes, neon warpaint, and crowd-surfing, and their iPod-ad-popularized "Music Is My Hot Hot Sex" sounded just as hot as ever. And newcomer Twin Shadow, aka one-man chillwave band George Lewis Jr., was a daytime delight, winning over the early-afternoon lookie-loo crowd with his Morrissey-esque crooning, canned '80s-funk beats, and amazing Strokes-circa-2001 hair.
But perhaps the biggest breakout of Coachella 2011 was Danish electronic artist Trentemoller, who faced the daunting challenge of playing at the same time as Duran Duran and the National, but somehow nearly stole the thunder from both those bands--and many other bands making the scene this year (for instance, he pulled double the number of spectators to the Mojave Tent as the previous night's Suede). The minimal-techno maestro, who performed with a full band, was Coachella's ultimate underdog, stunning all onlookers and becoming the toast of the fest, with Twitter absolutely exploding with raves and recommendations by his set's conclusion. And while A-list acts like Kanye are all fine and good, Coachella should still really be about music discovery, and Trentemoller was probably the biggest such revelation of the entire weekend. Perhaps he'll be headlining Coachella in 2012.