By Saturday night, the Coachella Valley Music festival starts to feel like being favorably trapped inside a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Most options led to auspicious surprises, if you could withstand the cyclone winds choking the Polo Fields. At midnight, Nas performed the entirety of his seminal ’90s album Illmatic, accompanied by former nemesis-turned-ally Jay Z. Puff Daddy even bopped out to perform “Hate Me Now.”
Other late night options included dubstep satrap Skrillex, who pulverized thousands inside the Sahara Tent with bass that could cause hemorrhaging and a light show that could induce seizures. On the main stage, Muse regaled the crowd with swirling guitar anthems to match the dust clouds. Only a thousand feet away, synth-pop doyens the Pet Shop Boys reminded the world why “West End Girls” is an karaoke anthem everywhere from London to the West Coast.
That’s not even counting a concurrent performance from punk legends The Dismemberment Plan or the celebrity-laden Neon Carnival party that took place a short drive from the festival grounds with a guest list including Aaron Paul, Jared Leto, Paris Hilton, and the ubiquitous Puff Daddy.
An hour earlier at 10:30 p.m., Pharrell Williams emptied out the world’s finest Rolodex on the outdoor stage; his guests included Busta Rhymes and Puff Daddy (“Pass the Courvoisier, Part 2”), Nelly (“Hot In Herre”), Snoop Dogg (“Drop It Like It’s Hot” and “Beautiful”) and Gwen Stefani (“Hollaback Girl”).
That didn’t even include his solo and collaborative hits, “Get Lucky,” “Blurred Lines,” and “Happy.” Had he trotted out Daft Punk—who were rumored to be there—it’s conceivable that the dust bowl would have ceased twisting, the field would have turned into dandelions and world peace would’ve broken out on the spot. Sadly, no French robots popped up to save the world.
While Williams did everything but pass out serotonin capsules, the duo Darkside delivered what might be the best set since Prince headlined in 2008. Quiet as kept, Nicolas Jaar stole Coachella out from other stars with ostensibly great luster. Between his first-day Yuma Tent DJ set and Darkside’s Saturday night inferno, the 24-year old phenom affirmed why he’s the preeminent young talent in a crowded dance-music field. Witnessing his fusion of psychedelic grids of flashing lights, sinuous and carnal guitar odysseys, jazz, house, and trip-hop into something wholly singular was like watching a comet streak past—but far easier to dance to.
If you only attended during the nightfall hours, it still could have easily justified the costs of a ticket — some of which were going for $1500 on the second-hand online retail market. Describing it starts to feel like one long humble brag: there was Solange covering Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting,” dressed in a bright-red dress and looking like a young Diana Ross — and then bringing out her sister Beyonce to regale the crowd with an impromptu dance party to “Losing You.”
Or maybe you wandered into the Heineken Tent to grab a beer and stumbled onto the GZA from Wu-Tang, running through essential sagas from his canonized Liquid Swords. Directly before him, LA DJ brigand, The Gaslamp Killer joined bass god Thundercat for a set of bone-crushing beats and improvised jazz fusion licks.
If a narrative could be gleaned from the day’s earlier performances, it might have been among the dynamic moments from women artists. In a semi-hometown show, L.A.’s Warpaint looked like fashion models and jammed with sinister grooves and gorgeous dissonance. Running through songs from their recent self-titled album, they carved out an arid, elegant form of psychedelic rock somewhere between The Velvet Underground and The Kills.
During a sunset hour set on the Outdoor Stage, 17-year old New Zealand chanteuse Lorde emerged in a shiny, flowing robe and dazzled one of the biggest audiences of the afternoon. She addressed the crowd in disbelief: “We’re so lucky to be here! This is mental.”
It was a reminder that only a year ago, Lorde was an anonymous Kiwi teenager known to her schoolteachers as Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor. And as one might’ve imagined, when she played “Royals” before the Coachella audience, the crowd responded in a way fitting for a generational anthem.
Not every set was stellar. Foster the People performed a set so slick and taupe that you would’ve thought they were doing Dockers commercials disguised as songs. The Pixies performed before a raucous crowd, but clearly missed the energy and deceptive funk of Kim Deal, the former bassist and alt icon who recently left the band, while MGMT did yeoman’s work in establishing themselves as a millennial answer to the Flaming Lips.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that you could’ve been there and seen none of these things. You could have been chosen a different path on the Coachella App and wandering into a different wormhole or windstorm. Either way, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a wrong outcome. —Jeff Weiss