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Emmys 2017
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Article

AC/DC delivers heavy metal thunder to Coachella

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Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella

Could there ever be enough of those hands-in-the-air emojis to properly convey the head-banging thrall in which AC/DC held the crowd during its blistering set at Coachella Friday? Over the course of an eagerly anticipated, widely debated headlining slot on the festival’s opening day, the grizzled Aussie quintet exploded through a two-hour set of down and dirty rock, providing a primer to the Millennial-skewing crowd on how AC/DC basically set the template for blues-based, party-hearty heavy metal.

Sure, some people hated on them—insert yearly complaints about how Coachella loves to program Dad Rock or aims for the lowest common denominator a la such previous FM-radio friendly headliners as Paul McCartney and Roger Waters—but Angus Young’s fevered guitar and Brian Johnson’s cat-strangled falsetto still clearly have the power to overwhelm (even if not necessarily to surprise). Moreover, dressed in his signature schoolboy outfit, Young, 60, played impressive one-handed runs on his Gibson SG, duck-walked across the stage, ascended a gigantic wall of Marshall amplifiers on a hydraulic lift, and fell to the floor to solo; he rocked so hard his knees bled.

“This is the first time we’ve done a gig in six years,” Johnson noted from the stage, an implicit shout-out to co-founding guitarist Malcolm Young who left the group earlier last year because of health issues and has been hospitalized with dementia.

But AC/DC was hardly the only act to make a lasting impression on the crowd of nearly 90,000 revelers on Day 1. And here, we have singled out few stand-out moments for extra validation via a non-existent award we can call the Coachellys:

Best Use of Heavy Metal in a Non-Metal Context: Telegraphing his entrance to a 2:30 sunburn set on the Main Stage, rapper Action Bronson employed walk-out music that few other MCs from Queens would have dared utilize: Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” played at deafening volume. Later in the day, his fellow New York rhyme-spitter (and occasional Twitter nemesis) Azealia Banks belted out “Heavy Metal and Reflective,” the second single from her debut album Broke With Expensive Taste. It’s a song in which the combative rapper disses a “pressed bitch” while also taking time to describe how Banks is dressed like a rock chick.

Best Fashionably Late Entrance: Coachella gigs usually run like clockwork—an essential component of this well-organized festival that ensures maximum music but also that amps are all shut off in time for the fest’s 1 am performance curfew. But try telling that to Raekwon and Ghostface Killah. Although the two Wu-Tang Clan MCs were scheduled to go on at 5:45 on the Outdoor Stage, Rae didn’t have a mike in his hand until 6:00 in order to run through his classic 1995 album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Ghostface (who is all over that record even if he never got the billing he deserved) turned up three songs in to duet on “Incarcerated Scarface.” To hear the Wu’s greatest lyricists rap “Black stallions wildin’ on Shaolin” together on “Criminology” made everything worth the wait.

Best Defiance of Expectations: In the lead-up to the release of its second album Sound & Color on Apr. 21, Alabama Shakes delivered a commanding set that was notably absent the group’s biggest hit “Hold On.” Seemingly intent on proving they are not a revivalist act, the group’s sound has evolved to encompass buttery soul, garage rock and hippie Americana, variously recalling a crazy quilt of influences ranging from Stax Records to My Morning Jacket to even the Stooges. “We’re Alabama Shakes and it feels so nice and the vibe is so good now that the sun is setting,” singer Brittany Howard said from the stage early in the set. And it was true: the “vibe” left attendees feeling groovy indeed.

Best Use of Cannons: OK, so really no other rock act even uses cannons during live performances. But that doesn’t make AC/DC’s employment of ordinance any less rad. The group brought out a trio of cannons for their encore rendition of “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” that boomed across the polo field at singer Brian Johnson’s bellowed command “Fire!” and had the effect of whipping the audience into a sign of the horns waggling frenzy. What do cannons have to do with Coachella’s indie-leaning alt-rock honoring “one nation under a groove” worldview? Basically nothing. You could almost imagine Hozier grimacing and plugging his ears somewhere across the valley. But AC/DC deserves its title as the ne plus ultra of cock rock. And with that honor comes no small amount of phallic imagery.

Most Broachella Moment: It’s no secret that the Sahara Tent—the so-called “Rave Tent”—has become one of Coachella’s unofficial centers of gravity. Hour by hour and set by set, you could argue it’s the most fun spot in the festival (with anecdotal evidence suggesting more drugs are taken there per capita than anywhere else on the Polo Field grounds).  And with EDM’s mainstream takeover, the Tent has only become more popular. So no surprise that when DJ Snake ascended the turntable platform at 8:30 Friday, the crowd seemed overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly shirtless and somehow frat-y. If you squinted you might have thought you were in an Abercrombie & Fitch commercial. Maybe that’s because his smash single “Turn Down for What” (ft. Lil Jon) has been commandeered by Hollywood as a kind of musical shorthand for people doing craaazy stuff. Still, when DJ Snake urged fans to put their middle fingers up—in honor of playing the Valentino Khan-Flosstradamus collabo “MFU”—toward the end of the set, it felt like a small triumph for Bro culture.