Sampha – Mojave
Transferring a subtle, sensitive album about grief and death into a compelling live set isn’t an easy ask. Compound that by adding a rowdy Coachella crowd that’s keen to play into every over-hyped and over-heated cliche and it can be impossible. Sampha, backed by a drummer, a guy working synth pads and a keyboardist attempted to bring some chill to a Coachella crowd still charged from seeing Stormzy at the Outdoor Theatre.
Set opener Plastic 100°C, with its lyrics “It’s so hot I’ve been melting out here/I’m made out of plastic out here”, couldn’t have been more appropriate on a sweltering afternoon. His slower ballads and at times experimental arrangements, such as an ambient introduction to Channels, failed to land with a crowd that in the mid-afternoon sun seemed to want something stronger. (No One Knows Me) Like the Piano was a highlight with Sampha playing solo keyboard, again trying to cut through the distracted audience. For those who were listening it was a rare chance at Coachella to calm down rather than ramp up.
Raury – Gobi
There was a slightly rocky start to the 20-year-old’s late afternoon set after a stilted opening resulted in a dramatic exit. Thankfully he returned seconds later, this time with much more success, launching into song and delivering a performance filled with sharp tonal shifts, some more successful than others. The singer, whose debut studio album All We Need similarly zipped between genres, informed the half-filled tent that this wouldn’t just be a show, it would be an “experience”, and he certainly worked hard to invigorate the crowd.
Leaping, throwing water and instructing the audience to scream and jump on command, he told us he’d give it his all – and his energy didn’t disappoint. The undeniable highlight was a thrilling rendition of God’s Whisper, a song that’s gained more momentum of late thanks to its appearance in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, yet the gamble of debuting new material (his first in two years) didn’t really pay off – a meandering track titled In the Night made little impression. Despite the false start and lacklustre turnout, Raury remained unperturbed, a vibrant and unexpected performer delivering a mixed bag of uneven surprises.
Bonobo – Main Stage
Simon Green has adapted well since moving to Los Angeles a year or so ago. Tanned, shirt loose and hair flowing, the UK expat set forth a classy, if subdued affair of indie-electronic (just don’t call it downtempo). It drew together a wide swath of listeners, as his music flits between indie and electronic, easy listening and challenging flourishes.
Green is, if anything, adaptive as a songwriter, polymath performer and DJ. He opened his set playing bass, solo, for some early tracks – a notable feat within itself. As he worked through favorites from The North Borders and new album Migration on a multi-tiered synth setup, Green drew upon live drums, guitars, a live horn quartet, singer Milosh of Rhye and Moroccan collective Innov Gnawa, who came on stage to perform the hypnotic standout Bambro Koyo Ganda.
In the baking midday heat on a main stage with none of its flashy production in use, Bonobo was an apt soundtrack to ease the crowd into a groove. Green is a thoughtful performer, and although there were no fireworks, he played his mood-setting role dutifully and brought the sun down to that famous Coachella golden hour with a steady touch.
Mac DeMarco – Outdoor Theatre
Sporting a Larry David-style straw hat, and a stage presence that falls somewhere between Andy Kaufman and Frank Zappa, Mac DeMarco could be the perfect late afternoon festival act. As the temperature began to drop to somewhere around manageable, the Canadian indie favorite’s bizarro surf rock and sentimental songs of heartbreak and domestic life from his forthcoming album This Old Dog fit in perfectly.
For someone who has a reputation for jokes and a personality so large it sometimes overshadows his astute songwriting, his set at the Outdoor Theatre cemented his switch from bedroom curio to bonafide indie stalwart. Tracks such as No Other Heart, The Stars Keep Calling My Name and Saturday showcased a songwriter who since the turn of the last decade has, along with the likes of Real Estate and Mild High Club, found a way to make surf rock cool again. Punctuated by fan favourites such as Viceroy and One More Love Song, it’s a performance that draws in intrigued onlookers who find there’s lots of life in this old dog yet.
The Avalanches – Mojave
Anyone familiar with The Avalanches’ debut album Since I Left You might be a tad nervous at the prospect of the band commandeering a stage at Coachella. Watching music that’s sample-heavy on stage can often lead to a disconnect with the audience but their long-awaited follow-up album, last year’s Wildflower, saw their style shaken up with a more hip-hop inspired vibe and the addition of live music.
Yet their music remains a dizzying array of samples and the almost entirely new line-up delivered a set that was ever aware of the need to make pre-recorded excerpts sound fresh. After some brief tech issues, they stormed into a lively performance of last year’s comeback track Frankie Sinatra before what felt like a slightly aimless set of tracks that came off more like experimental jamming than anything else. But once they delved into their back catalogue, with Frontier Psychiatrist and Since I Left You sounding fresher than ever, things got back on an old yet reliable track.
Father John Misty – Main Stage
An arrogant caricature with an over-inflated ego. The voice of a self-centered generation. Indie-rock’s savior-in-chief. Father John Misty is many things to many people. At Coachella he was given the coveted sunset slot and proceeded to make it his own with a full orchestra and a theatrical performance that saw him transform into a manic street preacher, albeit one dressed in a tailored suit, wayfarer sunglasses and espadrilles. Starting with Pure Comedy, the title track from his latest album which prods and pokes at humanity’s foibles – from the futility of religion to the balancing act of raising a child – it’s bombastic, overblown and completely appropriate. Total Entertainment Forever followed and its much pawed over lyric about Taylor Swift and VR sex got a laugh here rather than the accusations of misogyny when he performed it live on SNL.
Many of Father John Misty’s critics point to his persona as being brazenly pretentious and self-important, but as a frontman on a grand stage those are attributes that serve him well. It’s an approach which allows him to perform a song about moral decay in the social media age while at a festival that is arguably more famous for its selfies than music, with a straight face. With the full orchestra and baby grand, songs such as Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution, become rousing calls to arms, while When You’re Smiling And Astride Me turns into a piece of blue-eyed soul, with Josh Tillman down on his hands and knees as a hammond screeches in the background.
There’s restraint; there’s showboating; but above all it’s a live show that’s as potent as the studio albums and the ideas Tillman tries to cram into his songs. There’s no doubt that as well as all the complimentary and negative monikers people have given him, even his biggest detractors would be hard pressed to not be impressed by this sermon.
Banks – Gobi
If Jillian Banks seems at home at Coachella, it’s probably because she used to shop at the same H&M as many of the girls in the audience. The LA-raised ingenue’s broody, baroque, beat-heavy electro-pop works so well here that it seems almost too meticulously constructed at times – Like Lana Del Rey with a fetish for Wiccanism and cough syrup, but a little more Santa Monica than Topanga Canyon.
The Gobi Tent was spilling out from every entrance, uncomfortably so, as the reclusive songstress and unlikely hometown hero slinked and swayed in a sequinned red gown through tracks from her new album Altar, like the tortured alt-pop anthem I Fuck With Myself. The feminine energy was strong in the audience, and many well-styled women were prepared to elbow, jostle and squeeze their way into Instagrammable distance of their idol Banks’s sermon in strobelight as the night fell.
Richie Hawtin – Mojave
Richie Hawtin played the first Coachella back in 1999, when he was a skinny weirdo from Detroit with a bleached Mohawk. Now,18 years later, he is an icon of techno worldwide – where would the color black be without Richie? Or techno in America, for that matter…
In this, a debut of Hawtin’s brand new live set up, he appeared in fittingly Spartan surroundings flanked by analog synths which he attended to almost frantically. The set descended from swirling soundscapes with jarring percussive swipes into deep, hard techno grooves that merged the mammoth power of minimal techno with the imperfect, human element of live performance. Hawtin even erred a step or two along the way – a welcome sight in the overly mechanized world of techno – but his minimal, dystopian churn truly brought the Mojave Tent to life in the darkness. It was the first time all day I saw people drop the pretension and actually dance.
The xx – Main Stage
As one would expect, the main stage at Coachella is a grand spectacle, reserved for the headliners and those earlier acts that require a larger setting. There’s a certain expectation attached and as darkness falls on the festival, the crowd is primed for a party. Serving as an opening act for the night’s headliner, the xx felt somewhat dwarfed by their surroundings.
Backed by a shimmering set of psychedelic screens that alternated between mirrors, lights and a picture of the sunset split among them, the aesthetics weren’t lacking but the crowd remained restless throughout. A combination of their first, second and most recent albums showed that, well, all sound awfully similar when paired together. Despite slick staging, there was an unavoidable flatness that meant the set never really sparked to life. They were clearly enthused to return to the desert (they’ve played here multiple times before) but ultimately it was disappointingly middling – a forgettable mismatch of stage, act and timing.