The ultimate shitshow-in-the-desert kicked off with a 90-degree bang yesterday, and but for the cascading series of technical catastrophes that screwed headliners Radiohead, and the maelstrom of irritable human chains attempting to shoehorn themselves under the Sahara stage for Empire of the Sun, it was a pretty good day (even for a late arrival who had to fly through Phoenix to get here).
Since it’s always nice to walk toward the Empire Polo Ground from the camping quadrant and have a song you absolutely cherish slowly come into auditory resolution as you approach, I feel compelled to note my general giddiness upon walking into Glasss Animals‘ “Gooey,” (which came two-thirds the way through a set that went out on “Pork Soda”). Passing by rows of cars decked out in ‘Chella swag feels like the first day after the zombie apocalypse, when everyone who managed to flee the plague of undead feasting on Los Angeles parks in orderly rows and shares whatever they’ve got with a smile.
“Please Mister Officer, I only had some vodka!” protest The Avalanches in their almost Gorillaz-esque “Frankie Sinatra.” A vaguely threatening lady makes for a great frontwoman, and parading around on stage with a wooden bat and short shorts is a good way to do it. I’m not wild about the use of whistle noises, but when The Avalanches covered The Clash’s “The Guns of Brixton,” followed by a few seconds of “Know Your Rights,” it had the energy of M.I.A. at her peak. Oh and by the way, this was the Australian act’s first performance in the United States in more than 15 years, having released Wildflower — only their second album since 2000’s Since I Left You — last year. Let us also give a sartorial shout-out to a rapper choosing to wear a T-shirt imprinted with a picture of Dawn Weiner, the hapless heroine in Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse.
“Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift” is probably the most cryptic line heartbreak crooner Father John Misty (aka J. Tillman) has in his repertoire. (It’s from “Total Entertainment Forever,” and he’s been open about the fact that it’s not a slam, because he once saw her show while tripping on acid and really enjoyed it.) As an inveterate downer, he seemed like a strange choice to accompany Coachella’s notoriously beautiful sunsets (on the main stage), but when you realize that The xx and Radiohead followed, it was clear that was not by accident. Tillman seemed to draw a surprisingly tiny crowd, but it’s likely because everyone was watching from the beer garden.
From “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay,” to his two finest songs, “Hollywood Forever Cemetery” and “I Love You, Honeybear,” the opaque yet extremely charismatic proves that he has a Nick Cave-esque charisma — in spite of that high, clear voice. And let’s not downplay the orchestral backup Tillman had with him: two saxophones, a full string section, and a French horn (at least). Anyone who doubted placement in the Friday lineup his was quickly won over.
Canadian DJ Richie Hawtin has been a fixture of the Detroit techno scene since the early 1990s. Known as a technologist, he’s famous for playing in unusual venues like Barcelona’s La Boqueria market. If you were looking for something more revolutionary than his working two sets of equipment simultaneously, you might have come away from “CLOSE – Spontaneity & Synchronicity” wanting more, but this guy is a cyborg. The audiovisuals, several cameras trained on his hands that bled into abstract hybrids of man and machine with occasional allusions to the first X-ray photo ever taken, were easily the most sophisticated of the night. This is darky, dirty techno to fuck to in a subterranean club.
Although they did not play “VCR,” The xx‘s set on the main stage selected songs quite evenly from all three of their records. This generation’s Morrissey, millennials on molly all over started writing in their diaries that they’re glad they only cried once today. But the high point was a cover (so to speak) of “Loud Places,” from Jamie xx‘s 2015 solo album, In Colour. Teenage suicide is so hot right now.
After that, things got a little tougher to choose among, with DJ Shadow — playing Coachella for the fourth time — kicking off his set with an announcement that he’d be deliberately rewarding fans old and new. Things kicked off in a lush fashion with some rich harmonics that could have been an out-take from the Twin Peaks soundtrack.
Is there anything lovelier than getting to see Little Dragon perform “Ritual Union”? Yukimi Nagano came out in a black garment covered with silvery coils (that began to come undone quickly) and a red tulle head-wrap that made her look like an alien caul birth. An attempt to swing by Empire of the Sun met with the biggest crush of humans I’ve ever experienced at a music festival, many of whom conducted themselves as if they’d never been to one before. So in spite of the Sahara stage looking like the mothership in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, this dogged reporter had to bail.
And sadly, Radiohead was a close to a total disaster. They went on 15 minutes late, and could barely make it through two cuts off 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool (“Daydreaming” and “Desert Island Disk”) before the sound started cutting out during “Ful Stop.” A ten-second period of silence and three huge bursts of static followed — and since Radiohead was noticeably louder than all their predecessors on the Coachella stage, that was quite uncomfortable, even from the middle of the crowd. They pulled it together for a sweet version of “Airbag” — which is now 20 years old! — but everything fell apart again during “15 Step” from In Rainbows.
After a pan-galactic moan, the crowd applauded in support, and Thom Yorke et al. valiantly soldiered on. (At first, it almost seemed like they had no idea what had happened. Later, Yorke said, “I’d love to tell you a joke, lighten the mood, something like that. But this is Radiohead…”) Everything went to hell once it was just before the final verse of “Let Down” — easily one of the top five Radiohead songs ever — and as the abandoned the stage for the second time, most of the audience slipped away. Oh, Radiohead, you were there for me during the peak of my “nobody understands me, so I’m gonna listen to OK Computer a thousand times in a row until they do” phase. So I tried to stick it out as best I could, in spite of, well, a major “let down.”
If you made it to the end, you got your reward: the never-ceases-to-be-chilling five-note descent that opens “Everything in Its Right Place,” a and then “Creep,” which the band only began playing live last May after a seven-year lull. Overall, this was a screw-up on part with the Best Picture debacle at the Oscars, and one can only imagine how many heads have rolled — or how heavily Lady Gaga is sweating right now — but depending on your moment of departure, it could rank as the ultimate triumph over adversity.
Five biggest highlights of Day One
The Avalanches covering “The Guns of Brixton”
Father John Misty‘s symphonic accompaniment, especially on “Hollywood Forever Cemetery”
Richie Hawtin showing us a glimpse of how filthy the future might be.
The xx somehow making the act of wanting to slit your wrists just a little bit feel like a party.
Little Dragon giving me life.