We Also Care About the Music: Coachella Weekend One Set Reviews

St. Vincent
St. Vincent
Photo by Timothy Norris

Contrary to what you might have heard, Coachella is more than just a fashion parade for B-list celebrities and trust fund kids. It also still features music! Here are reviews and recaps of some of the first weekend's most memorable sets, from Jack White, Run the Jewels, Drake, St. Vincent, FKA Twigs, Steely Dan, Tame Impala and more.

Sylvan Esso
Sylvan Esso
Timothy Norris

Friday, April 10

Sylvan Esso (Mojave Tent, 3:40 p.m.)

When “Coffee” crept through my speakers last year, it stopped me in my tracks. It was a song so silky and uplifting (and appropriately named) that even when Nick Sanborn brought in that dubstep-inspired drop, it never lost an ounce of delicacy. Sylvan Esso’s impeccable ability to balance subtlety and crescendo is what made the duo one of the standout acts of 2014, but it was their ability to throw what was probably the least bro-ey dance party at Coachella that made them one of the standout acts of this year’s festival. Everyone in the crowd — which was unexpectedly large, considering both how early Sylvan Esso’s set was and that most of their success has been in the indie arena — was seriously getting down. No one's dancing, however, was more impressive than singer Amelia Meath's, who won the crowd over with her idiosyncratic moves, acrobatic vocals and some pretty sick gold-sequined sneakers. — Artemis Thomas-Hansard

Interpol (Coachella Stage, 7:25 p.m.)

Booking Interpol between the War on Drugs and Tame Impala is a bit like making a mixtape with Joy Division sandwiched between Springsteen and Lennon: You run the risk of disrupting the mood. But there is no better time of day at Coachella for poetic discord and transcendent detachment than the chill of dusk — earlier slots on the main stage should be reserved for sunnier sounds, and later slots for more animated ones. All of that is to say that Interpol was in its sweet spot. Thirteen years after Turn on the Bright Lights, the band has aged well, partly evidenced by what might be their second-best effort, last year’s El Pintor, and also by their cool, commanding performance Friday. I spent much of the first half of the set marveling over the evolution of Paul Banks’ self-possessed stage presence; the overall effect was that of Jack Nicholson's Witches of Eastwick character transported to Palm Springs (that jacket!). The hypnotism broke when the set got an appropriate jolt a little more than halfway through, once the chrous of "PDA" — “We have 200 couches where you can sleep tight” — kicked in. And if there ever was an Interpol song to motivate the unsold masses, the finale, an energetic “Slow Hands,” is it. — Mara Shalhoup

Steely Dan
Steely Dan
Timothy Norris

Steely Dan (Outdoor Stage, 8:15 p.m.)

"We're Uncle Wally and Uncle Don," Donald Fagen announced between songs, clearly taking some ironic pleasure in Steely Dan's status as one of this year's rock & roll dinosaur acts. But there were no signs of age in his band's energetic, nine-song set, which smartly mixed crowd-pleasing hits ("My Old School," "Reeling in the Years") with some choice deep cuts. The last time I saw Steely Dan live was way back in 1994, shortly after Fagen and his partner-in-crime, guitarist Walter Becker, assembled a new version of the band after a 13-year hiatus. Back then, perhaps because a touring incarnation of the Dan hadn't existed for nearly two decades (the band stopped touring in 1974), I had found their live arrangements too slavishly matched to the studio originals. But in the years since, Fagen and Becker have clearly loosened up, allowing themselves and their backing musicians to re-imagine those pristine recordings in thrilling new ways. So "Black Friday" turned into an extended blues vamp, with Becker wailing on lead guitar throughout, and "Showbiz Kids," whose lyrics may as well have been written about the Coachella VIP section yesterday ("Showbiz kids makin' movies 'bout themselves/You know they don't give a fuck about anybody else"), was punched up into a swaggering funk-rock jam. Overall, the band delivered on Becker's promise that, "When you leave here, you're gonna know your little tree has been shook." — Andy Hermann

Tame Impala
Tame Impala
Timothy Norris

Tame Impala (Coachella Stage, 9:15 p.m.)

“Gentle” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when describing Tame Impala, but it’s the first word that came to me when trying to sum up their Coachella set. Were they overly concerned about the crowd’s psychedelics setting in? It was all very dialed down, and nowhere was this more apparent than with “Let It Happen.” I had expected that the song’s intentionally muffled chorus, followed by any one of its intentionally crystalline verses, would be an ideal place to upshift. The track is built for crescendo, and its slot, four songs into the set, was the natural place to just let it happen. But when it could’ve soared, it coasted. A few songs later I took a short break — and to be fair, “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” got me running out of the bathroom and beelining for the lawn. Would this be the turning point? It was and wasn’t. It literally set the stage for the finale, but “Apocalypse Dreams” just floated into the night. — Mara Shalhoup

Squarepusher (Gobi Tent, 10:50 p.m.)

The energy at Squarepusher’s end-of-night set in the Gobi tent, which should have been plum placement, suffered a bit in Coachella’s FOMO-dense environment — and in particular, from going up against AC/DC, Friday’s packed must-see. Through his fencing mask (which read like a simplified ode to Daft Punk), Tom Jenkinson looked out over a sparse crowd that waxed and waned but never reached critical mass. Squarepusher’s candidly techno-ish style of EDM, embracing old school beeps and boops with graphics of circuitry floating overhead, folded-in dub style breaks and, like the crowd, also rose and fell as the set progressed, slowly giving way to an entirely different sound by the set's end, when Jenkinson pulled out a guitar and played in funk-slap style over a jazz drumbeat. Wait — a DJ playing guitar? It's true: Squarepusher proved that all things are possible. — L.J. Williamson

Saturday, April 11

Parquet Courts (Gobi Tent, 1:25 p.m.)

Maybe it was the fact that they played an early 1:25 p.m. set (well, early for everyone who was still knocked out or vigorously pre-gaming), but things were feeling pretty sleepy as post-punk act Parquet Courts took over the Gobi tent Saturday afternoon. In fact, singer-guitarist Austin Brown, visibly pissed, provoked the crowd, “So is this the kind of festival where you guys go to sleep at night or what?” I can’t blame him, though; it was Parquet Courts’ first time at Coachella, and I was as excited to get in the pit (that I assumed would be there) as they probably were to play. Their set would have been so much better had the moshing started earlier than their third-to-last song, “Master of My Craft,” when a flock of poor, hungover souls appeared and formed a slow-motion can-can line. Though the show was a bit of a letdown in the beginning (for us and Brown), the zombified crowd eventually got moving. Shouts of “one more song!” and “ten more songs!” were tossed towards the stage, but the band was out. — Artemis Thomas-Hansard

Carl Craig
Carl Craig
Timothy Norris

Carl Craig (Yuma Tent, 5:30 p.m.)

When a veteran artist like Detroit techno legend Carl Craig plays a youth-centric festival like Coachella, you hope that some of those EDM masses too young to remember classic Craig tracks like "Throw" and "Bug in the Bassbin" will walk away as converts. Unfortunately, it's unlikely that happened. To be fair to the great Craig, the mediocre Yuma sound system did him no favors — the mid-range was barely audible throughout, reducing his signature streamlined, percussive sound to little more than high-hats and thunderous bass. But Craig himself also seemed determined to spin rigidly classicist tech-house, rarely varying tempos or drum patterns or allowing any semblance of a melody to creep in, however muffled. In the final 20 minutes of his set, he finally broke up the monotony with, off all things, Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" — but it was hard to tell whether he was sincerely trying to give the crowd a moment, or punking them and their boho-gypsy attire. — Andy Hermann

Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels
Timothy Norris

Run the Jewels (Mojave Tent, 6:55 p.m.)

Hype can be a dangerous thing. It can weigh down an artist with unachievable expectations, especially when an act is as exalted as hip-hop duo Run the Jewels, who received critical acclaim for last year’s Run the Jewels 2 from seemingly every music outlet in the universe, including Rolling Stone and Pitchfork. Run the Jewels didn’t just live up to the hype, though — they grabbed it by the neck, threw it to the ground and, as rapper El-P promised, burned that motherfucker down. With thousands of people overflowing out of the tent (more than we’ve ever seen at Coachella), and everyone inside loyally attempting to keep up as the duo fired off rhymes like an M16, Run the Jewels were slaying it. Everyone lost it when Zack de la Rocha came out for his infamous verse on “Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck),” and then continued to lose it when Despot, Boots, Travis Barker and Gangsta Boo appeared in what became an endless showcase of ridiculous talent. “I’m fat, I’m cute and I can dance, bitch,” Killer Mike said as he did what was probably the most adorable dance we’ve seen this weekend thus far, reminding us that even though Run the Jewels go hard as hell, at the end of the day we’d really just love to be their best friends. — Artemis Thomas-Hansard

Tyler, the Creator
Tyler, the Creator
Timothy Norris

Tyler, the Creator (Outdoor Stage, 9:15 p.m.)

For all the fuss about the “Hey, Kendall … fuck you!” bomb he dropped on the Kardashian royalty planted stage center in VIP, Tyler, the Creator was on his very best behavior Saturday night. The 24-year-old politely inquired, “Is it cool if I jump around and yell with you?” to his rambunctious crowd, whom he also took the time to thank for choosing him over Jack White on the neighboring stage. (When the crowd gave a roar of approval, Tyler shushed them, saying of White: “He’s tight.”) And about that Kendall Jenner barb: He wasn’t dissing her so much as he was giving some love to the non VIPs unjustly displaced by the velvet rope. Tyler’s come a long way since four years ago, when, after playing Coachella with Odd Future, he was kicked out for shooting a security guard in the face with a water gun. And so what if this time around he also said that Goldenvoice president Paul Tollett should more or less fuck off, too? (The press was less worked up about that one, perhaps because it was in reference to the festival's strict ban on professional video.) He was hands down the most charismatic front man of the day. — Mara Shalhoup

Jack WhiteEXPAND
Jack White
David James Swanson

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Jack White (Coachella Stage, 9:15 p.m.)

Jack White has played Coachella with each of his bands, but this marked his first appearance as a solo artist. Looking dapper in a black suit, white shoes and slicked-back hair, he attacked his lengthy headlining slot with a brilliant display of ramshackle virtuosity that, amid all of this year's heavily electronic performances, felt like a conscious attempt to make Coachella history with a career-defining set. White wasted no time in putting his trademark guitar pyrotechnics on full display, shredding savagely through a medley of the Stripes' "Icky Thump" and "High Ball Stepper," the lacerating instrumental from his latest solo LP. But even more impressive than White's frenetic soloing was the entire set's seat-of-the-pants feel. A long way from the willful naivete of his White Stripes years, White worked both the crowd and his band throughout like a cross between James Brown and a Pentecostal preacher, calling out songs and tempos to his players — all sensational, particularly violinist Lillie Mae Rische and drummer Daru Jones — and urging everyone at one point to "put your fucking cell phones down for five seconds!" Most obliged, until the obligatory "Seven Nation Army" closer, which might now be the most video'd Coachella performance in history. — Andy Hermann

FKA Twigs
FKA Twigs
Timothy Norris

FKA Twigs (Gobi Tent, 9:35 p.m.)

Emerging like a goddess from whatever planet she came from (because there’s just no way it’s this one), experimental/trip-hop artist FKA Twigs mesmerized the Gobi tent crowd with her snake-like winding and slithering on stage, piercing the sound barrier with her unbelievable falsetto. One of the most intriguing and enigmatic performers to break out in 2014, Twigs put on a truly moving performance for superfans and newcomers alike. “Move over girl, I gotta see her. I cried the first time I saw her,” uttered an obviously emotional fan trying to make his way past me in the crowd. Meanwhile, an Australian girl who confessed she spent about $1,200 total on her Coachella-cation told us catching FKA Twigs for the first time made the rent-worthy price tag totally worth it. “Higher than a motherfucker, dreamin’ of it, it’s my lovin" — the lyrics floated over the crowd as Twigs seduced us all with “2 Weeks,” making hers one of the steamiest sets of the weekend. — Artemis Thomas-Hansard

Sunday, April 12

Built to Spill (Outdoor Stage, 4:15 p.m.)

Built to Spill might not be built for the desert, or at least not for for the hottest hour of the day on Coachella’s least shaded stage. The set time was a grave disservice to one of the best bands booked at the festival. Turnout was sparse, and the indie rock gods’ simpler songs (“Distopian Dream Girl,” “Stab”) were nearly suffocated by the swelter. Doug Martsch sounds best when his voice is lifted by his band’s towering guitars, and, to that end, “Carry the Zero” overcame the blazing sun and bolstered Martsch’s often fragile delivery. I’d be willing to return to Indio next weekend for the chance to see Built to Spill play in the shade of the Gobi tent or during the more forgiving early afternoon or evening hours. — Mara Shalhoup

St. Vincent
St. Vincent
Photo by Timothy Norris

St. Vincent (Outdoor Stage, 8:00 p.m.) 

Not even Jack White or Built to Spill's Doug Martsch can generate as much excitement with an electric guitar as Annie Clark of St. Vincent. Throughout her electrifying Sunday night set, Clark sent fuzztone shards spraying out across the polo grounds, even as she and her bandmate, Toko Yasuda, executed herky-jerky choreography that gave the entire performance a theatrical air worthy of '70s Bowie or Stop Making Sense-era Talking Heads. Beyond her guitar chops and dance moves, Clark's real genius lies in her ability to make pop music with an avant-garde twist, and nowhere was this more evident than on a sensational rendition of "Rattlesnake," the lead track off her most recent, self-titled album. As the track's jittery dance grooves and Clark's serrated riffs built to a furious climax, she held her guitar to her chin like a violin and stared down its neck at her audience with a mysterious half-smile that seemed almost predatory. She clearly knew she had Coachella in her clutches, and by her set's end, everyone else knew it, too. — Andy Hermann

Fitz & the Tantrums
Fitz & the Tantrums
Photo by Timothy Norris

Fitz & the Tantrums (Outdoor Stage, 9:20 p.m.)

With soul-inflected pop that at times bordered on anthemic, Fitz and the Tantrums brought it home with a late Sunday night set, easily wringing another burst of energy out of sunburnt festival-goers. The sound of Florence and the Machine occasionally wafted in from the main stage next door, but was soon overpowered by sax solos and the cheers of a devoted fan base obeying vocalists Michael Fitzpatrick's and Noelle Scaggs' commands that they master simple dance steps, make heart shapes with their hands, and wave their arms in the air. Fitz sometimes channels '80s-style crooners like Rick Astley, and his focus on the audience is singular, as is Scaggs' — but it would have been fun to see them pay some attention to each other, too. At no point did they dance together, bounce off of each other's energy, or even so much as wink. Sax player James King frequently stole the show, stunning the crowd with a you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it sax solo that led into a no-holds-barred, strobe-lit noise jam. This proved a tough act to follow, so when they got to the hit single (always saved for last, which seems the rule at Coachella), it almost felt like a letdown. — L.J. Williamson

Drake
Drake
Photo by Timothy Norris

Drake (Coachella Stage, 10:15 p.m.)

I’m a bit Aubsessed, so when asked who I was most looking forward to at Coachella this weekend, I unabashedly let my Drake flag fly high. There was just no foreseeable reason why his set would not be the best. For all the times I’ve rapped to “0 to 100/ The Catch Up” blasting with my windows down, stuck on the 405, let me tell you, nothing was going to be more redeeming than finally getting to keep up with Drizzy live.

I got to do that, along with every other song Champagne Papi threw at the crowd, a pretty varied mix of tracks that spanned from 2010’s Thank Me Later to this year’s surprise mixtape, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. People were seriously losing their shit, but not as much as I would have if he had brought out the “Only” crew. Unfortunately, there was no sign of Nicki, Wayne or even Chris Brown, who had already made a guest appearance with Deorro on Saturday afternoon. For those who banked on that happening (I mean, it's Coachella), that was a pretty big letdown. But he did make out with Madonna on stage, which was a complete “WTF” moment, even for Drake. Regardless of whether our expectations were met, Drizzy held it down, turned all of us on and, as he promised his mother in front of a crowd of at least 80,000, tore that stage up. — Artemis Thomas-Hansard


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