Coachella 2018 – Big Coverage

Although it did not sell out as quickly as in past years, Coachella again confirmed its status as the most influential music festival in North America, perhaps in the world.

Greta Van Fleet was a well-oiled quartet, proudly wearing their Led Zeppelin influence front and center. Despite rumors of a fever between the weekends, lead singer Josh Kiszka belted out his lines with fervor. Indeed, there were times when he could have let his band mates shine, by eschewing his wordless yelps, whoops and glissandos.

As with their seemingly genetic forbears, bassist Sam Kiszka slid to keyboards for a few of the more melodic songs. Brother Jake Kiszka sizzled on guitar and drummer Danny Wagner pounded away with fervor.

Jake Kiszka of Greta Van Fleet

Much has written about the programming shift at Coachella away from rock, but seeing a classic four man lineup provided many in the audience with their only link to the classic days when rock gods (or dinosaurs if you must) roamed arenas as quartets. Bands like The Who and Led Zeppelin (and today U2) are the prototype for rock and roll. In the same way that Celebrating Bowie was enjoyable but had me pining for the original stuff, I liked Greta Van Fleet.

Tank and the Bangas delivered a very melodic set, providing equal dollops of NOLA spice and vintage RnB stylings. Their set included a new track, just released and available here.

Tank and the Bangas

Swedish chanteuse LÉON provided a spirited set; she acknowledged her influences with an excellent rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.”

As the sun made its way toward the mountains, shining its last rays through the iconic Ferris Wheel, Donald Caesar generated a pleasantly mellow happy hour vibe at the Outdoor Theatre.

Donald Caesar

Many folks were settling into a nice run of artists at the Outdoor Theatre.

War on Drugs offered another rare Coachella slice of rock. With a sound that improbably yet successfully lands somewhere between Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan, the band’s return to Coachella was magnificent. It was gratifying that theirs was probably the most diverse audience age-wise. Adam Granduciel gets more out of his guitar than most, and bassist David Hartley a bit more than needed.

War on Drugs

One downside about seeing War on Drugs at a festival is that time constraints preclude the wonderful codas that stretch several of their songs. Nonetheless, the lengthy introduction to “Under The Pressure” was grand. There is no question that for decades Pink Floyd remains sui generis, no band really compared. But I’d argue War on Drugs comes closest: judicious use of swirling fog, invigorating light show (subtly incorporating a triangular prism motif), one man brass section, noticeably non-photogenic lineup, but most importantly massive swirling musical compositions anchored by stellar guitar figures and decidedly cryptic lyrics. (A parenthetical note: it was this week in 1973 that Dark Side of the Moon reached #1 in the charts, never to return to that slot but to remain on the charts in unprecedented fashion for another 741 weeks).

Next door on the main stage Kygo was well received, especially when Ariana Grande made a surprise appearance for a spirited cover of “Sexual Healing” and then debuted her new Madonna-like single, but many folks slid back to Outdoor for St. Vincent. Several years ago she toured with David Byrne for an amazing and ambitious show. Byrne played his own show in Arizona the night before, so he may have been back on the Polo Fields to check out her show. The opening act of Byrne’s mammoth global tour is Perfume Genius, who graced the Gobi stage with a blend of Roxy Music filtered through David Bowie.

Ariana Grande

Kygo paying tribute to Avicii

Perfume Genius

St. Vincent

Jean-Michel Jarre closed Friday’s lineup at Outdoor. He was leveraging the ambitious appearance last year by Hans Zimmer. Both artists are noted for sweeping, orchestral, pulsing and synth-driven compositions. Jarre, no stranger to extravagant live productions, was right at home at Coachella. This Frenchman was doing EDM before they named the genre.

Jean-Michel Jarre

For a double digit number of years, the Do LaB has worked with Coachella to create otherworldly immersive environments, arrayed across the festival grounds. Their eponymous stage is always a magnet for folks to gather, be sprayed down with cool water and hear some great tunes. Over the past decade, the Do LaB has hosted musical performances ranging from Bassnectar and Odesza to Tokimonsta and Skrillex, while dazzling fans with their ever-evolving design.

The Coachella art installations are again bold and thoughtful. Lodestar by Randy Polumbo is a floral composition emanating from a scavenged Lockheed Martin jet of the same name. Etherea is a wire mesh sculpture that blends Baroque architecture in a shimmering almost mirage way. A brilliant touch of Firenze in the desert.

My annual favorite, the seemingly endless string of balloons, was seen from everywhere on the grounds.

Lodestar on the left, Etherea on the right and balloons in the middle.

The grounds have been reconfigured, most notably by pushing an even larger Sahara tent further from the other stages. Probably big enough to house a dirigible, the EDM artists presented therein were far enough away to diminish sonic bleed, a longstanding complaint.

Coachella has always done a good job keeping corporate activations balanced. Marriott offered a nice air conditioned respite, with charging stations, free wi-fi and frozen fruit bars. A slide show provided enticing glimpses of the company’s best desert-based properties around the globe. This was an example of a well-conceived activation; it matched the festival’s setting and attendees’ needs.

I wonder what it is like when the last notes sound after the last artist plays. The thundering decibels dissipate in the desert and are likely replaced by an eerie calm in this part of the valley.

On Saturday David Byrne delivered a brilliant set. His vocal range and clarity remains amazing. His twelve piece band was fully mobile, half the band were drummers and the only things touching the stage were twenty four bare feet. With an abbreviated version of what lucky folks will see on his world tour, his love of color guard and marching bands was an unintentional but welcome preview of Beyoncé’s production exactly four hours later. I’d like to think both artists loved the serendipity. Stellar renditions of Talking Heads classics were sprinkled through Byrnes’ set, most notably “Once in a Lifetime” and “Burning Down the House.” Not one to rest on his laurels, Byrne not only dropped in a few tracks from his excellent new album, but also a credible cover of Janelle Monáe’a brave “Hell You Talmbout.” He updated the 2015 protest song with additional names of deceased victims of police brutality. If I can catch one of Byrne’s dates late on his tour (it is packed solid through September), I will be able to answer my incredulity about him holding up his energy through the tour. What his performance lacks in spontaneity is more than compensated by the thoughtful cleverness of the production.

David Byrne

Louis the Child (ironically playing opposite Tyler the Creator) received thumbs up at the Sahara stage. Jorja Smith’s soulful RnB stylings were reminiscent of Sade’s more invigorating tunes. Her tight band provided a perfect complement to her silky vocals.

The ambition of Fleet Foxes’ set should not go unmentioned. Showing remarkable growth over the years, on stage the band wove impeccable harmonies, with no less than four trombonists providing counterpoint.

Fleet Foxes

Following on the Outdoor stage was alt-J. (Their name comes from the move on the keyboard which results in the symbol for change). For the band’s third appearance at Coachella, they mined their almost Baroque meets pop songbook. The trio’s stage chops were well-conceived.

Tom Misch

In a tough choice, Tom Misch was playing opposite alt-J. But by toggling between the two stages I was able to enjoy Misch’s intoxicating trip-hop beats. Saxophone breaks added to the jazzy inflections. Misch’s jazzy, airy vocals are reminiscent of Michael Franks. With judicious use of loops, Misch’s band laid a foundation for his sonic explorations. He picked out leads on guitar and his violinist added textures. Misch’s first instrument was the violin.

They were not offering Beyoncé’s last album for sale at the beverage stand.

And of course the vast number of attendees were there for Beyoncé’s performance. Befitting a diva, her set started 20 minutes late. I am uncertain if there was anywhere else in the world where more photo and video storage was consumed. Her cast of dozens was well rehearsed and full of exuberance. The audience was satiated.

On a final note, I am impressed that Goldenvoice limits the availability of the YouTube feed to weekend one. It creates a sense of unifying urgency, everyone is enjoying the Festival for that three days. Unless they attend weekend two.

(all photos except the last courtesy of Coachella)

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.