Perhaps the greatest gift Coachella bestows upon its attendees is the feeling that you’re not alone. Schmaltzy, yes, but stick with us.
Now, among discerning music fans, a band like The National is far from obscure. They’ve garnered widespread critical praise over five albums, played on national TV and multiple international festivals, and are even headlining the Hollywood Bowl later this year. But ask your mom, your older sister, the guy who sits next to you at work or the dude from high school you still keep up with, and they probably won’t have a clue who you’re talking about, let alone be able to name a song or recognize Matt Berninger’s trademark baritone.
Yet on the third day at Coachella, playing the second stage right around sundown with the gathered devotees singing along to the soaring “‘Cuz IIIIIIII’m evil” of “Conversation 16,” there was no reason to think they were anything other than the biggest band in the world. Berninger, as unlikely a rock star as any, equipped himself thusly, even entering the crowd during the perennially timely “Mr. November.”
The National were joined on guitar for “Terrible Love” by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, but that was only his first stop for the night. Vernon also had the distinction of being one of only two (along with “Runaway” featured rapper Pusha T) guest sports during Kanye West‘s headlining set. If Vernon seemed like an odd choice to work west Yeezy back when their My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy collaboration was announced last year, seeing it in person was another thing entirely. Though undeniably invaluable exposure for Vernon, at no point in the set did West introduce him, or really do anything that would clue in the average Coachellagoer that he was anything other than just an anonymous backup singer (rather than the driving force between an acclaimed act in his own right).
But that’s just Kanye being Kanye, and really, anything else would be kind of disappointing. The lack of surprise guests — rumors ranged from Jay-Z to Nicki Minaj to Rihanna to Katy Perry, and the latter two were both spotted elsewhere at the fest — could be seen as a tribute to West’s ego, but also could be seen as a way to put a greater emphasis on the guys he did get to assist him, rather than the two of them getting lost in a sea of superstars.
Which is not to say that there was anything restrained about his performance. Kanye West in the year 2011 headlining the last day of Coachella demand to be a spectacle, and that’s absolutely what it was, starting with an over-the-top entrance; literally descending from the heavens onto the stage via a crane while performing “Dark Fantasy” (the fact that the one of the most compelling visuals in Coachella history contained lyrics referencing Family Matters will never stop being awesome).
The set broke down into three “Acts,” with Kanye delivering several songs from his latest, and snippets of all of his greatest hits (really, all of them). A string of 808s & Heartbreak songs came along with West defending their existence, saying that even though he realized he wasn’t the greatest singer, he felt strongly enough about the material that he had to get it out there. The set also contained songs which feature both Katy Perry and Rihanna on the recorded versions, as if he were deliberately tinkering with people’s expectations.
The day’s co-headliner were The Strokes, playing the west coast for the first time in years. The set was exactly what you’d predict — lots of stuff from new album Angels, plus all the crowd-pleasing faves from their first three records. The true highlight was the sardonically hilarious onstage banter from Julian Casablancas, who has showed off his sense of humor in the last couple of years in collaborations with Jimmy Fallon and The Lonely Island.
I’m paraphrasing here, but after asking some version of festival cliché “Is it hot enough for you out there?,” he responded, “Cool. On my own dime, I flew out on a private jet, so I don’t really know what goes on out here,” which he followed by clarifying, “Just jesting.” Periodically, he’d also mock generic idiot lead singers by sarcastically (yet enthusiastically) uttering drivel like, “Do you believe in love?”
In proof that reunion shows are getting more and more current, the reconstituted Death From Above 1979 played earlier in the day, grinding through nearly every track of their 2004 modern indie classic You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine. They ended their set by telling the crowd to “stick around for Duran Duran,” which sounds absurd but, yes, Death From Above 1979 were indeed playing the main stage directly before Simon Le Bon and crew. The world is pretty weird(ly great) sometimes.
Other things I saw: LA-bred acts Best Coast and Foster the People play to large audiences (the latter attracted a massive spillover crowd in the Gobi Tent), PJ Harvey gamely tackling the unenviable Strokes/Kanye overlap slot, genial New York City popsters Fun debuting new songs and covering Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga.”