Festival Reviews

Coachella 2017 Festival Review: From Worst to Best

on April 17, 2017, 5:00pm


Thundercat has made no secret of his very genuine love for classic ‘70s soft (some call it “yacht”) rock, and at Coachella he upped the ante considerably by bringing out no less than legendary former Doobie Brothers singer Michael McDonald in the middle of his set. There to reprise his role on the song “Show You the Way” from Thundercat’s outstanding Drunk full-length, McDonald’s booming, iconic voice incited a roar of approval when he launched into his verse. He followed that with a rousing version of the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes” that had the entire Mojave tent moving, including Solange and Flying Lotus down in the pit. McDonald stuck around to play on Drunk highlight “Them Changes”. Wrapped around the McDonald cameo was a stellar performance from Thundercat himself, his fleet-fingered bass virtuosity propelling his band from smooth, melodic passages into full-on free jazz freak-outs and back again. Going back to 2013 album Apocalypse for “Oh Sheit It’s X” and the timeless “Tron Song” to round out the show, Thundercat’s 21st century jazz-fusion was among the finest moments of Coachella 2017’s entire opening weekend. –Scott T. Sterling

The xx

The xx have quietly become a live juggernaut and displayed even more of that evolution on the heels of the band’s recently released third full-length, I See You, with a highly anticipated set on Coachella’s main stage. Opening with a muscular take on new album track “Say Something Loving”, the band reached back for an updated rendition of “Crystalized”, featuring Jamie xx on drums. “Islands” and a remixed version of “Shelter” pumped up for the dance floor were followed by a cover version of Jamie xx’s 2015 solo single “Loud Places”, featuring the band’s guitarist, Romy Madley Croft, on vocals. Where the xx shows were once all stark, black-and-white, and moody shadows, now they come in full glorious color, with a tropical stage setting and even more self-confidence. Ending the show with the Hall & Oates-sampling “On Hold” and 2012 Coexist single “Angels”, the xx were an absolute Day 1 standout. –Scott T. Sterling

Lady Gaga

“I’m on the edge of glory … playing for 100,000 people – not too shabby,” ad libbed Lady Gaga during piano tune “The Edge of Glory”, flashing a smug smile before picking up the actual lyrics again.

The aside came late in her Saturday set on the main stage, and where such self-assuredness might’ve been off-putting coming from most artists, it was 100% warranted in her case – frequent aerial drone images throughout the performance revealed a stunningly massive audience, easily one of the largest in Coachella history, which didn’t thin out in the slightest until after her fireworks-laden “Poker Face”/”Bad Romance” finale.

The en-masse attention was absolutely deserved: Before that stripped-down section, which also included lovely renditions of “Speechless” and “Yoü and I”, she retained full command of her crowd with confidence becoming of such an influential pop icon, rewarding her faithful and newcomers alike with a slew of songs not played in years (electro-pop openers “Scheiße” and “LoveGame” for the first time since 2013 and the snarky snarl of “Teeth”, not dusted off since 2011), a couple of pseudo-country-toned tunes from 2016 album Joanne (“John Wayne” and “A-Yo”), plus the debut of new single “The Cure”.

“I’ve been so excited for this next part of the show because I’ve been trying to keep it a secret for so long,” she teased before belting out the good-vibes love ballad, which was propelled by catchy R&B snaps over the verse and a soaring chorus punctuated by fireworks. The tune was just the latest example of a brilliant singer-songwriter who can own countless sonic styles – from straight-ahead rock to bubblegum pop – all the while advocating female empowerment, sexual liberation (“Did you find anyone you wanna sleep with yet?” she asked coyly toward the show’s start), and taking risks fearlessly for the sake of seeking fulfillment in art and life.

“If there’s a fire, I’m running toward the fire,” she said in reference to her approach to making art. That statement embodied the spirit of perhaps one of the only artists who could replace Beyoncé as a Saturday headliner without the boost of any special guests (or overly flashy set design and costumes, as one might expect). For her Coachella debut, Gaga was fiery, uncompromising, and completely in control. –David Brendan Hall

Hans Zimmer

“It takes a special kind of crazy person to bring an orchestra into the desert,” remarked German composer Hans Zimmer after commencing his Sunday night Outdoor Theatre performance, backed by a full orchestra, with two lively pieces from Inception. “But here we are – it had to be done.”

Thank goodness he did, too, because, though it may sound odd to throw a famous movie score composer into the millennial-heavy Coachella mix, his hour-long display – framed with lighting design by Pink Floyd mastermind Marc Brickman – likely melted more than a few minds, under the influence or not, with its epic conclusion. Nostalgic Disney kids of a few different eras got their fix with Pirates of the Caribbean and Lion King medleys, the latter made more astounding by featuring the film’s original South African singer, Lebo M, who was once an exile/refugee and now is, as Zimmer put with overt pride, “the real thing” at a world-class music festival.

The utter intensity of Gladiator material was offset by a buoyant guest spot from Pharrell Williams for 2015 single “Freedom” (it was clearly a friendly nod by Zimmer from one composer to another), but soon reverted back to melodic cacophony with metal-accented, thunderous, timpani-driven selections from The Dark Knight that could rival most of Tool’s catalog in heaviness. Without skipping a beat, Zimmer brought it down and full circle to close with the soft build of Inception’s “Time.” For most of this piece, the camera stayed focused on Zimmer’s hands while they gently laid down the beautiful backbone notes as dozens of instruments flooded in to flesh it out. How astounding to think that all the pieces of this bigger-picture soundscape – presented here at an attention-commanding volume that would overpower any state-of-the-art movie theater sound system – all came from this one man’s mind. It was a distinct privilege to witness such a master in action. –David Brendan Hall


Kendrick Lamar

How did Kendrick Lamar pull off the set of the weekend?

The short answer: masterfully. In more detail: He asserted himself as the sharpest, most visionary rapper in the business with a stunning new stage show on Sunday night that featured the best of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, some key cuts from To Pimp a Butterfly and Untitled Unmastered, and nearly the entirety of just released DAMN.. All of this was framed by a kung fu narrative – the story of Kung Fu Kenny aka Black Turtle – told via comical, vintage-looking movie clips, which served as interludes between songs.

The focus on his latest effort was an obvious choice, and a DAMN. good one – “GOD.”, which featured at least four different rapid-fire cadences, solidified his status as contemporary rap’s king in terms of both style and content. But the weight placed on the Good Kid era was less obvious until he reminded the audience that he hadn’t officially played Coachella since 2012, about six months before that breakthrough album dropped. (He made cameos last year with Ice Cube and Anderson .Paak, respectively).

“Shout-out to Dr. Dre while I’m on this stage in front of 100,000 people,” he quipped in the midst of a run of “Swimming Pools (Drank)”, “Backstreet Freestyle”, and “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”, appropriately acknowledging the legendary producer who made that record possible. “I said to myself, I got some off my first record I want to perform.”

It’s amazing to think how much prophetic poetry he’s dropped since then, especially within the context of his progress as a performer. Back in 2012, during an early afternoon main stage spot, he appeared stoned and somewhat timid, and his spotlight track was “Pussy and Patron”. This evening saw him fearlessly attacking with verse after intricate verse, never faltering and taking full advantage of Coachella’s production capabilities, at one point performing “LUST.” from within a cage in the middle of the crowd, which transformed into a satellite stage when a rising platform elevated him out and atop the prison cell to preach the gospel of “Money Trees” to the thousands of fans pressing toward him.

While guest spots from fellow T.D.E. rapper Schoolboy Q (“That Part”), Travis Scott (“Goosebumps”), and Future (“Mask Off”) didn’t add much – especially the latter, which doesn’t even feature Kendrick and so was just a waste-of-time encore for the Atlanta trap artist – they helped portray K-Dot as a gracious ruler presiding over and proliferating the voices of his most worthy subjects. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: All hail King Kendrick. –David Brendan Hall

Click ahead for an exclusive photo gallery from Coachella 2017.