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Coachella: high-energy hedonism, surprise stars and Covid concerns

If you were looking for a scene that neatly sums up Coachella, California’s festival double-weekender, it is this: every day in the late afternoon, under the giant ferris wheel, festivalgoers appear to move as if performing a choreographed routine, tilting their faces and tensing their butt-cheeks into their smartphones in slo-motion. At first it looks as if you might be in a flashmob, but suddenly the penny drops: ah, this is golden hour, and Coachella is sometimes as much about finding the perfect selfie light as it is musical acts.

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It’s an image that’s become synonymous with the enormous two-weekend event – where fashion is more feted than the program itself – but it’s also, in some ways, a misleading one. Peel back the layer-cake of posers, ignore the giant VIP section that segregates the event between the plebeians and what one passerby calls “Los Angeles privilege”, ie those who can afford a special wristband for the nice views, loos and bars – and squint beyond the big-hitters. Underneath, the event is an endless trove of exceptional global artists and future megastars, from Japan’s Harajuku queen Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Belgian triple-threat Stromae to Jamaica’s Koffee, Australian rapper Sampa The Great and Palestinian techno DJ Sama Abdulhadi.

2NE1 reunites and performed as four for Coachella!

And sure, while there’s a fairly large stable of forgettables whose TikTok numbers are the only notable thing about them (and some of whom clearly aren’t ready to perform to large crowds), the lineup is actually more varied than you might think. Soon, the specific-to-festivals stress of racing around trying to catch everybody, after years of live event drought, comes rushing back.

From the top down, though, it’s been a peculiar year for the lack of heritage acts. Or even ones who have put out more than two albums. Both Harry Styles on Friday and Billie Eilish on Saturday turf out bombastic shows but neither have the discography that is the stuff of true festival legend (though they do both bring out more seasoned guests: Shania Twain and Damon Albarn, respectively). Sunday’s headliner, Kanye West, pulled out and was replaced by a totally new team-up between The Weeknd and returning EDM trio, Swedish House Mafia.

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But that’s not to say that Coachella was short on major artists making their marks: Megan Thee Stallion delivered an absolutely blinding Tron-styled hip-pop confection on Saturday, all shimmering bodysuits, booty anthems for “hot girls and boys” and bass you could almost certainly hear from within the mainframe. On Friday night, Phoebe Bridgers graduated to second from headline act, on the second-biggest outdoor stage, with her gothic pop-up book set; despite her musical bummers (her songs are quite sad) it won’t be long before she’s in pole position.
Anyone who was not sure that UK rap could properly cross over to the US, meanwhile, need have only dropped by (Santan) Dave’s show, as he shouted out Shoreditch within the first two minutes to a dedicated crowd, iPhones raised (and hoping for a Drake cameo). Finneas stepped out from under his sister’s shadow on Sunday with his own solo masterstroke; while a nearby Orville Peck – resplendent in gold leather and fringed Batman mask – delivered a moving set of brooding, bartioned Americana, made all the more bizarre due to trance DJ Tiesto watching in the audience (you do wonder too whether Styles stole Peck’s thunder by bringing out Twain, who appears on Peck’s song Legends Never Die).

It’s always fun to see artists trying to outdo each other, especially when it comes to who they can convince to get on a golf cart round the backstage buggy circuit and join them onstage. Styles aside, on Friday night, Canadian future-soul dude Daniel Caesar brought out a shirtless Justin Bieber to perform their song Peaches. Snoop Dogg helped Brazilian pop star Anitta open her main stage set. Beastie Boys keysman Money Mark joined Britain’s favorite party band Hot Chip for their now legendary cover of Sabotage. And the US-based collective 88Rising, who are dedicated to amplifying Asian culture (of which, excellently, there was much more at Coachella this year) presented an exhilarating pile-up of stars from Korea, Indonesia, Thailand and Japan, including J-popper Hikaru Utada and reunited girl group 2NE1. And the aforementioned Dave recreated his viral “Alex from Glasto” moment by bringing up Spike from London to take over the AJ Tracey part on their track Thiago Silva. (He did a brilliant job).

Beyond the ever-important issues of inclusion and diversity, however, you might not have remembered that there’s a war still raging on the other side of the world, unless you’d briefly glimpsed the colours of the Ukrainian flag on the screen behind Styles, or caught Arcade Fire’s surprise set. The Canadian band debuted a darker, leather-clad synth show that pulled both from AllSaints look books and 80s electronic goths Depeche Mode, and dedicated The Suburbs to Ukrainian punk rockers. It was an emotional performance, especially when frontman Win Butler dedicated his rousing new song Unconditional I (Lookout Kid) from forthcoming album WE to his son, and then restarted it, adding that it’s been a difficult year. Suddenly, smiley-faced inflatables ping up giddily across the stage and the audience looks on with something in their eyes.

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