Coachella 2017: 10 things we learned during the festival's first weekend

Lanre Bakare, Benjamin Lee and Jemayel Khawaja in Indio, California
Drake, Lady Gaga, Roisin Murphy, Skepta and Ezra Furman at Coachella 2017. Composite: Getty Images for Coachella/Reuters

1) Lady Gaga won the battle of the headliners

Radiohead were unfortunate with their technical woes and Kendrick Lamar played with the boundaries of what headline acts can get away with, but Lady Gaga’s hit-packed high-energy set was the one everyone was talking about. She drew the biggest crowd and got a huge response from the audience, who she managed to keep interested through some of her less well-known new material. There was a clear emphasis on the overblown EDM that’s been so popular on the main stage in recent years, and she managed to mix that with her pop theatrics and choreographed set pieces. The structure worked best as well, with the set building towards the bigger hits, such as Telephone and Bad Romance. Taking chances with a headline set is refreshing, but there is a tried-and-tested formula that puts big hits and entertaining staging front and centre.

2) Technical difficulties blighted some of the festival’s biggest moments

Radiohead at Coachella 2017. Photograph: David Jensen/PA

Radiohead’s interrupted Friday night headline slot was an embarrassing moment for a festival that prides itself on its slick professionalism. One stoppage in order to solve whatever problem was causing the power and sound to be lost from the main PA system would have been forgivable, if annoying. But three stoppages, which interrupted any flow in a set many people had paid full entrance price to see, was inexcusable. Technical issues are a given at live events on this scale and with groups parachuting in before leaving just as quickly, but for headliners the same rules don’t apply. Away from Radiohead’s issues, The Avalanches’s frontman Spank Rock could not be heard for a decent portion of his set after mic problems. A few acts struggling with sound isn’t surprising, but at an event that promotes its ability to create moments, these weren’t ones anyone wanted.

3) This year was surprisingly apolitical

Given the current political climate and the small fact that we were all a tad worried about the possibility of the third world war going into the weekend, there was a surprising lack of politics on stage this year. While anti-Trump sentiment has become a standard, and arguably necessary, ingredient of many awards shows and celebrity interviews since the election, the majority of acts chose to leave his name out of the proceedings and instead, outspoken democrats like Lady Gaga decided to focus on a warmer, more general message of solidarity. The closest we got to an attack was Ezra Furman’s set where he found time to call out Philip Anschutz, the billionaire behind the company who put on the festival, and his alleged ties to anti-LGBT groups.

4) But … immigration issues affected yet another festival

Before SXSW in March, a clause in its artist contract that suggested the event organizers would work with immigration enforcement agents to deport acts went viral and saw acts pull out and send an open letter to organizers. Then seven groups, including British jazz act United Vibrations, were not allowed to travel to Austin, putting the decision down to racist and xenophobic motives after Trump’s zero-tolerance stance on immigration from citizens or people with connections to certain majority Muslim countries. Coachella became another festival interrupted by immigration issues. At Coachella, the Parisian rap group PNL were forced to cancel their set after one of the duo – Tarik AKA Ademo – was denied a visa. “It will be unfortunately impossible [for] this first weekend,” read a Facebook statement. “After several months of administrative steps, one of the two of us still hasn’t been allowed to return to the United States for reasons that you can imagine. The other is already on the scene and trying to get things done hoping to have some good news from here the next weekend.” It’s not clear whether they will be able to perform at the festival’s second weekend, but disruption at festivals due to the White House’s harder stance on immigration seems to be a permanent feature of US-based events.

5) The festival’s eclectic curation means it no longer has a ‘sound’

Lorde performing at Coachella 2017. Photograph: Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images

A varied lineup is something that Coachella has always prioritized, with its initial list of headliners including Rage Against the Machine, Morrissey and The Chemical Brothers. But since its inception, while variety continued to differentiate the festival, it’s adopted a stronger EDM slant and after 2014 when Calvin Harris scored the second-biggest crowd the grounds had ever seen, it’s seemed to dominate the valley ever since. Yet this year’s intimidatingly long list of performing acts (more on that later) seemed based around the “something for everyone” style of scheduling with equal attention paid to EDM, rock, indie and hip-hop, leaving its identity a little confused. It seems as if the crowd were a little confused as well, unsure of where to head to and how to party. But there was one genre which seemed to be a popular addition ...

6) Hip-hop and grime could be the festival’s new genres of choice

EDM and indie rock have long been the dominant sounds at Coachella. And this year the emphasis was clearly on younger acts from different genres, although claims of rock’s demise at the festival might be slightly overstated. The genre that benefited the most was hip-hop. Kendrick Lamar’s headline slot puts him on a level seen by only the likes of Jay Z and Kanye West, as a rap star who truly transcends the genre. He’s also far from one of the genre’s populist, presenting a take on the genre that owes as much to the jazz of Cecil Taylor as it does to gangsta rap from his native Compton. A cursory look around the top of the bills saw rap stars like Gucci Mane, DJ Khaled, Denzel Curry, Mac Miller, DJ Snake and Schoolboy Q, while Future’s guest-star-packed turn on the main stage was one of the most talked about sets of the weekend. Grime’s ascendancy in the states continued with Stormzy and Skepta, who managed to draw decent crowds despite early times on the running order. Unlike at Glastonbury, where any appearance of a rap act higher up the bill is still met with the criticism that it “doesn’t really belong” at the festival, Coachella’s shift towards the genre made sense at an event that doesn’t have some of the same prescriptive parameters around what does and doesn’t deserve a place on its stages.

7) The pre-headliners failed to live up to expectation

Romy Madley Croft of the xx performing at Coachella 2017. Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Coachella

It’s a hard ask to be the lead-out group for a headliner, and it’s not a position that fits everybody. Groups like Primal Scream, who have a mix of crowd-pleasing tracks and an ability to entertain people who might not be there specifically for them, manage it better than most. This year at Coachella some of the second-from-top groups didn’t fare so well. The xx’s set failed to land on Friday before Radiohead came on, with the subtlety of their music and stripped down performance feeling lost in the evening excitement. Bon Iver fared better on Saturday, and there’s an argument the low-key nature of the set provided a palate cleanser before the theatrics of Lady Gaga. Lorde took another approach, with a set that was more straightforward and could have easily been a headline performance. But getting the balance of mass appeal that complements what’s about to come was elusive in 2017.

8) Sometimes there’s too much choice

This year saw festival runners implement a substantial expansion, with 20 acres added to the site and capacity boosted from 99,000 to 125,000. The decision arguably led to their insistence that at least one of the nights was headlined by a mainstream artist proven to attract big crowds (enter Gaga) and also resulted in a host of new additions to the grounds, including a new punk rock tent. The lineup was also increased and the downside of so many artists playing simultaneously was that some sets were barely attended, including Roisin Murphy, Ezra Furman and Show Me the Body. Given that it’s the first year of the expansion, these are likely teething issues and next year (when Beyoncé will surely attract an even bigger crowd – if the authorities permit), should run more smoothly.

9) The Yuma tent is still the festival’s best-kept secret

When the Yuma Tent first appeared up on the terrace in 2014, it presented a novel proposition at Coachella. Small, dark, totally enclosed, and with the feeling of a discotheque in a dusty old library, the Yuma catered unflinchingly to underground house and techno in the face of the imperial growth of EDM over at the Sahara Tent. Now it has grown to almost four times the size, but has maintained the feeling of a secret hideaway. Many dedicated career clubber-types barely leave the place all weekend, and it has reset Coachella’s credibility as a dance music Mecca. This year, sets from Detroit techno progenitors The Belleville Three, Berghain resident Marcel Dettmann, and scene icons Dixon and Solomun maintained the stage’s impeccable standards. The best part is, most Coachella-goers still don’t know it exists, so it is a haven for dance purists as much as it is a respite from the stifling desert heat.

10) Guest stars were a necessary, if distracting, accessory

Over the past few years in particular, the surprise guest appearance arms race has reached epic proportions. The Weeknd brought out Kanye West, Solange brought out sister Beyoncé, and every headlining pop star is expected to please the baying crowds with a cavalcade of amusements and familiar faces. This year, though, it may have gone too far. Case in point: Future’s Saturday night set on the main stage was punctuated by guest appearances from Ty Dolla Sign, Migos, and a blockbuster takeover from Drake, who effectively closed Future’s set with three of his own songs. Gucci Mane brought out a cast of thousands for his headlining set on Saturday with P Diddy, Rae Sremmurd, Migos and Lil Yatchy all fighting for stage space.

On the other hand, DJ Snake revealed Lauryn Hill to perform reworked dance versions of her classic tunes, Thundercat brought out Michael McDonald for two songs, including a crowd-pleasing rendition of What A Fool Believes and composer Hans Zimmer called on Pharrell Williams to sing Freedom from the film Hidden Figures. In those instances, the surprise actually added to the creativity of the performance and made the sets better. At a certain point, artists like Future will have to ask themselves: is it more important to “break the Internet” or to make your mark on your own terms?

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