part two of a three-part series
Today, it was Saturday and it was hot. I discovered a cooling technique — I took a small towel, plunged it into ice water, then secured it under my Teamsters hat and over the back of my neck. It kept my internal temperature at a bearable level. Thankfully it was pragmatic, because I looked like an idiot.
In a fall quarter playlist I commented on a newfound obsession with electrosoul princess BANKS after realizing that the BANKS I’d been then listening to on Spotify was the same BANKS I’d seen open for The Weeknd in Berkeley. I took my chance to rekindle this flame in her mid-afternoon Saturday set and I’m pretty sure she smiled when I scream-yelled ‘BANKS I <3 UUUU’ (that’s how I thought it in my head when I yelled it) from thirty rows back.
She responded by busting out a cover of Aaliyah’s ‘Are You That Somebody’, and turned it into something remarkably sensual and subtle. BANKS doesn’t have an explosive stage presence and is still adjusting to being a performer, so her punctuated moments of voice inflection or powerful vocals hit hard and unexpectedly. Anyone who has gone to a show with me knows that when I’m really feeling it, I will cave my shoulders and elbows in and put my hands in front my mouth and chew on my shirt or hoodie drawstring or fingernails and just stare — her cover of ‘Are You That Somebody’ hit that. Fingernails: done.
Kid CuDi, product of Shaker Heights, Ohio, wore an AC/DC crop top during his main stage set. He played largely from his newer albums, eschewing the songs from his first two mixtapes that I saw him perform at a small bar in Cleveland Heights (white face behind red-sleeve) in 2008.
Yes, I’m shamelessly hipstering right now. Yes, it was cool seeing a kid who grew up in my city play to tens of thousands of people with a huge smile on his face. Yes, it was cool seeing him bring out King Chip, the hometown hero formerly known as Chip the Ripper. No, I didn’t like the set because he has moved away from his rap roots into a bizarro rap/rock/moan combo that I’m not down for. No, I was not convinced that the crop top is a new trend.
Lorde, like Martin Garrix, is also really young and makes me feel actively sad at my lack of accomplishments. The kid is seventeen. She has a ton of swag, and, unless they do things significantly differently in New Zealand and she’s following Kiwi pop trends of purple lipstick, dark eye shadow, and confessional concert interludes, she’s really doing her own thing.
What does a seventeen year old do on stage in front of sixty thousand people who are older than she is and are looking at her like she’s some sort of deity? She’s honest. Maybe she’s high, but I can’t confirm. She extends one of her songs by four or five minutes with a repeated trombone section, wild strobes, and her drummer going nuts. She stands on stage, shaking her lion mane hair. She dances with weird shudders and shakes that are, like, really emotional.
(Note: I’ve been looking for the video of her Weekend 2 performance, and have scoured her album, and I haven’t found this mesmerizing trombone section. So it could have all been a memory. I am almost certain this happened. I am almost certain that I was at the Lorde show.)
So, yeah, Lorde. My friend was on drugs and furiously texting his friends about how much they mean to him. “We’re on each other’s team,” he said.
I watched the last few songs of Foster the People’s set from afar. Mark Foster was the second Cleveland-born artist to light up the Coachella stage that day, and I was proud.
We moved onto Empire of the Sun, and I knew only two songs, and their costumes were bizarre and captivating, and their music was nothing special. They played a very similar show in San Francisco, and Sasha Perigo can give a better impression of it.
That said, I was down for Luke Steele’s make up and facepaint. If you saw someone at Columbae’s F*CK THE MAN party rocking a blue band of glitter paint across his eyeline, it was probably me. Or it could actually have been anyone in Columbae.
Pharrell’s guest line up for his second weekend could have been a hip hop music festival on its own.
I ran (actually jogged) from Empire of the Sun when I heard T.I. performing his verse from ‘Blurred Lines.’ Here’s why:
- The song is pretty catchy and I’ve never seen T.I. live.
- ‘Blurred Lines’ seems to spawn important moments in pop culture.
- If T.I. was coming on this early in this set, there was no telling who Pharrell, with a lengthy and extensive influence in the music industry, could bring out next.
He effusively thanked the crowd as I made my way from two football fields away from the stage to one football field away. He spoke about his beginnings. I stopped, and look up. Oh.
“Pusha, where you at?”
I melted. Pusha T, Clipse frontman and G.O.O.D. Music signee sauntered out to ‘ Grindin’ ‘, his 2002 cocaine opus with iconic Pharrell/Neptunes production pounding out of the speakers. I was the only person in a first down radius who knew the words. I’M THE NEIGHBORHOOD PUSHA. CALL ME SUB-WOOFA.
Pusha T left the stage and I continued to try to make my way closer to the stage. Pharrell dropped ‘Hot in Herre’, a song he produced for Nelly. At the chorus, he made another introduction:
“Make some noise for my big brother Busta Rhymes!”
Busta Rhymes pranced on stage, yelling the opening lines to ‘Pass the Courvoisier, Pt. II’ : ”DON’T THIS SHIT MAKE MY PEOPLE WANNA JUMP, JUMP?”
It was a glut of talent. A glut. Busta left after one track. I miss that guy. I wish he’d answer my texts.
Usher came on, basically unprompted. Pharrell, I needed more warning, honestly. Honestly.
Ush dropped ‘U Don’t Have To Call’ (awkwardly only his fourth best song starting with “U” behind, obviously, ‘U Remind Me’, ‘U Got It Bad’, and ‘U Make Me Wanna‘, but his best ‘U’ song produced by Pharrell. Okay, OKAY, it’s ‘You Make Me Wanna,’ you’re right.), and the old heads went wild. I’m pretty sure I used to lip sync this in the mirror when I was in sixth grade. That could be a revisionist memory.
He left the stage, and I thought it was a missed opportunity. It’s Usher. Let him bump something. Pharrell gave a tease about Usher’s upcoming album, which made me excited for a second, but then I remembered that Usher hadn’t put out a really good R&B album since 2004. Ah. Another article for another time.
(On a non-guest appearance note, Pharrell’s track ‘Aerosol Can’ is reckless. I guarantee it gets you moving.)
(Oh, Pharrell also brought out the Jabbawockeez to dance as he sang Swedish House Mafia’s ‘One’.)
(It was nuts.)
Then two minutes into ‘Frontin’ ‘, on cue, Jay-Z’s voice emerged, ‘We got another one Pharreall!’ He rapped his verse and they smoothly transitioned into an extended medley of ‘Excuse Me, Miss’, ‘La La La’, and ‘I Just Wanna Love U.’
It was the first time I’ve ever seen Jay, another artist whose face I have plastered on my wall in the form of Rolling Stone magazine covers, live in concert. He was perfectly poised, like an action figure of himself, with elbows and knees bent how I always see them in photos. He sounded like Jay-Z, which sounds obvious, but his ad-libs and accent felt perfectly replicated from his recorded work. He could have been a hologram. (Was he a hologram?)
Pharrell ended with ‘Get Lucky’ and ‘Happy’. A massive cloud of confetti exploded onto the crowd at the chorus of ‘Happy’. I thought it was manna from heaven.
Nas was slotted at midnight on the same stage as Pharrell, half an hour after he ended. Luckily for hip-hop fans, he overlapped with Muse and Skrillex, and the Outdoor Stage cleared out. I moved from my one football field distance to the red zone, about twenty yards away from the stage. For Nas. On the exact twentieth anniversary of Illmatic.
I spent the half hour leading up to the show mumbling, “Straight out the fucking dungeons of rap,” the first line of ‘NY State of Mind’, the album’s first track. The opening piano riff looped in my head.
It was momentous. After a countdown turned back the past twenty years of Nas’s life, montages of Queensbridge and subway trains and grainy videos from the mid-nineties played on the screens. Nas rapped the entire album cover to cover without a light show and production. He was lit by a single spotlight. He drank a bottle of Hennessey.
Illmatic is, well, Illmatic. It’s a seminal hip-hop album that needs no further aggrandizing. Experiencing it firsthand through a no-frills performance was like hearing it again for the first time. It stands alone. It felt like a small venue show, for forty thousand people. It was like going to a reading of your favorite author, where the words are naturally imbued with more meaning when they come out of her mouth.
After a high energy appearance by Damian Marley, Nas sat on the edge of the stage and performed ‘One Mic’, and then I heard something I thought I’d never hear live: the ‘Ready or Not’ instrumental began to play.
The crowd was confused, and yelled out of recognition. Surely Lauryn Hill would not make an appearance?
Oh. Oh. But she did, knocking out all three verses to the Fugee classic, to a surprisingly familiar audience. Her lyricism was fluid, violent, aggressive, and on point. Her singing voice swung between rich and fully, and sultry and raspy. She rapped the last verse acapella, turned to the DJ, then sang the three note intro to her duet with Nas, ‘If I Ruled the World.’ The energy in the crowd skyrocketed. When they reached the final bridge, ‘walk right up to the sun,’ the track was once again stripped to an acapella. Hill riffed, Nas hyped, and they ended yelling, ‘We won’t land.’
Lauryn Hill bowed, Nas bowed, and the set was over.
I walked up to the stage afterwards to soak it in. I saw Busta Rhymes hanging out with Tony Hawk in the wing.
Things had gone incredibly right.
When I got back to the campsite, I sat on the ground in front of a friend in a camping chair and she rubbed my head for twenty minutes.
We took chairs and walked to a small ledge that overlooked the campsite and the festival grounds and drank beer and generally said little.
Read part one, ‘no salad bar, no plantains’, here.
PART THREE HERE — a Coachella love story, glitter bombing, unbuttoned shirts, and a lot of Brits.