Coachella’s Top 10 Sets: Beyonce to Eminem

Beyonce Eminem Cardi B

Trying to determine the best Coachella performances is an impossible task — such calls are never objective and are based not only on personal preference but also on how many hours of sleep the beholder may or may not have gotten; at what point during the day, night or morning the performance took place; and, not least, how many hundred times in the preceding week, day, hour or quarter-hour the beholder had heard the words “Coachella! Hands up! Make some motherf—in’ noise! Hands up! Hands up! Hands up!” (words that were apparently spoken, usually ad nauseum, by nearly every performer). AND there are usually three different performances going on at once. But we’re professionals here so we’ll man up like Beyonce’s Buggaboos… (For our full recaps, check out Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3.)

Beyonce — You don’t need us to tell you that this monumentally ambitious and meaning-filled performance was one of the most elaborate and precisely executed major concerts of all time: Not only was it loaded with hits, not only was there a Destiny’s Child reunion, not only was she joined onstage by husband Jay-Z and sister Solange — she was accompanied by 150-plus performers, most if not all of whom were people of color; many of those performers were part of a marching band, majorettes and drumline styled on those from black colleges and universities, and she and her performers often wore collegiate-type outfits bearing the Greek letters beta delta and kappa, her initials with the delta referencing her favored number, four; and the set was loaded with references and quotes from black history, ranging from an excerpt from a Malcolm X speech to a quote from a Nina Simone song, “Lilac Wine.” And along with all that, it was f—ing awesome.

Eminem — Marshall set himself up for one of toughest acts any musician has ever had to follow (see above), but to his credit, he delivered. While Rihanna and Ed Sheeran weren’t on hand for their guest spots, Dr. Dre and 50 Cent were, and Em delivered a hit-filled set that even included his hype man, Mr. Porter, reading mean tweets: One alleged that nobody had paid attention to Eminem since 2003, to which the star replied, “I can’t be mad about that. He’s got a point.” The self-deprecation was a means to an end, leading to the rapper introducing a classics segment by asking, “Can I take you back to a time when I was actually dope? Can I take you back to a time when I was actually good?” Self-awareness is step one!

Cardi B — Beyoncé may have postponed her Coachella spot by a year due to buns in the oven, but Cardi B was not about to let a due date preempt this date’s sexual physicality — for many of us, this was our first experience of a pregnant woman twerking, including guest rapper YG, who seemed to want to keep more respectful distance between himself and the twerking than he otherwise might’ve. More demanding moves reflecting Cardi’s unabashed stripper past were left to a quartet of bikini dancers who acrobatically took to scaffolding as well as (naturally) poles. Rarely if ever has a Coachella performer worked so many guests into a mere half-hour set: Chance the Rapper, 21 Savage, G-Eazy and Kehlani also appeared. The overload served as both social-media buzz insurance and catching-a-breath insurance. Does she have the chops outside the studio to sustain a full-length show on her own? It’s hard to say, but the young crowd could hardly have been happier to attend the world’s fastest, raunchiest, most star-studded baby shower.

SZA — During one of several chatty interludes during her set, SZA recalled how she’d grown up as the only person of color attending summer camp — and not minding that — and said she wanted to more or less recreate that experience by setting up a camp-like environment on stage, which included an Airstream trailer as backdrop and a bonfire that ran for the duration of her set. The setting made her already-warm, deftly melodic R&B even more welcoming — she sang at least one song seated by the fire — and covered most of the highlights from her “Ctrl” album as well as “Consideration,” her duet with Rihanna, and welcomed TDE labelmate Kendrick Lamar to perform “All the Stars,” their collaboration from the “Black Panther” soundtrack.

David Byrne — The ex-Talking Head also brought a marching band of sorts to Coachella, though his was a fraction of the size of Beyoncé’s, and they were dressed in gray business attire (minus shoes). Reports had been coming in from the east coast about how uniquely theatrical the setup is on his new “American Utopia”-supporting tour, and the brain that designed “Stop Making Sense” didn’t disappoint. Byrne’s entire 10-piece support team was as mobile as he was — keyboardists and bass drummers included — and whether they were choreographed to new or vintage T-Heads material, it felt goofy, smart and warmly communal.

St. Vincent / Perfume Genius — Much has been said about rock’s relative absence from Coachella (and popular music overall) in recent years, but Friday night’s sets from St. Vincent and Perfume Genius showed that those unusual outfits mask beating rock and roll hearts. St. Vincent brought her new band to the Outdoor Stage after dusk — lined up side by side and looking, if not exactly sounding, like Kraftwerk — after touring for much of the last six months as a one-woman show. Her mixture of guitar heroics with pop hooks and electronic programming would point a direction for rock’s bright future — except for the fact that there are very few if any other shredders like Annie Clark who have the inclination or ability to embed short, fearsome solos in deeply electronic songs. Maybe they should learn! Similarly, Perfume Genius, fronted by singer/songwriter Mike Hadreas, spend a lot of their songs in atmospheric or chamber-pop passages that recall “Colour of Spring”-era Talk Talk — but when the band leans back and decides to rock, they pack as powerful a punch as virtually any metal outfit you can name. That anthemic power was present in spades on Friday night.

Alvvays — This dreamy indie-pop act from Canada released  one of the best dreamy indie-pop albums in years with last fall’s “Antisocialites.” And while that album’s shimmering production creates a lush bed for their songs, it actually obscures how powerful frontwoman Molly Rankin’s voice and melodies are. She’s a naturally gifted singer with a crystalline voice whose sweetness belies its strength: She can effortlessly sing long verses in a high register that would flatten most rock singers. While “Antisocialites” is very much an album that could have come out on a British indie label like 4AD or Creation 25 years ago, in a live setting the band delivers powerfully, especially considering the feathery touch of its music on album. The band was unexpectedly high on Saturday’s bill, and their winning set proved why.

Tank and the Bangas — One of Friday’s most effusively fun sets came from this mostly African-American 11-piece ensemble whose neon logo suggests the ‘80s. Their closing cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was performed like rockers of the decade before Kurt would’ve done it, but prior to that, the New Orleans collective came off as an unlikely Zappa/Mothers of Invention-inspired soul revue, with lead singer Tarriona “Tank” Ball’s mixture of little-girl and full-gospel vocal inflections putting her in a singular category altogether.

Nile Rodgers & Chic — The early Saturday set for this monumentally influential group seemed inappropriate, but as always Chic won the day: The crowd was tiny at first, then grew exponentially as young passers-by, to whom the moniker Chic may mean little, heard the sounds of songs even most teens know by heart, if not name. Knowing that he was performing to a crowd that may not have bought a three-day pass just for Chic, Rodgers prefaced the performance by noting that they’d just come back from Australia and faced a journalist there who praised their skills as a cover band, not knowing that Rodgers as a producer and/or co-writer was responsible for songs that pop up in the set like David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out” and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” as well as “Le Freak” — a savvy way of letting the young audience know that, too, without overtly patronizing. “Get Lucky” wouldn’t have seemed like a choice candidate for a touching moment in the set, but it became one, as the survivor among Chic’s two mainstays talked about his own struggle with aggressive cancer and how the Daft/Pharrell collaboration was among the first he delved into in recovering… which led into a gospel-like intro from one of the two current female vocalists before the ode to fortune got louder — and dafter.