Coachella Day 1: The Weeknd Gets Moody, SZA Charms, St. Vincent Mesmerizes

St. Vincent was the leading rock contender on a day devoted more, like the rest of the 19th annual festival, to R&B and hip-hop.

The Weeknd did not bring out any guests for his headlining set Friday night at Coachella, which was surprising, given his collaborative spirit… and perhaps more surprising after the expectations set up in the proceeding slot on the main stage by SZA, who brought out Isaiah Rashad and ultimately Kendrick Lamar. But that was all right: Even as a determinedly solo act, Abel Tesfaye contains multitudes.

There was a natural segue between the end of SZA’s set and the beginning of the Weeknd’s, as she finished and he started with Lamar collaborations from the “Black Panther” album. But the Weeknd was sans company when he emerged with “Pray for Me,” and he kept the spotlight to himself for the following hour and a half — not counting a few appearances on the big screens by an electric guitarist —  all the better to come off as a palpably lonely dude when he finally shifted the focus late in the proceedings to his new EP, “My Dear Melancholy.” Toward the end, the sexually explicit “Often” got sliced into a lust-to-love medley with the tender “Acquainted,” before the new “Call Out My Name,” accompanied only by a sad guitar, showed that right now the Weeknd is all about heartbreak, if not 808s. (Was it lost on anyone, as he seemed to choke up momentarily, that this marked the anniversary of his canoodling at last year’s fest with Selena Gomez, the ostensible subject of Friday night’s melancholic show-stopper? No, it was not.)

By the time the Weeknd got to focusing on the new music, much of the crowd was streaming for the exits; 12:50 a.m. is a tough time to break out a “suffering”-themed slow song like “Privilege.” Perhaps wisely, knowing that fairer-weather fans would be heading for their campsites early no matter what, he’d gotten hits like “Can’t Feel My Face” and “Starboy” out of the way in the first half, before harking back — or forward — to the darker side of his earliest and newest material. The abstractly flowing visual backdrops and a giant lopsided face sculpture (which at one point cracked in two) made for some extra desert-trippiness for the portion of the crowd that had started losing facial sensations hours earlier. With only occasional interruptions for quick banter, it mostly flowed like a superior DJ set that also happened to feel like an arena-rock set. Six years after arguably stealing the festival from a nearby side stage, the Weeknd has graduated, effectively, into a stadium owner.

As for the much ballyhooed absence of rock and roll from the main stage: Rock is far from dead at Coachella. It’s just finding its late-2010s place as the opening act for R&B and hip-hop. [Editor’s Note: With three main stages and one reviewer at Coachella, obviously this is a selective overview. The festival will be live-streamed all weekend right here.]

Not everyone in those latter genres seemed to have gotten the memo that, in its 19thannual edition, this is their festival now. Vince Staples, the acclaimed rapper who was performing at sundown on the main stage, quipped, “This is what I call the white people stage, so I appreciate you letting me the f— up here.” Later on, he added, “None of y’all look like me, but that’s all right.” Maybe Staples should have waded farther into the crowd before announcing the results of his demographic study: Although you wouldn’t have mistaken it for an Essence Festival audience, there was significant diversity to this year’s 125,000-strong crowd — something closer to a multi-racial utopia than you’d find at most other festivals, if hedonism is the main tenet of modern utopianism.

SZA made comments pointing in the same direction. The singer 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.

But it was the rockers who felt like the odd men (and women) out on this particular desert outing, at least in day one. The only rock act on the main stage all day Friday was the Neighbourhood, an unremarkable group that would have been a third-tier KROQ act back in the synth-pop era. The only one on Saturday’s bill is Haim, who happen to have eschewed rock sounds almost entirely on their latest album. You have to wait till Sunday to get a currently popular rock band that sounds a little bit like a rock band, in that day’s third-billed Portugal. The Man.

There was plenty of exciting action on the other stages for the little niche known as rock, though. Most thrillingly, 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 deep electronica. Rock needs, and probably won’t get, a hundred more like her.

Part of rock’s relative absence from Coachella may have to do with the fact that Goldenvoice is siphoning acts that once would have been obvious contenders to the Arroyo Seco Festival, soon to have its second edition in Pasadena. But the most youthful rockers are still welcome in the desert.

So while Robert Plant will shortly be headlining Arroyo Seco, the large Mojave Tent at Coachella was packed for an appearance by Greta Van Fleet, a band in their late teens and early 20s who do a very expert Led Zeppelin tribute act that just happens to consist of original material. Guitar solos were played behind heads; lead vocals were screeched in a way last heard when Black Crowes flew the earth; three out of four members went bare-chested beneath vests — dig the turquoise-beads-on-suede look of lead singer Josh Kiszka — and the kids ate it up as if this misty mountain hop had just been invented.

Over in the smaller, enclosed Sonora Tent, the Regrettes, a three-quarters female band led by 17-year-old Lydia Night, sounded as if they’d just time-traveled from CBGB. Kids today!

But revivalism is most exciting when it’s not quite as easy to pinpoint. One of the most effusively fun sets of the day came from Tank and the Bangas, a 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 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.

Back on the main stage, Staples, whose “Big Fish Theory” was one of the best hip-hop albums of 2017, seemed to struggle in connecting with the audience. Part of the reason may have been how the artier inclinations of “Big Fish” translated here to using the giant screens behind him to recreate what looked like a bank of about 40 television sets; without close-ups, the crowd was left to only guess at what the tiny figure on stage actually looked like up close.

The award for the most winningly personable set of the day had only one contender: SZA, whose genius has been in finding a better way of putting the stream of consciousness of hip-hop into R&B song form better than almost anyone before her — and who had a little bit of that charming streaming going on between songs, as she introduced herself as someone who loves cheese and weed. “I wasn’t allowed to smoke before this, so I’m unusually sober,” she admitted early on. “I would hope you would transfer all of your high energy to me.”

That interface worked like a stoned-by-osmosis charm. With the festival being this close to Hollywood, you did maybe worry whether she’d actually licensed all the Drew Barrymore video clips she showed during “Drew Barrymore”; it seems less likely that Disney signed off on the “Aristocats” images that she had behind her while singing a song that was, well, not about cats. In any event, her license to chill peaked during a closing collab with Lamar on her “Black Panther” song, “All the Stars.” (It may not have been intended as her final number: SZA, who’d come on late, then announced, “They cut my set. We’re missing a couple songs. You’ll get all of my songs next week.”) Not a huge deal: As long as the crowd got “All the Stars” – a record of the year contender — they went away happy.


Coachella Day 1: The Weeknd Gets Moody, SZA Charms, St. Vincent Mesmerizes

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