The two key sets of Coachella 2019’s opening night couldn’t have struck more different chords, at least on the surface. But maybe they weren’t so completely different. Playing in the Sahara Tent mid-evening, but clearly already commanding the status and intrigue of a headliner, K-pop phenom were all about choreography and dazzle — yet the sense of cross-cultural bonhomie in the audience made it feel like the fulfillment of some kind of social mission. Later, on the main stage, Childish Glover kept insisting that we were attending “church” and engaged in “a spiritual night” — but he delivered show business of the highest and craftiest order. They both made their audiences feel, if only for a spell, like they’d foregone the stream-at-home option to come participate in something more important and communal than glamping.
Gambino, aka Donald Glover, set out some rules at the beginning of his performance, which began not long before midnight. “Put your phones down,” he commanded, as part of a list of rules. “This is not a concert. This is church. If you came here to hear your favorite song, you should go home and do that. If you want to come here and just take Instagram pictures and shit, you should go in the back and boo right now. I want you all to feel this shit.” Lest his rules all seem constrictive, he had some others that seemed less scolding. “When shit needs to bounce, I need to see you mother—ing bounce.” In a manner of speaking, then, you could call his sanctuary a bouncy-house of worship.
Once it became clear, though, that Gambino is not one of those performers who’s actually going to try to enforce keeping close to 100,000 people from using their smartphone cameras, his was an inclusive, rambling, masterful, ramshackle-but-tight evening that you didn’t want to end, even if curfew tends to seem like a good idea at the end of anybody’s desert day. Even as he spoke of how disappointing his previous Coachella performance was (he’d broken his foot, he explained, plus “we didn’t have a really good slot (and) I don’t think a lot of people even wanted us there”), he proved that the headliner slot belonged to him. Near-retirement suits him… not that anyone should take farewell tour talk any more seriously with him than they do with any other pop-superstar-pastor.
A better reason for discouraging the use of camera than the offered one quickly became apparent: Glover is an expert to playing to one… and only one. If there were an award for all-time best cinematography at Coachella, the live capture of Childish Gambino’s performance would have to be the front-runner. Last year’s Beyoncé show was no slouch in the camerawork department, either, but the spectacle was too much to capture in any one camera angle. Gambino had the audience focus just on his moody close-ups or herky-jerky dancing medium shots for the whole set, and he was as dimly well-lit in each of the settings he refused to stay still in — working the ramp, or disappearing from the crowd’s direct view for minutes at a time as he jumped off the ramp to meet the crowd with a hefty security-guard hedge, or even going backstage to exchange a hug with a loved one during a band vamp. Gambino has a lyric about keeping the lights down because we shine better in the dark, and he put his camera crew’s money where his mouth was by going about as dark as you can in a festival setting and still seeming to glow.
It was an old-school R&B/soul revue more than a typical hip-show, per se (something that was also true of Anderson .Paak’s winning main stage set earlier in the evening). The disruption of more challenging songs like “This is America,” while key, had a slightly secondary status that had Gambino a little closer to Curtis Mayfield than Q-Tip. He enjoyed showing off his command of the band. Much of this came during a spontaneously hilarious segment in which Gambino/Glover went down into the crowd and all but literally forced an audience to borrow and keep smoking the performer’s blunt while he became occupied shouting out cues to his distant ensemble.
“I get nervous at big shows, so usually I smoke before the show, but I’m gonna smoke during the show tonight — is that all right?” he declared from the ramp, before his descent. “Would anybody like to smoke with me?” He found an accomplice, whom he interviewed for the job. “ How old are you? You’re 21? Let me see this ID. You don’t have it with you? Should I believe him? Before you do this, don’t feel peer pressure, there’s just 100,000 people.” Then came the call-outs to the group, which seemed spontaneous, at least. “Can I get a soft stop right here?” They stopped on a dime. “That’s how good they are!… Yo, let me get a 17-stop on this shit.” The audience dude, perhaps mindful that Mom might be watching at home, tried to hand back the joint. “No no, just get high, just get high!” Gambino insisted.
This may all seem like an asterisk to Gambino’s performance, but in song as well as out of it, appearing as if he might break into anything at any time in what was surely a near-military-precision show, he had that greatest of musical contradictions: seeming like he was going off the rails — for the benefit of a live audience that came to get something they wouldn’t at any other of his shows, let alone on Spotify — while being completely in control at all times. Not to mention knowing where the camera was at every second, and probably the exact luminosity of each bulb.
Crediting his actor’s experience here runs the risk of making him sound insincere, but Gambino was clearly as in the moment as a performer as part of his head was standing outside himself as a master director. He invoked Nipsey Hussle — not for a Mentioning Nipsey Moment, but as a passing part of a general ramble on mortality that could hardly have felt more sincere.
“I lost my dad this year,” he said, after mentioning his father reassured him after that bum Coachella set a few years ago. “We lost Nipsey… What I’m starting to realize is all we really have is memories at the end of the day. All we really are is data and you pass it on to your kids and friends and family. The problem with us, like millennials, everybody here, we have so much data —we know what’s gonna happen. We’re afraid to plant a tree that we’re not gonna eat from. ‘Cause there’s a hundred thousand of you out here right now. There’s a good chance that at least one of y’all won’t see next week. So what I’m saying is, while you’re here, while we’re here, feel something, and pass it on.”
Or, to put it in pot parlance: Don’t bogart that feel, my friend; pass it over to me.
Blackpink, naturally, did not get anywhere near so heavy (see separate report). But they, too, played to what they felt was the import of the moment — as the first female K-pop group to play Coachella, although, really, that seems like the least of what’s being checked off a vision board. “Us coming all the way from South Korea, we didn’t know what to expect,” said Rose, “and obviously we, you guys and us, we’re from totally different worlds, but tonight I think we’ve learned so deeply that music brings us as one. So,” she added, nodding to the pure-curiosity factor for many “I want to thank you guys tonight for sticking by to the end of the show.” A show-biz platitude? Maybe. Or, maybe you literally had to be there.
Kacey Musgraves also arrived as an emissary from another world — the progressive wing of middle of the country. The setlist was not heavy on recognizable country music, as Musgraves studiously avoided including anything in her 50-minute set that predated the more pop-friendly “Golden Hour.” But she did play up her ambassador status between songs, anyway, leading a call-and-response of “Yee” and “haw”… with a fakeout. “I didn’t f—ing say ‘Yee’!” she teased, Simon Says-style, when the crowd leaped ahead of her.
Initially, it seemed like Musgraves’ current popularity across genres and Grammy-gal status should have afforded her a place higher up on the bill; she was playing the better part of “Golden Hour” before any real dusk was in sight. But as she performed, it seemed like the right call; her Zen-Americana would be pretty hard to place between most of the weekend’s other pop-tastic performers. She got what will probably be the weekend’s sweetest and gentlest moments out of the way early, and the main stage audience couldn’t have seemed more eager to swallow her chill pill, even if it might not ultimately take.
Musgraves also raised the median age of the entire Coachella population by about five years merely by bringing out her favorite Instagram personality, the meme-worthy ninetysomething Baddiewinkle, to dance along during the set’s neo-disco closer, “High Horse.”
Musgraves was not the only alumnus of the Grammys’ latest year of the woman to hit the main stage. Janelle Monae followed her later, donning amilitary-style cap and doing quasi-military moves with her dancers, then going through multiple costume as well as setpiece changes. “Pynk” had Monae and her dancers wearing the now-familiar genitalia-themed pants that are never, ever going to be part of a Grammy moment, but some of her savviest wardrobe choices had her wearing two different shirts or sweatshirts with her own photo on them, suggesting that the “you” in “The Way You Make Me Feel” might be Monaeherself.
And while Gambino was all about the high-minded feels, Monae was as much about sexual feeling. In what amounted to as much of a classic soul revue as those moments in the Gambino and .Paak sets, Monae provided a glimpse of Coachella highlights possibly to come by bringing out the pending major star Lizzo, who saved the belting for another day but did get in a comic twerk. At the church of Coachella, that counts as a sacrament.