Coachella has become such an iconic festival that its lineups function as a snapshot of American culture. Dance music has played an important role since the festival's inception—Coachella's initial 1999 lineup featured Moby, Underworld, and a 17-year-old A-Trak—but this year, a swelling program of electronic music threatened to take over the whole damn thing.
One of Coachella's most praiseworthy traits is that it can launch the careers of young upstarts. Along those lines, hirsute teenage Dutch future house star Oliver Heldens brought everything from deep house and garage to big room at the Sahara Tent on Friday afternoon, daring to drop some subtlety in a space usually reserved for nothing but in-your-face bangerfests.
UK producer Jon Hopkins might be a name associated with techno, but alongside acts like Max Cooper and Matthew Dear, his experimental tendencies take his beats to some weird and wonderful places. His set at the Yuma Tent was an early highlight and he closed with some broken-beat, twisted mechanical chugging that left the crowd in a warped daze. The eternally competent Pete Tong took over and the Yuma's four-on-the-floor order was restored.
I want to like Hot Natured. But their live show in the Gobi tent near sundown was anemic. It's a noble endeavor to translate their great tunes to the live setting, but their attempt doesn't add anything to the music. Bands spend months locked in basements getting tight and getting their sound right. Hot Natured is a side project by people who aren't virtuosic at their instruments and don't have the time in their chock-full schedules to become an actual band—and that's exactly what they sound like.
Gorgon City followed and had a massive crowd in the Gobi. The tightly-packed swell of fans extended far beyond the tent itself and their live rendition of tunes from their sterling first LP Sirens went over well. The duo's poppy UK house/garage is all about crossover appeal—take surprise guest Jennifer Hudson appearing on stage, for example—but Foamo and RackNRuin have done their time in the underground.
Caribou's victory lap continued as Dan Snaith's white-clad army of five carved their unique positioning somewhere between psych-rock and deep house. Although they may be best known nowadays for the moments in which they lapse into straight-beat dance-adjacent groovers, the fact that they can immediately drop into a double drum set psych freakout immediately afterwards is a singular trait.
Nero closed out the Outdoor Theatre and debuted tracks from their just-announced Between II Worlds album. Singer Alana Watson, dressed like some demonic wraith from the future, is flawless live. Her voice carries such power and theater, and that's essential for an act whose tunes are so relentlessly dark, pounding, and heavy. Nero are the only act that can still get away with playing upfront dubstep, especially on a main stage, and it's because it sits in an aesthetic spectrum that goes from electro to techno to house to disco, all wound within the noir-futurist Nero thematic. They're a complete artistic idea.
Hometown hero Flying Lotus then tripped out the crowd with his galactic broken beats in the Mojave. The beat scene progenitor's dark and twisted take on futurist hip-hop crescendoed when "death" himself appeared on stage and FlyLo laughed maniacally as he transformed into his rhyme-dropping MC alter-ego Captain Murphy.
Right about this time, seven of the eight major stages (Do Lab and Heineken House included), were featuring dance music. Your only potential escape from the untz was Tame Impala. Loudpvck closed out The Do Lab with a Sahara-worthy performance, while Alesso finished up the Sahara tent with his usual hands-in-the-air shameless hitfest.
Onto Saturday: current deep house darlings Tale of Us play so deep that they're almost better for home listening than an environment like Coachella, even in the Yuma Tent. On the flipside, Yellow Claw in the Sahara Tent played an all-banger dropfest that was as knuckle-draggingly ham handed as Tale of Us were subtle.
Collaborators Cashmere Cat and Ariana Grande are a perfect pair because she's a human cupcake and he makes bass music palatable enough for kindergartners. It's bright and drenched in glitch-glitter, but the bassweight is totally lacking. On the way out, I heard someone say the subs were busted, so maybe the flaxen haired Norwegian wasn't to blame.
Duke Dumont at the Sahara Tent was an impossibly full shitshow. It's amazing what losing a Grammy can do for your festival crowds. As part of a new logistical endeavor, the Sahara Tent now leads straight up to the terrace, and the jam-packed multi-directional walkway became a choked-up traffic jam that was no fun at all.
The relentless thud of Loco Dice's heavy minimal techno drew the biggest crowd in the Yuma Tent all weekend. Frizz-haired BBC radio staple Annie Mac took the stage immediately after, pulling a complete vibe switch with some Chicago house before roving through the spectrum of UK rave.
The Yuma Tent's new location on the terrace sits right by two main festival exits and the security guards posted out front were dancing and insisting on high-fiving every passerby all weekend long. Such good vibes. I'm sure countless people were drawn in for one last boogie on their way out, and maybe a Jack White fan or two was converted to the dark side of dance.
In a flurry of dance activity across the grounds, Flosstradamus brought their rowdy black-and-white HDY NTN to the Outdoor Theatre, turning up street vibes not seen there since Wu Tang Clan performed years ago, Deorro brought out Travis Barker and Elvis Crespo on a remix of "Suavamente," and Ratatat closed out the Sahara Tent after announcing their return and dropping a new single, albeit to a thinning crowd.
Axwell /\ Ingrosso, headlining the Outdoor Theatre, played to their roles as crossover headliners in dropping remixes of Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" and leading the crowd through sing-a-longs of their many hits. It seemed effective enough, but there was absolutely no mixing going on at all. It's absurd that the duo could refer to underground music as "amateur" when the level of skill required to perform their set could be achieved by a total beginner.
Day three and people were looking pretty good for the last day of a festival. The caterpillar installation had blossomed into a butterfly, although our new mechanical insect overlord (above) was still a presence. Not all of Coachella was so fresh, though: By the final day, the totally-enclosed Yuma Tent is a steamy mess. The ceiling of Coachella's version of a warehouse rave, was still dripping sweat from Loco Dice the prior evening when John Talabot went on and delivered, low key, the sleeper DJ set of the festival. The Spaniard's vibe is deep, but heavily grooving and melodic – more major than minor and often on the move.
What So Not AKA Emoh Instead turned up the Sahara tent in the 3pm sun with genre jumping, loud and bossy bass tunes. His aesthetic is harder than Flume's alone and Emoh''s beginning to step out of his bestie''s shadow. Also, yelling "hey" on the upbeat of the song are the new "ooah ooah" and both are a scourge as dangerous as the wookie and must be stopped.
And then, finally, Gesaffelstein arrived in a flurry of strobes and harsh tones, as always, shrouded in smoke and style. From the lights to the imagery to the music, there was nary a drop of color in the entire production. The Frenchman's abrasive-melodic industrial techno is just what American dance music needs right now to kill off the dying embers of neon. The monochrome image of the American flag appeared behind him as dropped his west coast hip-hop inspired "Hellifornia," a brief respite from the searing synth stabs of his regular work. Choppy as it got at times, his set was all anyone could talk about afterwards.
Later, New World Punx (Ferry Corsten and Markus Schulz respectively) played to a near empty Sahara Tent, and David Guetta followed them up by mashing up Alice Deejay and yelling nonsensical things about love to the crowd. The collaborative b2b2b2b project between Jackmaster, Eats Everything, Skream and Seth Troxler, titled J.E.S.u.S. went off without a hitch during their hush-hush, extended closing set at The Yuma.
In a major case of swerve, The Do Lab went all M.Night Shyamalan and announced Bonobo as their secret headliner for the fest's final evening. There couldn't have been a better choice. The impeccable selector and new Angeleno has the Do Lab vibe down perfectly and his unexpected appearance had us nothing short of giddy as we danced our last legs to his scene-leading, thoughtful selections in house music.
Elsewhere, Drake brought out Madonna and she gave him a lap dance. Then they made out. And with that, Coachella was done.
Coachella is one place where all ends of dance culture sit side-by-side with every other major element of popular music, and held in comparison, dance is still where the much of the forward-facing music and culture lays. Although none of the headliners this year were dance acts, the mid-and-undercards are dominated by electronic music from across the spectrum of deep to upfront. This is indicative of how deeply into American society electronic music has nestled. We're part of the furniture in stateside culture now, and constantly in a state of redefinition as the "EDM' bubble morphs and swells into new shapes.
Jemayel Khawaja is on Twitter - @JemayelK
Galen Oakes is a photographer based in Los Angeles. Check out his website.