Coachella was one of the first major music festivals to be called off at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, in spring 2020. But finally, on Friday, April 15 — after three years, three postponements, and multiple lineup revisions — the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival triumphantly returned to the Empire Polo Club in Indio, Calif.
Just how triumphant a return it will be, in the long term, of course remains to be seen. With coronavirus cases on the rise again nationally, the decision by Coachella promoter Goldenvoice to drop most COVID precautions — including masking, social-distancing, and requiring concertgoers to provide proof of either vaccination or a negative test — could prove to be risky. But on Friday, roughly 100,000 care-free desert revelers were simply happy to party like it was 2019.
Headlining Coachella's comeback evening was Harry Styles, swooping into Indio like the winged rock god from his gravity- and expectations-defying “Sign of the Times” debut solo video, swaggering in a shaggy faux-fur rave coat — which he soon sensationally shed to reveal the deeply scoop-necked, Freddie Mercurial sequined onesie he was rocking underneath. And with that flashy stage move, the 28-year-old shape-shifter seemed to shed the last remnant of his boy-band/reality-TV past — despite his cheeky inclusion of a few bars of One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful” towards the end of his game-changing, 80-minute set.
Opening with the sparkling indie-disco of his Guinness Record-breaking new single “As It Was” (from his third album Harry’s House, out May 20) and receiving the sort of rapturous reception usually reserved for time-worn setlist staples, Styles delivered a charismatic Coachella performance that eventually had even Shania Twain feeling — in her own words — “a bit star-struck.” The country icon was Styles’s special surprise guest, strutting out in matchy-matchy sequins for a fun, feisty duet of her girl-powered hit “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” and a sweet, stool-seated acoustic rendition of her ballad “You’re Still the One.” And it was clear that the admiration between this unlikely power couple was very mutual.
“This lady taught me to sing. She also taught me that men are trash,” Styles quipped, recalling how he used to listen to Twain’s music in the car with his mom as a boy. Twain then confessed to him, “I’m a bit star-struck, what can I say? ... I realize that when I was writing [“You’re Still the One”], you were just a little kid. It’s kind of a dream, and very surreal, to be sitting here right now to sing this song with you. I think I’m just in love, and this song is all about love. So, let’s just sing about love!”
Despite pleading with the crowd to “please be gentle” when he premiered two other songs from Harry’s House, Styles was definitely feeling the love when he played the folksy “Boyfriends” (introduced with the declaration, “To boyfriends everywhere, f*** you!”) and the funky “Late Night Talking.” Other high points of his show included the platform-heel-stomp of “Kiwi” and the euphoric “12-minute dance party,” complete with crimson-suited brass band, for “Treat People With Kindness” and “Canyon Moon.” Styles then brought it all home with an epically fireworks-augmented “Sign of the Times.” It was a festival moment that elevated him to the superstar level of past gone-solo pop-star pinups like Wham!'s George Michael or *NSYNC's Justin Timberlake, and it had “#Harrychella” trending on Twitter for hours.
Styles wasn’t the only Coachella Friday artist whose set featured a special cameo or two. Crossover Brazilian superstar Anitta wowed with a breathless breakout performance that featured an introduction by Snoop Dogg (exactly 10 years and one day after he had his own big Coachella moment alongside a Tupac Shakur hologram), a DJ set by Diplo, and a duet with Saweetie. A shirtless Justin Bieber joined neo-soul singer Daniel Caesar for a rendition of his own Caesar-assisted hit single “Peaches.” Big Sean brought out YG and Jhené Aiko, and singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers (who adorably shouted out her mother in the audience with, “Thanks for driving me here for seven years when I was a teenager!”) was joined by British buzz artist Arlo Parks.
But then there was Arcade Fire, whose entire set — in the relatively intimate Mojave Tent — was a surprise of sorts, since the Canadian art-rock collective was only added to the bill 24 hours before the festival kicked off. “We’re so f***ing happy to be here. We wouldn’t miss it for the world,” gushed frontman Win Butler, who turned 42 a day earlier. “We first played here in 2005, when we were children. Now we’re not children. Things change. But you can’t let change wear you down.”
Butler, who also played the main stage with Arcade Fire in 2007, 2011, and 2014, repeatedly declared how delighted he was to be back at Coachella, especially after the past two difficult years — at one point saying, “I can’t f***ing over-exaggerate how beautiful it is.” Butler and his bandmates were apparently so excited to play Friday that they went on five minutes early, and he became so emotional when premiering the new song “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)” — from Arcade Fire’s forthcoming sixth album, WE — with its line “It’s all right to be sad,” that he teared up and had to stop mid-verse. When the cathartic, hour-long set gloriously climaxed with a majestic “Wake Up,” flanked by a colorful troupe of ceiling-high Wacky Waving Inflatable Tube Men, Butler demanded that the crowd “sing this s*** from your f***king soul!” and didn’t seem to want to leave, even restarting the chorus a cappella as the crowd started to disperse.
Other highlights of Coachella day one included blistering, grimy garage-rock sets from U.K. rabblerousers Idles (who called Arcade Fire “one of the best bands in the history of music”) and Australia’s Amyl & the Sniffers (whose bodybuilder-bikini’d Amy Taylor was channeling some serious Wendy O. Williams/Cherie Currie energy) and the Chats; the teenage dream in a teenage circus of rainbow-caped showman Mika; the holy-roller Sonora Tent revival of British dream-rockers Spiritualized; a ferocious Outdoor Stage afternoon performance by a radiantly pregnant Bishop Briggs; and festival princess Carly Rae Jepsen, who tripped and fell while dancing in her high-heeled white go-go boots, but hopped up without missing a single line of “Boy Problems” (a rebound that elicited some of the biggest cheers of the day).
Coachella continues Saturday, with main-stage headliner Billie Eilish (whose Outdoor Stage “#Billiechella” set was the breakout performance of the previous Coachella, in 2019) and a rare appearance by legendary former Oingo Boingo frontman-turned-film composer Danny Elfman, who will likely be to Coachella 2022 what Hans Zimmer was to Coachella 2017.
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