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Coachella Highlights: Guns n’ Roses Rev Up to Legendary, Run The Jewels Prove Headliner Value

For once, the experience surpassed the hype. Coachella 2016 got it right. Here's why.

Johnny Firecloudby Johnny Firecloud

With Weekend One of the Coachella Arts & Music Festival on the books, it’s hard to deny that the desert fest just West of Los Angeles has hit a new stride of entertainment excellence. Having struck a much more tasteful balance between corporate-swag overdose of old and the visuals of ever-changing art installations, the heavily dance-focused weekend delivered on all expectations and then some, with a wide range of special guest appearances, hotly anticipated reunions and sweaty goodness at every turn. 

Coachella MVP: Run The Jewels

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Run The Jewels should’ve headlined. No two ways about it. The zeitgeist-wheelin’ duo of Killer Mike and El-P were introduced Saturday by none other than Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who offered a video message of support. “I thought the least I could do for both of you is help you out by bringing a few young people together,” Sanders joked of the massive number of fans gathering for RTJ’s set.

They killed a new track titled “Scenes,” as well as the debut performance of “Nobody Speak,” Run the Jewels’ recent collaboration with DJ Shadow. Of course, with Coachella being over the top as ever, that meant DJ Shadow would actually show up and throw down in person. 

The sound was fantastic, the surprises unrelenting. We were still buzzing with Shadow exhilaration when Nas appeared to perform his God’s Son highlight “Made You Look” and proclaim that Run the Jewels was “my favorite group.” Barely a breath later, we saw Despot for “Banana Clipper” and Boots for “Early”. Then Gangsta Boo dropped by for her Run the Jewels 2 cut “Love Again (Akinyele Back)”.

Thought that was it? Hell no. Gary Clark Jr., who opened the day on the same stage, stepped up during “Angel Duster” to end the show on a squealing solo.

Coachella’s Best Party: Do LaB

Tucked into the Southwest corner of Coachella’s sprawling polo fields is the Do LaB experience, a dance-bonanza of DJ sets with big names as featured artists. The legendary Chali 2na of Jurassic 5 was on hand, flowing over classic hip hop beats, while artists ranging from Pantyraid to Ghstly, Paper Diamond to Humans and beyond took to the stage and flower-adorned super soakers cooled down the sweaty masses. Canopied by bright, flowing cloth colors and a pirate-ship structure to the back, the Do LaB experience was, as always, a wild ride that may as well have been a festival completely unto itself. Backstage, artists mingled with movers and shakers as they enjoyed veggie burgers and cocktails, overlooking an incredible display of euphorically dancing bodies. 

If the dance-throwdown utopia within a wonderland of visual stimuli is your scene, Do LaB’s world-renowned Lightning in a Bottle festival is kicking off over Memorial Day Weekend, and their Woogie Weekend festival takes place from July 8 – 10.

 

Holdin’ Down the 80s: Bat For Lashes

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The ethereal vapors wafting from Bat For Lashes’ set in the Gobi Tent drew curious revelers, with her Goldfrapp-esque soundscapes and pulsating, magnetic beats. There’s a mystic undercurrent to Natasha Khan’s themes of love and loss, a magical melancholy with an atmosphere thick enough to float in. It’s a wide departure from the voodoo exorcism of her more aggressive side project Sexwitch, but Khan’s brand of wispy ‘80s melodrama hit just the right frequency for the sweating desert guests. Somehow, she always leaves you wanting to listen to “These Dreams” by Heart.

 

Too Much of A Good Thing: Guest Appearances

Surprise guests are the highlight-baiting root of all social media blizzards during festival season, and it’s a win all around for the event itself. The proximity to Los Angeles makes celeb crossovers inevitable, but this year’s run of cameos – from Lorde during Disclosure, to Run The Jewels’ orgy of surprises to Malcolm Young of AC/DC during Guns n’ Roses’ set and beyond – has overshadowed the fact that above all else, good music is a mandate. In play-button party culture, many seem to have forgotten this.

 

Rap Legend Rises: Ice Cube

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When NWA was inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame earlier this month, they didn’t perform, and the experience was overshadowed by Gene Simmons’ buffoonish comments. But Ice Cube’s Coachella spot was a perfect time to set things right. The Compton O.G. delivered on his original mandate, backseating the Are We There Yet family-man persona for his original N.W.A. thug jams including “Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It,” “Natural Born Killaz” and the potent-as-ever “Check Yo Self”.

There was even a half-mast N.W.A. reunion, with DJ Yella and MC Ren stepping up to help Cube through “Straight Outta Compton” and “Fuck Tha Police”. No, Dre wasn’t there, and while his presence would’ve been welcomed, he was as necessary as the thankfully-absent Eazy-E hologram. But Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson Jr was on board to rap on “Dopeman,” and “Snoop Dogg” stepped up to take “Next Episode” to new heights. Naturally, Cube finished on the rap-along classic “It Was A Good Day,” the crowd damn near drowning out the rap veteran entirely.

 

From “Hell Yeah” to “Holy Shit!”: Guns n’ Roses

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A maniacal fan from the Appetite days of my youth, I expected the Frankenstein reunion of Guns n’ Roses to be a relative fiasco of spectacle and disappointment, an $8 million cash grab. Frontman Axl Rose had earned a Fat Elvis distinction for bloating outward and diminishing vocal ability over the years, and the guy was laid up with a broken foot after the band’s first reunion show at the Troubador in Hollywood, requiring use of Dave Grohl’s ridiculous rock n’ roll throne. On paper, it made no sense, a surefire trainwreck if only for the fact that the voice of the band was sure to be a complete mess in performance.

I had prepared myself for the inevitable letdown, expecting breathless Mickey Mouse falsettos at best, a total shitshow legacy disgrace at worst. But this was not the Axl – or the GNR – we saw at Coachella last weekend. In remarkably potent fighting form once again despite his injury, Rose delivered a vocal performance that began a bit shakily and steadily increased in power and passion throughout the stupefyingly good two-dozen-plus songs in the set. 

Only Rose, iconic guitarist Slash and bassist Duff McKagan from GN’R’s original era took part in the four shows the band has played this month, omitting original drummer Steven Adler and rhythm guitarist/core songwriter Izzy Stradlin (much to the chagrin of “real fans” insisting the current iteration is irrelevant without him). They were joined by longtime keyboardist Dizzy Reed, formidable guitarist Richard Fortus and the metronomic greatness of drummer Frank Ferrer – who bears a striking resemblance to Uncle Phil from the “Fresh Prince”. Also appearing with them was second keyboardist Melissa Reese, the first-ever female in GNR.

At the onset, the shaky vocal and skipped words in “It’s So Easy” and “Mr. Brownstone” sparked doubt in the hopeful, despite the rest of the band delivering excellence in instrumentation. And when “Chinese Democracy” kicked off from Rose’s bastard-child lineup release after the original crew split, legions of younger fans with no emotional skin in the GNR reunion game tuned out, wandering off to find some spacebar beats in the dance tents. This was not starting with promise.

Then Slash started teasing the opening chord to “Welcome to The Jungle,” and all hell proceeded to immediately break loose. Wild roars of excitement tore through the entire main stage crowd, and the energy palpably shifted from hopeful expectancy to all-pistons-firing rawk with the immediacy of an electric shock. With scantily clad dancing girls in black leather outfits, CGI images of skeletons having sex and pyrotechnics blasting, the band’s iconically formidable strength finally hit a boil. Slash noticeably stepped up the showmanship in his trademark top hat as he bounded about the stage, and Axl hit his full performance stride as the song progressed, wailing maniacally by the end. Then there was no turning back.

Moving on through an unbelievably good setlist, the band breathed new life into old favorites that few were lucky enough to see onstage in their original context. “You Could Be Mine” was a jetfighter of soundtrack nostalgia that put us right on the back of Edward Furlong’s dirtbike, roaring through the Los Angeles aqueducts in 1991 to get away from Arnold’s Terminator. “Rocket Queen” recaptured the venereal grit and fire of the Sunset Strip that once was, while “Sweet Child of Mine” inspired thousands in the crowd to attempt the most off-key, hilarious Axl impressions the world has ever seen.

And it was fun. Goddamn was it fun. You had to be deep in the crowd to experience the proper energy of the performance, however, because there’s never been a more “fuck this crowd” moment than the looks of confusion and boredom when the Cool Hand Luke clip intro’d the iconic Use Your Illusion track “Civil War”. Never mind that Slash had just brought unbelievable fire to the fantastic Chinese Democracy standout “Better,” closing the loop on past and present – these kids had no idea what “Civil War” is. A seven-minute epic that encapsulates the cinematically titanic strengths of the band at their peak output, the track is a sociopolitical air raid siren of greatness – but to tens of thousands of neon-clad millennials with pupils big enough to fall into, it did not translate. But this wasn’t for them anyway.

Just a few hours before Guns took the stage for their performance, AC/DC confirmed that Axl would tour with them as their vocalist in 2016. But no one expected the boys to bring out Angus Young during their set to rip through not one but two AC/DC songs, “Whole Lotta Rosie” and “Riff Raff.” Young was every bit the part in full schoolboy uniform, and the crowd went wild as we got a taste of what Guns n’ DC is going to sound like this Summer. It’s surprisingly great, believe it or not.

The obligatory singalongs of “November Rain” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” returned a cinematic essence to the experience, only to be taken higher for the sweet serenity of Lies highlight “Patience” and everybody-yell-along closer “Paradise City”.

I talked a great deal of anticipatory trash going into GNR’s headlining Coachella set. I expected Axl to be an absolute embarrassment, for the patchwork band to sound half-cocked, but none of this came to be. After three songs finding their footing, Guns N’ Fuckin’ Roses accomplished what nobody thought possible after 23 years of acrimonious amputation, and did so with wailing excellence. I’ve never been more happy to have been wrong, as the first favorite band I ever had came roaring back to life with doubt-defying excellence in an age where the only rock n’ roll on the dial is neutered, washed down and under no circumstances whatsoever dangerous.

Don’t pay any mind to the naysayers lamenting the absence of so-and-so, insisting the new lineup is a disgrace, that GNR is not supposed to be this. They are wrong, and stuck in the mud of their own insistence that the only way to live is through their lens. This revitalized Guns is special in its own way, and the passionate soul we were first drawn to so many years ago is fully intact within this iteration. For two hours, screaming along to the songs I grew up with among Coachella’s tuned-out Day-Glo mollyzombie hordes, I was fourteen all over again. Isn’t that how great music is supposed to make you feel?

Holy shit, I just saw Guns n’ Roses. And it was amazing.

 

Guns N’ Roses Coachella Setlist

It’s So Easy

Brownstone

Chinese Democracy

Welcome to the Jungle

Double Talkin’ Jive

Estranged

Live and Let Die

Rocket Queen

You Could Be Mine

Attitude

This I Love

Coma

Speak Softly Love

Sweet Child O’ Mine

Better

Civil War

Whole Lotta Rosie (with Angus Young)

Riff Raff (with Angus Young)

Theme From ‘The Godfather’

November Rain

Knockin on Heaven’s Door

Nightrain

Encore

Patience

Paradise City

 

Photo: Kevin Winter, Getty Images