Coachella 2012 Saturday: English Gentlemen, American Girls & Childish Gambino

Lyndsey Parker
Maximum Performance (NEW)

After an unseasonably cold, damp, and blustery first day at California's Coachella festival, day two of Coachella finally brought the sunshine. And surprisingly, one of the day's brightest and hottest sensations was Childish Gambino, the rap alter ego of charismatic "Community" actor Donald Glover. NBC's "Community" has been rumored to be in danger of cancellation for months now, and this writer surely hopes that doesn't happen--but suffice to say, if that sitcom ever does go off the air, Donald clearly has a career plan B to fall back on. His hip-hop-career is clearly no vanity project--and judging by how strong his Saturday Coachella set was, he might want to consider making hip-hop his plan A.

Gambino/Glover hit the main stage Saturday afternoon wearing a black boot on his broken foot, but the injury hardly slowed him down; the man was so energetic onstage, it was entirely believable when he threatened, "I'm gonna break the other one!" (Later, when trying to rile up the crowd--which was already very enthusiastic--he pointed out, "I don't see nobody bouncing. I got a broken foot, and I'm bouncing!" Crowd bouncing of course ensued.) Backed by a Roots-style funky live band that included multiple percussionists and even a violinist, Donald was an entirely convincing MC, combining the swagger and braggadocio of his obvious predecessor Kanye West with the perpetually grinning likability of another sitcom sensation/rapper, Will Smith. And the man was just a STAR. Highlights of his extremely well-received set included "You Know Me," when he brought out of-the-moment rappers Kendrick Lamar (who's rumored to be guesting with Dr. Dre at Coachella on Sunday) and Danny Brown, and also when he sampled both the Adele and John Legend versions of "Rolling In The Deep" to come up with a fresh spin on the overdone song. But Donald held his own most of the time, especially on his squirmingly, uncomfortably real ode to soured relationships and exes with benefits, "Heartbeat." Over across the field, hyped buzz rapper Azealia Banks sadly ended her otherwise awesome Coachella set a full 25 minutes early, but Childish Gambino made the most of his stage time, and he never disappointed.

But of course, for most punters, Coachella Saturday was all about--as Bon Iver's Justin Vernon joked onstage during his own set--"a tight little group from the U.K. you might've heard of called Radiohead," one of the best festival bands ever. (Radiohead's Coachella 2004 headlining show is still the stuff of legend.) Playing a brilliant 20-song set in front of a sensory-overloading backdrop of multiple flashing flatscreens, frontman Thom Yorke told the audience the band was "playing new songs to prove we are still alive," and they proved that right away when they opened with the King Of Limbs track "Bloom"--followed later by KoL's "Morning Mr. Magpie," "The Daily Mail," "Staircase," "Give Up The Ghost," and "Lotus Flower," and even a totally brand-new song, "Identikit." But the group dabbled in tuneage from throughout their more than 20-year (yes, TWENTY!) career, including "Idioteque" off Kid A and "Pyramid Song" from Kid A's companion album, Amnesiac; "15 Step," "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi," "Bodysnatchers," and "Reckoner" from In Rainbows; and "The Gloaming," "Myxomatosis," and "There There" off Hail To The Thief.

However, it was undeniable that when Thom and company reached further back, true Coachella magic was created. When their performance of Kid A's "Everything In Its Right Place" was preceded by an a cappella snippet of Neil Young's classic "After The Gold Rush," it was a thrill, and when the band played the first OK Computer track of the night, "Karma Police," the crowd went wild (ditto for when they epically encored with OK Computer's "Lucky" and "Paranoid Android"). Let's just put this out there: This'd probably never happen due to the Radiohead guys' above-mentioned desire to move forward and prove their circa-2012 validity, but if they ever decided to play a show consisting entirely of OK Computer songs, from start to finish, it would be basically THE most amazing festival experience ever. (Coachella organizers, are you reading this? Make it happen in 2013! An all-The Bends show would also be acceptable.)

Also on the main stage, earlier in the day, was Radiohead's Britpop peer Noel Gallagher, who played a tight and workmanlike set leaning heavily on tracks from his recently released first post-Oasis album, the excellent Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds. This was just fine--Noel's solo music sounded, for lack of a better adjective, very Oasis-y. (If there was ever any doubt as to which Gallagher was the brains behind Oasis, compare Noel's solo output to his younger brother Liam's new band Beady Eye, and that should clear things up.) And Noel seemed way more energized than he had when Oasis underwhelmingly headlined Coachella back in 2002. Plus, there were still a few Oasis oldies for the diehards in the audience, like "Little By Little," "Talk Tonight," the B-side "Half The World Away" (the latter dedicated to Coachella's many British attendees), and especially the show-closing anthem, "Look Back In Anger." In a festival filled with hot newcomers and nostalgic heritage acts, Noel's set was the perfect combination of both vibes.

Some obvious Oasis/Radiohead successors played Coachella Saturday too, like moody London shoegazers the Big Pink and brash Leicester rockers Kasabian, both in the Mojave tent. The Big Pink suffered from a lack of their usual amplification, so their fuzzed-out psychedelia wasn't done real justice, but they still managed to impress. However, Kasabian was one of the most impressive bands of Coachella 2012 so far. Seriously, look up "ROCK BAND" (capslock intentional) in the dictionary, and it's likely you'll see a photo of Kasabian frontgod Tom Meighan, the Steve McQueen of Britrock, in all his military-trenchcoated, Kanye-wraparound-shaded glory, or of guitarist Sergio Pizzorno looking like a total bandito-mustachioed, rooster-haired badass. Kasabian's set was a revelation, as they played Madchester-reminiscent anthems like "Re-Wired" (mashed up with a bit of Cameo's "Word Up"), "Club Foot" (mashed up with the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and dedicated to Noel Gallagher), and "L.S.F." to a packed tent of fans waving British flags and Kasabian-branded glowsticks. ("That's how we do f***ing business here," Tom smugly announced. Damn straight.) Said Sergio, "The last time I was at Coachella, I was a little boy; I was 24 or 25. Now I'm 31! F*** me!" But Serge and company needn't worry; judging by this show, they're just hitting their stride, and they have plenty of years left. And next year, they need to be playing the main stage, where they truly belong.

Speaking of Brit bands with a few good years left, elder statesmen of pop-punk the Buzzcocks were still in fine form Saturday, with founding members Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle, both 57 years old, managing to inspire a massive moshpit of kids to thrash (and even pogo at one point!) to classic singles-still-going-steady like "Autonomy," "E.S.P.," "You Say Don't Love Me," "Something's Gone Wrong Again," "What Do I Get," "Harmony In My Head," "Promises," "Orgasm Addict," and "I Believe." (Buzzcocks' songs, which always trafficked in the personal politics of breakups and makeups rather than Thatcherite politics of the day, have aged much more gracefully than many tunes by their '70s punk peers.) However, the highlight of the band's set had to be when Pete unexpectedly (and amazingly) played his two synthy '80s solo hits, "Homosapien" and "Telephone Operator," back to back. Can Pete play a solo set at Coachella next year, please?

The other old-guard Brit band of the day was Squeeze, who charmed the Mojave crowd with a sundown set of powerpop hits that sounded as fresh and timeless as the Buzzcocks' songs--including "Take Me I'm Yours," "Annie Get Your Gun," "Cool For Cats," "Up The Junction," "Goodbye Girl," "Hourglass," "Pulling Mussels From A Shell," "Slap And Tickle," and the two big audience singalongs that closed the show, "Tempted" and "Black Coffee In Bed." This gig was just about perfect, and considering how many people of all ages sardine-packed themselves inside the tent to see the band, it looks like a full-on Squeeze revival is now underway. (The only bummer about this show? Glenn Tilbrook's new ZZ Top-esque garden-gnome beard. Not a good look, Glenn.)

But it wasn't all about Brit bands and TV rappers on Saturday. Many dynamite ladies owned the day, like Laura Marling, Feist...and wonderful multi-instrumentalist Grace Potter, who with her band the Nocturnals played a very non-nocturnal, sunshine-soaked set of searing desert alt-rock for a wildly enthusiastic crowd. Coming across like Coachella's answer to Stevie Nicks with her rock-goddess stagewear, windblown blonde locks, and raw, passionate vocals, Grace was simply thrilling. She no doubt converted thousands of new fans this afternoon, since the audience was literally howling by the time she closed her show with "Medicine," alternating between electric guitar and Hammond organ while her Nocturnals simultaneously pounded away on a single drumkit. Grace has been doing her thing for many years, and she broke out in a big way last year when she guested on Kenney Chesney's single "You & Tequila"--and now, with her blistering breakout Coachella set, Grace has truly arrived. Amazing Grace, indeed.

Later on the second stage came tUnE-yArDs, the experimental and nearly indefinable psych-folk project of the fearless Merrill Garbus, sort of the Lady Gaga of the NPR set. Coming off the high of her lauded album w h o k i l l topping last year's Pazz & Jop critics' album poll, Merrill hit the second stage in warpaint and tribal epaulets and played a joyful, grooving set of Luaka Bop-styled, jazz/freak-folk/dub/hip-hop song cycles, featuring her trademark guttural yelping, spontaneous drum-looping, and even one duct-taped ukulele. It was a spectacle that sometimes translated more visually than sonically--if one was listening from way back in the field, the nuances of tUnE-yArDs' layered tunes tended to get muddled and lost--but there was no doubt that Merrill is a true original--and, like Grace Potter, she seemed to win over many new fans on Saturday.

However, it was St. Vincent--aka Annie Clark, aka the Audrey Hepburn of indie rock--who impressed the most. A near perfect specimen of a woman--phenomenally talent, phenomenally gorgeous, phenomenally poised, and a shredding guitarist to boot--Annie had the entire Gobi Tent worshipfully singing along with recent Strange Mercy tracks like "Year Of The Tiger" and "Cruel." But it was her first-ever performance of "Krokodil" (her forthcoming Record Store Day seven-inch single) that was the highlight of her set, and one of the highlights of the festival so far. Jumping into the fray to belt out the urgent and propulsive tune, she performed the entire song crowd-surfing atop the outstretched arms of the adoring audience (talk about fearless!), and she somehow never lost her breath or her cool. When security guards finally pulled her out of the chaos and returned her to the stage, she looked as elegant and unflappable as ever, and she finished her set with a fantastic cover of Pop Group's "She Is Beyond Good And Evil" without missing a beat. If there was ever any evidence that Annie Clark is a goddess, this performance--sure to be one of Coachella 2012's most discussed and most YouTubed--was it.

Speaking of covers, over on the main stage, returning indie-pop icons the Shins played a solid set (it wasn't quite as life-changing as Natalie Portman once claimed in Garden State, but it was nice to see the guys back after a five-year recording hiatus), and the biggest surprise of their first-ever Coachella appearance had to be their lovely, atmospheric, rather loyal cover of Pink Floyd's "Breathe." All that was missing was Roger Waters' flying-pig balloon, from Roger's legendary 2008 Coachella set.

Before Radiohead's aforementioned headlining show, two more indie favorites took the stage: recent Grammy darlings Bon Iver, whose Justin Vernon made a cameo during Kanye West's Coachella 2011 appearance and was now triumphantly returning to the main stage in his own slot, and electro-pop trio Miike Snow, who enjoyed their own cameo moment this year when Swedish songstress Lykke Li joined them for "Black Tin Box." Bon Iver's dreamy set was nice, but unfortunately sleepy enough to necessitate a trip to the coffee bar midway through; Miike Snow, on the other hand, had noticeably upped their live game, indicating that this onetime studio band has finally come into its own.

And thus concluded another Coachella marathon day. Sunday is sure to be similarly exciting, headlined by the reclusive Dr. Dre with Snoop Dogg and--if the rumors are true--special guests Eminem, Warren G, Kendrick Lamar, and even the late Nate Dogg in hologram form. Come back later for a full report.

(ALL PHOTOS BY DEBI DEL GRANDE, except Grace Potter photo courtesy of AP/ChrisPizzello)

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