Will they or won’t they? As the sun set on Saturday night, one question hung over the Coachella audience like a cliffhanger in an ’80s dramedy.
Would Daft Punk join Phoenix at the end of the latter’s headlining main stage set? And if so, would there be pyramids, robots, and lasers, or just two Frenchmen pumping their fists in promotion of their forthcoming record?
The evidence stacked up in favor of a cameo from the famed Parisian electronic duo, whose 2006 Coachella set was widely considered the match that sparked the current mania for electronic music. For one, both members of Daft Punk were reportedly in attendance. On Friday, the festival main stage buzzed over a trailer hyping the group’s new record. Plus, there’s a long history of bonhomie between the two groups, including a 2010 Daft Punk pop-up appearance at Phoenix’s Madison Square Garden show.
Instead, we got R. Kelly. The 46-year old Chicago R&B lothario materialized towards the end of Phoenix’s set to play an abbreviated three song medley of “Bump n’ Grind,” “Ignition (Remix),” and “I’m a Flirt,” wearing an unbuttoned black shirt, blue jeans, and what appeared to be a crown.
Suddenly, the Empire Polo grounds transformed from a meticulous 80s synth-pop party into a gyrating outdoor boudoir. To say it was weird was an understatement.
But weirdness is factored into the price of a Coachella wristband. And the crowd was transfixed by the brief performance from the soul music legend with the checkered past. It proved a welcome relief from the mannered Gallic fussiness of Phoenix, who might be amiable pop craftsmen, but by are by no means a band designed to headline a Saturday night set at the country’s biggest music festival.
It was difficult to watch the performance knowing that across the field, New Order roared through a greatest-hits set list of songs that inevitably sculpted the sound of Phoenix. Sigur Ros also simultaneously cast their mesmeric Icelandic post-rock spells on another stage.
Phoenix first broke in the United States in part on the strength of their inclusion on the Sofia Coppola-curated soundtrack to Lost in Translation. Coppola later married the band’s frontman Thomas Mars, and it’s not hard to note the aesthetic similarities the couple shares. Watching Phoenix “rock,” one was struck by a strange mixture of sentiment and detachment—songs like “Too Young” and both parts of “Love Like a Sunset” felt remote and overly polite.
At times, it was like watching a French band trying to sing reinterpretations of the Breakfast Club soundtrack. If listening to pop songs written about semi-obscure 19th century Hungarian composers is your idea of a good time, then you inevitably got trippy to “Lisztomania.” If not, you probably were left perplexed, wondering how it was possible that Daft Punk couldn’t at least teleport on-stage to teach the band some showmanship.
That job was inevitably left to Kelly, whose blink-and-you-missed it performance underscored the charisma gap between himself and Phoenix. The latter kept stage banter to a minimum—instead relying on hits that are so polished they should be encased in glass. By contrast, R .Kelly played the role of Serge Gainsbourg: ribald and raw, sending his voice reverberating back to the festival entrance.
That’s not to say that Phoenix were bad. Their guitar and keyboard solos were impassioned but rarely felt inspired. The stage design lacked ambition, scarcely diverging from the sundry ho-hum visuals that accompanied most of the other guitar acts. If it felt like people were dancing to a Cadillac commercial, that’s because they were (see “1901”). The songs are undoubtedly catchy and well crafted, but they feel like the cheapest suit you can find at the best boutique.
Over the last half decade, Coachella has become the most important American festival thanks to its ability to attract headliners who leave indelible memories. Moments from Paul McCartney, Bjork, Kanye West, Jay-Z, Prince, Radiohead, and Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and the 2Pac hologram remain the stuff of legend. Unfortunately, last night produced few of those iconic memories.
The crowd wanted Daft Punk, and instead they got a quick interlude from the pied piper of R&B. It was a welcome surprise, but it might be the only time R. Kelly and “tease” can be used in the same sentence.
The sleek British disco-funk outfit Hot Chip preceded Phoenix by a few hours on the main stage, but brought far more passion and soulfulness. With LCD Soundsystem retired, Hot Chip might be the reigning kings of nu-disco. Songs like “Over and Over” and “Ready for the Floor’ have become anthems of their own and for those looking for a more minimal limbs-writhing workout, it was a welcome alternative to the blitzkrieg of the Sahara tent.
Franz Ferdinand: the Scottish post-punk quintet might be the last band you ever remember seeing a video from on MTV. And their Coachella performance displayed the sort of show-stopping guitar workouts and swagger that you rarely see in the more timid indie-leaning bands. Mid-aughties hits like “Do You Want To,” “Take Me Out,” and “Michael” provided a perfect bookend to Hot Chip’s four on the floor, and showed that guitars still can get the Coachella crowds grooving.
Grizzly Bear and Hot Chip were booked at the same time on opposing stages, thus ruining the opportunity to see two of the best bands to emerge from the indie apex of the middle of the last decade.
By Jeff Weiss