“Hurricane Wu just hit,” cracked one of the members of the Wu-Tang Clan, amidst a savage sand storm that shellacked Coachella on Sunday night. If you looked up into the sky, you could see two things: gusts of swirling dirt and thousands of audience members throwing “W” hand gestures in the air.
Maybe Coachella was the perfect setting for the Wu-Tang clan. Celebrating their 20th year in operation, the New York rappers are ostensibly the antithesis of the stereotypical Coachella performer. Their music is frequently dark, violent, and cold—a product of inner-city poverty, grime, and cracked genius. Yet there were few more anticipated acts of the weekend.
Backed by a full orchestra, the Wu essentially operated as de facto headliners. The afternoon and early evening sets produced memorable performances from young stars like James Blake, Tame Impala, and Vampire Weekend, but those are outfits still building their cults. The Wu-Tang Clan is practically a tax-exempt religion.
That’s why the Outdoor Theater may have been the most swarmed it was all weekend. For the last decade-plus, the Clan has been in the habit of showing up, sans several of their most prominent members. In fact, one of the most common conversations overheard prior to their appearance was: who do you think won’t show? Yet the only thing missing was an Ol’ Dirty Bastard hologram.
That wasn’t the only surprise in store from the crew from the “slums of Shaolin.” Their performance crackled with an energy, focus, and ambition that recent performances had completely lacked. Four Wu-Tang banners flanked the stage. A glowing blue and burgundy LED “W” hulked as a centerpiece. The orchestra successfully navigated the oft-perilous task of enhancing but not drowning out the backing beats.
Leading the cavalry, the RZA climbed on a speaker and howled at the crowd to start mosh pits. They rabidly complied. Conventional logic might assume that the Wu-Tang crowd would be largely comprised of 30-somethings nostalgic for the days when the Wu-Tang logo was an automatic stamp of quality. But while there were a fair share of 80s babies in the audience, it was mostly kids in their early 20s, eager to see the group who laid the groundwork for almost every rap crew that performed at Coachella earlier that weekend (Odd Future, Raider Klan).
So 20-year old bros in baseball tees and snapbacks rapped along to songs from Enter the Wu-Tang, an album as old as they are. Not to mention, the Clan have nothing but anthems: “C.R.E.A.M.”, “Bring Da Ruckus,” “Mystery of Chessboxing,” “Can it All Be So Simple.” Unlike many of the rappers who graced the stage last weekend, Wu-Tang did it all without the help of backing tracks, an old school touch that inevitably enhanced the live performance. And in a nod to modern theatrics, they even busted out Wu-Tang beach balls for the crowd to bounce around.
“No disrespect to anyone, but we came to steal this,” Raekwon rasped, offering an explanation that appeared obvious. Wu shows have had the habit of being tardy and uninspired, but this appeared rehearsed and a carefully curated. Method Man performed his early hits, “Bring the Pain,” “All I Need,” and “M.E.T.H.O.D. Man,” and then trotted out Redman to help him perform, “Da Rockwilder.”
The Genius/GZA performed “Duel of the Iron Mic” and “4th Chamber,” the latter aided by Ghostface Killah and Method Man. Raekwon performed “Ice Cream.” Capadonna did a breakneck performance of “Winter Warz.” And, of course, there was a memorial to the late ODB.
The Clan might be a bit thicker around the waist and slightly less nimble than when they were in their prime, but it was clear that they still knew how to rock a show better than every other rapper at Coachella. They might not last forever, but in a rap world that often prizes the ephemeral over the permanent, they proved that at least their music remains indelible.
You might not be able to say the same thing about the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose main stage closing set started before the Wu-Tang Clan finished. Though they’ve been an active outfit since the mid-80s, the LA-based quartet rose to fame around the same time as Wu-Tang, on the strength of the MTV buzz clips for “Under the Bridge” and “Give it Away.”
The group played those songs on Sunday night, along with several other of their most prominent anthems: “Dani,” “Californication,” and “Can’t Stop.” But there was a definite energy lacking in the performance. It didn’t seem to stem from any lack of effort from the band. Flea slapped his bass with enough funk to remind you why George Clinton produced one of their earliest albums. Anthony Kiedis came out wearing a mustache, baseball cap, and no shirt, proving that even at 50 years old, he remains impervious to the elements.
Over the years, the Chili Peppers have become a “When in Doubt” staple of Coachella. Rooted heavily in Los Angeles, they can always drew a sizable crowd and have enough hits to headline. But ever since the 2009 departure of lead guitarist, John Frusciante, the group lacks the necessary vitamins and minerals for the job. One of the great and unsung shredders of all-time, Frusciante’s solos gave RHCP’s songs a grit and elevation that they otherwise lacked.
The performance reminded you that music is always about more than the sum of its parts. There is magical element always involved between members of a group. Subtract one component and everything can crumble. On the plus side for the Chili Peppers, they’re doing amazing work with holograms these days.
There may be no more innocuous yet divisive young band than Vampire Weekend. Their early songs chronicled upper-crust puppy love on college campuses better than almost all of their peers and accordingly, they’ve won ardor from both young bros and burgeoning hipsters. At Coachella, they displayed that their live show lives up to the increasingly big-font billing they receive. Running through new songs and old favorites like “Oxford Comma” and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” the Ezra Koening-fronted outfit proved why they’re the Shins for the generation that grew up on “Gossip Girl.”
It’s nothing in contrast to the deluges common at Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, but Sunday night’s sand storm certainly made conditions unpleasant. As Anthony Kiedis and Flea joked, it felt like Lawrence of Arabia or The Grapes of Wrath out there.
— By Jeff Weiss