Coachella 2011: Kanye West doesn't play it safe as he closes the Indio fest
Kanye West said little to the audience for much of his festival closing set. There were no grand guest stars that West brought to the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio. There was little in the way of special effects. Accompanying musicians were there, but they were off to the side. Arrogant, forthright and disarmingly open, West's songs unfold like mini-monologues, and this was a high-concept concert as one-man-show.
As theater, West's Coachella set veered toward tragedy, with a song cycle that began with the artist drunk with power, followed him through heartbreak and concluded with a eulogy. As entertainment, West's set was captivating, a festival performance unlike any other, and one that often showcased the artist and the artist alone on a minimal stage. Though rumors of an all-star set were the talk of Coachella, any guests, be it Rihanna or Jay-Z, would have felt crowded in this set-up.
This was not, in short, the kind of set one typically sees from one of the world's biggest stars. West came to Coachella to work, to do away with any sideshows, and instead to get straight down to business. It was a brave statement -- a take-me-or-leave-me-type assertion with a carefully laid-out set list. This was far from playing it safe, as the Strokes had earlier done with a set that was heavy on past hits.
Before West appeared, the audience saw what was largely bare stage, although one with a movable staircase that led to a giant painting that echoed Greek mythology. It wasn't there simply to placate West's ego, as he never really got to close to it. Instead, he emerged from the crowd, significantly away from any of his dancers, and stood alone on a crane that slowly led him to the stage.
As for West's back-up dancers, of which there were easily more than 20, they were not used for show-off choreography purposes, and instead served as a Greek chorus, following the star's command, or writhing on the floor from song to song. Sometimes they disappeared from the stage entirely, emerging when the emotions of the songs called for added emphasis.
They moved in fear or panic of West during the tense "Power," and later were seen gripping their heads in pain. By the time the set got to "Runaway," West found himself with a group of wayward ballerinas, seemingly caught in some sort of magnetic push and pull from the artist.
For the first 20 or so minutes, there was no acknowledgement on West's part that he was headlining Coachella. There was no breaking of character as he went from the plea to find faith that is "Jesus Walks" into the forceful "Can't Tell Me Nothing," in which West masked the vulnerability in bravado. The dancers were gone for the song, and it was just West, stalking the front of the stage and putting the audience on defense.
"Monster" went even darker, with West finding redemption only in sex. Indie rock singer/songwriter Justin Vernon, known to many as Bon Iver, stood off in the fog-shrouded distance. If not quite West's conscience, Vernon's verses foreshadowed doom, and the artist's straight, matter-of-fact delivery were not there to pass judgment.
The set's most harrowing moments came via a brief block of songs from "808s and Heartbreak," when West finally broke the wall between artist and audience after "Say You Will," a song in which the backdrops appear to capture the sound of a life-support system. West declared this Coachella performance his "most important" since his mother died and said he had dreamed of performing "Power" on the Coachella stage as he was writing it
West appears to work as if he's always the underdog and is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. He said he was humbled to "be able to close the show and see you love me after everything I read and saw on TV said the opposite." He then rewarded the crowd with touches of some of his biggest songs -- "Gold Digger" and "Stronger" among them -- before disappearing under a giant cloth only to reemerge with "Runaway."
West stood stage center, and tapped at a snyth. It was only one note, but it was loud, and it echoed, giving the song an added coldness. This wasn't a happy ending, of course, but it was a resolution of sorts, as the artist found peace only in celebrating his faults. Things got chaotic again, though, with "Lost in the World," in which the backup dancers rushed and moved around the stage as if they were dodging city traffic.
From there, the set went to "Hey Mama," a love letter written to West's late mother. It's a song full of broken promises, and one that closed the set in a similar manner to which it had begun, with West standing alone. Little else was needed.
-- Todd Martens
Photo: Kanye West. Credit: Getty Images