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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.

Coachella 2011 in photos: 360° Panoramas | The acts and scene | The faces

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

Comments () | Archives (41)

Kanye West Is Still One Of The Best Rappers Around And Hey Mamma Is A Good Song

Wonderful review. It means a lot to be able to read something like this in an era when everyone posts a hyperbolic paragraph as an intro to a Youtube clip.

Long live Yeezy.

Kanye West Is Still One Of The Best Rappers Around And Should It Matter If He Has Special Guest Its His Concerte Also The 2 Songs He Closed Out With Were A Type Of Celebration.Kanye West Is My FAVORITE Rapper

Thanks for the excellent review.

I watched it as well, and the performance was Powerful. Kanye West is emerging as a brilliant artist.

Awesome performance!

20 minutes into the show before he acknowledged the audience? Well, at least he did; at Bonnarroo he never acknowleged the audience even once over the course of his one man ego show.

Too bad the digital age doesn't have the equivalent of the "cut-out bin", as that's where Kanye's stuff belongs....

Jay-Z didnt have his voice last year and his show was still better. But big ups to Mr. West for doing 2 hours by himself. That was impressive.
good article but Kanye could have wowed the audience more

It was the best show ever, most performers skip tracks and do half a sing, not kanye I left feeling full a whole buffet not a drive thru... As for extr stars, not needed if I wanted to see jay- z iwoulda went last year , rhianna didn't need her either and so on.... He knew what he was doing... I felt like he was telling the audience he I'm Here... Why not rake all of me! Dope!

Good review for an exceptional concert.
Very well done Kanye West.
Thanks LA Times.


I have seen a lot of shows from the greatest in the world to the smallest indie bands from LA and this was one of the best. If Kanye could do something like this consistantly he would go down as one of great performers.
IMHO this show will be remembered in some capacity because Kanye's not going away.

I must have been at a different show last night because all I heard and saw was another no-talent rapper howling about his money and fame. It was pathetic.

Kanye's concept was amazing, but his flow and voice were low quality and his beats were muffled and soupy. Not a good show unless you filled in the blanks with your imagination.

While Kanye West may be a stout performer, a talented lyricist and quite a controversial "celebrity", he lacks down-to-earth showmanship. He refers to himself, as if, he is better than the crowd he performs in front of. (even though such a thing is implausible) He is one of the many artist that seperate themselves from being "human" which is why Im not interested in his music or his performances. He fails to see the flaws in himself which is unrelateable in my opinion(just a mere 2 cents). I hate the idea that a hip hop artist has to hold himself on a peddistle to gain the utmost attention of a large crowd if Kanye he wasn't conceded he wouldnt be Kanye but he would be respected. I have no respect for Kanye as a person or an artist no matter what he throws out or how he goes about performing. However this is just MY opinion and the review article was awesome.

@Will Roberts: That's because you're a racist idiot.

Kanye West only cares about himself. He has done nothing to help the lives of orginary people and those suffering in Japan. I thought he was awful at Coachella back in '06 and again this year.

this article is a lot more pretentious than kanye west himself.

Haven't watched the entire spectacle but I did enjoy reading the review and cannot wait to view the whole thing in its entirety. For those who had negative to say you have to admit to yourself once and for all that you don't like Kanye or just don't like hip-hop. I heard about Bonaroo but wasn't that at least 2 years ago? I also saw a comment that says he thinks he is bigger than his fans (i disagree with the statement that he feels that way but isnt it the truth making him the star and us the fans?) and that he never admits his faults. I honestly don't know what you listen to when you hear his music cuz all of MBDTF was him ripping himself open self criticizing himself the only way Kanye can over the top. I feel like because he has character quirks people can not get over them to hear how brilliant he is as an artist I hope that Coachella performance opened the gates for new fans to appreciate and for old fans to comeback because hip-hop & just music in general needs Kanye West. Also Kanye for 2012 AOTY Grammy!!!

This is perhaps the most hyperventilated bloviation I've ever read about a concert. The Times insists on deifying this mediocre talent ad nauseam, for reasons I've never been fully able to comprehend. Why?

Wow this was well-written. I got a chance to watch the whole show on youtube with some friends. Hooked the computer up to the flastscreen and surround sound. It was amazing. I feel bad for turning my back on Kanye a couple years ago. This guy is seriously talented.

i felt this article. great writing.

Agreed - it was wonderful. Great write-up.

I just got home from Coachella, where I saw all of Kayne's performance.

It was mediocre, at best. His voice/breath control/cadence was off and other than his entrance, the stage show was forgettable.

Don't get me wrong-- Kayne is one of the best producers ever to do Hip Hop. Is saw him at the House of Blues after his second album and he was spectacular-- he (and most Rap artists) just don't translate to such a large stage very well.

I though there were better performances on Sunday, Chromeo in particular.

very powerfull performance they have at all. Kenny has did a great job

Great review!

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