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Coachella 2011: Kanye West doesn't play it safe as he closes the Indio fest

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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)

best show of coachella 2011

There are so many better performers for this event's main stage. First Jay Z then Kanye. Please give us a break GoldenVoice. Most Coachella attendees don't care about these guys and their "music"

Kanye was cool, but there were several acts that are going unnoticed like One Day as a Lion, Crystal Castles, the amzaing Lauren Hill, and The Radio Dept. This was one of the best Coachella festival in years.

Thanks for the great read.

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Kanye West still is a gay fish.

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How is his stuff music? I grew up with Motown, Coltrane, JB, Hendrix, Zeppelin, the Beatles, and on and on. This is not music.

to those saying that kanye is not music, can someone please tell me why the hell he got a 5/5 for his new album not only from rolling stone but from pitchfork among others? u have to be deaf not to hear how much goes into his songs, lyrically, technically, and creatively.

I agree LA Times! Kanye ripped it up

and why were so many people walking out after 10 minutes of his performance????

Hogwash. I was at the set, and it only confirmed that Mr. West is a talent-challenged egomaniac who may someday be a great producer, but not a great artist. The stage show was TACKY beyond belief, and was completely undermined by Mr. West's incongruous physical presence and his off-key, thin and stunted vocal performance. Coachella deserves better than what he delivered.

"HE LACKS DOWN-TO-EARTH SHOWMANSHIP", this was the most accurate description of his show.
he could of at least had a live band. dang hes too cocky
his show was like him singing over a kanyes greatest hits album=wack
but him doing a show by himself was impressive


4 sentences into this article my smugometer exploded.

Kanye is hardly "one of the best rappers around." Not even in the top 50. Producer however, that is a different story.

I went and i thought he was great he and arcade fire were the best of the whole festival. Dont get some people my sister hates him and even she was cheering by the end of the night. The crowd loved him, they were chanting his name by the end of the show.

Good God Man....this guy followed the Strokes...should have been the other way around. This was a miss guided final act. We watched live on You Tube and for two hours could not understand why he was there. Next year bring Paul back or The Wall or any act that is actually in the Rock Genre......your pissing me off boys....stop it.....

Speaking from opinion and from someone who was there....The strokes barely even had a full set so kanye could do this spectacle. It was not good, not entertaining and he talked for 10 minutes straight at one point which made all i could think about be "this could have been 2 extra songs for the strokes." this was FAR from the best show ever, and jay z was 100 times better last year.

 
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