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Kanye Closes Coachella With Epic 3-Act Greek Tragedy Set

Check out our Day 3 coverage from Coachella 2011.

Johnny Firecloudby Johnny Firecloud


We've just returned from the three-day musical marathon of the Coachella Arts & Music Festival in Indio, CA, and now that our ears have stopped ringing and we've washed the desert dirt out of our hair we can bring you the goods from the final day! But first, check out our coverage from Day 1 and Day 2 of Coachella. And while you're at it, also check out our full gallery of photos from Day 3.


Day 3 employed the reserve tanks on endurance among the event's 80,000 plus revelers, with the heaviest show-gridlock both on the field and around the parking lots bogging down anyone not ahead of the game when gates opened at 11am. The hassle was repaid in multiplicity however, with full-throttle performances from a reformed Death From Above 1979, The Strokes and others, including a colossally massive festival-closing production by headliner Kanye West.


Having suffered through the full-tank siphon of parking lot gridlock, we missed the majority of Nas & Damian Marley's set, which ended in very high spirits (by the smell of the clouds of smoke wafting through the crowd, anyway) after a collaborative effort on Damian's father Bob's classic "Could You Be Loved".



It's not difficult to imagine why there was a battle-royal riot at Death From Above 1979's SXSW show, as the bombastic ferocity of the duo's set instilled a revitalized sense of near reflexive spastic pride among fans in attendance. 


To my astonishment, kids no older than 20 screamed along to virtually every word of the band's material from You're a Woman, I'm a Machine and their various EPs. The high percentage of females put on an impressive display of power equality in the pit, throwing shoulder with no quarter in the single largest moshpit this year's Coachella experienced in its three-day run. It doesn't quite compare to the pit for the first year crusher combo of Rage Against The Machine and Tool back in 1999, when bones were broken in a musical battlefield the Empire Polo Club hasn't seen before or since.



Duran Duran was entirely wasted on the youthful crowd, roughly 80% of which could very well have been conceived to their music. Nevertheless, frontman Simon LeBon and company were consummate professionals, delivering a remarkably strong performance laden with hits (if these brats can't get into classics like "Rio" or "Notorious," we may indeed have a lost generation on our hands).


Keyboardist Nick Rhodes took roughly as many pictures of us during the band's set as we did of him, clearly enjoying the return to the massive audiences of their heyday. Le Bon was visibly disheartened by the generally unaffected crowds, but refused to bow to the resistance, going in hard on the majority of the band's career highlights with a strutting, preening peacock demeanor.


"We have been looking forward to this moment for weeks and weeks and now we're here and it's going to go off!" Le Bon said, sounding like… well, a grandpa.



After an odd, wrong turn during a partial Lady Gaga cover of "Poker Face," the band invited Ana Matronic from the Scissor Sisters onstage. She excited the crowd with her arrival for a contribution to new track "Safe," but her performance was cringingly mediocre. It was telling enough that the Duran Duran backup singer had to handle the chorus, but the contributions Ana brought to the stage were trite at best. Delightful to watch, painful to hear.


The high point of the band's lengthy set came during the 1985 synth-pop classic "A View to a Kill," which served as the title song to the James Bond movie of the same name. After a short break, Le Bon re-emerged onstage in a white tux, playing up the moment, but the desert heat saw to its removal by mid-song.



A frigid onstage chemistry between most of The Strokes made for a slightly awkward dynamic, with only frontman Julian Casablancas and guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. trading conversation and laughs through the set. Julian's onstage banter indicated his share of intoxicant indulgence, as he sarcastically employed "frontman banter," as he accurately called it. 


"Are you ready to ROCK?!" he roared with surprising power, before laughing at himself as the band launched into another of the many new cuts of the night. Casablancas has reached a highwater mark of his vocal ability, his subway scuzz physicality defying the fact that the guy can sing his almighty ass off, with remarkable range and power hidden beneath the apathetic scruff.


After defying dismissers with high-octane renditions of early material – including non-album favorite "New York City Cops" – the New Yorkers hit the brakes for a downtempo rendition of "Under Control," a ballad from their second album, Room on Fire. 



Grandiosity was redefined late Sunday as Kanye West closed out the 2011 Coachella festival with a two-hour set that was conceived as a Greek tragedy with three acts, encasing a 25-plus song set featuring West's richest and most popular songs.



Fans who had braved seemingly endless hours in triple-digit temperatures to ensure good placement in the pit were emotionally committed to the main event, and Mr. West delivered far more than expectations demanded.


The show's theme centered on the egomaniacal rapper's struggle with himself, and despite the presence of numerous Kanye collaborators at the festival he kept guests to a scant minimum. The showcase was specifically to center on West as a conflicted transcendent, prowling the stage and spitting sermon among dozens of stunning phoenix ballerines on a vast, open white space.


With ferocious determination he dropped "Power," "a truncated "Monster" and "Jesus Walks," all explosive documentations of Kanye's own conflicted feelings about stardom and spirituality.

A momentary downshift in tempo came in Act Two, as the 808s and Heartbreak hits "Love Lockdown" and "Heartless" injected a fitting lathering of melodrama to the production. As a waterfall of sparks fell behind him, Kanye told the crowd that 808s was recorded during a really tough period in his life, and thanked his fans for their support. Nostalgic cheers blasted eardrums at the intro to “Through the Wire” and “All Falls Down,” but it was “Gold Digger” and “All of the Lights” that hit the hardest in the middle act. 



Act Three was preceded by a ballet troupe pulled a billowing white curtain into something of a cocoon across the entire stage. When it was lifted, West was standing center stage on top of a white podium, his signature bright red suit indicating the oncoming train of "Runaway," My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy's guilty pleasure cherry on top. The performance was somehow transformative, the dramatic emotives of the song's instrumentation and presentation eclipsing the lyrical landmines in a way that doesn't always translate on record.


 A slower, more churning opening to “Lost in the World” found Bon Iver taking liberties with the opening autotune melody, before a powerful rendition of the closing song on MBDTF.

"This is the most important show since my mom passed," Kaye told the sea of people reaching to the horizon before him, clearly still maternally driven. In confirmation, he closed the set with a tearjerker presentation of "Hey Mama." There was a finality to his voice just prior when he said “This is the last song of the night,” that indicated we wouldn't be pandered to with an encore. This magnificently ambitious, sprawling Greek-tragedy production was far enough in its own right.



After all was said and done, the entire cast – band members, ballet dancers, guests and of course Kanye – joined hands and took a bow. A magnificently ambitious production was pulled off nearly without a hitch, closing out one of the greatest Coachella festivals the Empire Polo Field has ever seen.


A new bar has been set for the headliners of future Coachella.