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How Beyonce changed Coachella's temperature

Mikael Wood, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

INDIO, Calif. -- So much for the "white people stage."

That's how Vince Staples, the deeply skeptical Long Beach rapper, referred to the main stage of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival as he found himself performing -- with one eyebrow cocked in surprise -- on just that platform Friday night.

And he was hardly being unfair: Since its founding in 1999, the annual multi-day event in Indio, which is widely regarded as the country's most prestigious music festival, has generally privileged rock and dance-music acts such as Radiohead, Paul McCartney and Calvin Harris; in turn, the show has developed a loyal audience known, if somewhat less accurately, as a congregation of rich white kids.

Yet just over 24 hours after Staples' pronouncement, Beyonce replaced him in Coachella's spotlight to deliver the most radical -- and maybe the best -- headlining performance I've ever seen here: a thrilling and painstaking tribute to America's historically black colleges and universities that had the singer leading about 100 musicians and dancers, including brass and string players, a drum line, a baton twirler and even a lively step squad that went to work when she left the stage to change costumes.

At one point, a voice booming over the festival's sound system described the concert as Beyonce's "homecoming," even though this was her debut at Coachella, and one that made her the first black woman to headline the event. ("Ain't that 'bout a bitch," she added in a pitch-perfect aside.)

That nobody in the crowd seemed to object demonstrated how completely she was making the place her own.

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The thoroughness of the presentation, with skits and long dance routines and radical rearrangements of some of her best-known songs, was staggering -- miles beyond what even the most ambitious of Coachella's other performers are bringing to the desert.

"Freedom," riding a heavy groove played on sousaphones, suddenly morphed into a rendition of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," often called the black national anthem. "Sorry" sprouted a hilarious and salty call-and-response chant that can't be published here. "Drunk in Love," which Beyonce sang from atop a rotating cherry picker, sounded as woozily festive as New Orleans funeral music.

Saturday's triumph by the 36-year-old pop superstar -- who said she'd been planning the spectacle since 2017, when she bailed on an earlier booking at Coachella after announcing she was pregnant with twins -- signified a larger trend at this year's festival, held Friday to Sunday at Indio's Empire Polo Club and due to repeat this coming weekend with the same lineup.

Instead of the rock bands of yore, Coachella's most prominent acts -- which include the Weeknd, SZA, Cardi B, Migos and Eminem, who was scheduled to headline the festival Sunday evening -- come out of hip-hop and R&B. The bill isn't entirely free of the guys with guitars whom Staples may have been thinking of during his time on the enormous main stage.

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