I arrived just in time to catch the Julie Ruin finish a fantastic cover of Courtney Barnett’s “Pedestrian at Best”. Kathleen Hanna was in fantastic form, giving a playful, smart performance with Riot Grrrl vocal stylings still in tact. Although I only caught the tail end of the set, her positivity made me wish I had faced up to the heat and arrived much sooner.
The Pavilion stage was undoubtedly the place to be Saturday afternoon. Not only was it shaded (albeit still boiling), it also hosted sets by the aforementioned Julie Ruin and up and coming bands like Daughter. The latter’s core trio—plus a touring multi-instrumentalist—sounded flawless. However, their atmospheric, Cure-esque tunes begged for a slot coinciding with the setting sun, rather than 4pm on a blazing afternoon. When guitarist Igor Haefeli remarked that he wasn’t used to heat of this magnitude, I feared he or one of his mostly black-clad cohorts would suffer a heat stroke. This was fortunately not to be, and Daughter delivered a poised and confident set.
Foals, on the other hand, were appropriately clothed for the weather, with drummer Jack Bevan even wearing swimming trunks. Each time he stood on his drum throne to work the crowd with his sticks, he brought to mind a lifeguard warning a pool-dweller to stay out of the deep end. The band delivered a stadium-sized set with commanding visuals, including a very refreshing projection of clear blue ocean water. Songs like the always welcome “My Number” lent themselves perfectly to the festival vibe, and even more meditative songs like “Spanish Sahara” had enough fire to keep the audience captivated. The set closed on “What What Down”, from last year’s album of the same title, and frontman Yannis Philippakis went full on beast with a ferocity that should have spooked the heat.
Afterward—and deterred by the long lines to Panorama’s various interactive technology outposts—I wandered over to the festival’s EDM fortress, the Parlor. Jai Wolf, who scored a hit last year with breakout single “Indian Summer”, was churning out his uplifting sounds and seemingly having the time of his life. I was thankful for the Parlor’s VIP corridor, where I could observe far away from the mass of sweaty dancing bodies in front of Jai Wolf’s decks.
The National may seem like an incongruent precursor for headliner Kendrick Lamar, but their set’s more intense moments should have primed the audience for what would come next. The set was the most unhurried of those I saw, with nothing truly igniting the crowd around me until “Sea of Love” kicked in halfway through. There were plenty of highlights in the meantime, such as new song “The Day I Die” and old favorites like “Afraid of Everyone”, but Matt Berninger did not bring out the screams until the set’s second half. Eventually he ended up sweaty and deranged atop a few audience members while singing “Terrible Love”, but not before debuting another new song (in his words, “even more melodramatic than the first one”) and performing beautiful renditions of “Pink Rabbits” and “Fake Empire”. I am consistently amazed that The National have achieved the level of success they (deservedly) have. Their brand of dark and thoughtful introspection usually fails to sway the masses, but their ongoing popularity is perpetually inspirational for those looking to reach millions but resistant to take the commercial route to success. Their set may not have been as totally cathartic as I had hoped, but I can never fault them for what they have accomplished.
Kendrick Lamar is many things. A social commentator. A critical and commercial success. An inspirational artist. But let’s talk about Kendrick Lamar the performer. He took the stage for his headlining set with a cut from his surprise 2016 demos release—untitled unmastered—and ripped through some 20 or so cuts with barely a pause in between. When he did break for banter, he continually baited the audience with promises of an epic night and singled out lifelong fans he spotted among the attendees. With a full band in tow, Lamar seemed as much a frontman as a rapper. He was charismatic, unstoppable and perhaps the most socially relevant artist on a bill of many socially relevant acts. The energy he coaxed out of the crowd was singular as well. The atmosphere was positive and adoring, all the festival goers more than willing to take over a rhyme when Lamar ordered them too, or to play call and response during the “what’s the yams?” portion of “King Kunta”.
Lamar dipped back into 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city more than a few times, wheeling out the ever popular “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”, and even further back still to 2011 debut Section.80, when he encored with “A.D.H.D.”. The prevailing highlight, however, was “Alright”. Prefacing it by paying respects to the multiple shooting victims of the past few weeks, it was the perfect message of a hope and aspiration for change. Lamar got down and left us wanting more, but more importantly, he hit us in a way that really mattered.