From Bauhaus’ return at Cruel World to Gulch’s final show at Sound & Fury, these were my favorite performances of festival season
From April to October, I worked and/or attended eight different music festivals. It’s easy to rack up a number like that when you obsessively fill out press pass applications. I ended up spending a lot of time and money in that six-month stretch, but it ended up being filled with some of the best musical adventures I’ve had.
First up was Coachella, a festival I’ve now attended 14 times in a row going all the way back to 2007. It’s practically my hometown fest, and it’ll always have my heart. This year served up a weak year for headliners; usually when that happens, the undercard is out of this world, and that was exactly the case (honorable mentions to Griselda, Caribou and Major League DJz). The fact that a festival the size and scope of Coachella can even operate as smoothly as it does is a minor miracle, but that’s what you should get when you spend a fortune.
A few weeks and one bout of COVID later, I was in the photo pit basking in the diverse cross-generational goth culture on display at Cruel World. The trend of genre and era-specific music festivals paid off big time this year (When We Were Young was an especially huge massive success), and Cruel World proved that goth is alive and kicking. There wasn’t a more perfect moment to reflect that than the sight of a rare blood moon hovering in the sky over Bauhaus’ iconic set.
The very next weekend, I walked through a time portal and witnessed bands from the late 00s peak of blog rock and indie rock at Just Like Heaven. It was the most specific crowd vibe I’ve ever seen – guys and girls my age (30s) clinging to their youth in the most adorable way possible. Interpol, The Shins, M.I.A., Cut Copy and more took us straight back to our high school glory days.
The hardcore bash Sound and Fury was a truly special landmark moment for the scene. A rowdy, ecstatic crowd of 5,000-strong turned out for the most electrifying all-day run of shows of the year. In a time when Turnstile is one of the biggest bands it the world, it feels like the thirst for heavy music has never been greater. Sound and Fury was the ultimate showcase of the scene’s storied past, incendiary present, and tantalizing future. Older heads like Terror brought the gravitas, current champs like Mindforce and Gulch anchored the proceedings, and up-and-comers like Speed, Scowl, and ZULU offered a glimpse of what’s to come. It’s a hardcore world now, and we’re just living in it.
In their inaugural years, Goldenvoice’s This Ain’t No Picnic and Live Nation’s Primavera LA dueled it out for indie fest supremacy, but each walked away with big Ws. The former’s Rose Bowl setting and wide swath of buzz-worthy rising stars was a delight, while the latter’s more secluded historic park feel and underground-skewing lineup made for low key, atmospheric affair.
My first-ever jaunt at my hometown festival CRSSD was the most laid-back dance fest I’ve ever attended. Situated on a grassy park along the marina and adjacent to the historic Star Of India ship, an eclectic soundtrack of EDM kept the tone breezy and buoyant for a surprisingly diverse crowd.
Finally, Desert Daze was the best experience of them all. Sure, it didn’t hurt that I had an artist pass and front row parking, but ever other element of that fest – the lake setting, the food and drinks, the artwork, the music, and the pure crowd vibes combined to make for an unforgettable weekend. If you could only attend one music festival next year, Desert Daze is the top choice.
Throughout my excursions, I took notes and kept a sort of running journal going, mentally ranking my favorites as I went along. With next year’s Coachella and Primavera Barcelona already on my horizon, I’m ready to do it all again. Until then, here’s this year’s results, counted down from good to great to greatest.
35. Modest Mouse (Just Like Heaven)
Just Like Heaven, one of the many genre/era-specific festivals put on by Goldenvoice at the Rose Bowl this past summer, was like stepping out of a time machine into the year 2009, when every single band on the lineup was at their absolute peak. Interpol! Modest Mouse! The Shins! M.I.A.! Bloc Party! Islands! Cut Copy! Wolf Parade!!! There was a strong older millennial vibe running through the fest all day, but Modest Mouse resisted the urge to play directly into that nostalgia. Instead, they whipped through a set featuring a few newer tracks as well as a smattering across all of their albums, including Good News, The Moon and Antarctica, and even a couple off The Lonesome Crowded West. Isaac Brock and company were in tight form too, mixing in just a bit of their jangly improvisational live touches. And yes, they did close with a spirited, singalong-inducing rendition of “Float On.” While many of the acts on Just Like Heaven’s lineup showed their age, Modest Mouse showed that they’re aging like fine wine.
34. Gridiron (Sound and Fury)
I wasn’t totally sure what to expect when I first walked into Sound and Fury, the titanic Los Angeles hardcore festival that ended up being a landmark event for the genre. But what I saw was exactly what I’d hoped and prayed for: heavy music, good vibes, and a sea of bodies willingly forming a typhoon in front of the stage. One of the first bands I saw was Philadelphia’s Gridiron – which features members of Year Of The Knife and Never Ending Game – whose distinct form of beatdown hardcore and an East Coast-infused rapping style of hardcore got the moshers moshing and the stagedivers diving right from the get-go. I was happy to be cocooned in the safe confines of the beer garden close to the second stage, surveying the glorious carnage in front of me. I left impressed with singer Matt Karll’s snarly flow and the guitarists’ thick, uplifting riffs. Gridiron’s was one of those tightly executed sets that set the tone for the rest of a spectacular day.
33. Fred Again.. (CRSSD)
There were a couple artists whose festival sets I caught solely to see what all the fuss what about. One of those was 100 gecs at Coachella, which ended up being a complete waste of time. The other was Fred Again.. at CRSSD. I’m still not sure if I’m totally on board with Fred Again..’s recorded stuff, but his live show at Waterfront Park in San Diego was downright eye-opening. He not only delivered the best set I saw that night, but also drew by far the biggest crowd – nearly twice the crowd size of headliner Jamie XX. I knew he was popular, but this cemented his status as the hottest current artist in the EDM sphere. I’m not exactly sure what hardware he was using up there – probably a combination of synths and drum machines – but Fred and his bandmate rocked it with expert technical skill and kept the energy flowing at a high, and the massive crowd had the vibes at a 10. I saw many fans screaming along to all the words, and I even saw a few crying. As it turns out, that nostalgic, emotional ’90s British rave sound is exactly what the college kids like these days. It might not be totally my cup of tea, but he puts on an objectively fun show.
32. Ethel Cain (This Ain’t No Picnic)
I was already a massive fan of Ethel Cain’s latest album Preacher’s Daughter (which cracked our Top 50 Albums of 2022), so I was probably going to love her set at This Ain’t No Picnic no matter what. But even then, she more than surpassed my expectations with a scintillating performance that set a high benchmark for what would be a remarkable weekend of music at the Rose Bowl. And even though she was scheduled in the beating midday heat, she brought a mix of intimacy and bombast to an enthralled crowd of die-hard fans who chanted her name in between songs. With a guitarist and drummer in tow, Ethel recounted her harrowing tales of gothic Americana on tracks “American Teenager,” “Gibson Girl,” and the rapturous “Thoroughfare,” which had a kind of parting-of-the-clouds moment with its incendiary final breakdown. With a swooning smile on her face, you could tell how much it meant to her to be performing to bigger crowds on festival stages. A good live set is needed in order to cement a rising indie artist’s cred, and Ethel Cain proved she’s a performer through and through.
31. The Strokes (This Ain’t No Picnic)
For its inaugural year, Goldenvoice really needed a big, popular headliner to anchor This Ain’t No Picnic, and they got that in spades from The Strokes, who delivered an entertaining and somewhat surprisingly tight set. Julian kept the stage banter to a minimum as he and the band sounded terrific in their greatest hits-spanning 80-minute show. In addition to the usual crowd favorites, they also played “New York City Cops,” “Under Cover Of Darkness,” and even deep cut fave “Meet Me in the Bathroom.” The visuals were classy and hypnotic, Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr.’s dueling guitars sounded as crisp as ever, and everyone was just in lockstep with each other from start-to-finish. The screaming throngs of diehards in Strokes t-shirts would attest to it being one of their better and cleaner headlining sets in recent memory. It went a long way in making This Ain’t No Picnic a big success in its first year, although, the festival might struggle to replicate its success; I struggle to think of a more perfect headliner to try to represent that sphere of music.
30. Vince Staples (Coachella)
Vince Staples is modern day rap’s greatest auteur-like artist, and right now he’s in a ripe storytelling phase of his career following his poignant latest album Ramona Park Broke My Heart. On Sunday afternoon at Coachella (never an easy time slot), he trotted out an elaborate stage set-up – a yellow-lit flower shop called Ramona’s Flowers – and delivered an electrifying performance that had the crowd in the palm of his hand. Rather than screaming over backing tracks and enticing the crowd to mosh, Vince turned inward and had the crowd following every word of his moody reflections, from the live debuts of “ROSE STREET” and “AYE! (FREE THE HOMIES)” to the DJ Mustard-produced “MAGIC.” His stage presence was mercurial, his verses were sniper-like, and his stage banter was as cheeky as always. Eventually he did get around to performing a handful of older uptempo bangers, including fan favorite “Big Fish” and the all-time classic anthem “Norf Norf,” which sent the overflowing Sahara Tent crowd into a bouncing, moshing frenzy. The Long Beach MC continues to demonstrate that he’s one of the best live performers in hip hop.
29. ZULU (Sound and Fury)
As fans pummeled through Day 2 of Sound and Fury, they had a chance to take in a smattering of the best hardcore-leaning bands around, each one different in their own unique way. The Los Angeles powerviolence band Zulu showed just how special their take on the genre was with their passionate and confrontational set – which led off with a pointed statement about the state of racism in heavy music scenes, followed by a powerful swirl of plunging breakdowns, full-throated shrieks, and flying crowd-killers from the eager fans in the pit. In between songs, R&B and trap-laced interludes gave the crowd a breather before the next onslaught of angry, politically-tinged scorchers. There was a tremendous amount of hype for Zulu going into the performance, as they’re seen by many as part of the next crop of rising stars who will take the genre to the scene level – alongside bands like Scowl, Speed, and End It. Just as hoped, Zulu proved that they belong, and that they have a very bright future ahead of them.
28. Bloc Party (Just Like Heaven)
While some of the acts on Just Like Heaven’s lineup understandably showed a bit of rust, Bloc Party proved that they haven’t lost a step at all. And while the quality of their recent recordings has gone down a bit, their technique and showmanship has not, and they walked away having delivered the best (and by far the most crowded) set of the entire festival. Sandwiched in that ideal sunset slot on the main stage, Kele Okereke and company raced through a set that was light on new material and loaded with greatest hits from their ’00s heyday. Each time a classic like “Hunting For Witches” or “Banquet” popped up, the massive crowd roared and danced their approval. Guitarist Russell Lissack noodled his way through solo after solo, drummer Louise Bartle was crucially on point, and Kele’s magnificent voice and boisterous frontman presence kept the audience enthralled. “This Modern Love” had fans swooning, while “Helicopter” of course generated the biggest singalong. Due to this perfect storm of factors, Bloc Party were the high point of Just Like Heaven.
27. Code Orange (Coachella)
Every music festival has at least one band or artist that doesn’t really fit the “vibe.” Code Orange frontman Eric “Shade” Balderose was the first to admit that his band didn’t really “belong” on the Coachella lineup, but that didn’t stop them from delivering the boldest set of the weekend, and it definitely didn’t stop a small but dedicated platoon of warrior fans from practically burning down the Sonora Tent to their gnarled metalcore assault. You wouldn’t peg a Coachella crowd as being capable of that, but check out the video above to get a good idea of the stage-diving, crowd-killing antics on display (one injured weekend 2-goer reported that they had to go to the hospital after the set). As heavy as they are, Code Orange possess a dose of catchiness and theatricality that might’ve earned them many new fans that day. But even if they didn’t, they definitely kept their cult-like fanbase entertained for 40 scorching-hot minutes. This was definitely one of the stranger festival bookings of the year, right up there with Lorna Shore playing Lollapalooza. But it’s nice to see major festivals taking wild swings here and there with their programming, and hopefully the success of Code Orange’s set encourages them to continue to book more artists in that vein. Maybe they do belong after all.
26. Tim Hecker (Primavera LA)
What a way to start a festival! Primavera Sound L.A.’s inaugural year definitely had some strange programming twists and turns, but having the dark ambient drone-noise legend Tim Hecker open a stage in broad daylight was definitely a choice. More suited to a cavernous warehouse, Hecker still managed to pull out all the blown-out stops by wrangling a dissonant palette of digital static that I could feel unfurling and vibrating throughout my entire body and destroying my ear drums at the same time. It was the strangest and most unique set of live music I saw all weekend, and yet I was not at all surprised to see a good chunk of the crowd walking away while plugging their ears. Standing at the front bar, Hecker made you feel like you were sitting in one of those coin-operated foot massage chairs you see at your local county fair, but with a deathly ominous soundtrack playing you into a spiraling panic. If that sort of mounting anxiety doesn’t appeal to you, it’s okay. It worked wonders on me.
25. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard (Coachella & Desert Daze)
Every King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard set is entirely different than the one before it, and that’s just one of the many qualities that make the behemoth Australian psych rock unit one of the best bands in all of music. They have way too many songs and way too many stylistic modes to choose from, and both sets I caught from them this year demonstrated very different facets of their sound. First I caught them close out one of the side stages at Coachella – opposite headliner Harry Styles. To a modest but devoted crowd, they unleashed five epic hit bangers in a row in a tight hour-long set, starting with Flying Microtonal Banana anthem “Rattlesnake.” For the festival goers being exposed to King Gizz for the first time, it was an ideal entry point and a fiery way to close out Day 1. A few months later, the wily band headlined Day 1 of Desert Daze, and this one was more of a journey; hey were given a full two hour slot to really flex their freaky wings, and to a much larger and more enthusiastic crowd of die-hards. Here, they unleashed several newer, proggier highlights off their most recent albums in addition to many fan-favorite deep cuts. They shrewdly played to “their people,” giving them exactly what they wanted, and were rewarded with the rowdiest reception of the weekend. If KGATLW headlined Desert Daze every year, nobody would complain.
24. The Chats (Coachella)
The indoor Sonora Tent ended up being the single best stage at Coachella 2022, and The Chats made that place feel like a sloshy pub. The Sunshine Coast, Australia garage-punks drew a big crowd that actually formed a line out the door – the first time I’d seen that at this tent in all my years of attending. They also cut through a snarling, rapid-fire set packed with over 20 songs – including the raw, hardcore-crusted bangers “Pub Feed” and “Struck By Lightning,” angsty hits “Temperature” and “Better Than You,” and of course the unofficial Australian slacker national anthem “Smoko,” which had one of the loudest singalongs of the festival. More than anything, The Chats proved to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing – a band operating in the DIY scene but with arena-sized ambitions, while also possessing the talent and stage presence to get there. On top of the rowdiness, they showed off their catchier melodic side, which will continue to earn them more crossover appeal. Behind frontman Eamon Sandwith’s snarling vocal skills, sardonic lyrics and throttling basslines, The Chats will be a staple on the festival circuit for years to come.
23. Shame (This Ain’t No Picnic & Desert Daze)
Shame will never get old. This year I caught two festival sets from the London post-punk standouts, the first at This Ain’t No Picnic and the second at Desert Daze a month later. Those sets were almost identical and they rocked equally hard. Their music works at both extremes: noisy but catchy, forward-thinking but wistful and nostalgic, and hard-edged but also sentimental. On top of that, Shame have just about the best stage presence of any live act going. Guitarist Josh Finerty zig-zags maniacally across the stage while frontman Charlie Steen is like a snarling beast, sauntering and crowdsurfing over everyone. Their sense of song selection and pacing had a snowballing effect, as things got progressively heavier and rowdier as the set wore on. In both performances, the band teased unreleased tracks off their in-the-works upcoming album, a live testing that passed with flying colors. “Concrete” continues to be a galvanizing live track, while “Snow Day” is the ideal set closer. If Shame is on the schedule, I’ll check out their set almost every time.
22. Nation of Language (Desert Daze)
There are many, many bands and artists out there who are channeling the classic ’80s new wave synthpop sound. But as I explained to my friends right before their performance at Desert Daze, the difference between Nation Of Language and all those other bands is that they not only have the sound down pat, but they’ve also got the songs. Those songs are pure and towering epics, ebbing and flowing between intimate, melancholic verses and stratospheric, heartfelt choruses that get stuck in your head immediately. Sandwiched over on the smaller beach stage, opposite the main stage program of Viagra Boys and Kikagaku Moyo, NOL’s set was a spiritual journey through wistful moods and special tracks like “Automobile” and “Across That Fine Line,” which somehow straddle the nimble line between ballad and banger. The Brooklyn trio were downright enchanting thanks to their commanding onstage energy and glittery nighttime visuals. Nation Of Language may give off shades of New Order or Echo and the Bunnymen, but they’re very much their own thing, and the best band in synthpop right now.
21. Arctic Monkeys (Primavera LA)
Arctic Monkeys are one of the only bands of their ilk that I hadn’t seen live, despite many opportunities in the past. It doesn’t make sense considering I’ve always been a big fan of theirs, but at Primavera LA, I made sure to right that wrong. All weekend Primavera gave off a slightly sleepy, under-attended vibe, but on Sunday, that completely flipped as fans packed out the LA Historic Park in anticipation of their headlining set. The crowd size seriously felt twice as big as at any other point in the weekend. Needless to say, excitement was at a fever pitch. Whatever I was expecting, they delivered with a tight and impeccable set of hits spanning their entire career. As Alex Turner crooned at the mic and Matt Helders pounded away at his drum kit, fans joined in mass singalongs for hits like “Brianstorm” and “Do Me A Favor.” As a fan of their earlier material, I found myself vibing way more to the raw, cutting edge vibes of tracks like “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” than their more generic A.M. hits like “Do I Wanna Know.” Nonetheless, the Monkeys put an emphatic final stamp on the festival as the masses bounced away to “R U Mine?” – giving Primavera the closing moment they needed for their first LA edition.
20. God’s Hate (Sound and Fury)
If there is one person in the music world that you absolutely do NOT want to pick a fight with, it’s God’s Hate singer Brody King. The dude is an AEW wrestler after, a hulking mass of a human being whose body is shaped like a seven-foot fire hydrant. About eight minutes into their set at Sound and Fury, he did a full-on flying body slam stage dive into the crowd (you can watch that in the video above). Whoever he landed on probably died. Who knows. All I know was that God’s Hate’s set was one of the most physical musical spectacles I’ve ever witnessed. All day King acted like a hardcore master of ceremonies, watching other band’s sets from the side of the stage and occasionally jumping in to contribute. When it was his band’s turn to shine, almost every member of every other band on the lineup paid him back by flanking the stage, generating the communal vibe that’s so essential to the scene. Mosh pits resembled medieval battlefields as King’s bubonic vocals and intimidating presence led the way. A King indeed.
19. Frankie and the Witch Fingers (Desert Daze)
I’ve seen Frankie and the Witch fingers perform over a dozen times, and they always bring the heat. It’s even better when you have the chance to catch them right in their element and performing exactly to their kind of people: Desert Daze people. Performing in an ideal late afternoon set time on one of the main stages, the band put on a trippy and energetic show for a big crowd of rabid fans. Dylan Sizemore barked and crowdsurfed while Josh Menashe wailed on the guitar solos. The band played a number of unreleased tracks off their in-the-works album – freaky, complex, high energy new rippers that fit along nicely with the older hits like “Pleasure,” “Realization” and “Dracula Dream,” as well as a spirited cover of the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” to close it all out. Almost ten years into their career, Frankie are now one of the hottest bands in the psych scene, and their live show is a huge reason why.
18. Bicep (Primavera LA)
The live set that Bicep trotted out this year was one of the big word-of-mouth sensations of festival season. After watching Nine Inch Nails’ jaw-dropping headlining set at Primavera LA, my friends and I hustled to catch the bulk of Bicep over on the second stage, where we marveled at the U.K. DJ-producer duo’s hypnotizing swirl of ethereal house beats and mind-blowing visuals. My musician friend remarked that it was a true example of a modern day progressive house set – an updated throwback to the days of Deadmau5, The Chemical Brothers and even Daft Punk, with flowing, emotion-fueled beats personified by dazzling neon-streaked L.E.D. screens and lasers to tell a story. Tracks like “Apricots,” “Atlas” and “Meli (II)” melted faces and ripped out your heart. The set lived up to hype, and I won’t be surprised if they keep it going next year.
17. Denzel Curry (Coachella)
Denzel Curry continues to be the most underrated rapper in the game; if everyone would just check out his live set, that would no longer be the case. Unfortunately, on the final night of Coachella, he was scheduled in the Sahara opposite Doja Cat and Swedish House Mafia on the Main and Jamie XX on the Outdoor, which ensured his crowd was small by comparison. At the same time, the people who did turn out for Denzel were among his hardest of die-hard fans. Humble as ever, Denzel did not hold back, ripping through new tracks off Melt My Eyez See Your Future and all his greatest hits with bulldozing intensity and sniper-like precision on his verses. The crowd went mental during mosh-inducing tracks like “Walkin” and “Ultimate,” and J.I.D came out to do a spirited guest feature. On top of that, the X-wing fighter jet DJ booth and dazzling visuals and lighting rig made for one of the coolest stage backdrops I saw all year. I did not expect to be bouncing off my feet during the encore when the Glass Animals singer came out to sing the hook on their recent melodic trap collab, but that happened too. Denzel is musical genius and a visionary live performer, and that all came out in a magical late night Sahara Tent slot, closing out my Coachella weekend on an epic high.
16. Kelly Lee Owens (This Ain’t No Picnic)
Watching a producer recreate their music in a live setting is a thrilling experience, and Kelly Lee Owens pulls it off in a really one-of-a-kind way. On stage she’s a multitasking one-woman band – balancing synths, drum machines, and vocal duties with expert precision and fiery aplomb. She strikes a delicate sonic balance, perfectly walking the tightrope between her intimate Radiohead-esque singer-songwriter qualities and her pounding, explosive U.K. warehouse rave impulses. A sea of fog machines and strobe lights made the experience all the more chaotic and disorienting, and yet Kelly manages to keep you mentally tethered via her smoldering, spine-tingling vocal melodies. Scheduled opposite Le Tigre on the main stage, her crowd on Day 1 at This Ain’t No Picnic was full of curious onlookers lurking in discovery mode, and she succeeded in converting them into fans. Definitely one of the most unique electronic live shows I’ve seen in a long time.
15. Men I Trust (Desert Daze)
Men I Trust are straight up crowdpleasers, and their synthy, zoned-out sophistipop hit a perfect sweet spot on the first night of Desert Daze. After watching Duster’s intense set of lofi slowcore, I wandered over to the second stage and was immediately lulled into a trance by Emmanuelle Proulx’s silky, spellbinding crooning. Already with a massive discography under their belts, the Montreal band served up a magical setlist that included “Tailwhip,” “Norton Commander,” and “Serenade of Water.” It wouldn’t be Desert Daze without a shit-ton of liquid light visuals; those served as the perfect psychedelic backdrop for their effortlessly dreamy, catchy tracks. Men I Trust have really broken through in recent years, satiating the laid-back late night vibe so many festival-goers crave. With that catchy psychedelic crossover appeal that they possess, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they graduate to bigger, more mainstream festival slots in the future.
14. Ela Minus (Coachella)
All weekend long, Coachella’s Sonora Tent proved to be the perfect sanctuary for fans of DIY-minded artists. It’s not necessarily that Coachella doesn’t book experimental acts or rock bands anymore (although that well has dried up a bit). It’s more that they’ve just consolidated all of those artists into one venue, one that channels the hole-in-the-wall vibe of a DIY punk venue. Better yet, it’s air-conditioned. PUP, The Chats, Code Orange, Skegss, Beach Goons, black midi, Molchat Doma, and Nilufer Yanya all slayed in there. Another act who really shined in that tent was Ela Minus. Despite her low billing, the rising Colombian producer was given a prime time late night slot – perfect for her dark, rough-around-the-edges style of club music. Her songs have a defiant punk edge to them, and Ela sauntered around the stage and in the crowd’s faces like a frontwoman for a hardcore band – in between shredding on her synths and drum machines. Smoky, ominous tunes like “megapunk” had the crowd bopping through a sea of strobe lights as Ela lurked in the shadows. At one point, she held up a fan’s Colombia flag and reigned over the crowd like a a big-room IDM queen. Best dance set of 2022.
13. Turnstile (Coachella & This Ain’t No Picnic)
Turnstile weren’t just the breakout rock band of the 2022 festival circuit, they’re arguably the hottest rock band in the world right now. Last year’s breakthrough album GLOW ON was a Nevermind-like moment for hardcore – a clean, catchy and distilled album that has since served as a gateway into heavy music for so many people. It’s no surprise they’ve become such a hit at music festivals, where they continue to rise to top line billing. At Coachella, they crushed a 45-minute set on Saturday evening in the Mojave Tent, and I marveled at just how many people knew all the lyrics to every song. As a live act they are a tight, explosive unit. The guitar tones were crisp and driving, and Brendan Yates was the ideal front man. I don’t think Coachella has ever seen so many mosh pits in one weekend. What’s more, their crowd was double that size at This Ain’t No Picnic. They didn’t change up the setlist much, but their showmanship came through even more at the Rose Bowl. Their ability to work up the crowd into a feverish sweat is impressive. They continue to be the shot-in-the-arm that rock music desperately needs, and hopefully their success leads to more bands of their ilk getting booked at festivals.
12. The Space Lady (Desert Daze)
I cried exactly once through my entire run of festivals this year, and it was during The Space Lady’s set at Desert Daze. Let me set the scene for you. I’m wandering down a grassy hill to a stage that looks like it hosts Shakespeare in the Park. Everyone sits down cross-legged like elementary school kids during story time. A lady in her 70s walks out wearing a Viking helmet with wings and looking very much like a retired kindergarten teacher. She stands at a single analog synth and leads us through a minimal but highly emotional series of proto synthpop songs. In that style, she covers “Riders in the Sky” by Stan Jones and his Death Valley Rangers. In between tracks, the Outsider legend tells stories about her DIY roots, the Summer of Love in San Francisco, raising a family on a Bohemian lifestyle, and writing and performing music on the streets with her ex-husband Joel. She performs her signature original track “Synthesize Me,” which sounds like a wondrous bedtime lullaby. When it ends, every single person in the audience stands up in rapturous applause. She shouts out her Space Children and her Space Grandson – or her “Space MAN-ager” – and thanks the crowd for being so wonderful to witness her very last tour as a musician. And then she launches into a stratospheric cover of Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom.” During that track’s chorus, my eyes begin to water. The Space Lady was one of the most pure live sets I’ve ever seen, and I will forever cherish it.
11. Devo (Cruel World)
At Cruel World, Devo showed why they’re considered to be one of the greatest live bands of all time. Cruel World booked a lot of old bands from the heyday of the ’70s-’80s new wave/goth movement, and as it turns out, most of them still got it. Acts like the Damned, Blondie, The Church, Violent Femmes, Public Image Ltd., and Bauhaus (more on them later) have barely lost a step at all. Devo in particular performed like a band still very much in their prime. They might be 40 years older, but they’re as tight as ever. Their classic costumes, lights, and stage set-up all combined for an arena-worthy spectacle, but more than anything, their songs still slap. “Whip It,” “Satisfaction,” “Uncontrollable Urge,” and “Mongoloid” all remain untouchable classics. One of the most memorable moments of the festival for me was my trip to the bathroom and hearing everyone singing along to “Girl You Want” in the porto-potties next to me. Also, shout out to my buddy Blake who danced like a maniac while stuffing a giant Jersey Mike’s sub into his face. Somehow this all felt weirdly appropriate for Devo. Cruel World was a demonstration of cream rising to the top. Devo will never die.
10. Drain Gang (Primavera LA)
Drain Gang’s set at Primavera LA was pure bliss. A labor of love. A warm embrace. For one immaculate hour, every audience member let their problems melt away. When Bladee, Ecco2K and Thaiboy Digital walked out onto the stage, everybody came together as one. As the sunset moved in, our favorite Swedish rap collective captivated us with one heart-on-your-sleeve cloud rap ballad after another. The three MCs, backed by their fearless DJ-producer unit whitearmor, kept a telepathic connection going through a run of solo and collaborative tracks, including a handful of hits off Bladee and Ecco2k’s recent album Crest (which also cracked our Top 50 Albums list). The beats, the onstage coordination, Ecco’s particularly inspiring performance and the cathartic crowd energy made this set an all-timer. When it was all over, I saw young fans crying in each others’ arms. Passionate stuff. We’re all Drain Gang.
9. Phoebe Bridgers (Coachella & This Ain’t No Picnic)
Phoebe Bridgers is a born performer who takes her recorded material to soaring new heights. I saw her perform at two festivals this year and each show was spectacular. Backed by a stunning light and stage design, her set at Coachella’s Outdoor Theater was the coronation of a brilliant run in the spotlight since the release of Punisher. We’ve seen her tackle every late night show in existence, but her music is almost too perfect for a music festival setting. Thanks to her rousing backing band, tracks like “Motion Sickness” and “Kyoto” sounded even bigger and more grand. You could practically hear a pin drop when she played the lonely and wistful ballad “Chinese Satellite,” while her epic closing track “I Know the End” had fans gasping during the final bombastic crescendo. As intimate as her music can be, it explodes on a festival stage. By the time This Ain’t No Picnic rolled around months later, she was a full-blown superstar, performing the sub-headlining slot just a stone’s throw from where she grew up. It was a true homecoming show – the prodigal daughter returning to Pasadena with several thousand fans screaming her name. I took some of the best concert photos I’ve ever taken at this show. For anyone still doubting Phoebe Bridgers, I suggest you buy a ticket asap and see for yourself.
8. black midi (Coachella)
Midway through black midi’s unhinged performance in Coachella’s Sonora Tent, right as they ripped through their haywire avant-prog single “John L,” four weirdos donning matching red spandex unitards and gangly wigs ran onto the stage and launched into a bizarre interpretive dance that left baffled onlookers with their jaws on the floor. That was just one of the many entertainingly deranged moments of their set on Saturday night. They also ad-libbed some Red Hot Chili Peppers melodies, Geordie Greep introduced the band as “Chad Smith on drums, John Frusciante on guitar, Flea on bass,” while actual members Morgan Simpson and Cameron Picton blew minds on drums and guitar, respectively. Touring member Kaidi Akinnibi was the secret weapon, wailing away on sax while the small but enthralled crowd watched on, faces quickly melting. And yet none of this was as strange as security kicking my buddy out of the tent for…smoking a vape? Right after the black midi set, my crew moved onto Danny Elfman, the weirdest one-two punch of live music you’ll ever experience…
7. Danny Elfman (Coachella)
…But even black midi couldn’t properly prepare us for what we witnessed at Danny Elfman’s legendary, one-of-a-kind set on the Outdoor Theater. Backed by a full orchestra and choir conducted by his former Oingo Boingo bandmate Stu Brooks, Elfman launched into a gonzo medley of his many film scores (Batman, Spiderman, Nightmare Before Christmas, and more), Boingo hits like “Just Another Day” and “Dead Man’s Party,” and tracks off his unnerving industrial metal album Big Mess. His all-star band included Josh Freese on drums, and Nili Brosh and Limp Bizkit’s Wes Borland on guitars. Everyone slashed away as one slithery, shapeshifting unit to a bevy of eye-popping visuals that were pure nightmare fuel. Later, Elfman took off his shirt and flexed his intimidating 68-year-old tats and muscles during Oingo Boingo’s “Who Do You Want To Be,” the epic set closer. When a musical genius and legend like Danny Elfman decides to play concerts, you’re supposed to expect the unexpected, and that’s exactly what he delivered.
6. Magdalena Bay (This Ain’t No Picnic)
I’ve been a fan of Magdalena Bay practically since day one, and I’ve watched them evolve from an online DIY recording project into one of the most creative and forward-thinking bands in the indie pop sphere. Mica Tenenbaum and Matt Lewin are a visionary artistic duo who not only make incredible music together, but also craft a vivid interactive realm of visuals and music videos that allows their music to thrive even more. That sense of imagination and world-building comes through best when they perform, and after delivering the best set of This Ain’t No Picnic, you can expect them to dominate music festival lineups for years to come. As Matt noodled on the guitar, Mica crooned into a hands free mic headset and enticed the crowd into an unabashed dance party that did not let up once. Their theatrical blend of lo-fi sonics and searing pop choruses continued to reign over Mercurial World tracks like “You Lose!” and “Secrets (Your Fire),” but it was their skyrocketing new single “All You Do” that had the crowd hailing the skies in rapturous approval. For their cult fanbase, it was a confirmation of everything we love about them. For first timers, they were easily the best musical discovery of the entire weekend.
5. Floating Points (Coachella)
Of all the major music festivals out there, Coachella is without question the best at what we call “counter-programming.” When you spend a fortune on tickets and you happen to not be a fan of the headliners, then you’d better hope there’s somebody else you like playing on another stage to make it all worth it. In that regard, Coachella delivers every time. On Friday, Harry Styles headlined the main stage while King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard melted faces on the Outdoor. On Sunday, The Weeknd and Swedish House Mafia bored fans to tears while Honey Dijon and the Blessed Madonna put on an absolute DJing clinic in the Mojave Tent. But the best slice of late night counter-programming was the mind-boggling DJ set from the incredibly talented English producer Floating Points – opposite the headlining spectacles of Megan Thee Stallion and Billie Eilish. Fans who wandered into the Mojave were rewarded with a highly technical blend of IDM, old school house and breakbeat, and a screen full of delirious backing visuals. Sam Shepherd’s song selection, transitions and filters were all wrangled with a surgical touch that no other producer-DJ on the planet possesses. If you find yourself repulsed by whoever’s headlining the night, Floating Points is always a superior alternative.
4. Gulch (Sound and Fury)
“How many people here are seeing Gulch for the last time?” singer Elliot Morrow quipped. Hardcore had a real moment in 2022, and Sound and Fury Festival epitomized it. The biggest draw of the weekend was the farewell performance from arguably the most radical band in the scene over the past five years. All day, people were shouting out Gulch in the lead-up to their legendary fest-closing set. When it finally arrived, the fever-pitch anticipation spilled out into all-out chaos as Morrow’s vile, bilious vocals kicked in over corrosive riffage, plunging breakdowns and rapid-fire drumming. Knowing this would be the last rodeo, fans dialed up the the rowdiness to extreme levels, leading to a mangled pile of bodies crawling onto the stage like zombies in feast mode, and waves of windmilling and front-flip catapulting into the pit.
I must’ve watched a thousand people stage dive. The FOMO hit me hard. I knew that if I didn’t do it, I’d regret it for the rest of my life. So there I was, squeezing my way through a wall of musty smells and sweaty shirts on my way to the stage. After being hoisted up, without a moment’s hesitation, I ran up next Morrow and kicked off back into the crowd, completing maybe the single wimpiest stage dive anyone attempted all day (you can scroll to 14:45 in the video above to see for yourself). Mission accomplished? As they ticked over the 10 p.m. curfew, cops pulled the power midway through the final track, but it didn’t matter. In a way, it was the perfect end to Gulch’s career. This set was the stuff of legend – a historic moment that will be talked about for years to come.
3. Tame Impala (Desert Daze)
In recent years, I’ve fallen ever-so-slightly out of love with Tame Impala. As much as I appreciate the dreamier, pop-infused direction Kevin Parker has taken on Currents and The Slow Rush, it’s the earlier stuff that will always have my heart. In fact, Lonerism is one of my all-time favorite albums. I’d already seen Tame Impala live six times, and it was gonna take a lot to reel me back to another gig. Needless to say, when I heard they’d be performing Lonerism at Desert Daze, I was back in – hook, line and sinker. Desert Daze was the perfect marriage of music and setting, and it’s why it ended up being the single best festival I attended all year. At Tame, Kevin and the guys were visibly humbled by what this performance meant to everyone in the crowd. Acknowledging the album’s 10-year anniversary, the band launched into “Be Above It” as though no time had passed at all. The crowd roared their approval as we were blissfully whisked away on a technicolor magic carpet ride through faves like “Apocalypse Dreams” and the laser-fueled “Elephant,” deeper cuts “Why Won’t They Talk To Me” and “Led Zeppelin,” and the year’s best festival singalong in “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards.” As the band faded out with “Sun’s Coming Up,” all of us in the crowd transcended – including the members of Black Country, New Road rocking out next to us in VIP. By far the best Tame Impala show I’ve seen. After this one, I’m back in the Tame Game for life.
2. Nine Inch Nails (Primavera LA)
Every time you see Nine Inch Nails, you feel like you’re seeing the greatest concert of your life. The level of technical skill, musical quality, visual aesthetic and showmanship from one of the most important and visionary musicians of all time is plain for all to see. Simply put, Trent Reznor is a genius. NIN’s headlining Primavera LA set served up the usual fan-favorites (“March of the Pigs,” “Closer,” “Head Like A Hole”), deep cut staples (“Reptile”) and rare, unexpected curveballs (“The Perfect Drug,” “Somewhat Damaged”). Live, the tracks dig and grind harder than their recordings, shattering the fine line between screeching dissonance and catchy harmony. Trent’s voice is as powerful as always, and rest of the band – Atticus Ross, Robin Finke, Ilan Rubin, Alessandro Cortini – was an imposing unit. The most amazing thing about the set was that it wasn’t really special at all. This is just what NIN does every single time.
1. Bauhaus (Cruel World)
I wasn’t the only one hyped beyond belief to finally be seeing Bauhaus at Cruel World. The goth pioneers have had a tumultuous history, infighting and breaking up and reuniting like clockwork throughout their run. This was most likely my last chance to cross off another bucket list band. I only prayed it went well. And in their first festival gig since reuniting pre-pandemic, they delivered possibly the best concert I’ve ever seen.
What made this set so incredible was that it fired on every possible cylinder. The sound was perfect. The band was at the top of their game, as though they were in their prime in 1983. The road crew aced the lighting and stage design. The song selection was impeccable. They opened with the noisy, disorienting “Double Dare,” pummeled through the scary ripper “In A Flat Field,” and cast a ghostly spell on the brooding ballad “She’s In Parties.” Peter Murphy didn’t hang upside down like a bat like he did at Coachella 2005, but he did cut a vampiric, Nosferatu-like figure on “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” which petrified the crowd in the best way possible. The high octane one-two punch of “Dark Entries” and “Ziggy Stardust” brought the show to a mesmerizing end. Peter looked and sounded better than ever, and seemed stoked to be back performing at the highest level with his old friends David J, Kevin Haskins and Daniel Ash. These guys are ready to play arenas again.
Morrissey might’ve been the headliner of Cruel World, but it really did feel like Bauhaus’ crowning moment. The energy and excitement flowing through the 25,000-strong crowd was through the moon (or on this particular night, an actual blood moon). I shot in countless photo pits at eight different festivals this year, and from my vantage point, there wasn’t a better spectacle than Bauhaus. They were the undisputed champions of festival season 2022.