During his Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival debut last week, Pharrell Williams looked miserable. His voice was shot, his head was hung, he said the high desert winds were "stupid" and if the weather conditions didn't improve he threatened to come back a week later wearing a gas mask.
Last night was round two of Pharrell versus the Coachella elements, and Williams declared himself the victor. No designer gas masks were needed, his voice didn't fail him and the producer-singer-rapper brought out another round of celebrity guests -- Jay Z one moment, Usher the next, as Williams once again viewed the live music experience as something akin to one long all-star medley on the Grammy Awards.
As confetti rained on the crowd and inflatable air dancers sprang to life, making Coachella's Outdoor Stage look like the most festive, celebratory car dealership in all the land, Williams concluded his set with "Happy" and then declared that the previous 60 minutes were the "best" live performance "of my life." There was no complaining this time around, just professionalism and Williams' good-guy charm.
"The desert got me last time but not this time," Williams said earlier.
By and large, the set was a relatively faithful, albeit slicker, re-creation of the one he attempted last week, a performance that was broadcast live on the Web with every close-up of the artist's pained face making for gripping drama. This time, like an Olympian who stumbled out of the gate, Williams got the gargantuan, celebrity-packed crowd (Andre 3000! Beck!) in full-on cheerleader mode.
Of course, it helps when one has much of the past year's defining radio hits on his side -- "Blurred Lines," "Get Lucky" and the aforementioned "Happy" among them. Looking beach-party dapper in sneakers, a cardigan and denim shorts, the latter of which appeared more like swim trunks from a distance, he was the rare pop star with everyday appeal. (Oh, yes, he was wearing the hat.)
His approach on stage is as casual and sly as the arrangement of set opener "Lose Yourself to Dance," one of Williams' 2013 collaborations with Daft Punk. Less is more, as the groove is driven by a deft funk bass and Williams' feather-light falsetto. With a versatile combo behind him, Williams tackled selections from his solo album, "G I R L," as well as his hits working as a producer for other artists.
Williams once again brought out Busta Rhymes for a bracing "Pass the Courvoisier, Part II" and handed the stage over to Usher for his "U Don't Have to Call," a light-stepping morsel in Indio with its stuttering groove and effervescent space-age synths. Last week's big surprise, Gwen Stefani, didn't make a repeat appearance, but Coachella second-weekend attendees were treated instead to an extended appearance from Jay Z.
With Jay Z, Williams created a mini variety show-within-a-show, as the superstar rapper received a cameo that touched on parts of four songs. The guitars got funky on "Frontin'" and Williams took a water break while Jay Z held down the stage on “Excuse Me Miss." The two then engaged in some back-and-forth shimmying on crowd sing-along "La La La (Excuse Me Miss Again)" and Jay Z egged on Williams as he reached for a brief moment of James Brown freakiness on "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)."
Although the Coachella crowd has been conditioned to expect surprises, the set toed the line between a Williams solo set and a Williams career retrospective television special. Nobody wants to be a grinch and deprive festival-goers who paid $375-plus their host of "only at Coachella" headline moments, but one couldn't help but think the set could have been just as effective, perhaps even more, if Williams had focused almost exclusively on cuts from "G I R L."
That's in part because the album is a highly detailed yet breezy affair, touching a wide swath of R&B styles but never getting excessive with any of them. They are feel-good, wholesome entertainment, even when they hint at something raunchier. That's difficult to achieve, and Williams did it at Coachella.
His six female backup dancers were more like collaborators than eye candy. The most frisky moments were under police-like searchlights, and when they got intimate with Williams, they were fully clothed in robes. The cartoonish backing images also lightened the mood, as colorful, multicultural animated characters brought brevity to even such songs as N.E.R.D.'s "Lapdance," where the guitar honked and hollered as if it were a brass instrument.
Even as he tackled songs made famous by Clipse, Snoop Dogg, Robin Thicke and Daft Punk, it was a testament to Williams that this all felt like his show. And it became clear as the night went on that some of those A-list guests need Williams much, much more than he needs them.