“This is not a concert,” Donald Glover said relatively early into his performance at Coachella on Friday night. What he was trying to give the audience, he insisted, was “an experience.”
Accurate? Well, not quite.
Headlining the first day of the annual desert festival as his alter ego Childish Gambino, Glover played approximately 90 minutes of music with help from a backing band.
So, yeah, a concert.
But you could feel the distinction he was making. One year after Beyoncé redefined what’s possible at Coachella, Glover was clearly motivated to elevate his performance — to offer “something special,” as he put it before asking folks in the crowd to put their phones away so as to be present in the moment.
And though he fell short of Beychella — really, who won’t this weekend? — Glover did pull off an impressive spectacle that shared some elegant visual DNA with the earlier show.
What his production didn’t have — especially compared to Beyoncé’s — was great tunes.
It’s not that Glover can’t rap. And it’s not that he can’t sing. But neither his rapping nor his singing are exceptional; they get the job done in songs that can themselves be rather workmanlike — sturdy and well arranged, but with little of the invention that defines the stuff he loves by Drake and Kanye West and Parliament-Funkadelic.
When he’s going old-school, as in “Boogieman” and “Terrified,” he suggests classic-soul karaoke; when he’s going au courant, as in “Sober” and “3005,” he sounds like an eager acolyte.
All that applied to Friday’s show, which included those songs as well as a pair of flimsy feel-good jams from last year (“Summertime Magic” and “Feels Like Summer”), an unreleased new tune with echoes of West’s “808s & Heartbreak”) and, of course, “This Is America,” his Grammy-winning viral smash about the commodification of black suffering.
But if Glover was unremarkable as a musician — perhaps this is why he was backing away from the idea of a concert — he was downright brilliant as a maker of images.
Throughout the show, cameras followed him closely, framing him in shots that felt as cleverly designed as those in Beychella (which, tellingly, is due to be re-presented in a Netflix documentary out next week).
He started his set on a raised platform in the middle of the audience, with a camera in his face feeding startlingly intimate pictures to the enormous screens on either side of the stage.
He repeatedly strolled down a long runway, each time a camera on a dolly carefully tracking his moves.
And at one point — after asking if anyone wanted to smoke with him — he jumped into the crowd, a camera right behind him, then selected a guy for the job. The resulting shot, with Glover and the dude jammed together with some hulking security guards around them, was beautifully composed and even more beautifully lit.
No wonder Glover took his time with the bit; it was a true pleasure to watch. (Unfortunately, he barred The Times and other media outlets from photographing the show, which is why you don’t see a picture of any of these wonderful scenes at the top of this post.)
Near the end of the show — which featured no mention of “Guava Island,” his new film costarring Rihanna that’s streaming on Amazon — he created another striking moment when he ducked backstage, camera behind him as always, for a quick gulp of water.
When he got back there, as we all saw, Janelle Monáe (who’d preceded him on the festival’s main stage) was waiting for him, and the two shared a lovely moment right there in front of us.
Did Glover know Monáe would be there? Did Monáe expect Glover’s film crew to be trailing him?