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Portugal. The Man were the rock stars that Coachella deserved

Coachella 2018 Weekend One - Sunday
Portugal. The Man at Coachella 2018 Weekend One – Sunday (photo by Elli Papayanopoulos)

As you should expect by now, Coachella happening means thinkpieces about the death of rock at Coachella (and elsewhere). It’s true that rock bands don’t tend to reign supreme at Coachella the way they used to, especially compared to hip hop, EDM, and pop acts (all three headliners were hip hop/pop this year), but you don’t have to look that hard to see that it’s not entirely dead. One of the biggest acts at Coachella 2018 is a rock band, and it’s one that’s been right under our noses for a long time: Portugal. The Man.

Portugal. The Man have been making sometimes proggy, sometimes psychedelic, sometimes poppy indie rock for a while, and they’ve been consistently good at it and pretty prolific. They did an album a year from their 2006 debut through 2011’s In the Mountain in the Cloud (their major label debut), and only waited two years to follow that album with 2013’s Evil Friends. (They go back even further if you count John Gourley and Zachary Carothers’ old emo band Anatomy of a Ghost.) Maybe it’s because we took it for granted that Portugal. The Man would release reliably solid albums so often, or maybe we unfairly forgot about them when they took an unusual four years to follow Evil Friends with 2017’s Woodstock, but the release of Woodstock didn’t seem like it would be very monumental to the types of indie rock critics and journalists who tend to write about rock’s life and death (it got so-so reviews and landed on zero major year-end lists). And boy were we wrong.

You probably know by now that Woodstock‘s “Feel It Still” is a huge song. Like, beating The Chainsmokers and “Despacito” at the Grammys and hitting No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 huge. It’s inescapable, and even if you don’t think you know it, you’ve probably heard it in Apple and/or Vitamin Water commercials. It prompted headlines like “Portugal. The Man is a rock band with a pop hit at Coachella,” but it’s not a pop hit. It’s a rock hit, and it’s a really good rock hit. (According to Billboard, it’s the biggest crossover rock hit since Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know.”) It’s as world-conquering, addictively catchy, and endlessly replayable as monstrous indie rock songs like “Midnight City,” “My Girls,” “All My Friends,” “Kids,” “Take Me Out,” “Float On,” or “Mr. Brightside,” and it’s certainly not more “pop” than any of those songs.

“Feel It Still” is by the far the biggest song that this band has ever written, but it’s not a fluke. For more where it came from, “Keep On” from the same album is very similar and very good, and with the driving guitars that fuel it, it’s just a little more traditionally “rock” than “Feel It Still.” Both songs sound like they could’ve taken off at any point in the last 15 years of indie rock — they just happened to come out in 2017 and get a little more embraced by the pop crowd than the rock crowd.

Portugal. The Man explore a handful of other sounds throughout the album, and from listening to it, it’s easy to see why this rock band has been able to get hugely successful at a time when hip hop is mostly more popular than rock music. They’re still a rock band, but they clearly embrace any crossover that rock, hip hop, and pop have. Danger Mouse, who also produced Evil Friends, produced or co-produced a handful of songs on Woodstock, and he’s been bridging the gap between rock and hip hop for years. Mike D of The Beastie Boys, who bridged that gap two decades before Portugal. The Man ever released an album, also produced a handful of songs on Woodstock. They also brought in some big name pop songwriters and producers like John Hill and Stint. It’s different in a lot of ways, but a good comparison for Woodstock is Arctic Monkeys’ AM, which has riffs like a classic rock album but a rhythm section that fits in with modern-day radio (Woodstock and AM also both have killer falsettos). Portugal. The Man successfully go in other directions on Woodstock too, like on the soulful opening track “Number One,” which features modern blues/soul artist Son Little and samples classic blues/soul artist Richie Havens, who performed at the actual 1969 Woodstock festival.

Armed with this great, popular album, Portugal. The Man hit the Coachella stage on Sunday (4/15), and perhaps as a way of saying “Yes, we are a rock band,” they opened with a medley of Metallica‘s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and Pink Floyd‘s “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2″ before playing a note of their own music. On a festival that had like two bands that could pass as metal, PTM’s Metallica intro was some of the heaviest music you could hear at the fest. (Things may get slightly heavier at weekend two, when X Japan bring out Marilyn Manson.) They did this sort of thing a few other times in their set too, working in snippets of The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath,” and T. Rex’s “Children of the Revolution.” These were welcome hat-tips to PTM’s influences and to where they come from, and it’s nice to see them breaking out the kind of teases/segues that have helped get them jam band cred, but they didn’t need to do partial classic rock covers to pull off a successful rock band Coachella set. They had a packed crowd, who (going by the live stream) seemed very into it, and they sounded fantastic. In addition to their core band, they were joined by a chorus of backup singers, string players, and horn players — not to mention some awesome oil projection-style psychedelic visuals — and they sounded massive. They kept their set mostly to Woodstock and Evil Friends, and played nothing earlier than 2011’s In the Mountain in the Cloud, and it didn’t feel disappointing at all that they ignored the first half of their career. There’s a good argument to be made that the sound of Woodstock and Evil Friends is the sound that works best for them. A few years ago, I might’ve suggested that Portugal. The Man already peaked. Now it feels like they’re just getting started.

Portugal. The Man play Coachella again this weekend, and they have several more tour dates after that, including other big festivals like Mountain Jam, Outside Lands and Firefly, a Toronto show with Broken Social Scene in May, Red Rocks with Oh Sees in August, a NYC show at Forest Hills Stadium with Lucius (whose members frequently perform with Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, who PTM frequently cover) in September, and still much more.

Watch a fan-shot video of their Coachella 2018 weekend one set, and the videos for “Feel It Still” and “Keep On,” below.

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