They say rock is dead, but it’s wearing a sequined catsuit, headlining the first night at Coachella and called Harry Styles. At least that’s what he wants you to think. The British musician’s show was, in many ways, tailor-made for the California festival’s return: his last album, 2019’s Fine Line, was surely designed with floppy fedoras and flower crowns in mind with its 70s folk twangs, Canyon Moons and sexy-sad sun-dappled songs about love, lust and regret. But tonight, all the bombast and pomp of a Big Stadium Pop-Rock Show is in flamboyant full force. There’s a brass section! More wailing guitars than a Led Zeppelin B-side! Hip-swivelling! A Prince cover!
From the moment that Styles ripples down the spiral staircase without missing a step – and then drops the ostrich he’s wearing on the beat, to reveal his dazzling Freddie Mercury-styled deep V – this is a show dripping in slickness, already honed from his recent tour. Save for some ‘countryside footage’ of rutting bunnies and what looks like the Cotswolds (it is Easter, after all), Styles is also here to show that he is not just a Rock God Reborn but an adopted All American Son. That chest-ripping one-piece is striped in red, white and blue (the rest of his band in blue denim), and he brings out All American Gal Shania Twain for a respectful raunch-off.
But back to the beginning. Coachella being the commercial behemoth it is, Styles has a new album to promote (Harry’s House, 20 May) and he starts off by firing his disco rocket with its excellent lead single As It Was (think Robbie Williams, by way of Metronomy, or Joe Jackson). From here, it’s a hi-NRG, muscular set that glides through funk to folk-rock, songs like Adore You, Golden and, of course, Watermelon Sugar, transformed into anthemic festival moments. His largely female band remains in the background until he brings them front of stage for a new song about being jealous of boyfriends (“To boyfriends everywhere, fuck you” is the preamble), during what I’m just going call Harry’s blue balls section. It’s a perfectly fine acoustic number, with quadruple-pronged harmonies, continuing the pretty-ditty leanings of his last album. The ex-girlfriend lament Cherry swiftly follows.
Fine Line was criticised, if anything, for lacking substance beneath the Bowie-indebted style, revealing scant detail about one of pop’s biggest male solo artists. But live, it’s clear that the stuff that makes Styles is his gift as a nimble performer. He’s no Freddie Mercury, sure – there are no octave-hurdling Olympics ripping through that nice pop contest voice – but tell that to the people fainting in the front row after all that thrusting. The show goes on late by festival standards – it’s by now way past midnight – but no matter, because soon Styles announces like a teacher at the school prom that there will be “dancing for 12 minutes”, just to keep everyone pepped up. Though Canyon Moon does indeed become a joyous jamboree with a brass band in matching red boilersuits.
Part of the fun of Coachella is who gets brought on stage for a guest warble, but Styles keeps it light on surprises. Tonight, he is the spectacle. But the set’s most touching moment is when Twain arrives, rising on the podium like a go-go dancer in dazzling minidress and launching into the campy, bouncy, glammy rock of her world-dominating anthem Man, I Feel Like A Woman. “In the car with my mother as a child, this lady taught me how to sing,” says Styles afterwards, as they sit down on stools to duet You’re Still The One. “She also taught me that men are trash.”
But not Styles, right? Late Night Talking, his final new song, is further evidence of a funk-fuelled direction, sounding not unlike Jessie Ware. It’s promising but as yet uncertain whether it reveals more of the man behind the mask. Sorry, sequins. As his Sign O’ The Times cover comes to a delirious close, fireworks shooting overhead, it’s hardly been Beychella but this is the show that suggests Styles is a solid showman, here to stay, sequins and all.