It can be exhausting to consider hypothetical guest stars at music festivals, especially if those five minutes of potential onstage collaboration can be discussed as a possibility days beforehand. The Billboard staffers that headed to Coachella were aware of the Daft Punk rumor weeks ago, around the time when Phoenix's booking agent revealed that there was to be "a few surprises" at the band's first Coachella headlining gig. Since then, a Daft Punk guest spot during Phoenix's performance was whispered to be a fact, then shot down, then floated as a strong possibility, then vehemently denied, all from different sources. By the time Phoenix kicked off its Coachella headlining set with new single "Entertainment," the general public did not know exactly what was in store -- but deep down, those who were aware of the Daft Punk rumor surely felt a twinge of disappointment when scanning the band setup on Saturday and only seeing humans manning the keyboards.
The expectation of A-list guests is not a new problem for Coachella headliners: despite his magnificent set at Coachella in 2011, for instance, Kanye West has expected to have more collaborators than just Justin Vernon and Pusha T. Where was Rihanna? What about Jay-Z? West opted to forgo a gaudy set list in favor of his own singular vision for the performance, which ended up being one of his more memorable solo shows to date. There were no alarms and no surprises, but West ascended to Coachella Hall of Fame two years ago on the strength of his own (many, many) hit songs and epic live setup to coincide with 2010's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy."
Phoenix does not possess as many hit singles as Kanye West, and some have wondered aloud if the French group is beloved enough in the U.S. to headline one of its major festivals. But the four-piece, led by the fearless Thomas Mars, has become a supremely tight live artist over the past decade, with a bulletproof album (2009's "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix") it's been playing in its entirety along with cuts from new LP "Bankrupt!," due out April 23. Shirtless dudes in the far reaches of the main stage crowd hollered along to "Lasso," and couples took the opportunity to suck face while Mars coolly propped himself against a monitor to watch the visuals accompanying the instrumental "Love Like a Sunset Part I." As Phoenix plowed through their recent gems -- "Girlfriend," "Lisztomania," "1901" -- and new songs like "Trying To Be Cool" and "The Real thing," the possibility of Daft Punk taking the stage next to them started to evaporate, and a smashing Phoenix set started to feel like it wasn't necessarily lacking anything.
Coachella Day 2: Phoenix's R. Kelly Surprise, The Postal Service's Special Delivery
Then: the voice of a legend pierced through the mid-song darkness onstage. "My mind is telling me no... but my BODY!" The stage quickly illuminated, and R. Kelly stood front and center, a grin creeping across his face. It was a surprise guest that no one saw coming: no message board battles, no suggestive tweets, not even an expressed affinity between the two artists hinted at this. There were throaty cheers from all ends of the Empire Polo field, as well as wide-eyed looks of disbelief and stammered expletives from audience members who couldn't believe what they're seeing. Phoenix... just brought out R. Kelly? The act is just as mind-boggling as a Daft Punk appearance would have been perfectly reasonable.
Wearing a jewel-encrusted cap and blue button-down, Kelly dove in to "Ignition (Remix)" while the Phoenix members played the "1901" instrumental, creating a real-time mash-up that sounded incredibly buoyant. The experiment spiraled out of control when Kelly started singing his "I'm a Flirt (Remix)," then switched back to "Ignition (Remix)," then essentially gave up and lovingly hugged all four members of the group before leaving the stage. The untidy collaboration lasted for about four minutes, but that blink-and-you'll-miss-it effect -- combined with the total shock that greeted nearly every member of the audience -- made the moment even more special. Nothing about the "R. Kelly + Phoenix" equation makes sense, but who needs sense when you get to "toot-toot" and "beep-beep" in a crowd with thousands of other music fans on a crisp California evening?
The R. Kelly appearance wasn't the end of the band's set; rather, Phoenix performed a stripped-down, emotional "Countdown" before shuffling toward "Rome" and presenting an "Entertainment' reprise as Mars crowd-surfed to his heart's desire. The band that Phoenix has become -- a legitimate festival headliner -- was on display in those last two-and-a-half songs; the R. Kelly appearance was just the cherry on top. Yes, a Daft Punk collaboration would have been more musically captivating, but never underestimate the adrenaline rush caused by an unforeseen and indispensable moment in live music, something that "R. Phoenix" became as soon as it happened.
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