Even several days after the end, it’s hard for me to talk about Coachella in very many concrete terms. I saw a lot of artists; I met a bunch of people and even more freakshows; I spent my nights and mornings in campgrounds that would have called for UNICEF intervention in a 3rd world country; my sobriety was tested early and often; and I had more fun than I ever would have expected possible in such a short period. Those are the facts as I can see them now, and I certainly have plenty of opinions below. But as a whole? Coachella is difficult to conceptualize and even harder to summarize, a three-day festival that transforms a white-collar polo field into a musical oasis under the blazing hot desert sun. There were really only three constants over the three days: heat, drugs, and music. I was ready for the first, unsurprised but a little shocked at the overwhelming prevalence of the second, and (for the most part) utterly floored by the latter. Coachella is an experience, and anyone who tries to describe it in words will be doing a disservice. It’s more than just who played what and how well they played it, but it’s also so evasive a feeling that it’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been there. So please, if you ever have a chance, be it to make it to Coachella or Bonnaroo or Lollapalooza or wherever, do yourself a favor and try to trip out there. You’ll never regret it.
I was up by seven in the morning thanks to my group’s largest mistake of the weekend – camping. It’s an experience, to be sure, but unless you enjoy waiting two+ hours for a shower before the sun is even up or prefer the constant catcalling of drug-addled kids and drunk middle-aged sloths to hotel air conditioning, I would advise against it. Not to mention the sun, which is a more effective alarm than any clock could be with the kind of heat that reaches everywhere. I finally trekked out around 1:00 pm to the festival grounds, which are a 180-degree turn from the dead grass and hardpan of the campgrounds. Surrounded by mountains and with picturesque palm trees flanking every stage, the festival is a literal oasis in the desert, bright grass and a serene vibe that could only really be appreciated hours before the majority of the festivalgoers got there. Minneapolis rapper P.O.S. hit the Gobi stage around 1:35 and seemed in awe at the size of the crowd that had come to see his critically acclaimed rock-infused rap. The live band set up aided his jagged rhymes quite well, with dual drummers and even a sharp guest spot by P.O.S. on the guitar.
Although some concerts benefitted from it, I repeatedly wish the artists had more time on their sets, but Coachella runs on a strict schedule. P.O.S. was off within forty minutes, a shame considering his immediate connection with the crowd and their surprising support at such an early time, but such concise set times did enable me to see many more acts I otherwise never would’ve bothered with. By 2:30 I was over at the main stage to see up-and-coming Washington, D.C. talent Wale. Something to note: any artist who performed on the main stage automatically became a must-see if no one else interesting was playing. Wale wasn’t particularly mind-blowing, especially after P.O.S.’s superior flow, but the combination of the main stage spectacle and the sheer size of everything (the crowd, the stage, the ridiculous light shows) made it more than worthwhile.
I moved from tent to tent for a while after Wale, catching New York’s As Tall As Lions first. They put on a mellow and workmanlike set of experimental rock that mirrored their albums in seeming to go on for far too long. Drummer Cliff Sarcona saved the show, however, absolutely destroying his drum set with rhythm after rhythm of intense, jazz-inflected funk work. In the Sahara tent (the de facto electronica stage), I caught rave sensation Proxy, who paid homage to his Russian roots by playing the grimiest, most industrial house music I’ve ever had the (dis)pleasure of listening to. Nearly felt like I had to take a shower afterwards.
Left Proxy to check out MGMT-imitators Yeasayer in the Mojave, who put on a surprisingly dark set that turned off a large portion of the crowd obviously expecting more “O.N.E.” They eventually acquiesced, but the tribal drums and oddball synths the band churned out beforehand were a much more interesting perspective on the band.
One of the major disappointments of the weekend had nothing to do with Coachella itself – the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland led to many cancellations, including Frightened Rabbit, the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Gary Numan, and plenty of other bands, including the Cribs, who I was planning on seeing later Friday afternoon. It threw a whole mess of wrenches in other Coachella acts as well, from missing light crews (Phoenix) to missing backing musicians (the Raveonettes).
Native Los Angelenos She & Him, however, had no problems when they came on to the Outdoor Stage, the second largest of the festival, as sunset neared on Friday. I am happy to report that Zooey is just as irrepressibly cute in person as she is on the screen, and although M. Ward was sort of creepy with his ‘70s porn star vibe (guy’s stache is ridiculous), the two put on the best show of the day so far. Deschanel put any doubts to her live singing to quick rest, belting out the duo’s ‘60s Brill Building/folk impersonations with ease. They also offered up a rare encore, a scorching cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins “You Put A Spell On Me” that was just Deschanel and Ward’s screeching, blistering guitar as the sun set behind them. One of the highlights of the weekend.
One of the lowlights, unfortunately, was Boston hype train Passion Pit, who came on after She & Him. Singer Michael Angelakos’ affected falsetto too often wasn’t up to the task of reaching out over the entire audience, too often dying out in a faint cry or simply not going anywhere at all. The band was decidedly dead to begin the set as well, performing a lackluster version of “Make Light” that lacked the pulse-pounding energy of the album. They made up for it near the end, however, closing with fist-pumping performances of “Sleepyhead” and “Little Secrets” that fed off the energy of the massive crowd.
After that I took a dinner break (the food options at Coachella were surprisingly delicious and varied – I recommend the chicken tikka masala burrito), and caught parts of electro-pop firebrand La Roux and Pitchfork darlings Grizzly Bear. The former was disappointing, her rather one-dimensional voice buried low in the mix, but the latter put on a note-perfect show, although the band themselves seemed a little distant and unresponsive to the crowd.
LCD Soundsystem hit the main stage at nine with a vicious rendition of “Us v Them,” James Murphy seeming more than a little intoxicated as he rambled about the stage in an all white ensemble. A lot of people didn’t know how to take Murphy and his razor-sharp backing band – Murphy mumbling the literal nonsense to “Losing My Edge” had those not familiar with LCD unsure as to what exactly was going on, but as I mentioned earlier, a main stage act rarely disappointed. But Murphy and company hardly needed all the flashing lights and array after array of speakers to get their point across: their mission was to get down, and not just the audience – keyboardist Nancy Whang could be seen pouring vodka in a water bottle with abandon and Murphy rarely made sense in between songs. The audience followed suit.
I’ve never thought a band made of Ivy League sweater-wearers and tongue-in-cheek Afro-pop bastardizers would make a live show that would equal the immediate fun of their debut, but Vampire Weekend proved me quite wrong. Perhaps the tightest set of the weekend, the band emanated a palpable sense of joy just to be at the festival, and the audience responded in kind, singing along to practically every song. And wow were they together – they nailed each and every song throughout their set and seemed more in sync with each other than the majority of groups I saw. They didn’t mind pleasing the crowd, either – name your favorite Vampire Weekend song and it was most likely in the set list.
Speaking of hits, Jay-Z might have been the biggest surprise of the festival for me. I wasn’t expecting much from a rapper who has long seemed content to rest on his laurels and let the younger kids do the talking, and I was looking forward to checking out Sahara headliner deadmau5 after a little bit of Jay-Z. But, damn, the guy is a born performer. He never seemed like he deserved to be there – rather, he gave off the vibe that he was honored to be at the festival, that he wanted to enjoy it along with the crowd than just entertain them, and it showed over the course of his nearly two-hour set. The crowd was immense and he fed off them, thanking individual fans in the audience, repeatedly exhorting everyone to raise their hands or sing along, and constantly grinning like a kid at his first show. Name a hit and he played it – opening with “Run This Town,” lighting up the entire stage with a fluid light show of the New York skyline with “Empire State of Mind,” introducing Rick Rubin for “99 Problems,” laying down “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)” over U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” beat, leading the crowd in a sing-a-long to Oasis’ “Wonderwall” – the combination of Jay’s flawless rapping with the ace backing band was going to be hard to top the rest of the weekend. And while Beyoncé’s cameo on “Forever Young” wasn’t exactly as awesome as the rumored Dr. Dre appearance would have been, it was still a rousing closer to an epic first day.