For all the hype surrounding Coachella 2011 – the six day sellout, the mounting confusion and problems regarding the festival’s new wristband ticket method, the fear of scalpers selling fake tickets and wristbands not shipping out in time, once the festival was under way it was still the same old Coachella. Friendly people slapping hands and exchanging “happy Coachellas!;” temperatures routinely soaring above 100; enough drugs to make Noriega and Kesey blush; and music. Music that was at times brilliant, enthralling, obtusely weird, fist pumping, merely okay and atypically shocking and everything in between, but still the lifeblood of the festival no matter who came . . . and there were a lot. From shirtless fraternity boys to forty-year-old scene veterans, from stoned, bleary-eyed hipsters to day-glo-adorned rave kids, Coachella stuck them all in a boiling polo field of a pot and, for one weekend at least, helped them appreciate everything and everyone else. Coachella may be becoming more of a place to be seen than appreciated nowadays (over the course of the festival I saw Katy Perry, Tara Reid, Paul McCartney and even David Hasselhoff, all almost exclusively in the VIP lounges enjoying the drinks rather than the music), but few festivals can match its uniting experience. And it remains unforgettable.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Friday was going to be the coolest day of the weekend – a “pleasant” 93 degrees, blinding sun interrupted by even the hint of clouds and ice water turned to lukewarm piss within minutes. I’d have been damned if I had mad the same mistake as last year, namely camping, where I’d be lucky to sleep past 7 in the morning due to the intense heat and was treated to a lovely 3 hour wait for a shower. No, this year I was in a house a mile away from the grounds, but still had to endure an epic walk to actually make it inside the festival, where the desert hardpan gave way to carefully groomed lawns, carnival rides, and tents beckoning with the welcoming shadow of A/C. Even by 2 in the afternoon the festival was already getting crowded, but it was a welcome sight to see: six stages, all with their own distinct personality, all pumping out music to a sweaty mass of people already thirsty for it.
People who know me know I like the womp – thus, some filthstep at 2 in the afternoon didn’t seem so deviant. I walked over to the Sahara tent to catch Canadian dubstep artist Excision throw down some nasty grooves. It was more than a little disconcerting to see people get bass-faced so early in the heat, but I suppose that’s what happens when people take ecstasy before sundown. Bro savior Skrillex came on next, and by then the Sahara tent was overflowing with slick college kids dying to get as close as possible. A perfectly good set was ruined by the crowd, which routinely disregarded neighbors with errant elbows and frantic pushes further into the tent, all galvanized by Skrillex’s sewer rhythms and pounding bass that encouraged moshing. I could only take so much roid rage before heading over to the Outdoor stage to catch the latter half of Titus Andronicus. I like Skrillex, but the disparity between his packed set and Titus’ bare field was telling – Coachella’s audience more and more leans towards the flavor of the month, leaving Titus’ truly passionate performance to only a few hardcore fans on the outdoor stage lawn. But hey, after hearing “Four Score and Seven” right next to the stage, maybe it’s better this way.
From there I skipped The Morning Benders to catch Odd Future and see what all the hype was about. I found it a bit odd (oops) that they were in the Sahara tent, a tent exclusively dedicated to electronic acts), and thought it typically abrasive of them to curse at their sound guy after the group themselves came on late. Nevertheless, they killed it initially, with Hodgy Beats’ rapper-on-lots-and-lots-of-coke stage presence livening things up. But as the set wore on the crowd grew a bit less receptive, probably due to the group’s choice of songs that were fairly unknown to the majority. Luckily for them, I’m sure everyone will have plenty of time to hear new material before next year’s festival.
I split my next set between The Pains of Being Pure At Heart in the Mojave tent and former world champion turntablist A-Trak in the Sahara. The Pains did an acceptable job bringing their Belong tunes to life on stage, but with a slim crowd and a stage presence that barely rose above “mildly excited,” too much of their fuzzy shoegaze sounded the same. A-Trak, however, had no problems getting the audience and himself into it, mixing his signature brand of rapid-fire scratching and electro house into a late afternoon frenzy. Highlights included his dropping of a new Duck Sauce track “The Big Bad Wolf” and his fan favorite “Heads Will Roll” remix. And at Coachella, the beat don’t stop: Dutch DJ Afrojack came on seamlessly afterwards and blew up the crowd with international hit “Take Over Control.”
As the sun set on the Outdoor stage I went to see SoCal locals Cold War Kids. I’ve often given singer Nathan Willett a lot of crap for his hit-or-miss vocal approach, but as good as he sounded on new album Mine Is Yours, he sounded positively perfect live. From classic tunes like “Hang Me Up To Dry” to newer throat stretchers like “Bulldozer,” Willett was on point the entire set, and the crowd loved him for it.
While eating dinner I caught the definition of a washed-up band, Interpol, at the end of their set on the main stage. It’s not that Interpol is that bad live; rather, the crowd could barely get into any of their newer songs, and the contrast between those and the mass singalong “Evil” garnered made the difference all the more obvious. I then had my biggest choice of the weekend: Black Keys at the main stage or Cut Copy in the Mojave at nearly the same time. My choice was quickly made for me – Black Keys went on late, and I only saw a couple songs before rushing over to see the last half of the Aussie electro-pop group.
And damn, how I wished I had seen their whole set! From the moment I saw them launch into “Take Me Over” off their new record Zonoscope, Cut Copy was locked in. The band was tight and disciplined yet totally into the tunes, rocking along with the crowd as Dan Whitford exhorted the audience to dance along. He was the real spark of the show, moving from side to side and jamming on the keys, completely in step with the crowd’s neon energy. One of my greatest fears is going to see one of my favorite bands and realizing their vocalist doesn’t sound as good as he does on record, but Whitford quickly proved that he’s the real deal – the closing trio of “Hearts on Fire,” “Need You Now” and the anthemic “Out There On The Ice” would make Cut Copy a hard act to top all weekend.
After flitting between dubstep “supergroup” Magnetic Man (whose set proved a little too slow for my Friday night fever) and main stage titans Kings of Leon (whose set proved surprisingly good, if not altogether stunning), I settled in at the Sahara to catch German producer Boys Noize close things out. I had seen Alexander Ridha a couple times before and he had never disappointed; not surprisingly, the half of his set I saw was the best in the Sahara all day. Amidst a rave-colored crowd that spilled far out of the Sahara into the lawn beyond, his pulsating electro got everyone off their feet and moving, with some aid courtesy of his tremendously epileptic light show.
Alas, I decided to catch the last half of dance pioneers The Chemical Brothers at their headlining set over at the main stage. It wasn’t exactly a mistake as much as a poorly chosen change of pace. The Chem Bros were solid, no doubt, and their epic light show was well suited for the massive main stage apparatus. But maybe it was just the gargantuan expanse of the main stage lawn, or the fact that I was so far back by the time I got there, or just the sudden contrast between the tight unrelenting dance confines of the Sahara and the wide open lawn, but Chem Bros just didn’t hit with the same immediacy of Boys Noize. It was a little disappointing, but it’s hard to blame the Chemical Brothers, as they were on point throughout the night. Besides, after an opening day like this one, it was almost impossible for anything to get me down.