There was a surreal moment on Saturday night of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival that typified just how much the festival has changed over the past twelve years. As the orchestral swells and backing vocals dissipated from Leslie Feist’s huge backing band as “Feel It All” faded away into the dusk on the Outdoor Stage, Feist waved to the cheering crowd and thanked them for the support, adding nonchalantly, “see you next weekend!” It was an odd, wrenching tearing of the reality-altering cocoon that Coachella has built up around itself. For months leading up to this weekend, the hype and excitement for what has become the quintessential American music festival is nearly all-consuming, eventually leading to a weekend that, regardless of the seeming impossibility of meeting expectations, manages to live up to it all. Whether you spend your weekend camped in the baking heat, surrounded by a swell of campers who flash eternal smiles despite conditions that would appall the writers of the Geneva Convention, or carpool in from the surrounding small vacation towns of Indio and Palm Desert that turn into veritable cities of drug-addled youth and defiantly stereotypical hippies, Coachella remains a singular experience.
Yet there Feist was, breaking the illusion that this was a unique happening. The splitting of Coachella into two weekends was arguably necessary, given that 2011’s festival sold out in less than six days and this year’s edition was a two-week sellout within a couple hours. Arguably, the festival was less crowded during the first weekend and, although the predictable scalping took place, tickets were miraculously available for fire sale prices on eBay a few hours prior to the festival’s start. But there’s something to be said for that one weekend ideal, the concept that this is a three day experience and a unique lineup that cannot be repeated – the memories are in photos and in videos and, most importantly, in the minds of those who went, but surely never again in the flesh. But, of course, there’s another weekend of Coachella coming up, and it’s difficult to say how it will be different from the first. The bands are identical. The set times are identical. It’s the inevitable transformation of Coachella into a commodity, the same thing that’s happening with all of the music industry now that the actual item isn’t selling as well. Touring, merchandising, flashy neon sponsoring – Coachella is a trailblazer in the intersection of all these sectors, a trailblazer in the quest to make music profitable once again. Soullessly corporate it may be, but there’s not a much better way to cement a commodity’s value in the music community than by hammering home the point two weekends in a row.
The music, though; for all the Red Bull and Heineken signs, the subliminal buzzwords vibrating throughout the finely manicured lawn of the Empire Polo Club, it thankfully remains the focal point. Everyone was here to see it, and for all the corporate shilling and exponential growth of the electro-bro movement, it’s still what makes Coachella such a special event. On its first day, though, 2012’s version pulled a fast one on me. I woke up to a beautiful cloud-free sky and temperatures hovering just above 70 and decided shorts and a t-shirt was just the thing – little did I know that I would soon be avoiding the outdoor stages like the plague and shivering in the tents, trying to make my way to the middle where sweaty crowds offered some respite.
Grabbing a quick bite near the Outdoor Stage gave me a chance to see a bit of the Dear Hunter’s early afternoon set, one that gave me a bit of a wake-up jolt with some impressive guitar pyrotechnics and a rousing crowd sing-a-long to “Home” from the White EP. Clouds were already starting to roll in from the west, however, and I retreated to the Mojave tent to see GIVERS launch into their debut Coachella performance. The band didn’t disappoint – drummer Kirby Campbell and fiery vocalist Tiffany Lamson had a great time providing some double percussion action on a number of songs, and the latter’s husky vocals gave some spark to crowd favorites like “Meantime.” The band was enjoyably loose, and although frontman Taylor Guarisco made some regrettable expressions while he sang, the set was a dance party success, frayed nerves and all.
The real dance party, however, was in the Sahara tent (aka the Bros on Ecstasy tent), where electronic music and an unrelenting bass assault could be heard every hour of the day. I caught the end of French DJ Breakbot’s bouncy disco before fellow countryman SebastiAn stepped behind the decks in a crisp suit to make Ed Banger Records proud with a set of hard electro that would put Justice to shame. His set was about style as much as substance – as HAM and pulsating as his beats were, his video collage of disaster news reports and futuristic, V for Vendetta-style “votez SebastiAn” propaganda made him stand out from the fist-pumping crowd. Pretty sure the dude smoked at least a whole pack the entire set as well (lighting with a match, of course), often with his hands clenched tightly behind his back as he stood at attention. Follow-up act Feed Me, meanwhile, came off like the generic Skrillex clone his recent releases have hinted at, a caricature enhanced by the mindless, almond-eyed crowd in attendance.
Winds were starting to gust near 20 mph, which led me to make the executive decision to skip Yuck and GIRLS and only catch the tail end of Arctic Monkeys on the Main Stage, who nevertheless did a good job maintaining a reasonable racket over the wind and occasional bursts of rain. I sampled Grouplove (enjoyable, if helplessly clichéd) and a bit of WU LYF in the Gobi tent, where Ellery Roberts’ opaque vocals provided a nice background to the increasingly chaotic weather outside. The grunts and howls were as ridiculous as they were on record, but the post-punk guitars were nice and clean and the crowd was clearly into the percussive stomp.
Light rain with heavy winds and temperatures in the 60s and 50s may not seem too rough to many readers, but considering where I’m from (Florida) and where I live (Los Angeles), this was an unusual and entirely unpleasant Coachella, at least for day 1. Given the usual operating temp of 90+ degrees, many agreed – although Pulp’s reunion show on the Main Stage was a huge draw, the turnout was still underwhelming thanks to the weather. That didn’t prevent me from seeing the “Common People” finale – Jarvis Cocker, looking and sounding appropriately theatrical in a dress shirt and tie and exhorting the crowd quite effectively – before heading over to M. Ward in the relative comfort of the Mojave. Ward’s was an ace set, if workmanlike – his band, all grizzled veterans, were near clinical in their proficiency – but it was when Ward waved them off to do his own thing solo that his talents with an acoustic really shined. It was a shame that the lovely, finger-burning solos he picked out with swift delicacy had to contend with the thumping bass and seizure-inducing lights a hundred yards away at Alesso’s set in the Sahara.
Firmly entrenched in the warmth of the Mojave, I wasn’t too willing to leave to check out Frank Ocean in the Gobi (sound issues derailed the beginning of his set, although Tyler, the Creator guested later on – Odd Future in general seemed to be everywhere at once this weekend). That proved to be one of the best decisions of the weekend. Every year an artist I never expected great things from ends up blowing me away: Vampire Weekend shocked me in 2010, while last year’s surprise was undoubtedly Shpongle. This year, the Rapture absolutely crushed the Mojave with a set heavy in party starters. As old as the band is starting to look, the band’s experience showed in their tight, funky arrangements, which didn’t leave a note to chance. Songs like “Whoo! Alright Yeah…Uh Huh” and “Sail Away” were regularly extended out to jam-like proportions, and frontman Luke Jenner was the highlight, combining feverish guitar work with note-stretching yelps (I seriously have no idea how his voice is still intact after hitting those falsettos for over a decade). There was liberal cowbell; there was near-moshing throughout the tent; and best of all, of course, was the ridiculously groovy climax of “How Deep Is Your Love,” where Gabriel Andruzzi’s saxophone clinched a deliriously successful performance. I now gladly worship at the sweaty altar of the Rapture.
Having missed the Black Keys last year, I was determined to see them in their headlining slot on the Main Stage. Having seen M83 earlier in the year, their conflict with the Keys wasn’t as big a decision as it could have been, and I wasn’t disappointed – for a band that has so rapidly ascended to mainstream rock’s summit, the Keys still know how to put on a good show, even when that show is viewed from hundreds of yards away in the grass. The band kept the focus on the chugging riffs and Patrick Carney’s thudding drum work, keeping the lights to a minimum, and the crowd responded well to their bare-bones approach. They responded by playing a set filled with hits – if I had a problem, it’s that the band neglected some of the gems in their older catalog. But they gave the people what they wanted, and in that respect, they were the perfect headliner.
Luckily, I still managed to catch the murderer’s row that M83 closed with – a Daft Punk cover (“Fall”), “Midnight City,” and “Couleurs.” From there, it was a tough decision to stay in the Mojave to catch Amon Tobin’s legendary stage setup, where I met up with Sputnikmusic regular aokuneff (aka Andy Okuneff, who is short and terrible at fantasy basketball but otherwise pretty cool). This meant missing Swedish House Mafia – the preeminent destination for the tens of thousands of the neon-wearing, furry-boot-wearing, glow-stick-waving contingent that dominates the Coachella audience in 2012 – and the Horrors, the gothic shoegaze band from Britain closing the Gobi tent. The latter was a hard decision; the former not so much, and it’s not because Swedish House Mafia are terrible live (they’re merely okay, especially when under the influence of drugs as much of the attendees were).
Coachella has followed the sphere of pop music in gravitating towards electronic music, beginning with Tiësto’s headlining set on the Main Stage two years ago and continuing with their booking of the hottest names in EDM for the Sahara tent, which was packed well beyond full for nearly every set of every day. I was offered drugs on a fairly regular basis, and the stare of the average concertgoer circa midnight usually involved pupils as big as quarters. The explosion of EDM isn’t something I’m particularly biased against – after all, it made the crowds at some of my favorite bands’ shows much less claustrophobic – but the continued prevalence of electronic music is one trend that seems destined to permanently change the makeup of Coachella itself, with so many ticket buyers seeing it as just another jam-packed rave to slide in alongside Electric Daisy Carnival and Electric Zoo. Indeed, for all the cultish adoration that many websites lavished on the bill when reformed acts like At the Drive-In, Refused, Pulp, Mazzy Star, Madness, et al. joined it, it still seemed like the majority of the concertgoers were more interested in seeing the latest flavor-of-the month DJ, and the aura of Coachella has suffered a bit for it.
Maybe that’s why Amon Tobin was such a blast of fresh air. Working from within the middle of a wall of lighted projection cubes (his ISAM video mapping design), the Brazilian producer didn’t drop any hectic beats, or crowd-pleasing drops, or four-to-the-floor womps, or bending wobbles; he tinkered and molded his sound, letting the kaleidoscopic display do its work (at one point shifting into a spaceship, at the other devolving into what looked like the inner workings of Satan’s own grandfather clock). It was the best marriage of aural and visual sensations I would see all festival, and an exhilaratingly unconventional experience when stacked up against many of the rest of the weekend’s electronic offerings.
And then I went to slam dance along with the other degenerates in the Sahara to Canadian filthstep producer Datsik’s combination of bass squelches, sewer melodies, and ten-foot-tall LED robots. Some things never change.