So four years and four Coachellas later for me, and you’d think the desert festival had lost the capacity to surprise. Indeed, the checklist for a Coachella Weekend goes something like this: Up-and-coming indie band makes good on their promise via rousing early afternoon set that ensures double the audience for next weekend; sunburns will be accrued at melanoma-threatening rates; sound problems will invariably affect what could have been an amazing set; the unholy signature dish that is Garlic Crab Fries will simultaneously thrill and torpedo my digestive system; the weather will turn on you; a band I never would have predicted beforehand will become my favorite set; the shadow of Daft Punk will hang heavy over the entire weekend, regardless of the fact that most of the attendant rumors come from neon-tank-adorned bros who first heard of the French duo after “Stronger” introduced the pair to a whole new audience of college-age Natty Ice fans. And on and on it goes.
So, to get it out of the way – no, Daft Punk didn’t play. This despite many a false sighting, including a literal stampede to the Gobi tent after a trailer played before TNGHT’s set, the same teaser that later played before the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ main stage gig. There were no big surprises for the weekend – no offense to Phoenix, who killed it, but no one has been surprised by anything R. Kelly’s done since 2002 – and more people probably tweeted wondering who the fuck the Stone Roses were in the first place than turned up to see their headlining turn Friday night. Yet Coachella remains a singular experience with a singular vibe that nevertheless never seems to get old, despite the growing rush of ravers, the increasingly corporate influence, the fact that a beer cost nine goddamn dollars and how most everyone ended up buried under a layer of dust after Sunday’s sandstorm (God is not a Red Hot Chili Peppers fan??). The music remains at the heart of it all, enhanced rather than distracted by the pristine desert environment, and so long as Coachella remains the preeminent American music festival, it’s safe to say that the caliber of music available for any number and demographic of fans will continue to kick a goodly amount of ass.
It’s 1 in the afternoon and the bad weather that marred last year’s Coachella is currently ruining prissy Angelenos’ moods by the coast a hundred miles away, and good riddance to it. The sun and triple-digit temperatures here make tent sets a must this early in the day – Lord Huron’s music in the Mojave tent was appropriately dusty and windswept, last year’s Lonesome Dreams conjuring up sun-blasted images of folky dirt roads. Trevor Powers of Youth Lagoon, seems to have long ago abandoned any pretense of normalcy, taking the stage after Lord Huron in a leopard-print shirt and multi-colored hair that would make Wayne Coyne envious. Tracks from his new LP Wondrous Bughouse translated well live, particularly the sweeping “Mute” and an epic closer in “July.”
It’s early, but the haze of drug use has already begun to set in over the festival grounds. As appropriately psychedelic as Powers’ set was, most people are already enjoying the fruits of their illegal purchases next door at the Sahara tent, aka the rave tent, aka the candy kids tent, aka the easiest place to indulge in a dancing chemical party of Bacchanalian proportions. Dillon Francis, Thomas Gold, Wolfgang Gartner, Bassnectar, etc. – the lineup for Friday reads like a who’s-who of Ultra and fraternity playlists, a worship of the bass and the drop that is almost ritualistic in its nature, an epileptic light show of carefully crafted images and pogoing dancers, repetitive and mind-numbing and irrepressibly enjoyable, at least for a few minutes. Stimulants are practically a necessity for any longer. The first entry in my long-running series “People Who Can’t Handle Coachella” is a short girl in approved raver gear, furry boots and all, lying motionless on the Sahara grass and already being attended to by paramedics. It is 2:43 in the afternoon.
Another case study: if you are standing in line for a festival and security asks you to remove your shoe, don’t take it off and then decide to run away before the guard can look inside. He will call people after you, and running on one shoe is not a good look. Getting tackled and hauled off to the cops isn’t, either. “This is what happens when you fuck with me,” Miguel says after the guy in front of me pulled this little stunt. Miguel is short and enjoying the newfound power that comes with being security at the Yellow Gate probably more than he should. “Tell me if you have any drugs or you’ll end up like him.” Being someone Who Can Handle Coachella, I laugh and say no. Since I am wearing sandals, I assume he thinks I am a trustworthy person and lets me by after a cursory bag check. A few yards past Miguel, two girls with impossibly long legs are popping what is surely Advil and a man in a KEEP CALM AND RAVE ON tank and the filthiest mustache this side of Anthony Kiedis is staring at his shoes and drooling.
When it comes to main stage acts, the earlier the better. There’s something to be said for being able to lie down and enjoy (relatively less crowded) sets, and the wind hasn’t yet picked up, meaning the sound reaches further and clearer through the warm, shimmering heat. Both Metric and Passion Pit did what bands on a main stage are supposed to do – play the hits, keep the crowd engaged, and throw up a few curveballs. For the former, the highlight was the lovely Emily Haines leading the crowd through an acoustic rendition of “Gimme Sympathy;” for the latter, the manic energy and refined singing of Michael Angelakos was a vast improvement over the band’s pitchy 2010 set. Modest Mouse was predictably great, including debuting a new track that went over well (underrated theme of the week was a ton of bands showcasing new material), although they broke the cardinal rule of ironfisted Coachella organizers by going over their time limit and getting their sound cut off near the end of closer “Float On.” Issac Brock was undeterred, defiantly finishing off the song even though only those near the front could hear a thing.
Later on, as the crowds swell, the sound on the main stage tends to suffer, though usually not through any fault of the bands themselves. The larger the spectacle, the more prevalent it becomes – the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Zero” was a powerful tune, but ended up more distorted than it perhaps would have in a more controlled environment. Karen O was positively maniacal in an outrageously sequined outfit that made her look more like the female Ziggy Stardust than the brittle punk that dominated the ‘00s. The look was fitting for a new tune like “Sacrilege,” where the band brought out a full gospel choir, yet I couldn’t help but feel the song would have been more effective near the end rather than as the first of the set. Much more effective was the band’s haunting rendition of Mosquito standout “Subway” and MVP Nick Zinner, whose quietly violent guitar playing stole the show from Karen O’s flamboyant yells.
Despite the majority of the crowd only knowing “Girls & Boys” and “Song 2,” Blur absolutely destroyed their set, leading many an ignorant American to proclaim that these guys were headed for something great. Another gospel choir made it on for “Tender” (still their best live song), and the band only seemed to grow tighter and more confident as the show went on. Graham Coxon and Damon Albarn seemed to get along surprisingly well, leaving me with visions of the two finally finishing the reunion album that stalled last year. Blur – best band to come out of the Britpop scene? Arguable for some, but for me Blur cemented that reputation with this show.
The Outdoor stage remains the gold standard for festival viewing, however; the perfect mix of blissful open-air environment, great acoustics, and a viewing expanse that usually means you are never too far away from the action. The lineup is almost always superb, as well – in the afternoon it was Britt Daniels of Spoon and Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade plying their trade in new supergroup Divine Fits, which marries the strong rhythmic backbone of Spoon with Boeckner’s more innovative guitar pyrotechnics and some pervasive synth work. Local Natives (my new favorite band after the band gave away two free tickets in a Los Angeles scavenger hunt the day before the festival) played an intense set during the coveted sunset slot that drew equally from Gorilla Manor and new album Hummingbird.
Closing with two polar opposite acts in reunited hip-hop group Jurassic 5 and reformed synth-poppers Tegan and Sara, the Outdoor stage was in danger of taking away the spotlight from Blur and closer Stone Roses. Indeed, Tegan and Sara drew a crowd easily five times as larger as the “Madchester” group, more a testament to the poor scheduling instincts of the organizers and the generational gap in Coachella attendees than anything else. Not to say they didn’t deserve it; the crowd knew nearly every Jurassic 5 song, and their deep, bass-heavy grooves sounded better on the Outdoor stage than they would have anywhere else, and Tegan and Sara earned their lofty closing spot with a greatest-hits set that liberally sprinkled in Heartthrob’s best tracks. While some of their older songs would have projected better in a smaller, more enclosed venue, Heartthrob’s mega-watt pop rang loud, clear and triumphant in the open night.
- Four Tet playing to a full house in the new Yuma tent, an enclosed space that evoked a hip, lounge-y vibe with couches, artwork and wood flooring. The line was also out of control, although this could have been due to the air conditioning.
- The unholy collaboration between Boys Noize and Skrillex that was the hotly anticipated Dog Blood set in the Sahara, packed to overflow.
- Lee Scratch Perry moving surprisingly well for a man of his age in the desert heat.
- Stars, Beach House and Band of Horses proving the vanguard of traditional indie bands is still very much a factor in drawing huge crowds.
- Justin Vernon coming on stage to perform with and give the seal of approval to up-and-comers Polica.
- Japandroids predictably bringing the house down in the Gobi tent – the choice to put them in a tent rather than an outdoor stage was a brilliant one given the vibe they brought and the compact energy of the crowd.
- Surprise favorite set of the night: FOALS delivering a rugged, raucous set of tunes late at night in the Gobi that hit all their new and old classics and made me realize just how great a song “Spanish Sahara” really is.