It wasn’t the shift to two weekends that convinced me, nor was it the prevalence of EDM as a driving force in lineup selections. It wasn’t the 2012 rainstorm, the first in Coachella history, or the 2013 sandstorm, or the (slightly more tolerable) wind and dust that marred this past Saturday. It wasn’t even the waves of heat that fried me Friday like an egg as my nails curled inwards to the sound of Grouplove’s vocalist butchering Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love” as 4:00 turned into 5:00 at the main stage – the performance artist/Grouplove superfan doing a bizarrely well choreographed dance with a staff, and the internal debate of actually exerting myself in the unholy temperatures or ritually murdering everyone in the band being the only things occupying my otherwise exhausted mind. Friday, mind you.
No, these are all the things we’ve come to expect at Coachella, the beautiful scenery made hazy by the weather and the bands determined to make their own legend notwithstanding. It was more the press releases I received every day informing me of the latest updates at the festival, groundbreaking events like: “Fergie and Emmy Rossum, who had both stopped by the Samsung Galaxy Owner’s Lounge yesterday, came back to cool off in between shows and posed for photos together. Both were perfectly clad in festival gear with Emmy Rossum rocking a flower crown and denim and Fergie sporting a black hat and fringed purse,” or; “Both Emma [Roberts] and Dianna [Agron] shared their ‘it’s all good moment’ (i.e. what keeps them feeling positive) on a chalk wall at the [popsicle company] Fruttare Hangout – for Emma it’s her friends. Dianna said she’s always happy, and drew a few hearts on the wall! Dianna also joined the on-site DJ to spin some tunes for festivalgoers in the Fruttare Hangout.” Fuck yeah! This is the kind of on-the-ground shit the rest of the peasant festivalgoers can only hope to find out about. Celebrities, being paid to be normal and hawk wares – they’re just like us!
It’s a problem symptomatic of all large festivals, but Coachella, more so than most, is the kind of Event that renders little things – like the music and the artists – small in the grand scheme of things. Corporatization is not necessarily the new normal – it is the normal – but in 2014 it was even harder to ignore. This was the year of craft beer and high-end food items, of celebrity “spottings,” of Outkast devoting ten minutes of their set to what amounted to an ill-advised Future plug. Tickets this year were impossibly difficult to get, the normal wait-and-see approach to scalpers backfiring on thousands of people who were greeted with $1,000+ prices the week of the festival. And the less said of the over-capacity crowd that routinely flooded the rave temple that is the Sahara tent the better.
The funny thing is, I am still in love with Coachella. There’s something to be said about the pristine environs, the sun setting over the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountains castling a kind of deathless half-light over the stages, the desert beige contrasting with the finely manicured green of the polo fields. It’s a beautiful, lovingly landscaped place, the festival itself designed for maximum trippiness; palm trees lit up by rainbow lights, fresh art sculptures and interactive installations every year, a giant goddamn floating astronaut. Goldenvoice certainly knows their audience. Finally, of course, the music. No matter how excited or unimpressed I am by a lineup – and 2014 was certainly not my favorite edition of the festival in that department – these artists care about the cache Coachella has, even as the festival becomes increasingly oriented around the Top 40. They want to put on the best show they can, they want to be remembered, and they want to make some new, presumably drug-addled fans to build an ongoing relationship with. For a weekend, at least, it’s my favorite place in the world and a place to see some truly exceptional artistry. All of Heineken’s hijinks and the never-ending stream of people #YOLOING can’t change that.
The cold weather by the coast is nowhere to be found Friday, with temperatures reaching what will be a weekend high as I scurry past a strangely welcoming security line (“Do I have anything in my bag?? Certainly not, sir!”) to the Gobi tent for indie rock duo Wye Oak. The band’s drastic shift towards synths (showcased on their upcoming album Shriek) didn’t mar their live show one bit – Jenn Wasner still has a hypnotic quality to her stage presence, and the band’s seamless transitions between their older and new material was well received. Or maybe I was just happy to be out from the sun. The Dum Dum Girls at the Outdoor Stage didn’t offer such a respite, but damn if I wasn’t impressed with their verve and vigor, resolutely playing up their image with an all black ensemble and sweating out their candy-coated fuzz with cheerful precision as the rest of us tried to find what shade we could.
The pressure of being a buzz band at Coachella ain’t easy, particularly when the sadistic lineup wizards pick you for a cherished late afternoon set at the bucolic Outdoor Stage, but Haim, for all their youth, have never seemed particularly intimidated by the grind of performing up to unrealistic expectations. I headed over there after the aforementioned Grouplove fiasco (who, for some reason, introduced themselves via A$AP Rocky’s “Wild For The Night,” likely a cheap yet ingenious ploy to attract the dilated pupils of the average attendee) and was pleasantly surprised by the sisters’ easy charisma. It’s hard to get crowds as diverse as your average Coachella group to passionately care about a performance, but Haim ripped into their set like they were at a house party. The responses were louder for Bastille in the Mojave tent, or Lorde and Pharrell on Saturday, but that’s just another symptom of the mainstream creep that has transformed Coachella over the years. People left the Mojave after “Pompeii” – suffice to say that Haim kept everyone rocking throughout their entire set. You don’t want to leave these songs.
Packed sets like Bastille and Ellie Goulding’s stand in stark contrast to shows like the one Neko Case put on as sunset reached the festival grounds. Despite being at the Outdoor Stage, hers was a thrillingly intimate set – I was nearly within reach of the fence – and that voice caressed a small but immensely appreciative audience. Age has caught up with Case, that trademark red hair shot through with grey at its roots, yet she still sounds as rebelliously vibrant as she has since the ‘90s, and her crack band of industry veterans clearly love supporting her. “That Teenage Feeling” from 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood was one of many highlights, but it was the road weary “Calling Cards” from last year’s superb The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You that really broke me down. Case’s banter game was on point, as well: “There’s a little falcon flying around up there, looking all cute. That’s the kind of shit that gets me off – falcons,” she said at one point. The sun casting all sorts of brilliant colors over the mountains, the temperature lowering, the crowd downright enraptured by a born performer – this is what you come to Coachella for.
I was not yet willing to travel over the side of the fields where the Sahara tent and a sea of people/walking molly dispensers were both dancing with the kind of vacant look only electro and a really whopping high can give you, and, of course, throwing up everywhere. So I decided to stay at the Outdoor Stage for Broken Bells, aka James Mercer’s band that’s not the Shins. Mercer is the kind of workmanlike pop craftsman that has kind of gone out of vogue recently, and the songs reflect this – stellar production, rock-solid writing, and a stage presence honed by years and years of touring. But no matter how great Mercer can be with Broken Bells – and songs like “October” and the epic, sweeping “Mongrel Hearts” were pretty damn great – there’s always that realization in the back of your mind that this would all be eminently more satisfying if these were Shins songs. But, hey, the lights they created for this set were some of the best I saw all weekend. At a visual spectacle like Coachella, sometimes that’s enough.
It’s hard to still appreciate Girl Talk for the notorious genre he helped shepherd into the limelight and the countless less talented imitators he spawned, not to mention the frat-scene-on-steroids/ecstasy crowds he now inspires, but there he was Friday night, playing likely the biggest stage of his life and giving it all as if it was his first house party and he still had something to prove. Greg Gillis’s true moments of inspiration are now few and far between – in 2014, what haven’t we heard? – but don’t tell that to Gillis, who was headbanging and sweating a preposterous amount while surrounded by a crowd having the party of their lives in between a ridiculously outsized pair of Jordan Jays props. The real gift was the live rapping from Girl Talk’s entourage, which included Busta Rhymes, Too $hort, E-40, and Juicy J, and the occasional moment where Gillis’s mad scientist routine struck gold (see: Busta rapping “Looking At Me Now” over Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up”). Oh, and apparently Paul McCartney is a Girl Talk fan?
The problem with having Outkast launch their farewell tour at Coachella isn’t the venue, or the impossible expectations, or even the crowd – it’s the oversaturation of Outkast themselves. Outkast at Coachella was supposed to be another in a long line of festival Events, a legendary reunion in front of tens of thousands of fans. Instead, it was another awkward reunion, still in front of tens of thousands of fans, but not the kind of fans Outkast were no doubt hoping for. To be frank, Outkast’s promised addition of forty more festival dates (eighteen currently confirmed) lessened the impact of the occasion a bit. Coachella can be streamed, and other festivals are certainly cheaper to get to, particularly if you’re not from California. The crowd at Coachella, then, was your standard Coachella crowd, a mish-mashed cross-section of music lovers and partygoers, not necessarily Outkast diehards. For all the cheers “Bombs Over Baghdad” and “Ms. Jackson” received, there was a muted quality to the less played cuts, and the guest stars were either underwhelming (Janelle Monae) or simply out of place (Future, whose spot was a virtual promo for his new album, severely cut into the set’s momentum).
It’s easy to lay the blame on the crowd, who really only got up as a whole for the hits, but it’s hard to expect your regular festival attendee to know the words to twenty-six of an artist’s songs. It’s even more difficult when the artists themselves seems so out of sync with their own material; at times, it felt like Outkast was less the sum of its parts and more an awkward fit, put together piecemeal by the promise of money yet still irretrievably broken by time, a feeling made more obvious by several solo Big Boi cuts. While the group’s rapping was as stellar as ever, especially Big Boi’s dexterous wordplay, the sound was occasionally thin and distorted, something not helped by the whipping winds, while the production in general lacked a cohesive theme, something to push it into the canon of landmark Coachella performances. All in all, it sounded like Outkast going through the motions, a feeling that doesn’t bode well for the prospect of those other twenty-two rumored concert dates. It’s not so much that the crowd failed Outkast, as social media in the show’s immediate aftermath would have you believe – it was that Outkast failed the crowd.
- A$AP Ferg making an awkward yet earnest festival debut at the Outdoor Stage and a fat crew to lend him support.
- Shlohmo, Bonobo, and Nicolas Jaar carrying the torch of electronic music away from the mainstream, neon confines of the Sahara tent.
- Chromeo playing like they belonged at the main stage, combining the dance and disco cheese of Cut Copy with the rock band strut of Phoenix. The band has yet to hit it big, but that kind of confidence and party-starting ability won’t go unrewarded for much longer.
- The Afghan Whigs and the Replacements carrying the torch for rock band reunions, to varying levels of success.
- Me realizing AFI were still a band and that frontman Davey Havok was not actually in jail when I heard “Miss Murder” leaking over from the main stage as I watched Haim. Apparently, AFI still make for a decent arena rock act.
- Performance art piece? Political statement? Interpretive modern dance? I’m still not sure, but the Knife’s closing set at the Outdoor Stage was appropriately bewildering, equal parts opaque and happily, deliriously weird. A dance party, but not for humans.