The worst part about Coachella 2013 was easily the dust storm that turned Sunday into a set piece from the Depression and choked the life and easy visibility out of a struggling Red Hot Chili Peppers closing set. 2014’s storm wasn’t nearly as bad; for the most part, walking around during the day Saturday felt like you were travelling on a strange, ominous alien planet, the sun reduced to a weird, haunting half-light and the wind picking up curlicues of dust seemingly at random while bits of sound escaped intermittently over the fields. That creepy feeling was magnified by the fact that everyone seemed to be running from one destination to another, as if constantly striving to avoid the almighty wrath of the weather gods/the narc chasing them. It was how I imagined walking on Mars might be, if everyone on Mars was really, really fucked up all the time.
Of course, God being the sick bastard that he is, Saturday turned out to be my favorite day of the festival. When you kick things off with a blogger’s wet dream of Foxygen, Ty Segall, and CHVRCHES on the Outdoor Stage, it’s easy to ignore the fact that your choice of t-shirt and board shorts for the day will prove quite uncomfortable against pelting sand and an insidious wind chill. Like Friday’s HAIM set, Coachella is made for a band like CHVRCHES, not quite on the verge of widespread popularity but certainly on the cusp. And like HAIM, Lauren Mayberry and company were up to the challenge, her voice competing with Iain Cook’s thick brogue and the wind to propel a surprisingly punchy set. The acoustics of the Outdoor Stage sometimes fail to properly carry the requisite amounts of sound with regards to certain bands and conditions – a problem reinforced by Sleigh Bells’ latter set – yet CHVRCHES were still able to follow the cardinal rule of festivals: keep it loud. The choruses worked as well as they do on record, matching up to the band’s loaded array of sinewy synths, and Mayberry’s banter with the crowd was natural and well received by one of the biggest audiences of the day. That effortless ability to transcribe a personality from a record to an enraptured throng is the biggest reason CHVRCHES walked away one of the weekend’s biggest winners.
A story of opposites: New York City dance-pop act and DFA acolytes Holy Ghost! harnessing the responsive, packed energy of the crowd in the Gobi tent while 100 yards away Julian Casablancas, a late addition to the lineup, ripped through a set of mostly yet-to-be-released songs with his band the Voidz. “To all the people leaving, it’s OK,” Casablancas remarked at one point to his largely transitory audience. “This music is meant to alienate all the right people.” It’s hard to tell if Casablancas was being serious or seriously trolling, but his disdain for the audience was palpable and the band’s hectic mix of sludgy riffs and feedback soaked howls was very nearly hilarious in how purposefully off-putting it was. The bigger surprise may be that he didn’t set fire to a copy of Is This It at any point. Holy Ghost! are where the Strokes used to be – tapping into a kinetic sort of dance-rock that harkens back to the Rapture and, certainly, Casablancas’ old band. They have no need for big statements, and neither did the crowd; their set was lean and pulsing and well received, tapping into the kind of sweaty joy that rock ‘n roll can bring when you don’t think too much. I’m sure Casablancas would have hated it.
The best parts of the festival, of course, are the ones you don’t see coming. I already knew Washed Out would play a great set – the speaker I stood under for that show damn near blew out my eardrum – and that Kid Cudi would get the crowds up regardless of whether they’d heard his subpar past records. These are artists with well-worn pedigrees who know how to put on a good show. Even Sleigh Bells, Coachella old hats by now (this being their 3rd appearance!), proved that sticking to a formula still kills it, even though their set would have been much more punishing, and therefore exponentially better, if it had been in a tent instead of the Outdoor Stage. Sledgehammers just work that much more effectively when you have nowhere to run. I was shocked, then, to find Lorde one of the pleasant surprises of the festival. Going into it she was sort of a known unknown for me; an artist with a record I loved and a live show I had heard terrible things about. Yet her voice, aside from a few missteps (“A World Alone” in particular being noticeably warbly), and her oh-so-17 meandering to share a personal story that ended in the kind of Livejournal inspiration I thought I left behind last decade, she was confident in her sound and commanding in her presence. The moment was clearly overwhelming, but Lorde is fast becoming the type of pop star who can handle such an event with ease.
When it comes to things I wasn’t expecting, though, my favorite set of the weekend is right at the top. Many attendees were already well aware of Future Islands and idiosyncratic frontman Samuel T. Herring thanks to their legendary David Letterman performance a few weeks back, and as one of my girlfriend’s favorite bands I was more than happy to check them out. I’ve never been a huge fan of the group on record, probably due to Herring’s dramatic vocal stylings, but seeing, as they say, is believing. No one is able to match Shakespearean drama with bizarre dancing and a vocal style so passionate and earnest as well as Herring. It’s impossible to not be totally absorbed. Herring is a little man, but his command of the stage and the audience was mesmerizing. He beat himself with his own fist, only to slither off the floor into a strangely sensual dance or march defiantly onto the edge of the stage, all while alternating soft croons with possessed growls and an emotional catharsis that is almost painful to watch in its intensity. “This lead singer is mental,” a friend texted during the show, and to the uninitiated, that is what it must look like. Yet under the black curtains and chandeliers of the Gobi tent, it felt more like a life-affirming revival, Herring baring his soul upon an unlikely synth-pop backdrop to a receptive and awed audience. It’s a bloodletting I never wanted to end.
There are other things you don’t expect, although perhaps in hindsight, you should. As the sun goes down, people become increasingly unhinged, at times approaching that unfortunate vortex where Handling Coachella goes wrong. Among a media pass’s many powers is the ability to use the media-only bathrooms, which, aside from about 1/20th the amount of fecal matter and vomit, has an honest-to-God sink. Yet the call of the wild can’t always be tamed, and convenience had me braving the dangers of the peons’ bathrooms at multiple points across the festival. At one such unfortunate stop, my girlfriend opens one door and encounters a finely sized pile of excrement in the stall. In the stall, mind you – that is, on the floor of the stall, and not in the toilet itself, where your average human does his or her’s business. Being People Who Can Handle Coachella, we step back to find another one, only to find a bug-eyed soul in sandals, denim cut-offs and face paint rapidly approaching. Before we can warn her, she jumps into the stall without a second glance, not even noticing the still-warm shit she’s stepping in, squishing and spilling over onto her bare feet. It goes without saying that we bounced immediately – perhaps a short walk to the media tent would be just the ticket.
By Saturday night, the sandstorm that had been skirting around the edges of the festival all day was in full bloom, coating concertgoers and stages in a layer of dust while bandanas replaced sunglasses. Josh Homme noted the ironic beauty in the occasion as Queens of the Stone Age took to the main stage, reveling in the harsh terrain of his youth and launching into a tight, gritty set that made a good case for QOTSA as the preeminent performing band of their generation. Featuring a light show that was one of the best of the festival, Homme and company ripped through a number of Like Clockwork tunes and a smorgasbord of hits, including crowd favorites “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” and a snarling rendition of “Go With The Flow.” It was their first performance at the festival in over a decade, and the band and their weather-beaten, jagged sounds were more than suitable for the desert environs. Closing with a roaring version of “A Song For The Dead,” Homme finally cemented his status as the most badass leading man of the entire weekend, proudly proving that home court advantage isn’t just relegated to sports.
As far as headliners go, Queens of the Stone Age could have ended the night and I would have been thrilled. Muse, however, gave the main stage their best shot shortly afterwards, and while Muse remains one of the best arena rock acts in the business – dem guitars! – Matt Bellamy’s continued vocal issues submarined what should have been several highlights (a timely, respectful cover of Nirvana’s “Lithium” notwithstanding). And not to dismiss the rest of the stages’ headliners, who ran from King of the Sahara Skrillex to more venerable acts in Pet Shop Boys and the Dismemberment Plan, but Saturday night clearly belonged to Nas. The New York rapper, celebrating the 20th anniversary of Illmatic, ran through the entire classic from beginning to end, bringing out Jay-Z for “Dead Presidents” and then really tearing the imaginary roof off the Outdoor Stage with Diddy on “Hate Me Now.” Celebrating the past via the present is a favorite of Coachella curators, and Nas, following in a long line of headlining rappers that includes Jay, Wu-Tang Clan, and Jurassic 5, proved more than up to the task. “Classic” is a word that tends to get thrown around with little regard to what it actually represents, but in his showmanship and utter command of the stage and the crowd, Nas showed that he has always belonged in the conversation. “If it wasn’t for you, hip-hop wouldn’t have arrived to the place it has,” Diddy noted at one point, and that’s certainly true. Coachella, for one night at least, could say the same.
- The Pixies catering to the fans with a set heavy in classics and with only a light sprinkling of Indie Cindy cuts.
- Indie group Warpaint playing a set that split the difference between their newest self-titled and 2010’s The Fool and established them as a buzzy Mojave act to see for weekend two.
- Electro house DJ Dillon Francis debuting an absolutely ridiculous new stage show, dubbed the “Gary,” from the brilliant minds over at V Squared Labs (whose interview from last year you should definitely check out).
- English indie poppers Bombay Bicycle Club playing to a packed mid-afternoon set in the Mojave tent and seeming simultaneously overwhelmed by the occasion and totally in love with the massive crowd.
- Beyoncé jumping on stage to dance and support little sister Solange in the Gobi tent.
- Israeli techno artist Guy Gerber bringing the house down at the Yuma tent as the sun began to set and people sought shelter from the winds and dust. Oh, and Gerber is apparently good friends with Diddy, who stopped by to sip on some drinks. As an enclosed building with AC and the constant thud of eclectic DJs, the Yuma was a good place to relax and dance away from the sun for a little bit. The thing is, it’s nearly impossible to tell how much time passes – it certainly never seems to make a difference to the attendees whether it’s 3 in the afternoon or midnight. That beat never stops.
- GZA making a surprise appearance at the Heineken House and rapping to an intimate crowd that had no idea what they had just wandered into while scoping out the beer scene. Just a reminder that, sometimes, the best sets aren’t even on the bill.
- Empire of the Sun doing whatever the hell Empire of the Sun does on stage in the latest theatrical production of theirs to hit the festival circuit.