When I first started attending and writing Coachella (way back in 2010 and just a couple weeks before this lovely website took me on as a staff member :0), I camped with the degenerates in the camping grounds and bought my ticket at the door. There was something liberating about being able to simply pack up for the desert a few days before the weekend to watch some of the biggest acts in the alternative scenes play in one of the most beautiful yet inhospitable environments on the planet. Eight years later, Coachella is very much the same: a gorgeous piece of scenery full of beautiful people and artists looking to either make a name for themselves or secure stardom. It’s a one of a kind experience, the only festival in the United States that has such a distinct vibe, sound, and a carefully curated aesthetic – tied up in the art, music, design, interactive experiences, and even food – that I promised myself I would keep coming out so long as my body obeys. At 29, I’m nearing the outer edge of the average Coachella attendee. The last thing you want to be is the old, balding guy busting out the rave shuffle in the Sahara tent. Even still, it would take a lot for me to stop altogether, especially with the sweet, sweet media access Sputnik can deliver.
With the addition of a second weekend in 2012, however, Coachella began to transform into the mainstream corporate behemoth it is today. For one thing, good luck getting tickets four months before, much less four days before. For all the (very deserved) plaudits heaped on Beyoncé’s performance this past Saturday, having perhaps the most recognizable name in pop music short of Taylor Swift headline Coachella would have been unthinkable only ten years ago. For that matter, I wouldn’t put it past Goldenvoice to check with Taylor for next year. The #selfie culture that has gradually infected most major pop culture events over the years is pervasive during weekend one – while my media duties prevent me from going weekend 2, I have long heard that the vibe then is much more easygoing, less VIP-obsessed, and generally how a music festival should be. A versatile lineup that included not only your standard up and coming indie acts but also artists like Cardi B, Migos, SZA, and the Weeknd ensured this would be more of a pop experience than ever before. It certainly didn’t disappoint in that respect—unabashedly aligned with obnoxious white people, Coachella’s crowd was the most diverse I’d ever seen, and Goldenvoice’s experience with immense crowds of 125,000 last year made for a more tolerable walking experience with an even larger attendance this year, although certain choke points were unbearable (sorry, but putting Post Malone at one end of the festival in the Sahara tent with Beyoncé starting on the other end of the grounds shortly thereafter was catastrophic).
On the other hand, with tickets now creeping close to $500 a pop ($1000 for VIP) and an overabundance of Heineken and other monetization of hash taggable experiences (the American Express tent, the Sephora tent, the Antarctic dome powered by HP, etc. etc. ad nauseum), Coachella is as much a commodity as ever before. With its surging popularity, you would think this would lead to a near flawless experience and logistics, but apparently there are some infrastructure problems that Goldenvoice has either overlooked or simply cannot handle. In particular, the dearth of cell phone coverage virtually anywhere in the festival after 5:00 p.m. every day of the weekend and the 90-minute wait to park on Sunday severely impacted everybody’s experience. Install some better goddamn cell phone towers Goldenvoice! I’m sure Verizon would be happy to plaster their name on what little real estate remains for sale. But enough crankiness—for all my lack of enthusiasm with regards to the mainstream baiting headliners this year, Coachella again delivered where it tends to shine the most in highlighting underappreciated acts and offering me an opportunity to see bands I’d never had a chance to elsewhere in my favorite venue on the planet. Also, Beyoncé. What a spectacle.
I try to make an attempt to listen to at least a couple songs from each artist on the lineup before heading out to the desert every year, but my group’s inability to make it out of our rental house before 2:00 p.m. every day means I unfortunately had to bid adieu to some acts I had hoped to catch booked unreasonably early: maybe next time Boogarins, Benjamin Clementine, Moses Sumney, and Slow Magic. Less upset that I missed 18-year-old DJ Whethan bring out the yodeling Wal-Mart kid during his afternoon set at the Sahara tent. Luckily, I was still able to catch the latter half of Amelia Murray, aka Fazerdaze, in the Sonora tent. Her debut, self-titled LP was one of my favorites and her mellow brand of indie pop set the mood perfectly for the start of the weekend. That the Sonora is air-conditioned certainly helped as well.
Even better were the Marías, the latest Los Angeles buzz band to absolutely blow the doors off their Coachella debut. They only have one EP out so far (last year’s superb Superclean Vol. I) but the songs – hypnotic, dreamy, and thrillingly sensual on record – translated well live. The interplay between couple María and Josh Conway is a key part of their appeal; the smoky lounge vibe between the two of them is sexy and melodically rich, the kind of chemistry that is impossible to manufacture. If you can see them on their Spring Fling tour this year, do it.
After that it was back into the heat to see Dirtybird Records co-founder Justin Martin play to the dilated masses at the Sahara tent. Perhaps the biggest change to the festival grounds this year involved moving the nominal dance music tents – the jet hangar-sized Sahara and the clubby, indoor Yuma tent, closer to the festival entrance and far away from the other tents. The shape of the Sahara was also greatly elongated, which generally made it easier to move around in but also caused the sound to suffer—a confusing design decision given most of the Sahara attendees are there to get assaulted by varying levels of bass. Martin himself met his usual standard excellence, but you could be forgiven for thinking his particular brand of precise house and pounding techno would have been better served by the closer, darker confines of the Yuma tent, rather than the enlarged Sahara during the day.
Given the choice between new soul sensation Daniel Caesar, pop whatevers the Neighborhood, and Bleachers, I chose the path of least resistance, i.e. the only act playing in a tent during that time. It helped that Bleachers had the best food by them (crab fries, bless you). I’ve had many chances to see Jack Antonoff’s vanity vehicle but never took them—although the Mojave tent was packed, Antonoff made it worthwhile. I’m not a huge Bleachers fan, and Antonoff’s Springsteen-lite shtick is more than a little affected, but the band knows how to play to a crowd, and the new record’s anthems were a hit. But seriously, bring back Steel Train!
Passing up Vince Staples’ set at the main stage (a tad bit of regrets there from what I’ve heard of it, although last time I saw him play Coachella it just felt like I was being yelled at), I split my time between the War on the Drugs on the Outdoor stage as the sun dipped below the horizon and South African house producer Black Coffee at the Mojave. The War on Drugs last played Coachella on the main stage in 2015, a set that was technically fine but suffered both from the earlier time of day and the massive surroundings. Whether it was the darkness aiding the band’s visually impressive light show or Adam Granduciel and company’s relentless touring schedule behind A Deeper Understanding sharpening their crowd-pleasing instincts, their performance this year – cathartic, expansive, and appropriately shredding – blew 2015 away. It was unfortunate that the size of the crowd was similarly lacking, unsurprising given the conflicts during that time frame and, for that matter, the rest of the night.
Black Coffee’s set at the Mojave tent was relatively subdued, but his brand of deep house was far better sued for the more open outdoor environment than it would have been in the Yuma tent, its usual home. It also gave him a chance to show off one of the more innovative lighting displays of the weekend. And seeing the DJ mix a technically impressive set with only one arm – he was involved in an accident in 1990 that left his left arm paralyzed – to a devoted crowd ready for a liftoff into Friday night was thrilling.
Much of the press surrounding this year’s Coachella starts off with something like “Beyoncé kills rock ‘n roll” or some other cliché in scare quotes, and to the extent the audience for your “traditional” Coachella acts – read: indie bands that could sell out the Hollywood Bowl, big ticket DJs – they are almost certainly right in that the audience for those acts was lower than ever before. I’m not sure if that is a signal of the changing tides of pop culture or a mere reflection of the latest Billboard charts, given that Coachella has been catering more and more to Top 40 over the years. It’s a bit of a shame for acts like the War on Drugs or St. Vincent, who thrive in open fields with large crowds to feed off of. The audience at St. Vincent was pitifully small given the stunning show she put on at night on the Outdoor stage (the plebs were busy seeing Kygo at the main stage). The cuts from MASSEDUCTION played beautifully alongside a druggy, horror-movie montage of visuals and strobe lights, the one constant Annie Clark’s ragged, filthy toned guitar cutting through everything like a rusty blade. Clark described her new stage setup, its debut, as “like a blistering, disturbing rock show” backstage, a fitting, concise description. She even through in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Nine Inch Nails tribute, appropriate given the performance’s tone. One of my favorites from the weekend.
My actual favorite set, however, was from a group that hadn’t played in the U.S since 2011. Soulwax performed Coachella a couple years ago as 2manydjs, their DJ incarnation, but when the Dewaele brothers took the Mojave stage late Friday, they brought along a full live band, including three (!) drummers and several keyboardists, along with a fetching red, silver and black color scheme that was either intended to induce seizures or simulate a disco ball. The band is seamless live, translating house cuts, funk jams, and straightforward rock tracks into an organic mix that never broke off or paused for breath, instead running straight through one hour like any other respectable DJ mix. There was palpable disappointment among the crowd, drenched in sweat despite the cold, when the show had to end.
While Soulwax’s U.S. hiatus was significant, it paled in comparison to who followed them on the Mojave to close the stage out. In their first set in the U.S. since 2005, Jamiroquai brought the funk to a packed house, keeping up the live dance vibes that were more authentic than most of what I heard coming from the Sahara all weekend. Frontman Jay Kay, wearing an absurd crown of LED purple crystals, was able to keep the Mojave packed despite competition from the Weeknd over on the main stage, an impressive feat for anyone but even more so for a group who the average Coachella attendee probably only knows from Napoleon Dynamite. Snoop Dogg coming out for a take on “Gin and Juice” was certainly one of the oddest musical pairings I saw all weekend, but it worked. It’s the rare bit of surprising alchemy that only works late at night at Coachella, when most of the audience’s drugs are only just tapering off.
After catching most of Jamiroquai and a bit of REZZ, I ended my night at the Gobi for Franck Hueso aka Carpenter Brut, the French electro/power metal DJ performing with a live guitarist and drummer. I described Carpenter Brut to a friend as “if Kavinsky listened to a lot of metal instead of synth wave.” Like the Drive soundtrack took a lot of speed and stuck itself in a room for 8 hours with Mad Max on the television, Carpenter Brut plays a turbocharged brand of muscular electro thick with cheesy ‘80s imagery and a hell of a lot of balls. Go see him live.
- The Weeknd’s headlining set perhaps suffered from a problem of hindsight when compared to Beyoncé, but I wasn’t the only attendee who thought his set lacked the passion of his past performances at Coachella. Whether it was the size of the stage, the pressure, or simply because his new EP didn’t translate so well to an arena-sized crowd, his set was professional, well performed and little more. When you headline Coachella, people expect something extra.
- Canadian dubstep/industrial/general weirdness DJ Isabelle Rezazadeh aka REZZ taking the Sahara tent to some dark places as she closed it down with a suitably odd mix of dungeon techno and squelchy sewer music. I loved it, but certainly not for everyone.
- Although I didn’t get a chance to swing by due to conflicts with St. Vincent and Soulwax, I have it on good authority that Perfume Genius slayed his evening set at the Gobi tent (shout out to fellow Sputniker and Emeritus redskyformiles for the tip and what I’m sure were some great photos).
- Skip Marley playing the Outdoor theater at 4:20 p.m. I see you Coachella.
- The Regrettes
- Avalon Emerson
- Vince Staples
- Dreams, the unusually little hyped supergroup between Luke Steele (Empire of the Sun, the Sleepy Jackson) and Daniel Johns (Silverchair).
- Maceo Plex’s new live show at the Gobi.
- The Carl Craig, Kyle Hall & Moodymann B2B2B that closed out the Yuma. Shouts to Detroit!