Every year, around the third or fourth week in April, Coachella provides an oasis of sensory delights for those resilient enough to endure the desert’s sweltering temperatures. Music fans from across the country and the world make the pilgrimage to the Inland Empire’s Coachella Valley, dedicating themselves (and their wallets) to an atmosphere of pure indulgence. In many ways, Coachella functions as a hipster’s Las Vegas: we trek through the desert to a neon-lit wonderland that seems to cater to all our desires, and more often than not, trading our dollars for delights turns into quite the gamble—a slice of pizza priced at $7, for example. The festival also functions as the stomping grounds for L.A.’s most affluent braced-faces, all too eager to paint themselves in pastels and poke feathers in their pre-pubescent hair in a three-day game of “let’s play hippie!”
Last weekend, the annual Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival returned for the eleventh time, bringing with it a stellar lineup of buzz bands seemingly geared toward that younger audience. Between MTV heroes Kings of Leon and the faux-folk, singalong stylings of England’s Mumford & Sons, this year’s Coachella never failed to cater to the kids. In addition to shaking its reputation as a mere celebration of geezer rock tame in comparison to Bonnaroo, Coachella pushed its curfew an hour later, added more food venues and beer gardens, and revamped the lighting and sound featured at nearly all of its stages. In the process, the festival somehow streamlined its organization for what resulted in one of the smoothest Coachellas to date. Unfortunately for many, a smoother Coachella meant selling twenty thousand fewer passes than the year before, something that the festival accomplished in a record five days flat.
Fortunately, I snagged one of those passes as quickly as possible, along with an elusive car-camping pass (those sold out in a matter of hours) and left the cold confines of Claremont toward a hot, happy paradise known as Coachella.
On Friday, for the first time in my four years attending the festival, I actually suffered through the first few acts I saw. In some half-assed attempt to get close enough to the Sahara tent stage to experience Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All—a Los Angeles-based hip-hop collective playing their biggest live show to date—I subjected my body and mind to two straight hours of dubstep, courtesy of messieurs Excision and Skrillex. After enduring the same wobbly bass tones amidst a sea of preteens and Jersey Shore rejects doing their best marionette impressions, I found myself moshing… to rap music. Led by the nineteen year-old Tyler the Creator, who spent roughly thirty seconds on stage before promptly diving onto my head, Odd Future’s demented brand of hardcore hip-hop provoked an already raucous crowd of thousands to near violence, and we loved every minute of it.
Hours later in the Mojave tent, not even the raw power of Brooklyn’s Sleigh Bells—a contender for noisiest act of the weekend—outshined the anarchy I saw during Odd Future. Cut Copy followed, and while staying reasonably faithful to the hits from their modest catalogue, the Australian foursome knew a thing or two about electrifying a crowd. By the time I reached the rail to hear the shimmering synthpop of Sweden’s Robyn, the exhaustion in my legs wore off, only to return following her unforgettable set. Of any performer the whole weekend, none seemed as truly dedicated to convincing their audience as Robyn. Backed by two keyboardists and two drummers, she punched, kicked, bounced and humped her way across the stage in a pair of six-inch platforms. By the time I saw tears running down her face following the melancholic thump of “Dancing On My Own,” I needed no further evidence that this woman believed in her music.
Saturday night’s headliner, Arcade Fire, meant only one thing for your typical batshit-insane fan: a twelve-hour campout all day by the front rail in 100-degree heat. Of course, it helped that—among several others—the main stage brought Erykah Badu’s inimitable voice and personality, along with a 14-piece backing band. Only Toronto’s Broken Social Scene managed to pack more bodies on stage, following Badu’s neo-soul cool-down with an anthemic chorus of electric guitars and horns, best exhibited by the nearly 9-minute “Meet Me In The Basement” off 2010’s Forgiveness Rock Record. After an unnecessarily prolonged intro, Animal Collective took the stage, and immediately proceeded to bewilder the audience by running through a selection of new tracks. Performing under a trio of massive light-up cubes featuring blotches of watercolors, the Baltimore foursome easily shrugged off the crowd’s mixed reactions, but managed to throw in a “Brothersport” and “Summertime Clothes” for good measure.
“If you told me in 2002 that we’d be headlining Coachella with Animal Collective opening, I’d say you’re full of shit,” exclaimed the Arcade Fire’s Win Butler, but despite our cheers, none of us actually believed him. After all, watching the impassioned abandon with which each of the band’s eight members plays their instruments, it’s hard to think these guys weren’t meant to play for audiences of thousands. For the rabble-rousing finale of “Wake Up,” several hundred flashing white balls descended on the crowd, changing colors in time with the song for the type of transcendent moment that defines a Coachella performance.
Despite what it offered to close out the festival, Sunday night still felt a bit sedated in comparison to the days before. The reunited Death From Above 1979 thrashed through their hits to incite an exhausted crowd, and with just a bass and a drum set, the duo only proved further that Canadian music bleeds energy enough to challenge its neighbor down south. That neighbor responded in the form of The Strokes, whose 8-bit lighting display and treble-heavy dynamics gave new life to hits from over a decade ago. With the weekend’s best stage banter coming from behind Julian Casablancas’s massive shades, The Strokes certainly earned their keep, even if they seemed a bit averse to moving around on stage.
Kanye West closed out Coachella in career-defining fanfare, presenting his show in the form of a three-act Greek tragedy. As thirty angel-clad dancers rushed onto the foggy stage over the vocal intro to “Dark Fantasy,” Mr. West himself emerged in the middle of the crowd on an elevated platform. He promptly took the stage and proceeded to run through hits from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. After a while, however, the colossal gothic backdrop and lighting display lost their spectacle, and by the time Kanye finished his verse on “Monster” and everyone realized Nicki Minaj was nowhere in sight, the MC looked rather lonely on that stage. Hearing Rihanna’s disembodied vocals on “All Of The Lights” and even “Run This Town” felt unsatisfying, but Kanye redeemed his performance through sheer energy and dedication.
As it must every year, Coachella eventually came to a close, and as always, it seemed like it topped the year before it. The ease with which this year’s Coachella progressed, coupled with the breathtaking quality of the performances, only bodes well for the future. In other words, nothing about Coachella 2011 dissuades me from scooping up another ticket the moment they go on sale in a year’s time.