In the scheme of nationally popular American festivals, the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival typically occupies the prudent, conventional territory of a post-wardrobe malfunction Superbowl halftime show, cautiously enlisting as its headliners the legends of decades past. These names include Roger Waters, Paul McCartney, The Cure, Prince, Rage Against the Machine, and the Pixies among others. Coachella, despite its esteemed status as the United States’ most prolific festival, often gets a bad rap for taking too many precautions, for shying away from the riskier festival options that Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza utilize so brazenly.
This year, Coachella-organizer Goldenvoice faced its “diet-festival” reputation head on by restricting single-day passes, selling out over 75,000 tickets for the entire weekend, and recruiting Jay-Z, Muse, and Gorillaz as its headliners at no expense to the festival’s integrity as a cultural intersection between past and present. This year saw highly publicized reunion acts catering to the devotees of 80s/90s hipsterdom, as celebrated names such as Pavement, Public Image Ltd., and the Specials all reunited under the Indio sun to the delight of thousands. However, a grander, more audacious Coachella brought inevitable obstacles to the festival’s search for perfection. An influx of 20,000 more people each day than last year created overcrowding, massive lines, food shortages, and cellphone reception failure. In addition, the explosion of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano caused several crucial act cancellations, including the Cribs, Frightened Rabbit, and Bernard Sumner’s Bad Lieutenant. Regardless, in the face of such struggles, Coachella prevailed as always, providing the masses once again with its chaotically calm oasis of sensory salvation for three indescribably perfect days in the desert.
My two compatriots and I rolled in midday on Thursday, Apr. 15, to a sea of cars leisurely scuttling through a line of security checkpoints. Above everything, the Coachella Music Festival exists for three days as a reality outside of which its denizens can place their worries, complaints, fears and inhibitions. After all, when you’re waiting for two hours in a car blasting “hip” tunes, instantly befriending new faces through the sheer joy of shared experience, and electing to push your car in neutral to move the line forward instead of driving, very little remains to complain about.
Waking up in a filthy tent at 8 a.m., caked in sweat and unable to fall back asleep in the muck of a 90-degree morning, it doesn’t help that no showers exist in the car camping grounds. But who was I to grumble? Concerts lay ahead.
That day, the drooling fanboys in us made the dedicated decision to stay on the front rail of the Mojave tent for the entire afternoon and early evening to experience Grizzly Bear’s 8:05pm set in its full splendor. Along the way, however, we caught a heart-pounding set from Yeasayer, who brought their signature brand of electro-freak synth-pop for one of Friday’s most memorable performances.
After enjoying the inoffensive indie-poppy sweetness of Ra Ra Riot’s sound-plagued set and suffering through the utterly generic Southern rock of Lucero, Grizzly Bear immediately ushered us into a hauntingly poetic gloom as they glided through a 10-song sequence comprised mostly of 2009’s Veckatimest. Whether it was the cathartic escape out of chaos on the climax of “Lullabye,” the explosive instrumental finale of “Fine For Now,” or the lush, kaleidoscopic second half of “Ready Able,” no one moment faltered throughout the entire performance. Grizzly Bear lulled us into their chilling world of strained beauty and calm emptiness, and we joined them willingly and rapturously, gazing hypnotized upon four musicians who clearly had mastered their craft for live performance.
One grueling sprint later and we made our way into the throngs gathered around the main stage for LCD Soundsystem’s highly anticipated set. Opening with “Us V. Them,” James Murphy’s disco-tempered electro-jam quickly plunged the crowd into danceable frenzy. Murphy—adorned head to toe in a David Byrne-inspired chalky white suit—emerged at his most boisterous, and whether or not that energy came directly from the bottle of Veuve Clicquot he brought on stage or simply the thrill of cutting loose the product of one’s own genius on an audience of thousands, he performed the uncompromising s—t out of his songs.
After a troublesome set change, Jay-Z ascended from below the stage to uproarious fanfare as the piano/clap loop of “Run This Town” sounded off into the hysteria. Performing in front of a profoundly impressive skyline-shaped LED display, Jigga hammered through an hour and a half of tracks across his 11-album catalogue, including sing-along hits like “99 Problems,” “Hard Knock Life,” and the ubiquitous “Empire State Of Mind.” Jay-Z’s backing band, powerfully talented as always, reinforced the rapper’s versatile live show, transforming songs like the Ibiza bump of “On To The Next One” and the 70s soul of “Heart Of The City” into rumbling, arena-ready showstoppers. The day concluded explosively amidst a wave of theatrics courtesy of one of contemporary pop’s most productive showmen, and, as Coachella’s first headlining hip-hop performer, the man performed admirably.
Day 2 brought excitement to new levels, as a repertoire of danceable, hype-heavy acts lined the day with endless possibility. The day began in the Gobi tent. After a rousing jam-packed set from Portugal. the Man, Christopher Owens’ Girls took the stage, injecting an enthused audience to the masterfully written, whimsical sunshine pop found on 2009’s Album. Crowd pleasers like “Lust For Life” and “Laura” inspired bouncing and delivered smiles abound, but the epic “Hellhole Ratrace”—treated to a loud n’ fuzzy shoegazing makeover—easily stole the show.
Taking the coveted sunset spot at the Outdoor Theatre came Hot Chip, whose eclectic live show never fails to entertain, and—with a live drummer in tow and a brand spanking new album’s worth of material—the British five-piece can only improve with age. Drilling through the jungle rhythms of “One Life Stand” and the R&B piano fills of “Hand Me Down Your Love,” Hot Chip inspired a full-fledged dance-mosh for the duration of their beat-heavy set. Although essentials such as “Boy From School” and “Shake A Fist” never made appearances, “Over and Over,” and “Ready For The Floor” satiated the most basic of Hot Chip fans, while the techno-driven “Hold On,” and endlessly fun “One Pure Thought” appealed to the more fanatical Hot Chip followers.
Our exodus from the Outdoor Theatre easily marked the most maddeningly difficult task of the weekend. As Hot Chip finished their set, our journey from the front of the Outdoor Theatre to the Mojave tent a quarter mile away met an obstacle in the form of one of the most insufferably irritating groups of fans in the modern hipster music nation: MGMT fans. Adorned in their imitative face paint and neo-hippy headdresses, MGMT fans know nothing apart from their unexplainable fixation on a band increasingly approaching mediocrity. Thus, our basic attempts to leave the Outdoor Theatre failed in the face of a legion of inconsiderate, crazed fans rushing in the opposite direction. Luckily, a shameless bulldog of a man whom my friends and I labeled “the tank” aggressively ploughed his way through several hundred yards of despicable youth, guiding us to safety.
The party relocated to the Mojave Tent for Major Lazer’s raucous booty-bumping blend of world-flavored dance music. Onstage dancers dressed as Chinese dragons or in wedding attire continually provoked the crowd for an unstoppable hour of body-shaking, sweaty chaos. As Major Lazer’s hype man did a dive off of an eight-foot ladder to accompany the beat dropping on “Pon De Floor,” not a single pair of feet remained motionless. DJs Diplo and Switch effectively retooled and reinterpreted their repertoire for the club floor, but how could one expect anything less from a pair of veteran mix masters dealing in such accessible dancehall reggae hop?
The third day of our sweaty weekend featured a selection of reasonably relaxed, big-name indie acts, although fitting them all into one afternoon would take its toll on our worn and weathered legs.
Local Natives treated us to their brazen brand of vocally-lush indie folk for a surprisingly poignant mid-afternoon set. After briefly sampling the excellent punk-psychedelia of Bradford Cox’s Deerhunter, we returned to the Gobi tent to hear Florence + The Machine, lamentably stricken by sound problems that restricted their set to only thirty minutes. Nevertheless, fire-headed songstress Florence Welch dominated that half hour, unloading her visceral set of commanding pipes on an audience positively in love with the woman’s inexhaustible passion. She brought out Cold War Kids’ Nathan Willet for a jaw-dropping rendition of “Hospital Beds,” she turned “Kiss With A Fist” into a mosh-heavy teenage anthem, and when it was time for “Dog Days Are Over” to blast into its final stirring chorus, Welch stopped the song, inciting everyone to jump accordingly.
The day slowly drew to a close, but not without formidable sets from Spoon and Pavement, the latter of which reunited on Coachella’s main stage for the first time in over ten years. Stephen Malkmus and co. played in top form under a simple, exceedingly beautiful Christmas light setup to a small host of relaxed and reliable Pavement fans. Playing at the same time, Phoenix had stolen away any and all misinformed youth, leaving only the reverent to enjoy a rare and electrifying appearance from the United States’ first true indie band. “Grounded,” “Summer Babe,” “Trigger Cut,” and “Unfair” all reflected the timelessness of Pavement’s heady lo-fi rock. Amidst all the synthesized and orchestrated sounds that modern indie music had to offer throughout the weekend, fat guitar distortion and off-kilter vocals felt refreshingly straightforward.
Finally, after a weekend of relentless hype and inexhaustible anticipation, Gorillaz took the stage early Sunday night to the sold-out crowd of thousands. The atmosphere in the minutes before they emerged felt grippingly unpredictable to say the least; no one in the audience knew what to expect from Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s genre-transcendent blend of visual and sonic art. Would the virtual band perform on a screen in front of an actual band? Would they use holograms to up the ante, or will the characters be completely retooled for this set? The wait was torturous, but the moment Albarn took the stage alongside a dozen or so instrumentalists that included the Clash’s Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, nothing could have quelled our fast-burning enthusiasm. Never has a band felt more ambitious or more universal than the moment that Gorillaz launched into “Welcome To The World Of The Plastic Beach” following an orchestral introduction accompanied by crystal clear visuals on a massive LED screen behind the stage. The moment Snoop Dogg’s face appeared on the screen to introduce us to Albarn’s melancholic vision of a tainted paradise, a legion of inspired fans submitted to exactly what Gorillaz had to offer that night: music first, visuals second. After all, when Albarn can bring Bobby Womack, De La Soul and Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano all on stage to realize the sonic complexities of a project initially developed as purely conceptual, who cares if there’s less visual candy? “Empire Ants” evolved from a nostalgic electro-ballad drenched in sepia tones to a soaring synth-disco epic, while the gospel romp of “Dirty Harry” ignited its anthemic chorus for everyone’s participation. Hearing Maseo’s demonic laugh shatter the funky fabric of “Feel Good Inc.” easily took the cake for most awe-inspiring moment of the weekend. For a night, Gorillaz abandoned their avatar aesthetics in favor of something closer to authenticity than the band has ever veered before, and the result was unforgettable.
Coachella 2010, in its efforts to appeal unapologetically to everyone, succeeded in evolving from its basic fan-friendly roots to a legendary national event on par with England’s Glastonbury or Reading/Leeds festivals. No one could deny that this year’s Coachella felt grander. It also felt significantly more overwhelming, as a stellar lineup sprinkled with such potential and an audience of such bigger proportions exhausts the body and mind past any conceivable breaking point. The last phrase was not a complaint. In some ways, Coachella becomes about self-destruction for the overarching purpose of experiencing sensory catharsis. In that shared experience, all Coachella-goers are brothers and sisters.