Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival
: Empire Polo Club Indio, CA
Coachella means different things to different people, but that’s only natural for what’s become the biggest music festival in the United States. Now occupying back-to-back April weekends with almost 100,000 attendees each weekend, the festival has become a massive enterprise. To some hipsters, it may be the most important music event of the year. To some anti-hipsters, the festival represents an overly-commercialized cash grab. But while Coachella is not without some indicators toward the latter, there’s quite a musical adventure to be had out in the Southern California desert.
“The idea of the festival is pretty insane. Drive hours into a very hot part of California and spend three days trying to avoid having your skin destroyed by the sun as you enjoy some of the most popular bands of your lifetime,” famed punk rocker Henry Rollins wrote of Coachella in a recent column for LA Weekly in which he simultaneously hailed the cultural value of music festivals in general while also thanking Coachella for temporarily aiding LA’s overpopulation problem. The heat, sun, wind and occasional dust storm are obstacles that must be strategized for, but battling the elements is part of what makes Coachella an adventure than a typical festival.
The elements aren’t too bad for the most part on this year’s second weekend though. A Friday afternoon windstorm destroyed a number of campers’ pop-up tents, but the temperatures aren’t too sweltering and festival paradise is readily obtainable. Of course one’s mileage may vary depending on affinity for the overall lineup, as with any festival. Coachella has come to lean heavily toward the electronic dance music realm, but there’s still enough rock, not to mention some jazz and hip hop, to make for a diverse lineup.
This year’s Coachella has a particularly significant draw for the rock ‘n’ roll crowd thanks to the long-awaited Guns N’ Roses reunion that unites mercurial singer Axl Rose and enigmatic guitarist Slash onstage together this spring for the first time in 23 years. For many fans, that’s all it took to make Coachella the must-see music event of the spring. For others, GNR is just a sideshow to the electronic dance party. But that’s part of what gives Coachella such a broad appeal—it’s a choose your own adventure story.
Many fans arrive on Thursday night so they can be ready to go when the music starts at noon on Friday, but any such large event will inevitably have stragglers who can’t help but arrive late for a variety of reasons. Those whose arrival at the festival campground was delayed until the sun was setting on Friday not only missed The Kills, they also had to deal with the indignity of being informed that the campground had basically reached capacity. Thus a long day of travel got longer as a line of cars were forced to keep waiting while a single festival employee drove around in the dark trying to find spots. This is where Coachella management warrants some criticism since they surely know how many spaces are available in the campground versus how many camping tickets they’re selling. Confiscating metal tent stakes because they could theoretically be used as a weapon also seems incredulous to some attendees, but this is apparently the price that must be paid for holding a large-scale festival in Southern California (plastic stakes could be purchased at the festival’s general store.)
But once a person is finally parked and settled, the festival is actually run fairly well, save for the puzzling necessity of beer gardens. One can only surmise that the large crowd is considered too potentially unruly to be trusted to get their drink on at the actual stage areas? It does however force one to be more strategic about drinking, and with the long hours in the hot desert sun, perhaps helps avoid a potential wave of passouts by rookies who don’t know how to handle their business. Phish fans on the other hand had no such problems when the Vermont jamband played the Coachella site for their Festival 8 event over Halloween weekend in 2009. Fans were allowed to drink wherever, though Phish admittedly draws a counterculture crowd of party professionals who could teach mainstream crowds a few things on how to do a festival the right way.
Friday night headliners LCD Soundsystem know how to handle their business, back on the festival circuit after a five year retirement and throwing down hot dance grooves like they never left. Unlike many electronic-oriented dance music acts, ringleader James Murphy and his cohorts bring an entire band to the stage and infuse their music with an organic quality that so many EDM acts lack. The set is highlighted by an incendiary “Losing My Edge”, with Murphy rapping about how hip he used to be. Far from losing it, the band rocks out on a sharp groove that keeps getting deeper with polyrhythmic percussion and psychedelic synths that have the crowd falling into one of those great collective trance dance grooves. LCD sounds like a modern-day version of the Talking Heads here and there’s few bands who can pull that off.
The festival grounds also score highly with the gorgeous Indio setting, including a dazzling array of custom-made art installations surrounded by the mountains, palm trees and lush psychedelic lighting. There’s no doubt this is one of the great festival sites in America.
Saturday - The Rock ‘N’ Roll Crowd Takes Coachella
The Saturday lineup has the most rock bands in the mix, making this the big day for the rock ‘n’ roll crowd. Some people say it’s not cool to wear the shirt of the band you’re going to see, but don’t tell that to the legion of fans sporting GNR shirts all over the grounds. Tonight will be the band’s seventh show since the reunion launched with an April 1 stealth gig at the Troubadour in LA, followed by two shows in Vegas, last weekend’s Coachella show and then two in Mexico City. But for most fans, this will be their first time seeing Slash and Axl and Duff McKagan together in 23 years or ever. It’s a long awaited event and the fanbase isn’t shy about being incredibly psyched for it.
GoGo Penguin kicks things off at the Gobi Tent in the 1 pm hour with a set that gets the good vibes flowing with a jazzy rock flavor that’s perfect for starting the day. The piano/bass/keyboard trio shares a sonic profile with Medeski, Martin and Wood but bring a sound that’s a little more melodic. The Do LaB provides a unique smaller stage where fans can find some shade, block-rocking beats and eye candy with an elaborate psychedelic setting. This is a great spot to hang whether one wants to chill or keep dancing. Run by the team behind the Lighting in a Bottle Festival, the Do LaB brings that vibe with lots of fun-loving party people, not to mention beautiful women too numerous to count. There were also hose blasters from the main stage and misters all around, making the Do LaB one of the best places at Coachella to cool off.
Moon Taxi gets the main stage rocking in the 2:30 slot with a high energy set that draws a decent crowd. There’s no shade to be had but the temperature is only in the high 80s and doesn’t seem so wicked, especially with these Nashville rockers cranking out guitar rock. The band closes their set with a blazing rendition of Rage Against the Machine’s “Sleep Now in the Fire”, in tribute since Rage headlined the first Coachella in 1999. It’s a surprising left-field bustout but Moon Taxi proves worthy as they throw down the first big headbanging jam of the day.
Gary Clark Jr. follows on the main stage and turns the heat up another notch with a smoking set that clearly makes a deep impression on those catching his live set for the first time. You can hear his stylistic diversity on his records, but Clark’s higher level guitar skills must be experienced live to gain full appreciation of what a talent he is. There are several bluesy jams that recall the power of Jimi Hendrix’ Band of Gypsys, with air guitar fans tearing it up. Then there’s some funk and rhythm and blues material that demonstrates how Clark is more than just the latest blues prodigy from Austin, Texas. Like his hometown music scene, Clark dabbles in an eclectic array of genres and it’s not hard to see why he was tabbed to open for and jam with the Rolling Stones last year.
After a hot set like that, nothing hits the spot like a cold beer. Most of the beer gardens however sell only corporate swill like Heineken, Dos Equis or the drinkable but overly ubiquitous Lagunitas IPA. This is a shame since the nearby Coachella Valley Brewing Company could easily provide local sourcing for all or at least most of the festival’s beer needs. But Coachella at least provides the Beer Barn, where fans can get a variety of craft beers and enjoy some shade while charging their phones. One bar serves a wide variety of craft styles for $11, not bad for concert standards. Then there’s also the Rare Beer Bar. The 7 oz pours for $13 aren’t a great value, but the bar lives up to its name with hard to find barrel-aged sours, Belgian ales and the like that make quite an eclectic selection. You’re not gonna drink many of these, but one of them might go perfectly with the lemongrass chicken and garlic noodles you’re buying right next door.
Over at the Mojave Tent, Atlanta indie rockers Deerhunter deliver a vibrant set that mixes up post-punk alt-rock with psychedelic art rock for one of the weekend’s most unique sonic flavors. The band sounds a bit like Pavement at times, but with perhaps a more eclectic stew of influences. This is also where the Here Active Listening System earbuds come in quite useful. Across between earplugs and in-ear monitors, these earbuds are used in conjunction with the Here app on your cell phone that enables one to adjust the real time mix of the band. Want to hear more of the keyboardist or sax player? Just raise the mids on the app’s equalizer. Want more high-end guitar and less bass for a crisper mix? As simple as adjusting the equalizer again. The app didn’t seem to work so great toward the end of LCD Soundsystem’s set at the main stage, but here at a smaller stage with a more confined sound, they work like a charm. The fact that you have to use them with your phone might not be ideal in the festival setting with concern about one’s phone going dead from being used all day, but the Here system seems like a great 21st century technological development for clubgoing audiophiles.
Back out at the main stage, Chvrches deliver one of Coachella’s most triumphant sets in the 6 pm hour. Charismatic singer Lauren Mayberry and her Scottish synthpop group draw a massive throng for their high energy set of hooky tunes that have the ladies dancing and singing along like this is the main headliner. It’s hard not to be seduced by Mayberry’s good vibes and the band’s infectious sound, even if you favor guitars and wonder if this band even has a guitarist. It’s synthpop done right with melodies that hit the heart chakra, pulsing beats and an adorable singer with a great voice who seems like she’s connected to some kind of higher power. Mayberry sports some silver sparkle makeup around one eye that makes her look related to Jeri Ryan’s Seven of Nine character from Star Trek: Voyager and it’s not hard to imagine her touring the galaxy playing benefit concerts for peace and justice on distant worlds. She’s even an ardent fan of Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now news program.
“In a time where it seems increasingly hard to find honest, impartial and responsible reporting in the media, this show is a ray of light and I can’t recommend it enough,” Mayberry says of Democracy Now in a recent Instagram post. This is what the pop music world needs more of, artists who are out to help their fans cut through the pervasive propaganda of the corrupt mainstream media matrix. The fact that Mayberry possesses a master’s degree in journalism explains a lot here, making her a rare breed in the modern music scene.
Then it’s right over to the adjacent Outdoor Theater for Australian rocker Courtney Barnett, who brings a guitar-driven garage rock sound that is a stark contrast to Chvrches. Barnett has been all over rock radio for the past year, but she doesn’t draw even close to as big a crowd as Chvrches. Things start to feel a bit weird because the effervescent vibe from Chvrches’ triumphant set actually makes it hard to switch gears here. Maybe it was just that point in the day where one needs to sit down and rest. But then Barnett and her band tap into the zeitgeist with her hit song “Depreston”. It’s a laid-back bluesy number, but it’s got a melodic soul-soothing hook that’s just what the doctor ordered for the weary festival-goer as twilight arrives and a cool breeze blows in from the scenic mountain landscape.
Hip-hop icon Ice Cube draws a massive crowd to the main stage for his 9 pm set and it’s easy to see, even from a distance, what an impactful set he’s throwing down. He’s got a funkier sound going than one might expect and there’s a major party going on that even has passersby dancing across the back of the field area. It’s tempting to blow off the Silversun Pickups and upon later hearing about the special guests and the “California Love”, hindsight becomes 20/20. But if you’re gearing up for GNR, then maybe you want to see some guitar-driven rock in the warm-up slot. This is what the Pickups deliver at the Mojave Tent, throwing down their grungy, psychedelic alt-rock tunes to a truly adoring audience. The band is in high and playful spirits, with singer/guitarist Brian Aubert assuring the internet audience that GNR will be coming up soon. When they end their set with breakthrough hit “Lazy Eye”, the jubilant crowd claps along in another triumphant Coachella moment. When Aubert sings, “I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life”, it feels like the perfect pre-GNR song because it seems like a lifetime since Axl and Slash last toured together.