Coachella 2011, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Heatstroke

This was my first Coachella without press credentials, my first as a music fan and not a professional, which is kind of not that different really; because I was a music fan the last couple of times around, too. That was in 2008 and 2009, and though the press was given VIP access, all that really meant at the time was some breathing room off to the side of the Coachella Stage, where the festival’s headline acts play.

VIP was a little different this time around, allowing those who paid a premium a closer look at some stages, a comfortable spot with a view in the soundboard area at others. But my ticket, or rather my wristband, only allowed me to peer into those spots, though rarely with anything approaching jealousy as the festival was among the very best organized I’ve seen.

I may be remembering this incorrectly, but I think it was a friend of mine who dubbed the 2010 iteration of the festival Clusterfuckchella because of the ridiculous crowds, as many as 30,000 of them reportedly gatecrashers. Goldenvoice, the festival’s organizers, apparently took all the criticism to heart, as they expanded the grounds, increased the size of the tents and introduced a series of security measures designed to keep the fence-hoppers out.

At the heart of the new security was the wristband, which when applied properly could not be removed without damaging the whole thing. Attached to each wristband was a small panel with an embedded chip. These were scanned repeatedly, first upon approach to the grounds, and again at the festival gates. I’ve no idea how effective the system was in terms of actual numbers, but the combination of all those changes really did give the impression that in spite of the festival selling out in just six days, it wasn’t a clusterfuck at all.

With congestion light and plenty of opportunities for shady respite, the music was able to be the primary focus of the weekend. And in spite of the inevitable conflicts, the technical difficulties which delayed wildly-hyped hip-hop collective Odd Future from taking the stage in the Sahara, and the increasingly horrendous stench rising from the porta-potties, it really was all about the music. Well, the music and the sometimes sexy, sometimes bizarre, often both fashion choices. So many feathers, so many dark jeans and furry boots. But really, it was about the music.

In the past, I’ve felt somewhat beholden to sampling as much as I possibly could in an effort to cover the vast breadth of the Coachella experience. Sometimes that meant making tough choices and leaving one stage for another when I was really enjoying what was happening right before my eyes. But with no press credentials and no official reason for me to even be there, I was free to be a music fan first and stay for as long as I liked at some of the performances I was most looking forward to. I could follow my whims wherever they and the rare delightful breeze might take me, spend time with friends even when something I might have otherwise been able to do and didn’t worry at all that I might miss something “epic” that might not mean a goddamn thing to me personally. And in that way, I was able to experience Coachella more fully than ever before.

In putting this together, I tried to think of my favorite performance each day, and when that proved fruitless I tried to make an all-inclusive Top Five. That didn’t work out either, so here’s some stuff I liked in no particular sequence.

Suede — They scared the shit out of me in the week before the festival when it was announced that bass guitarist Mat Osman had his travel visa denied. Despite loving them from the moment I heard that first glorious run of singles, I’d never actually seen them live. And here I thought I was going to miss my chance again, and when the fuck are they ever coming back? But I was assured by someone in the know that the announcement that they were rehearsing as a four piece was the gospel truth.

Despite my best efforts to remain aloof and free from letting the fey bedsit recesses of my heart be torn asunder, I hit the Mojave on Saturday night with hips that swiveled far more freely than ordinarily. And then Suede hit the stage and fucking killed it. It wasn’t just one of the best sets of the entire weekend, but of all the shows I’ve seen in at least a decade. Brett Anderson, even in his early 40s, is an androgynous god, swinging his microphone like Roger Daltrey one minute, dramatically falling to his knees the next. Suede — or the London Suede as they’re known in the United States — had no other American shows planned. They’ve just released a phenomenal two-disc compilation, and hopefully enough of you will pick it up so they’ll feel compelled to come back and do a proper tour. Breathtaking stuff, especially when I realized tunes like “Animal Nitrate”, “Trash” and “Killing of a Flash Boy” were meant to be sung en masse.

Duran Duran — From the moment the official lineup dropped, some Coachella purists pegged Duran Duran as one of the acts that somehow didn’t belong in the middle of their party. Never mind the endless stream of artists who’ve performed previously who admit their own debt to the music of the early MTV icons. Besides, when your festival has featured a performance by James Blunt (2006), you’re really in no position to throw stones.

The New Romantic legends proved their mettle at sunset on Sunday by building their debut single “Planet Earth” glittery brick by brick, then rolling through a hit-laden set that mixed well with songs from their new album, All You Need is Now. Ana Matronic of Scissor Sisters stuck around after her band’s Saturday night set to perform “Safe (In the Heat of the Moment)”, and “Ordinary World” made it back into my good graces after years of foolish abandonment.

Elbow — Guy Garvey looked miserable in the heat of the Mojave tent, which instantly made me both love and identify with him. It didn’t hurt that Garvey and his band put on a stunning show, one heavy on material from their latest long player, Build a Rocket Boys! The set was grandiose and celebratory without pretense. Or at least without the lame kind of pretense. This wasn’t Muse, is what I mean.

Big Audio Dynamite — Three years ago, former Clash founder Mick Jones brought his Carbon/Silicon project to Coachella. It was a workmanlike set of workmanlike tunes, and even though there wasn’t anything particularly special about the music, Jones’ smile made it come off like a classic. If a guy can enjoy being on stage and making music that much, surely I can get on board.

Saturday’s stop on the Big Audio Dynamite reunion tour was something altogether different, as I already loved the songs from way back in high school and college. Jones smiled, Don Letts toasted and the scourge of the scourge of the latter rap-rock genre was finally hurled into the stinking abyss by the real deal.

Random Friday highlights include: The Michael Cera-esque dance moves of !!!’s Nic Offer; the angsty anthemic rock of Titus Andronicus; the swirling and gregarious Warpaint, a band which had one of the festival’s best drummers, Stella Mozgawa; the much better than we were all led to believe Lauryn Hill; the arrival of an inflatable kangaroo during a triumphant set by Australian neo-psych band Tame Impala, the sheer force of Sleigh Bells; the defiance of Jonathan Pierce of the Drums continuing to rock the bowl cut that makes him look and behave like a blonde penis.

Saturday’s best moments included: Foals showing plenty of figurative and some actual muscle; Animal Collective confounding people, captivating people and hitting all points in between; Erykah Badu. Really, everything about Erykah Badu; Arcade Fire’s radioactive ball drop and pretty much their entire set; the lazy afternoon buzz of Radio Dept.

And on Sunday: An Outdoor Theatre set by PJ Harvey many considered to be the true festival closer; OFF!’s brief aggro reminder that Keith Morris is a gentleman and a scholar and should be allowed to, as he suggested, headline Coachella in 2012; the creepy hovering koala-human baby hybrid that got as much of a full-throttle charge out of the razor-sharp tumult of Death From Above 1979 as I did; the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas keeping it clean during “New York City Cops,” but swearing like a sailor elsewhere; Kanye West’s punctuality.

These were only my highlights, of course. One of the best things about Coachella is that there are tens of thousands of people who attend each year, and because of the incredible amount of completely rad shit to see and hear, every single one of them will have a completely different set of favorite experiences.

Well, there’s that and the frozen lemonade.

But, you know, these things aren’t perfect. There’s always the festival despair of not hearing the songs you wanted because your favorite band had to make crucial time-sensitive setlist decisions. There are the scheduling conflicts that left you — or in this case, me — missing out on artists like Wire and Here We Go Magic. And there’s the abject terror when you — me, again — learn from a few different friends that you showed up on the screen during Big Audio Dynamite’s set probably during one of those moments when lyrics you’ve always known by heart and were really trying to sing along to were difficult to recall simply because you’re like 15 feet away from fucking Mick Jones!!!

In spite of my needing a Silkwood shower before bed each night just to get the sticky sheen of sweat, dust and cigarette smoke off me, I wouldn’t change a thing about Coachella. Even the stuff that irritated me, the technical blips and the sound bleed, the wind blowing the funk from the toilets right into my face every time I refilled my water bottle from the adjacent fountains and the unlikely abundance of so many Boston Celtics jerseys on the weekend they opened up a one game lead over my beloved New York Knickerbockers in the opening round of the NBA playoffs. It’s Coachella, and whether I’m there in an official press capacity or as a fan of music who by coincidence can’t go anywhere without a notebook and a few pens, I’m probably going back next year.