I’ve been going to Coachella for many years now and I have also been to almost every other festival of its kind, but somehow Coachella is different. In many ways, depending how you play it and like all great festivals, Coachella can be a genuinely spiritual experience. It is not just about the groove of any individual set, but the overall vibe of the festival that continues on a beautiful three-day loop. First, the painted desert surrounded by exposing mountain views cultivates a surreal dream-like state. Then there’s Coachella’s programming that for certain kinds of music fans (i.e. indie rock, electronica, and certain flavors of hip-hop), there’s just no comparison.
Other festivals cater to different musical preferences. Bonnaroo and Outside Lands favors rootsier rosters. JazzFest speaks for itself and draws an eclectic crowd. The ACL and Lollapalooza line-ups appeal to broader audiences whereas smaller festivals like Picthfork and Sasquatch are hyper-focused on the indie hardcore. There’s even Ultra and Electric Daisy that focus on electronic and dance. It’s all good because regardless of what people prefer, it’s just important that they see live music, whatever the flavor, as often as possible.
The resurgence of musical festivals in the US is worth noting because of three major cultural drivers. First, there is a desire for like-minded people to converge into communities and experience their passions ‘together’ despite the connected yet impersonal society we live in (see Sherry Turkles’ “Connected, but alone?” talk at the TED conference this year).
Second, efficient and popular social platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, and, the subject of my last year’s Coachella update, Instagram (now Facebook) enable artists to communicate with fans. For the first time ever, indie musicians are using social media to build massive followings and reach audiences that would have been impossible 5 years ago.
Finally, landmark changes to the amenities have altered the overall experience of these outdoor gatherings. Music festivals have evolved into legitimate cultural events complete with diverse food options (Korean BBQ, a poutine truck, and fish tacos), ever-creative art installations, and a mass convergence of the creative class.
So, it’s clear that people need, crave and want events like Coachella to look forward to and organize around. They want to drop out of real life and immerse themselves in a different world for three glorious days. But these same people, now hooked on the most potent drug in the world – the internet, “expect” to be able to publish all of their experiences to the broader virtually-connected world and in real time. But just when the urge to share seems strongest, you notice one bar on your phone and the moment passes without a chirp. We’re all accustomed to the sea of bright “fail notices” pulsing brightly from smartphones during concerts and festivals. Mobile users are now accustomed to their favorite apps failing at large events – Foursquare, Instragram, Twitter, and our own TastemakerX Music app struggle with this and just when you want to use them.
Perhaps if festivals weren’t the ripest place on earth to harvest legitimately interesting content, photos, videos, deep thoughts, shallow thoughts, occasional moments for real clarity, it would be easier to accept, but we now have these amazing apps, so not being able to use them is frustrating, preoccupying and time seemingly tragic. As much as we’d like to just blame AT&T for incompetency, the problem, although addressable, is also a non-trivial task. It’s a complex problem and one hand, deprives the world of incredible content and on the other, spares us from a mountain of banality. Either way, one thing is clear: we live in a world where people want and need to share.
Back to the festival, because in the end I go for the endless sea of exquisite music that bathes the Coachella Valley in visible waves of passion (and not the functionality of my mobile apps). This year the unusually cold weather cast a vastly different vibe than the survivalist mindset caused by the scorching temperatures in the desert. Most years the quest for shade dictates your every move but this year, the quest for warmth was the serious consideration: indoor tents over outdoor stages, warm earthy music over thumping dance sets.
Day 1: And so it begins. My Coachella 2012 began Friday afternoon with youthful Dinosaur Jr. revivalists Yuck, playing a tight homage to past and present. Coachella’s trademark juxtaposition of old and new is always interesting, so one must see James for a song or two to see how they have held up, and they did just fine. And then there was the groovy chill wave of Neon Indian playing to the kind of crowd that signals this band will only get bigger, hipsters shaking there hips and head in uniform synchronicity. Next to the throwback guitar genius of Gary Clark Jr., whose Hendrix meets Shuggie Otis and Stevie Ray Vaughn in 2012 energy neutralizes the pounding deep house directly next store. Some artists are born rock stars, and others will it into existence. Gary Clark has a bit of both. This bleeds right into a few tracks from one of the last living reggae legends- Jimmy Cliff, decked out in a gold suit and sounding as smooth as ever despite his 64 years. “The Harder They Come” has never sounded better.
Then the strongest back-to-back sets of the festival commenced with the ethereal modernism of Girls, a near genius San Francisco band who mixes the pop songwriting of Elvis Costello with the introspective intensity of the Velvet Underground. Next up, the bright and beautiful Americana rock of Dawes, accessible like Jackson Brown, while still edgy enough to appeal to critical fans. Also performing was Wu Lyf, the raspy, percussive Manchester new-wavers with the growl of Tom Waits and the dark energy of Joy Division. Shivering in the desert night, Pulp played nostalgically to a large crowd, followed by Mazzy Star who performed their first live set in over a decade blissfully into the night. The Black Keys sucked most of the festival towards the main stage as they pounded out bluesy rock tune after bluesy rock tune (which they single handedly resuscitated back into the mainstream).
Coachella is as much about serendipity as anything else so mind-blowing instrumentals of Explosions In the Sky, just kind of happen as you drift from stage to stage following the magnetic energy. Occasionally, bands are assigned to stages they have already outgrown, as was the case with M83. Crowds spilled out of the Mojave Stage and established M83 as one of the most anticipated acts of the festival (Yes, they are great. Believe the hype). The rest of the evening belonged to Swedish House Mafia, where massive beats pounded throughout the night to what seemed like all 100,000 Coachella attendees. Although I get the appeal, I prefer a different cup of tea.
Day 2: With the threat of rain now over and despite temperatures colder than I can remember, this was one of the best single Coachella days in quite a while. The soft jazz indie music of Destroyer was the perfect way to reenter the day, followed by the Brit wave rockers, The Big Pink, who pick up a bit where Coldplay left off after “Parachutes.” This was followed by the old school rock of Grace Potter, and the much-heralded reunion of fIREHOSE. Then things got serious. The Head and the Heart, still my favorite band of 2011, just keeps getting better before my eyes (it’s a good sign when everybody in the crowd knows every word to every song). Kaiser Chiefs played during the last bit of warm sun, and proved to be perfect music for the yoga session my posse spontaneously started on the grass beside me. Andrew Bird’s orchestral pop-smithing bled nicely into the sublime folk of Laura Marling, who at 22, sings with remarkable old soul wisdom.
Unfortunately, the highly anticipated set featuring Neutral Milk Hotel (aka Jeff Mangum) playing solo occurred on a stage that was too big and at a time that was too late in the day. He’s a genius but one that requires more intimacy than the Outdoor Stage could provide. St. Vincent, an art-rock goddess who exists between Bjork and PJ Harvey, ripped into a swirling frenzy while, on the main stage, The Shins played to a crowd acquainted with almost every lyric. Feist played up against Bon Iver, the folkie from nowhere to Grammy-winning savant. Iver performed one of the most blissful sets of the festival, well beyond the preciousness he exudes in the studio. Yet despite a day filled with incredible, passionate, inspired, creative music, it quickly became evident that there’s everybody and then there is Radiohead. No live band on the planet touches the intensity, complexity, and range as they do. Really.
Day 3: The weather was hot and welcomed. Saturday night went late and the first show of the day was Seun Kuti & Egypt 80, big mountains of seminal Afrobeat under and blazing son from Fela’s youngest son. Santigold ripped away at her infectious genre-defying blend of punk, dance, electronica on the main stage next door. In some ways, one of my favorite sets of the weekend was the blissful dreamy guitar rock of Real Estate because it gave me an excuse to merely sway rather than dance after I had found some shade. Phone cameras were snapping mightily but the web was nowhere to be found. Fitz and The Tantrums played a typically upbeat set while Wild Flag proved, once again, that girls totally rock. Thundercat’s Afro-funk jammed and was the logical primer for Parliament/P-Funk.
It’s not often, but occasionally Coachella “miss-stages” acts but validating how good they are and the pace at which this band blew up (thanks to “Somebody That I Used to Know,”) the crowd at Gotye was massive (M83 was similar). Every year there’s a band like this. Last year it was Foster The People. Beirut played another one of my favorite sets of the weekend with Balkan brass blazing, real instruments bumping up against the distant sounds of Girl Talk, blasting into the night. My favorite electronic show of the festival was also a brilliant and fitting close to it. DJ Shadow mixed his signature genre bending beats with a guest shot from Zach de la Rocha. As we walked back towards the main stage, Florence was entertaining most of what was left of the festival. She’s good and will probably end up closer to Madonna than Bjork, but I am okay with that. By the time Snoop and Dre hit the stage with the hologram of Tupac and more guests than a Johnny Carson episode, I was sated. And so it ended, at least until Friday because for the first time ever Coachella added a second weekend.
As all this occurred in the Indio Valley, people could watch the YouTube live stream from their homes. At one point, the audience peaked at hundreds of thousands of people from around the world watching the festival in real-time. This virtual audience is growing exponentially every year and I believe it’s a very good thing. Music is inherently social and intensely personal. For some, the festival is purely social, with music as the backdrop. For me, it is all about music, from beginning to end, genre to genre, all day and all night. But like the web, to fully experience the right parts of the festival you need a Sherpa. Someone or some way to better know what you need to see. Social platforms are one way, but as I mentioned, they are tough to use in highly populated and bandwidth constrained environments. I know this will change, and for the sake of TastemakerX, Soundtracking and other platforms best used at live events, I hope it happens soon.
In the end the chance to spend 3 days, wandering from stage to stage, in the presence of genius, show after show many times over is an enormous privilege. You are showered in song and surrounded by the pure joy that music inspires in people. It is easy to forget how many people love the music you love, until you stand in tents and around stages with thousands of people wearing the same immensely satisfied smile on their faces as they are transcended at least for a moment into a completely different place.