Another year, another epic weekend in the desert. Long before the third weekend of April it was clear that this year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts festival was going to be a bit different from years past. With pleasant temperatures in the 80s, and some snow still on the distant mountaintops the scene couldn’t have been more ideal. We caught up with LA DJ Paparazzi after his Sunday afternoon set in the Sahara tent, but more on that later. Before anyone arrived in Indio, word went up on the official festival site that tickets were all sold out. The decision to sell only three day wrist bands certainly met some opposition from fans, but despite this restriction, the festival, indeed, sold out for the first time since 2007. That point was re-emphasized throughout the entire weekend with signs all throughout Indio and incessant tweets, not to mention Craigslist ads from people selling or looking to buy tickets.
Another variation was the fallout from the volcanic ash cloud from Iceland deferring flights across the globe, including many with bands bound for Los Angeles; last-minute cancellations became inevitable, leaving many worried about gaps in the lineup. The Cribs, Gary Numan, Bad Lieutenant, Frightened Rabbit, and Delphic were all removed by Friday. Regardless, with a solid lineup and an air of giddy enthusiasm about the 60,000 musiclovers in attendance, the weekend looked promising.
While every day had something special to offer, there were clearly moments that were stronger than others. It was difficult to catch much on Friday’s early lineup because of wristband distribution logistics. As it happens, giving plastic bracelets to thousands of people at a time is a big task), but if you were lucky enough to get in early, Wale kicked off the festivities well with a solid hour on the main stage. Meanwhile, in the Sahara tent, Yo Gabba Gabba‘s DJ Lance Rock spun a mix of hip-hop and electro, complete with cameos from their lovable yet oddly unsettling cartoon characters. She & Him played their first festival gig with Volume 2 material, and the outdoor theatre remained packed through Passion Pit and Vampire Weekend.
As usual, some really great acts overlapped. Grizzly Bear played a so-so set in the Mojave tent (hardcore fans were not pleased), while over in Gobi La Roux played an uncharacteristically good hour-long set, debuting new tracks and a Rolling Stones cover. Ska-punk favorites The Specials were well received at the main stage, followed by Dave Grohl’s latest endeavor, Them Crooked Vultures, and an incredibly good set by LCD Soundsystem. James Murphy and his band showcased several tracks from their upcoming album, and brought the party with an enormous 350 pound disco ball above them.
Overlapping LCD was Little Dragon down the way, who were able to fill the Gobi tent. Needless to say, lead singer Yukimi Nagano was super cute and tunes were the perfect segue for Céu and The Whitest Boy Alive. Next door, Imogen Heap played an okay set, but was overshadowed by a growing crowd excited for Fever Ray, who was to make her supposedly final North American appearance ever (oh the drama!). Fever Ray was late by roughly twenty minutes, but played a full and cheery set complete with pagan rituals and black angels of death guiding her off stage. You can’t make this stuff up. Jay-Z‘s set was difficult to catch, but was audible all throughout the field. A guest appearance by Beyoncé had everyone rushing to the main stage and raving about how great she looked in a sun-hat (as if anyone should have been surprised).
Saturday was overall more manageable. Shorter lines at the entrance left people in better spirits and allowed more time to catch more acts. John Waters talked for an hour in the Mojave tent about filth, Divine, and spontaneous combustion. His words of advice: “wear great shoes.” Truly, words to live by. Portugal The Man packed in the Gobi Tent, followed by surf-twee duo Girls. Camera Obscura played a memorably upbeat set across the field, and were succeeded by Beach House who promised to “chill out” the crowd with their mellow tunes. The Gossip came after, with Beth Ditto going absolutely crazy with fans, dropping some Bikini Kill in between and bringing out Cody Critcheloe of SSION to cover Grace Jones’ “Pull Up To The Bumper.” Unquestionably, it was a disco-fied good time.
The Raveonettes played to a half full crowd, distracted perhaps by The XX‘s shoe-gaze party at the outdoor stage, followed by Hot Chip who played an amazing set mostly of tracks from their latest album. MGMT played after them, but it was hard to take seriously, as is the case with their whole sophomore record (and we mean that in a good way).
After that, Saturday became a wild-card. The Dead Weather played to a full crowd at the same time as Muse and Die Antwoord, who played a whopping twenty minutes in the Sahara Tent. In essence, their set finished before it started and left many asking themselves why they bothered coming all the way from South Africa at all. It was redeemed only by a fantastic set by 2ManyDJs, and simultaneous performances by Devo and Flying Lotus. Sia played a disappointingly low-key set, and Tiësto closed up the main stage to deliver his usual raver-friendly routine. If there were any ravers on the sidelines until that point, they were on there feet by then.
The final day of Coachella was characterized by nervous anticipation for the Gorillaz and Thom Yorke. Really, everyone could only talk about those two, playing overlapping sets at the two outdoor stages. Owen Pallet was a highlight, attracting throngs of fans to his folky performance, as well as De La Soul on the main stage.
Paparazzi started the day at the Sahara tent (accompanied yet again by characters from Yo Gabba Gabba!). While Paparazzi has played Coachella before, this was his first with a full set and on a regular stage. Still, apparently unfazed by the scenario, the man also known as Cesar Sebastian was VIP-cool when we met by the Rose Garden.
The main difference between a nightclub and a tent in the desert: “It’s fucking hot!,” he went on, “there are some things you can get away with in the club that you can’t out here, and likewise there are things that work out here that would never work there. This is a crowd of concertgoers. You gotta bring it to them.” Paparazzi welcomed the challenge as an opportunity instead: “I actually dropped a bunch of new originals in my set. It’s all from the new EP I’m working on, which should be out this summer. I like to play and experiment with different varieties of dance music. It’s cliché to say but it’s true.” As for Foofa (of Yo Gabba) tearing up the dance floor during his set: “It was AWESOME!” He went on, “I’m a huge Yo Gabba Gabba / Aquabats fan! It was a nice surprise.”
Sunday was a little less consistent compared to the other days, Matt & Kim brought the party in the Mojave tent, alongside Julian Casablancas who played Strokes material in addition to his solo stuff. Miike Snow got everyone screaming, raving, and singing along. Charlotte Gainsbourg played to a large crowd, as did Jónsi and Spoon, but nothing epic really happened. Orbital celebrated their unofficial “comeback” in the Sahara tent, and packed their set with all of their classics, recapping an enormous twenty year career. It was a scene straight out of 1998, with glo-sticks and bracelet-covered hands up, taking in their head-pounding hour.
Our beloved Little Boots was sadly misplaced in the Gobi tent, which couldn’t contain the mess of fans that came to catch her last North American gig for a while. Sly Stone was in line to perform before her, but pulled out last minute because of “technical troubles.” Realistically, or at least by word of mouth around the festival and from the crew, Mr. Stone was – how do we say – too “out of it” to perform. Later, he came back, to a crowd that had dwindled since Boots finished, and wasn’t able to make it through the entire set. Legend fail.
At last it was time for the headliners. Thom Yorke played the entire Eraser, as well as some Radiohead tracks, but as large and great as his stage presence was the tunes felt rather out of place; he was closing the outdoor theatre on the final day of the festival, but this wasn’t really a grande finale. Gorillaz started about ten minutes early, which was a pleasant surprise, and had a generally great set. The tracks from Plastic Beach were even more powerful and likable live, and with guest drops from Little Dragon and De La Soul made all the more fun to watch. One thing that seemed to be missing, however, were the cartoon characters that make up the band. While seeing Damon Albarn was a pseudo-big deal, the crowd seemed to yearn for a cameo by Murdoc, 2D, Russel, and/or Noodle aside from some simple drawings projected on the television screen. Still, seeing Snoop Dogg and Bruce Willis interact on the screen in true Gorillaz-fashion was comical, but cool, much like Albarn and his group themselves. The set finished with “Feel Good Inc.” and the ballad “Cloud of Unknowing” featuring Bobby Womack, but it felt abrupt and a little rushed, as they were pushing the midnight curfew.
While the weekend was marked by a few setbacks and rough musical moments, it followed suit with those before it: a decent balance of anticipation, history making performances, you-had-to-be-there moments, and nothing short of a good hot time for all.