Peel back the surface and look past the picturesque valley backdrop. Forget about the gorgeous, sun-kissed young folk wearing next to nothing (or, on occasion, nothing). Go ahead and ignore the ridiculous hippie art splattering the landscape. Once you get past everything that suggests Coachella is a legit wonderful place, reality sets in. You’re in hell. Everything pretty or fun is undercut by a physical reminder that you’re in the desert, and the desert is no place for human life.
This is my first stab at Coachella. No matter how much you prepare, the actual fest is so much bigger, stranger, and more intimidating than you can wrap your ahead around until you finally see it for yourself. The sun sucks. All those life-giving properties (vitamin D and so forth) are effectively neutered in the desert — it’s just an angry ball of fire staring down at you, trying to burn you out of existence. Most of the daylight hours are spent applying (and reapplying) sunblock, trying to find shade, hydrating (and rehydrating), and basically waiting for the night to come. Inevitably you forget to do one or all of these things because a band randomly kicks enough ass to distract you from the environment — at which point you suffer the consequences. Then there’s the dust, and the endless walking, and the vicious amounts of overlap between bands you want to see…
Aw, who am I kidding? It’s fun as hell. As much as you might resist, the energy of the crowd gets in your head, infecting your brain with good vibes. The collection of bands is strong enough to wipe away all thoughts of physical discomfort or weariness. Even the faux-Burning Man nonsense of the Do Lab dance party — placed unnaturally close to all of the stages to the point where the sound-bleed threatens to drown out the actual bands –isn’t obnoxious so much as charmingly stupid.
Since Clare did a hell of a job running down each day last weekend, covering all the major events as they happened and telling it like it is — well, there’s no reason to retread, so I’m taking a different tack here. These are the five best things I happened to see as I wandered around the first day of Coachella’s weekend.
5. Palma Violets
I had never heard a note of these guys before watching them live — and goddamn, do they deliver. The guitarist belts out these huge, garage-driven sex anthems while the whole band bounces across the stage. The two main guys — guitarist and bassist respectively — feed off each other, and the crowd feeds off their energy in turn. They bounce — we bounce back. The bassist is a madman, hooting and howling while the singer/guitarist holds it all together. This is a party dressed up as rock and roll; everyone’s invited.
4. Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Play “Maps”
There was a strange energy throughout Yeah Yeah Yeah’s set. Karen O came off alternately nervous and genuinely thrilled to be in front of the sea of people assembled at the main stage. They sounded good, but not everything was connecting. Until they dug up the signature song, the one the vast majority of the crowd was here to see, the “radio hit”: they played “Maps,” and the crowd was ecstatic. The rendition wasn’t especially brilliant, but it didn’t matter. The sound where I was standing was a bit thin, but Karen found her center, as did the crowd. Within seconds, every couple I could see was kissing. A chorus of girls chimed in to sing every word, almost drowning out the band onstage. Dudes bobbed along, less outwardly stoked but wrapped up in the moment nonetheless. And that was exactly what it was: a genuine moment, shared amongst thousands upon thousands of people.
3. How to destroy angels_
Trent Reznor and wife Mariqueen Maandig are pretty cute onstage together, despite their best efforts to come off as badass as humanly possible. They closed the night at the Mojave tent, while Earl Sweatshirt and Bassnectar played in tents to either side. Meanwhile, Tegan and Sara played the Outside Theatre, and Blur played what I’m told was virtually the exact same set they played last week over at the main stage. I’ve never seen Nine Inch Nails live, so I joined the throngs of NIN fans to watch How To Destroy Angels. Excitement was high. A curtain was placed in front of the stage, to hide whatever impressive stage setup the band had up their sleeve. And it was impressive. They played behind a wall of illuminated plastic strips, projections of static and abstract imagery obscuring the band. Separated from the crowd by several layers of plastic they felt clinical and cold — which fit the music to a T. Mariqueen does the bulk of the singing, but it was clear the crowd was there for Trent: every time he’d take the mic a cheer would erupt from the gathered masses. Eventually the hanging plastic was pulled aside and the band emerged to the crowd. It was the end of the night, and the weight of exhaustion and dust inhalation was taking its toll on my happiness by that hour, but the band’s electro assault was enough to keep me upright.
2. Beach House
As twilight settled across the festival, you could feel the crowd breathe a collective sigh. No more sun. Temperatures hit a comfortable level for the first time. Beach House took the stage just as darkness settled over the valley like a comforting blanket. I had heard grumblings that they were boring last week, sticking to the shadows, merely playing the songs rather than bringing them to the audience — and maybe I’ve got more patience than most, but something about their set felt spot-on for the moment they were assigned to play. Gauzy, dreamy textures helped the crowd to relax and breathe, releasing the tension that had built throughout the day like a time-release muscle relaxant. There’s something glorious about a proper comedown if it hits when you need it most.
For once the world agrees: Grinderman fucking destroy. Nick Cave is… Nick Cave. An elemental force of vitriol and sleaze spitting hellfire and righteous indignation. It’s essentially the Bad Seeds stripped down so that they only operate in one mode, and that mode is destruction. No one walked away from that set halfway through. One of the few mid-day acts to get an encore, every second they were on stage was vivid and electric. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I would say I’ve never seen anything quite like it like. I can’t wait to see Nick and his boys do the full Bad Seeds routine Sunday night, if I live that long.