Sitting here in the afterglow of day two — resting sore muscles and reflecting on an impossible collection of hard-earned memories — I feel like I’m starting to come to terms with Coachella.
The first day is rough, no question. You spend half your time finding your way around, stuck in long lines that lead to pat-downs which in turn lead to more lines and more pat-downs (no wonder the fest feels so sexually charged — you spend the first hour on site being rubbed by strangers), wandering in circles until the layout of the desert sprawl finally resolves into an identifiable physical space.
The first day you’re just trying to take it all in. Day two means you dig deeper, stumble into darker corners, embrace the inhospitable environment and accept it for what it is. I spent more time exploring the grounds today, and some of today’s best things weren’t bands at all…
There’s an alternate Coachella beneath the surface of the fest we always read about here and everywhere else. Sure, the headliners get all the headlines (naturally), and a portion of the crowd is clearly only here to see the big name acts. But there’s another segment of the fest-going public that couldn’t give a shit who’s playing. They’re here for the DJ’s: for the monstrous Sahara dance tent with its ceiling built from video screens, or for the tiny Heineken dome that offers a social experience with bar-tops and slightly cheaper beer; for the bizarre open-air construct in the middle of the fest known as the Do Lab, where all the dance hippies end up, or for the secluded air-conditioned Yuma tent that always has a line, presumably to simulate an actual nightclub experience. I’m not an EDM guy myself, but looking in from the outside makes for some fabulous people watching. Since the centrally located Do Lab was the easiest to access of the dance enclaves, I found myself continually wandering through to watch this demographic in their native element. Everyone here is simultaneously having the greatest night of their life, and they’re so stoked to be sharing the greatest night of their life with a few thousand strangers. Meanwhile, I stand on the edge, staring like an anthropologist stopping in to document an undiscovered tribe. Shirtless guys grind on babes in bikinis. Everyone is drunk, high, or rolling balls (so many clenched jaws), and everyone eye-fucks the bejeezus out of everyone else. One candy-raver had a hula hoop, which she’d twirl for a few minutes until her top inevitably slipped down, and she’d have to start all over. It wasn’t my scene, but you’d have to be a eunuch not to see the appeal.
The best part of Coachella is the freedom to do whatever the hell you want, whenever you want. No one makes you sit through an entire set of anything, and since the lineup is stacked with so many overlapping high-quality acts, you can have a blast bopping around from stage to stage, sampling everything like a musical buffet line. Some of the best moments of the day came in bite-sized chunks: Puscifer brought a miniature Airstream trailer up on stage before the band emerged in full redneck attire to bring one of the fest’s only doses of hard rock. Bat For Lashes drew one of the larger crowds to the Mojave tent, but Natasha Khan kept things intimate with a twinkling antique lamp and hushed vocals … until she let it all out, belting out the set-closing “Daniel” as if we were somehow in an even larger venue. I caught El-P by accident — the small crowd was locked in, and the performance was explosive. “Some people find my music soothing,” he quipped in between songs. “They play it for their babies.”
3. The Wastoid Kids & The Tesla Coil
At first glimpse, most of the artwork around the field feels … excessive. Huge sculptures erupt skyward, there’s color everywhere, and it’s all a bit much. But details emerge on closer inspection, and a lot of it is surprisingly cool. There’s one art installation called the Power Station, in which a bunch of actors perform an endless loop of performance art, doing god-knows-what to somehow power the entire festival. It’s all deliberately weird: kinda funny, mostly pointless. Right next door, there’s another construct that goes along with it: two massive Tesla coils. Like the world’s largest bug zapper killing the world’s largest bug, electricity shoots in all directions for about 30 seconds at a time. Once it got dark, a crowd gathered just behind the fence, all seated, all quiet, as if in quiet contemplation of the mysteries of physics that were unfolding a few feet away. Eyes were glazed; I think I saw a stream of drool trailing from the corner of one kid’s mouth. These were the wastoids, the congregated masses of the truly fucked up, silently assembled to stare off into the electrical void. Watching them several times throughout the night, I couldn’t help thinking they knew something I did not.
2. Janelle Monae
The MC took the stage while a symphonic Bond-sounding score blasted out of the PA. Flipping the script, he demanded everyone scream their own names on the count of three, so he could introduce us personally to Miss Janelle Monae. The band crept out — everyone decked out in head-to-toe white, except for three figures in black robes. The first song started and it was clear Monae was one of the three; she sang with her back to the crowd, spitting lyrics, dancing in spite of the unwieldy costume. In an instant she shed the disguise and exploded to life. Watching her perform is fascinating: every element of everything happening on stage is impeccably choreographed, but her skill as a performer animates the experience into something lively and rich. Her own material is frequently dense, with long verses sometimes shy on hooks — there’s not always a lot to grab onto besides her power as an onstage perfomer and the warmth of the backing band, though the artistry is clear in every note. So she wisely turns to covers to bridge the gap, here busting out classics by the Jackson Five and Prince. Paired with stylized visuals on the screens flanking the stage — again with the James Bond theme — she brought one of the most “professional” sets of the night, and it was dazzling to behold.
I was warned in advance I had to catch Spiritualized. I came in knowing full well that what I was about to see was going to “blow my mind.” Expectations, man — we’ve all been burned too many times. It’s a shame we live in a world where a hearty recommendation leads to instant doubt, but that’s life in the modern age. Spiritualized specialize in converting the non-believers, apparently, instilling faith in the faithless. Main-man Jason Pierce never once left his seat throughout their hourlong set; he didn’t need to. Songs start out small, a strummed guitar and a quiet vocal over a warm bed of organ. The rhythm section holds it down, looping a simple groove — a masterclass in restraint, until it’s time to tear down the walls. The songs are psychedelic in the sense that you lose yourself to the repetition almost immediately; in reality it’s closer to gospel or soul refashioned through the fractal lens of krautrock. Everything builds before you realize what’s happening–you’re moving, swaying to the rhythm, watching the band add new layers that wrap you in an embrace, the big-tent voices of the black backup singers lifting you higher and higher. By the time it all comes down it feels like we’re in church, a chapel of heroin and soul, offering the spiritual experience implicit in the band’s name — what more could you want from a weekend in the desert?