The common refrain about Coachella dictates: “It’s not about the music, man, it’s about the festival experience.” With the dance/sex tents in full swing, dozens of corporate-sponsored hideaways at every corner offering shade and mild distraction in exchange for a few minutes of direct advertising access to your brain, and the untamed wilderness of the campground, where god knows what happens all day and night but it certainly ain’t music — it’s hard to argue.
That said, the majority of the bands at Coachella take their work seriously. Besides the glaring exception that is New Order, who felt their age in more ways than one Saturday night, bands young and old showed the fuck up just about every time. No phoning it in for a paycheck, no dismissal of the crowd even when that crowd turned out to be tiny (a lot of the legacy acts drew piddling amounts of fans, but hardly anyone openly acknowledged it). As a serious fan of music: sure, you might be surrounded by kids enraptured by the lifestyle, but the kids are charming and harmless — they do their thing, you do yours. The bands deliver either way. There’s plenty of festival for everyone.
After an endless weekend bursting with music and sunshine, my time at Coachella is done. I’m glad I came. The environment requires a good amount of legwork in order to enjoy yourself, but you get a certain satisfaction knowing you really earned everything you saw. Everyone should do it once, at least. I hope I run into you next year. In the meantime, here are five of the best things I happened to see on Sunday.
5. Ghost B.C.
Coachella might be the least metal place on earth. Forget about the occasionally murderous heat and it’s actually pretty damn pleasant here. Lots of color, wide-eyed chemically enhanced smiles, and enough sunshine to provide tans for all of Florida. Which made the sole “metal” band a bit of an odd man out. Now, to be fair, Ghost B.C. aren’t metal per se, but the guitars are plenty heavy in the live setting, the songwriting and the singing in particular pays homage to Mercyful Fate as much as Blue Oyster Cult, and every song is about Satan. In the metal world Ghost are something of a novelty act (they wear costumes, after all) — in the interests of fair and balanced reporting, their second album falls somewhere between fascinating trainwreck and plain terrible — but after three days of peace, love, and fuck-jams, I’ll take what I can get. Considering Ghost were resigned to the 1 p.m. slot on the biggest stage here, they performed admirably, decked out in their papal robes, throwing everything they had at a tired crowd of dozens. Compared to most metal bands, Ghost’s actual music makes sense for a festival setting: the hooks are front and center, several songs are oddly dance-friendly. But the lyrics … My single favorite moment elevated Ghost’s appearance in the banks of my memory to priceless: watching bikini-clad girls clap and chant along to the outro refrain of the set-closing “Monstrance Clock.” “Come together, together as one. Come together for Lucifer’s son.” Satan would probably be proud, if He were real.
4. Gerard’s Paella
At the risk of indulgence, I have to take a moment to talk about the food. Coachella, as the promoters like to brag on the website and elsewhere, offers a plethora of epicurean delights. Most is fine to good, if not remarkable. But in the middle of a strip full of hastily assembled restaurants sits an unassuming booth labelled “Gerard’s Paella.” Behind the guy working the register sat several gigantic, bubbling pots of both varieties of paella: traditional chicken & shrimp, and the vegan alternative. Another guy stood back there adding fresh goodies to each — I like to think he’s the titular Gerard, but I doubt Gerard really felt like spending 16 hours behind the cookpot of a mobile restaurant he owns — and, surprisingly, it all looked amazing. Now, the notion of getting decent paella at a place like this borders on the absurd. But Coachella is all about living on the edge, or so I told myself as I ordered the chicken & shrimp paella sometime on Friday. Lo and behold, it was amazing. I’ve eaten a lot of paella in my days: Gerard’s might be the best I’ve had, and he served it up to the masses for $10 a pop. I came back several times throughout the weekend, whenever a craving for actual food hit. Sunday night, just before Nick Cave, I grabbed one last plate to close out my adventure on a high note. Mighty fine work, Gerard.
3. Two Generations Of American Punk
I spent a lot more time at the main stage today, partly due to the appearance of two bands that share a spiritual and sonic bond, Social Distortion and the Gaslight Anthem. Social D kept their set cool and classy, hewing to the roots of their sound — punk-inflected jailhouse rock, basically. It’s all cigarette smoke and prison tats, gravelly vocals, and a nostalgic emphasis on Americana paired with the most casual kind of rebellion, which, at this point feels more conservative than anything else. To watch them tear through song after song, you’d never stop to think just how long they’ve been doing this, or how far they are from the “cool” Coachella bands. Fuck it. Timeless trumps trends any day, which probably makes me sound my age. Gaslight started out somewhere awfully close to Social Distortion; each album pushes them further from their roots, though they still operate in roughly the same sphere. As much as singer Brian Fallon consciously invokes the spirit of Bruce Springsteen, his band shares much more sonic ground with Social Distortion. Both bands are sturdy, reliable, and hardworking, if not necessarily transcendent. But they both offer a certain comfort, a reminder that rock and roll is still here, that it never completely goes away, not really. My dad was a huge fan of Gaslight Anthem, of all bands, which gave the afternoon an extra element of personal resonance. Watching them pour sweat and throw heart out at the audience while the sun beats down feels like a worthy enough tribute to my old man.
2. The Super-Snail
Yesterday I wrote about the Tesla coils; another one of the insane art constructs is the Helix Poeticus, which I prefer to call the Super-Snail for obvious reasons. Imagine an iridescent snail the size of a house. Said snail slides through the crowd, seemingly at random, moving from one end of the festival to the other without regard for bands, or passersby, or much anything. It’s kind of incredible. Over the course of the weekend, the Super-Snail would come to define the Coachella experience for a lot of folks. It would continually come up in conversation. People originally tried to use it as a landmark, not realizing it actually moved around, which led to an unintentional comedy of errors of epic, only-really-funny-if-you-were-there proportions. Like a real snail, the Super-Snail has the ability to leave a snail trail (though it only does this part of the time, and usually at night). The trail consists of bubbles instead of slime, aww. That’s the long and short of it: a freakishly oversized snail that craps bubbles and gets in the way of just about everything. Upon first encounter, I found myself questioning the snail’s existence — until something miraculous happened. Of Monsters And Men were about to begin their set at the Outdoor Theatre. The snail unwittingly (or wittingly, I like to think) slid into position directly in front of the stage, completely blocking the view of the band, forcing the crowd to back away from the stage. It was one of those magical snafus that happened exactly as I needed it to for my own enjoyment. Of Monsters And Men aren’t necessarily terrible, and maybe it’s mean-spirited to enjoy the disruption of their set — from my vantage point you couldn’t even see the band for the first few songs — but it made for another one of those genuine moments we look for throughout the day, the kind we remember when the day is done. I feel like I bonded with the snail at that moment, and every so often I’d be wandering around, and he’d be somewhere in the distance, slowly sliding forward, crapping bubbles as he went. I was sad to see him for the final time last night.
1. Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds
The whole weekend belonged to Nick Cave as far as I’m concerned. He played a smaller stage and tore the fucking house down with Grinderman on Friday night, and he returned for a victory lap at the mainstage Sunday evening. The crowd lined up early to get a good view … only they were mostly Chili Peppers fans. That’s the downside of sharing the stage with the one massive, radio-friendly act. Their fans are oblivious to all else, and they’re the types of people who try and push their way to the front of the crowd despite the fact their band isn’t playing for another 90 minutes. (Actual overheard conversation: “Who’s playing next?” “Nick Cave. He sounds boring, but I hear he’s all about murder.” “Weird.”) But it didn’t matter. Nick took the stage and silenced all dissent through sheer force of will. He brought out the Silverlake Children’s Choir for a couple songs, which lent an eerie power to already dark songs. If Grinderman is pure sleazy rage, Nick Cave’s act with the Bad Seeds covers a much wider swath of human emotion without sacrificing an ounce of that power. “Stagger Lee” seethed along until exploding into action for a second at a time, an exercise in control and release. He closed the set by bringing back the children’s choir for a haunting, restrained take on the title track off his latest album, Push The Sky Away. You’d have to have been dead not to feel something as those voices rose up around you, Nick standing front and center, conducting the full band with arm motions, standing their like a bandleader and dark savior all in one. This was his show, and this was his weekend.