85,000 people. Spotty cell phone coverage. Three straight days of music. Snow-capped mountains by day, and spotlights flashing across the sky by night. These were the circumstances under which one of the world’s largest annual music festivals, Coachella, took place this year. It was a spectacle to remember, when memory was possible.
I attended Weekend 1, April 13-15, and it was my first time in Indio. Although I have gone to a number of concerts and festivals, this experience was without precedent. At any given time, you could choose between five different bands/DJs of wildly different styles, from indie to hip-hop to dub-step. There were beer gardens and pizza joints galore, all with prices that would melt your eyes faster than a churro melts in your mouth ($5 per churro, by the way). An illuminated ferris wheel towered over the expansive grounds. You could hold mile-long strings of balloons that lit up the night like Christmas lights. Art exhibits and spontaneous kickball games rounded out the repertoire of activities.
For $285 a ticket, one might expect nothing less. That said, for all of the logistical challenges that I encountered, I was very impressed by how smoothly everything worked. Yes, it took 45 minutes to get through two security checkpoints, since I was taking a shuttle. Yes, during those checkpoints, I got a pat-down search that in any other scenario would have been grounds for sexual harassment. And yes, there were lines and large distances for almost every occasion, from bathrooms to water fountains to merchandise shops. However, I have been to much smaller affairs that were far more inefficient and stressful. With a few exceptions, I got to see all of the artists for which I had come, as well as several gems that I had never encountered before.
Many shows were worthy of note, from Bon Iver to Justice, but these were my favorites:
Swedish House Mafia. I am not an avid devotee of house and thus had low expectations for this group, but somehow I made my way to front row. Suddenly, the stage was lit by flamethrowers, and I felt compelled to “Leave the World Behind.” Easily the most impressive light show, and a great song selection.
- The Shins. Heartfelt melodies, an uplifting debut of their new single “Simple Song,” and a surprise cover of “Speak to Me/Breathe in the Air” by Pink Floyd cast a spell on me and the rest of the crowd. Altogether, a knockout performance.
- Miike Snow. I once heard this indie pop band on the way to a water polo game, and I have been a fan ever since. Their songs in person were tight, smooth, and effortless, all with an enormous white moose perched over the crowd.
- Flux Pavilion. This was my first real dubstep concert, and I was nothing less than floored. As one reporter for the LA Times wrote, the DJ “spun bass spasms so powerful they could cure sciatica.” I was also glad I had brought my ear plugs.
- Snoop and Dre. Simply the most epic ending to the festival for which I could have asked. I was four rows from the front, at times not even standing because there were so many people, and the tracks from my sixth grade days felt as fresh as ever. The surprise appearance by the Tupac hologram had everyone around me freaking out until he vanished into stars, and the not-so-surprise appearances by Eminem, Wiz Khalifa, and 50 Cent sent the crowd into a frenzy unlike any other that I had seen at Coachella. I would have like to have heard more from The Chronic by Dre, but with so many hits to his name, I felt lucky to catch what I did.
Of course, the art only began with the music. Many of the festivals’ attendees provided enough material in their own right. Aside from being some of the most beautiful people I have ever seen, they wore crazy costumes, sported elaborate light displays, recited epic poetry by memory, and painted renditions of Starry Night on one another’s faces. Some even showed off tattoos that were homages to the artists on stage!
This year my crew decided to stay off-site at a friend’s house. Although staying off-site separated us from some of the camaraderie of the campgrounds, it did afford us the opportunity to get some real sleep, which made the transition back to Stanford eminently more feasible. The festival’s shuttle service was well run and staffed by drivers who repeatedly encouraged us to get as trashed as possible, a call to arms that was heartily received.
As the last night ended and I cast my gaze over the twinkling landscape, I thought back over all I had experienced during my first foray into the Southern California desert. Beyond all the bands, sun-tanned flesh, and purple illuminated concession stands, I remembered a Cardinal flag flapping over the campsite of one of the Stanford caravans. If anything I saw manifested the art of Coachilln’ during those three incredible days, that was it.