Let’s not pretend here. After last year’s overcrowded, disorganized, and dizzying installment, I had my doubts. In truth, I contemplated putting the kibosh on my annual Coachella pilgrimage altogether. But the lure of great acts (Arcade Fire, The Strokes, Crystal Castles) and the promise of a more put-together event were just too good to pass up. Fool me once, shame on you, Coachella. Fool me twice, shame on me.
Needless to say, by mid-evening Friday I found myself high-fiving pretty much everyone under the sun; the Coachella of my long distant memories was back. There were no three-hour-long lines, no bitter and self-righteous security guards, no swirling clusterfucks of human bodies clamoring to get everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. In 2011 there was room to breath, space to sit, and ways to get out of the parking lot that didn’t take all night. People were in a good mood, dance tents housed actual dancing, and in three long days I only saw one kid get tackled to the ground — and he kinda deserved it.
Even better still, the music was as good, great, and awe-inspiring as I’ve seen it in my seven years of attendance. Whether it was luck, chance, or fate, I didn’t catch anything bad — and that includes Ariel Pink’s disastrous temper tantrum of a set. Below you’ll find a day-by-day rundown of what we caught, pictures and all. Consider it a “thank you” to the Coachella powers that be, who proved in 2011 that they’ve learned from their mistakes and can still throw a killer party. Kudos, guys.
Like many, my Friday started a little late, thanks to a lengthy wait to get inside the Coachella grounds. It seems in addition to the fest’s security crackdown and un-counterfeit-able wristband system organizers felt the need to employ a sizable “ticketholders only” perimeter around the polo fields, which made for some slightly gnarly traffic delays. That said, once our car made it past checkpoint land, it was smooth sailing. Musically, the day began with surprise-of-the-weekend number one: a 4 p.m. set from Brooklyners The Drums. In addition to the sweet, boppy, surf-inspired stuff I knew from records, frontman Jonny Pierce brought an energy and crazy-eyed exuberance to the stage that seemed to surprise all those in attendance. Oh yeah, and single “Let’s Go Surfing” made for a pretty great jumpstart to our sunny late afternoon. Next door, we caught the latter half of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All’s super hyped afternoon showing. As expected, we got a melee of beats, samples, and shock value from the young hip-hop crew, not to mention the first of many crazy light shows from the Sahara Tent’s tech wizards.
From there, it was on to see The Morning Benders, who had hit SOhO the night before to a sold-out crowd. In Indio, the San Fran-cum-New Yorkers delivered the goods again, mixing cuts off 2010’s Big Echo with newly penned, delightfully groovy downtempo jams. We (sadly) boned out on Warpaint to catch Cee Lo and ended up with a late start, a less-than-30-minute set, and a cut off and grumpy main stage performer. But even Cee Lo’s mini-meltdown couldn’t prepare us for what came next. Just before 6 p.m. in the tiny-by-comparison Gobi Tent, L.A. psych popper Ariel Pink gave us what can only be described as a temper tantrum of a performance. For the course of his stay, the frontman managed to sing three songs, storm offstage, be dragged back on, and idly pick his cuticles (and sulk behind various pieces of equipment) while his bandmates sportily suffered through the remainder. Dually noted: lo-fi gems like “Round and Round” just don’t rock as hard without the vocals.
No matter though, as the night by far overshadowed the day, thanks to killer back-to-back shows from Interpol, Sleigh Bells, and Killers frontman Brandon Flowers. Garage rockers The Black Keys suffered through the worst of the weekend’s sound problems, but soldiered on sans speakers and monitors to (eventually) deliver a rollicking set. Fittingly, the hard hitting and pretty “Everlasting Light” was the first to make itself heard past the photo pit.
From the little that we saw, Kings of Leon sounded, well, like Kings of Leon — i.e. bellowing, tightly rehearsed, and Southern. All the same, we took the opportunity to head away from the night’s biggest crowds and check out what Friday’s ladies had to offer. On the Outdoor Stage, Crystal Castles emerged from a fog to deliver some of the day’s most assaulting noises. There the duo cranked things up to 11, giving fans a screaming wall of synth and 8-bit sounds that made for one hell of a dance party. The highlight: frontwoman Alice Glass’s epic crowd surf — and nasty fall down — which she took with grace, even while sporting a large and cumbersome foot brace. Ow. After that, it was back to the tents to watch Robyn do her thing. Entering in to the packed Mojave Tent, I had low expectations, but what I walked away with was a newfound love for this pintsized pixie’s electropop beats and fierce dance moves — not to mention her ability to get a few hundred folks to belt along the lyrics to “Dancing On My Own.” By midnight, it seemed almost time to hit the hay, but we powered through for the ultimate wind down: Gayngs 12:05 set in the Mojave Tent, which boasted more members (including the weekend’s inaugural appearance by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon) than I could count. Their smooth jazz meets yacht rock vibe was super sultry, and made for the ideal soundtrack to the close of day one.
Boasting the hottest temperatures and the hottest headliners (more on that later), Saturday had the potential to lure some of the weekend’s craziest crowds. Luckily, we were parked and in the venue in record time, giving us ample time to catch Here We Go Magic’s mid-afternoon set on the Outdoor Theater. In concert, the group’s trippy, electro-light ambient rock came off more thoughtful than psychedelic, but it still managed to work. (Bonus kudos to bassist/vocalist Jen Turner, who turned out one of the most gracefully great performances of the weekend.)
We spent the late afternoon milling around the main stage, and in return scored a grab bag of sonic goodies. As in years past, Gogol Bordello delivered the kind of high energy gypsy rock that can get thousands up and moving. Soul goddess Erykah Badu was the picture of poised perfection, belting through classics like “On & On” and “Soldier” impeccably and beautifully. From there, we headed cross town to visit recent S.B. stopovers Jenny and Johnny, and got a smattering of buoyant, cutesy indie pop in return.
Closer to sundown, Broken Social Scene gave us a short but sweet main stage performance that was light on the banter, heavy on the sonic theatrics. (Think moody groovers like “All for All” and “Anthem for a 17 Year-Old Girl” and new rockers like “Texaco Bitches.”) Bright Eyes reunited for a set chock full of oldies, which included a resonating and angst-filled rendition of “Lover I Don’t Have to Love.” The Kills returned, this time to the fest’s Outdoor Theatre, for set of rollicking, guitar-heavy, sexed up rock ‘n’ roll, starring a mop-haired Alison Mosshart.
Later in the night, Animal Collective proved that even a village of LED gizmos and gadgets can’t save a headlining band from bombing. Of course, this is not to say our beloved indie electro wizards didn’t bring the goods, just that their brand of cerebral knob twiddling and keyboard pounding doesn’t really make for the best live show — especially when it’s being played to tens of thousands of people. No matter though, because a hop skip and jump found us taking in the exact opposite. On the festival’s Outdoor Theatre stage Empire of the Sun dished up something I could only call “Broadway on acid.” With an army of whacked out backup dancers swathed in all manner of costumes (swordfish heads, sparkly robot suits, unicorn-inspired getups), frontman Luke Steele looked downright normal… while wearing about 10 lbs. of face makeup and a headdress. Sonically, though, the duo hit it out of the park, giving us dance-ready numbers like “Walking on a Dream” and “Standing on the Shore” in perfect succession.
Of course, the weekend’s hands-down highlight was as suspected as it was jaw-dropping. Taking to the main stage at a little past 11:30 p.m., Arcade Fire played nearly two hours of hits and cuts off their Grammy Award winning opus, The Suburbs. They were backed by short films, flanked by big screens, and eventually showered in a surreal collection of light-up beach balls, which once released turned crowd into something resembling a massive art installation. Still, it was the humility and almost-tearful graciousness of frontman Win Butler that made Saturday’s night closer what it was. Well, that and the 70,000-person strong sing-a-longs to building numbers like “Tunnels” and Wake Up.” In short, concert going will never be the same again.
Coming off of the high that was Saturday, I expected Sunday’s lineup to pale in comparison. Boy was I wrong. We rallied early and caught killer afternoon sets from moody New York indie rocker Twin Shadow and Spanish sampler lovers Delorean, fun-loving protest tunes from Men and CSS, and the tail end of Wiz Khalifa’s mighty main stage performance. Later, Nas and Damian Marley teamed up for my surprise highlight of the day; a set that featured the perfect balance of hip-hop and reggae for a mid-afternoon groovefest.
Come evening time, Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino represented for the Westside with her summery, girly surf rock anthems. Death from Above 1979 shredded through their main stage reunion show, and Duran Duran and The National vied hard for our “Most Difficult Acts to Choose Between” award. While the early part of Duran’s set boasted favorites like “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “Rio” (which we heard in the distance), The National’s late set selections included winners like “Fake Empire” and “Terrible Love” (which made for Justin Vernon’s second of three weekend onstage appearances).
Late night delivered the goods in The Strokes, who sounded great up until the parts where they let frontman Julian Casablancas speak. From behind an unnecessary set of shades and baseball cap, Casablancas acted his usual smarmy self, almost sucking the joy out of great songs like “Last Night” and “You Only Live Once” — almost.
And despite all my low expectations and personal annoyances, headliner Kanye West gave us a great — if somewhat ridiculous — end to an epic weekend. Taking notes from last year’s Coachella hip-hop king, Jay-Z, West smartly mashed-up a series of his hits, played through the good ones (namely “Stronger” and “Shine”), and employed more fireworks and scantily clad ballerinas than have likely ever graced a Coachella stage. Fittingly, he also made sure to place himself (and his “Lost in the World” counterpart, Mr. Vernon) atop seven-foot-tall performance pillars, you know, just for kicks.
Either way, it was just the theatrical insanity we needed to call 2011 a wrap. Here’s hoping the years to come continue to pack this big of a punch.