Let us set aside our faith in music and ask our skeptical selves a question: How are we to believe that the same festival can be created twice? Despite my enduring love for the emblematic Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, I couldn’t help but have mixed feelings about being invited to the latter of two identical weekends of this year’s gathering. As we made the languid trek into the Empire Polo Fields on a sweltering Friday afternoon, I had a nagging fear that I would be watching a stale rerun, a cheap imitation with an expensive price tag. What I found both confirmed and denied my suspicions; while some artists were clearly there for themselves, content to read from the same script, others were willing to feed the Coachella organism and tap into the unique consciousness of the weekend. It was in those defining moments that I found my own Coachella, instead of hitting replay on somebody else’s.
The first day began listlessly as we fled from the 104-degree weather lording over the two exposed stages in favor of the three smaller tent areas. When the sun finally sank, a newly energized crowd amassed at the Gobi tent for Frank Ocean, who offered a slow, romantic respite from the many rock and electronic artists of the day. At the main stage, we arrived in time to hear The Black Keys open up with “Howlin’ for You,” backed by a keyboardist and bassist, followed by some older jams between founding members Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach. It was a fun set, but as soon as we moved stages to catch Explosions in the Sky, the Keys became a gaudy nuisance that interfered with the band’s delicate instrumentals — that is, until the crashing finale of “The Only Moment We Were Alone,” when a huge wash of feedback, drums, and lights seemed to drown the main stage altogether. After that, it was up to the newly reunited Refused to close out the night. As his bandmates vacillated between heavy thrashing, mathy rhythms, and feedback-filled jams, lead vocalist Dennis Lyxzén twisted and stomped around stage, pausing only to remind the crowd to always be skeptical of reunion acts.
Rising gingerly on aching feet, we began day two on a somewhat nostalgic note, which quickly escalated into wild crescendo. Over at the Gobi tent, Brit-punk legends Buzzcocks blasted grinningly through oldies like “What Do I Get?” at an almost comical pace. Next door at the Outdoor stage, Jeff Mangum followed with an acoustic set of Neutral Milk Hotel songs, providing the perfect backdrop while folks searched for coveted shade to rest up before nightfall. St. Vincent, meanwhile, slayed a capacity crowd at the Gobi tent with a set that ended with “Krokodil,” and lead vocalist Annie Clark giving herself over to a sea of outstretched arms. Not long after, Flying Lotus set up shop with a snake-charming deejay set, filled with sinuous tempo changes and deep grooves. Always a radiant personality, the computer-music guru cut and spliced the DNA of his songs like a mad geneticist, eventually bringing out bassist Thundercat and a drummer for a live rendition of “Mmmhmm.” Coachella was utterly in thrall of FlyLo, and when it came time to yield the stage to SBTRKT, I swear I saw him tear up. By now, the Coachella wave was rising, peaking, falling — and who should be there to catch it but Thom Yorke and friends. What followed on Saturday night was a set from a gentle, refined Radiohead, more acutely aware of the silences between notes than perhaps the notes themselves. On the massive light panels shifting around overhead, the band’s image split and fractured during the more mellow moments (“Kid A,” “House of Cards,” “You and Whose Army?”) and erupted in chromatic chaos for the upbeat ones (“Idioteque,” “Bodysnatchers,” “Paranoid Android”). Undoubtedly, though, the most powerful moments were of almost total silence, such as Yorke’s resounding delivery at the end of “Karma Police” and “Exit Music (For a Film).”
We awoke early on Sunday for the home stretch, beginning with S.B.’s own Gardens & Villa. With the Mojave tent at their disposal, the five-piece gave back to Coachella on our town’s behalf by way of their dancey space-rock catalog, perfect for a midday jumpstart. Later that evening, a sweaty yet stoked crowd welcomed araabMUZIK to the same stage, but with disappointing results. The highly lauded hip-hop producer juggled some repetitive dubstep samples half-hidden by a weak light display and the brim of a hat, never so much as a glancing at the crowd. By contrast, in the next tent over, Gaslamp Killer seemed to personify all the things his neighbor lacked: personality, eclecticism, and creativity in mixing everything from drum and bass to Cypress Hill to “The Imperial March.” By nightfall, tensions mounted at the main stage when At the Drive-In began with the opening maraca shakes of “Arcarsenal.” The reunion sounded great but looked slightly lackluster by comparison to Refused, who out-danced and out-screamed the post-hardcore band even at their older age. Fortunately, where Sunday seemed to come up short, German knob-tweakers Modeselektor set the record straight by remixing and dissecting new tracks like “Evil Twin” and “Berlin.” The duo came equipped with no shortage of deejay antics, shouting their thanks through pitch-shifted voices, pouring champagne on folks, and ordering everyone to sit down before a huge buildup. As the weekend drew to a close and spaces started to open up in the Mojave tent, Modeselektor may have found the most uninhibited crowd of all weekend; I certainly felt that way when the familiar beat of “Blue Clouds” reached my ears. That is, until they welcomed a convulsing Thom Yorke on deck for a closing run of “Shipwreck,” and then all hell broke loose.