The Delta Terminal at the Los Angeles International Airport feels deserted. I've arrived nearly five hours before my flight because the prospect of being dropped off in the city for a few hours seemed like more effort than finding a power outlet, a window, and some airport food to kill time. Whitney had an afternoon meeting with baseball playing brothers in San Diego; so we woke up early and hit the hazy trail from Palm Springs relatively early this morning, but late enough that I had time to sit in the shade by the pool before checking out.
We'd spent the weekend in the improbably green manicured lawns of the Empire Polo Grounds in Indio for Coachella, an increasingly massive music festival in the middle of the desert. It sounds exactly like the sort of thing that I'd hate: 60,000 people milling around, sweating in 100 degree heat, crowding into tents or around outdoor stages. It sounds awful, doesn't it?
But now think of five (or ten or twenty) bands that you're dying to see; check the schedule and you're likely to find most of them on it. Yet it isn't simply the intensely great lineup. Return again to those 60,000 people, because without them it's functionally not very different from a listening party without very good climate control. They're the 60,000 people willing travel to the desert to endure those 100+ degree afternoons, the melting sunscreen, the crowds with their clever t-shirts, bikinis or short-shorts, purposely high-low LA fashion, because of that outstandingly curated lineup, the other people, the inventive art installations turn the grounds into an amazing, always surprising, and even more scenic wonderland, the hippie burritos at the veggie hut, and the urchins collecting ten discarded plastic bottles in exchange for a fresh bottle of water to stay hydrated (a genius idea for a green festival, no?). Repeat this for three straight days, hustling between five stages, assorted dance domes, misting stations, and scarce shade and by the end of it all, after an unbelievable proportion of the grounds have been filled with fans who came from all over the globe (many prinarily for the purposes of raging against the machine) have squeezed together through too-small exit gates, there we are, funneling out through the dusty parking lots after midnight, unable to resist spontaneous rounds of applause for ourselves, for each other, and for the whole fantastic ordeal. It's all kind of magical.
As for the actual festival, a grainy photoset [flickr] and a whirlwind recap:
Let's back up, shall we? I arrive in LA, a little terrified a little awed by the view of the city from the sky, on Thursday night. Guided by a Google Maps equipped Blackberry, we immediately point the car east, toward the desert and the mountains, missing exits, navigating in park & rides, and speeding past a casino called "Morongo" (really.) that lights up the empty horizon with its hotel's shifting LCD facade. And then to experience the mystery of El Pollo Loco (similar to, but somehow less creepy than those KFC--Taco Bell hybrids). We check into the condo, scan the internet for bars, but ignore the results suggesting Sinatra hangouts, leather bars, and Tiki clubs, opting instead for Historic Downtown Palm Springs.
Thwarted by the remains of a weekly street fair, we eventually manage to navigate across the main drag, stroll the strip, reject many options, and finally settle into a place called the Village Pub where we sit outside. It feels like EPCOT center. Inside, however, a cover band mimics expertly and makes incredible transitions (there's a stunning run that goes from Steve Miller Band to Weezer to AC/DC, for example). We arrive early enough to assume that most of the crowd is local. Every person that walks out of the bar area, briefly unleashing the loud music into the night, manages to top the previous in terms of defying any characterization of the scene. Exhausted fifty-somethings with giant cell phone clipped to belt or bleached blonde hair raggedly exhausted from dancing collapse into their chairs; twenty-somethings in slouchy sweatpants, a dude in a wheelchair, disgruntled Yankees fans (and/or the Palm Springs gay mafia), a wannabe cast of the Real World, marines on shore leave, the list goes on and on. It is breathtaking, hilarious, and altogether improbable. As the night wears on, the crowd takes a noticeable turn toward other Coachella attendees. We strike up a conversation with a guy who's a major player in the L.A. pub quiz scene while he's waiting for his friends to tire of sexydancing to Nirvana covers. He wears his trivia team jersey, "the Clap". We chat about previous festivals, the must sees of this one, and nearly close out the bar before going home to fill up the sleep banks for the next day.
Fueled by a tasty breakfast sandwich and caffeine from the Starbucks of Historic Downtown Palm Springs, we hit the road early and arrive early enough to catch a couple wiry songs from the Noisettes and stick around in the sweltering tent for some Toronto dancerock future-obsessed stylings of Tokyo Police Club. After that, a retreat to some shade, and ignoring Satellite Party while waiting for Silversun Pickups and their smeary vocals and sun-baked guitars, which are perfectly suited to the weather. During this, I briefly break away to see some of Montreal, some of whom are suffering for fashion. Fur caps in midday sun!? Once I've heard a few of the dancier hits and notice that they're trending toward instrumentaly grooves, it's back to Silversun Pickups before diving into the fray for Arctic Monkeys. Their new stuff sounds good, but like the first album, I think it benefits from a frantic dance/mosh pit. However, I can appreciate that scaling that up to this many people isn't exactly practical and is definitely not safe (after all, Coachella made its name as the well-behaved massive rock festival following the disastrous Woodstock 1999). True to the theme of the festival, the Jesus & Mary Chain are among the reunited bands in big type on the poster. They play a few songs I know and spice up the ending with a oh so special, almost audible guest backing vocal performance by Scarlett Johansson. This moment of celebrity-infused excitement is quickly overshadowed by Jarvis Cocker's outstandingly charming show, hilarious crowd banter/observations, and song selection. He sort of squanders the least competitive slot of the night by being 20 minutes late.
This means that I dash off early because Interpol are about to win the day with a massive mainstage show, musically. No pyrotechnics aside from the guitars and Carlos D's questionable embrace of mustache-o-rama trend. When they're finished, I run over to see a tiny bit of Sonic Youth, then the Bjork finale, complete with an army of horn-playing backup vocalists, crazy wigs, and sweet Star Trek-esque mixers. I kept expecting someone to be beamed somewhere with the all digital sliders that kept being featured on the jumbotrons.
Saturday (all of my must-sees on one day and at the same times, or best festival day ever?):
it's too hot to stay at the Cribbs for more than a few songs, then over to the mainstage to hear Fountains of Wayne, who play some hits, but not "Stacy's Mom", despite dragging the audience out at the hottest point in the day. Hot Chip pack the tent full, and soon it's a humidified dancing party that attracts people spilling out the sides and into the lawn. From there, a few songs from New Pornographers who show off their new album art on the big screen behind them. Although it pains me to leave just as they're starting "the Bleeding Heart Show", it's my soundtrack to strolling back across to find a spot in a packed tent for Peter Bjorn & John. They sound a lot more like a rock trio in person than on their record, but after the do some on-the-spot "european tuning" because their guitars haven't ever been to the desert they really find their stride. I'm shocked by how the crowd is ferociously hungry for "Young Folks" (I didn't realize that it was an actual "hit" instead of an "mp3blog hit" --ed: is there a difference anymore?), but they go wild when they bring out Bebban Stenborg (from the Shout Out Louds) for the guest vocals. Peter goofily and seductively sings and rocks the shaker, kind of reminiscent of the Ben–Jenny bits of the Postal Service's live shows. When they're done, the hitseekers rudely (but happily, particularly for me) flee en masse and miss the two best songs on the album. Their loss, and it's nice to have a tiny bit more room in the tent. Then I try to hear some of the Decemberists, but they're in seersucker playing their wizardy new stuff and I'm suddenly and incontrovertibly over them. A temporary condition, I hope. I go to the shade of the "VIP"/press area and half listen to Kings of Leon's electrically loud performance to recover from the morning rushing and to prepare for the evening. Because next up is the Arcade Fire and I navigate far enough up into the tightly packed crowd that most people are as into it as I am. Security dudes come by with tanks of water to hose people down, which is almost unnecessary after sunset. We sing along loudly to "Wake Up", pump fists, and scream "lies!" when they play "Rebellion". They have a pipe organ onstage and Win climbs briefly into the security corridor to face the audience. It's a veritable hit parade, my throat is still raw from singing along.
Here's the crazy thing: That part about "most of the people being into it" is explained when the Arcade Fire wrap up. As I'm evacuating as fast as I can, hordes of people are streaming in at full velocity for Red Hot Chili Peppers. It explains a whole lot about the day. Apparently, they rouse people to their feet all the way back to the merch booth in one direction and the trance dome in the other. But I have no time for them: I boltto grab a bite to eat while listening to Blonde Redhead on the way to see Girl Talk. When I get there, it looks like the Cobrasnake threw up all over the smallest tent and on the stage, where people are all dancing like crazy to his revelatory set. Both his selection and the crowd's sweat-drenched nonstop response are completely and utterly stunning. Are we still allowed to say things like "off the hook"? Because, yes yes yes, that's what it was. It makes a difficult act to follow, but two tents over LCD Soundsystem are up to the challenge. Most of us are putty in their hands, and as by the time they've worked through a killer version of "Yeah", "All Your Friends" makes me ridiculously happy, and then lighters are in the air for the "New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down" finale. Something great, indeed. The Rapture do a fine job of closing the night, but after the earlier part of the day I find myself trying a little harder than I would have liked to convince myself that I was still having the time of my life.
With the show over, we break a lot of rules, sneaking through open fences, and ignoring the flashlight wavers to get back to the highway.
A later start and a (comparatively) more laid-back day started with Grizzly Bear's psych-crooning in the little tent. Then Explosions in the Sky destroyed the mainstage at the hottest point in the afternoon. From that phenomenal performance to another: Rodrigo y Gabriela filled the small tent and their audience stretched out for dozens of yards beyond the back and out the sides. For good reason: an amazing range of sounds from two guitars, played in a dizzying array of styles, and finishing with a "Stairway to Heaven" cover. Chilling out on the grass while Willie Nelson & family sang on his birthday. Jose Gonzales, playing gorgeous guitar in competition with dance beats on one side and Placebo on the other. I stroll the grounds and catch a few Lily Allen tracks from far outside the tent, and wait forever for Air to start. They're forty-five minutes late and Manu Chao is ten minutes early; so it's difficult to pay attention to more than a couple songs before the loudness, enthusiasm, and need to get across the grounds before the full army of Rage Against the Machine fans assemble.
And assemble, in their "Battle of Coachella" t-shirts, they do. Safe within the fenced confines of the "VIP" zone, we secure spots and stand atop a picnic table. Even the attentions of usually terminally bored crowd inside is fixed on the stage and as far as the eye can see (and likely further), fans are turned toward RATM. It is awesome in the literal sense and kind of scary, too. Although I'm definitely not a fan, they put on a heck of a show and the sea of worshipers was entirely fascinating. They were everywhere throughout the festival, in town, and at the airport wearing their "battle of coachella" t-shirts, impeach Bush Regime bandanas, and generally cherishing their reunion pilgrimage.
Celebrities spotted: none, even though we walked right past Elijah Wood as we were trying to find escape routes on Sunday night.