Indio is a quiet desert town 125 miles east of Los Angeles, but for three days out of the year, it is what Prince dubbed “The coolest place on Earth.”
Thursday night began as a migration of people caravaned across dusty roads leading to the campers’ parking lot. Before entering the campground, we stood amongst long lines of people waiting to have their luggage checked for contraband. Yellow-shirted event staff casually scrutinized our bags and supplies, a process repeated many times throughout the weekend. The patdown was in some ways a game of charades—festival-goers feinted innocence, and security pretended to care under the watchful guise of a mustachioed Indio cop.
We camped alongside “Simon,” a laconic man in his 30s who spoke in a deadpan, Steven-Seagal monotone. He briskly set up camp, and he tactfully helped us with our canopy. Simon wore a headband flashlight and a T-shirt that read, “Hello, my name is Satan.” He had driven alone from Monterey and told us his wife would arrive the next day.
Our other neighbors were Josh and Hector, a San Diego couple attending their seventh consecutive Coachella. They were seasoned festival-hoppers, having followed Björk across the United States on her 2007 tour. We swapped stories from last year’s Coachella and later agreed that Jack Johnson’s mellow brand of acoustic surf rock was a poor headlining act for Friday night.
On Friday, we started the festival with the Midnight Juggernauts, a loud, lively Australian three-piece band, whose psychedelic blend of rock and electronica set our ears ringing. Twenty minutes into the set, we headed to the Gobi tent to catch the last half-hour of Porter, a Mexican band whose obvious Sigur Rós influences seemed to catch on with the audience. But the following band absolutely blew away the crowd with its immense technical abilities.
Battles is a group of virtuoso musicians who plays a distinct kind of experimental “math” rock, a label that made sense when I listened to the 45-minute set. Its music sounds like the work of machines—synchronized instruments progressing at rapid, inhuman speeds. Most of it is instrumental, but when guitarist/keyboardist Tyondai Braxton created and distorted live voice samples at key points of a song, Battles sounded like a band of robots, invading mankind with unconventional rhythms and technical prowess.
Later at sunset, we sat near the outdoor theater watching this year’s most blogged-about band, Vampire Weekend. Its white-boy adaptation of sunny, bouncy African pop was calming after a long, hot day. Once the sun set, the festival took on a different vigor. The crowds emerged from underneath the canopies, the temperature fell to a light, cool breeze and the bright lights and noise of all the art pieces converged in a brilliant way. At night, those wary of psychedelic drugs could experience for themselves a surreal, dreamlike state while sober. The energy and density of the crowd, the steampunk treehouse, the performers at the Do Lab (a Cirque du Soleil-like performance troupe) and the constant barrage of live music turned the festival grounds into an adult, phantasmic playground.
We chose Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings and the Black Lips as our closing acts for Friday. The former is a ’70s revivalist funk and soul group that hearken back to the days of analogue recording. Her voice booming and thunderous, Jones was queen of the stage as she proved that funk and soul could hold their own in a festival dominated by rock and electronic acts. The set was as loud and danceable as anything that Fatboy Slim would be spinning later that night. Likewise, the Black Lips, known for its rowdy, psychedelic garage rock, played to a crowd of punks and psychonauts. The Lips finished its set with a climactic burning and smashing of electric guitars.
The next night, we camped out for a good spot at the main stage for the Saturday headliners, a mixed bag of influential musicians whose U.S. appearances are rare. Kraftwerk is a seminal ’70s German electronic group whose minimalist synth melodies and vocoder-laced lyrics have influenced everyone from Afrika Bambaataa to Daft Punk. As the four members of Kraftwerk wore neon-green jumpsuits and stood in front of their podiums in a retro-futuristic set-up of light and sound, it seemed that music seemed more politically affecting than anything that Rage Against the Machine had performed as last year’s headliner. I found myself feeling slightly uneasy at bobbing my head to the electric drum beats and synth piano of “Radioactivity,” as a computerized voice called out the names of famous nuclear sites—Chernobyl, Harrisburg, Sellafield and Hiroshima. It was subtle and minimalist, as political as Kraftwerk would get, but it was enough.
Afterward, trip-hop pioneers Portishead came on stage to tear out the hearts of its audience after an almost decades-long hiatus from performing in the United States Vocalist Beth Gibbons’ pained, shrill voice was chilling in the desert night, as smoke filled the stage and the turntables and the guitar coalesced into a mind-blowing symphony. When Gibbons sang, “I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve you” during “Nylon Smile,” I felt the cold sadness of Portishead’s music coursing through me like a dose of morphine delivered by the sonic blasts that came from the towering Coachella stage speakers.
Not to be out-staged, Prince later arrived in dramatic fashion, announcing to the crowd, “Coachella, I am here!” At 49 years old, Prince made himself relevant to a whole new generation of fans who were too young to witness his rise in the ’80s. On stage, he wore a white suit with sparkling studded gems and took command of the stage with guitar in hand. His backing band also carried the weight of the performance, but all eyes were on Prince’s 5-foot frame. He played a two-hour set and ended with a double encore. It was enough to make the naysayers forget the absence of My Bloody Valentine or Radiohead on the lineup.
On Sunday night, we again camped out at the main stage for a good view of Roger Waters’ epic two-hour and 30-minute performance of “The Dark Side of the Moon.” All around us were those nostalgic for the ’60s and young Pink Floyd fans eager to see a set that was reportedly going to be full of groundbreaking stage effects. Two hours into the set, the show’s production was impressive, but Waters’ decision to intersperse songs from his solo works had some leaving early to witness Justice’s festival closer at the Sahara tent.
Bodies spilled out of the Sahara tent in the minutes before Justice’s set. We were drowning in a sea of bodies as we stood, elbow-to-elbow, near the left center of the crowd. By the time Justice arrived with triumphant applause, I could only catch an occasional glimpse of the two Frenchmen. I danced, no, swayed, to “Waters of Nazareth” the best I could, but the weekend had already exhausted my energy. Two friendly giants, putting their 6-foot frames to altruistic purposes, swung a wet towel to splash overheated dancers with cool drops of water. But this was not enough for me to bear the crowd. Grabbing the shoulders of other tired dancers, my friends and I escaped the Sahara, dancing and snaking our way out of the throng.
As we took a final walk through the festival grounds, soaking in the lights and noises of the Coachella night scene, I felt like a child about to leave Disneyland, disappointed and wary of the long drive home on the desert highway.