Coachella 2011 Wrap-Up: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Natasha Aftandilians/New University

Every year, they come.

Thousands upon thousands of people flock to the middle of the Palm Desert, lured in by the promises of music and art and other sensory pleasures. Hordes of hipsters, audiophiles and celebrities head to Indio, Calif. for three days of pure unadulterated musical delight, to sing and dance in 100-degree heat, throwing all fears of heat stroke and dehydration to the wind. Laws of decent behavior and standards of proper dress are forgotten completely, as men and women alike revert to a more primitive state, donning only the slightest strips of clothing, baring all to the sun. Here they come, drinking and smoking and getting high on drugs you may have never heard of; thousands of bodies coming together, swaying to one beat, dancing to one rhythm under the sun and stars.

Every year, they come to Coachella, and this year was no exception.

Yes, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival of 2011 has drawn to a close, and the fire in the torch of these musical Olympics has burned out. With tickets selling out in a record 126 hours this year, the festival has garnered much international attention and became a source of pride for many local music fans who were lucky enough to get a wristband. The three-day marathon of almost 200 performers on six different stages was a doozy, as usual, and the New U was there to document the best and the worst of ’Chella.

Best Headliner of the Weekend: Hands down, the title goes to Arcade Fire. Hot off the success of their Grammy win for Best Album of the Year, they played a set that truly answered the lingering question: “Who the heck is Arcade Fire?” All 14 permanent and temporary band members set the stage ablaze Saturday night, playing songs from all three of their albums. Like small children raiding the cupboards of a kitchen and banging on pots and pans, band members bounced around the stage with drums, guitars and violins, the exuberant energy never failing. Their lyrics transported the crowd back to times of suburban childhoods, broken-down houses and innocence lost; the modest grandeur of the music washed over the thousands of people before the stage. At the climax of “Wake Up,” hundreds of glowing inflatable balls dropped from the sky, like massive, electrified snowflakes, turning the crowd into a bouncing ball pit. Arcade Fire succeeded in bringing out the child in all of us that night, and it was beautiful.

Best Throwback: Duran Duran may have been superstars before most Coachella attendees were even born, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t put on a great show. Admittedly, most people at the Coachella stage for their Sunday performance were probably just waiting for The Strokes or Kanye West, but Simon Le Bon and his bandmates acted like it was 1983 and “Hungry Like the Wolf” was the top of the charts. While their music may not be so “relevant” to the current music scene, the electro-pop goodness of hits like “Rio” and “Girls on Film” haven’t lost their neon, 1980s sheen. Even tracks off their new, Mark Ronson-produced album were a success. Major props to the men of Duran Duran for proving that true talent and star power didn’t go out of fashion with legwarmers and the piano key necktie.

Biggest Letdown: Is there any band whose music could be more appropriate to experience at Coachella than Animal Collective? Seriously, for anyone there who is on drugs, their music is the perfect soundtrack to a psychedelic experience in the middle of the desert, and for those of us who aren’t already high, their music would still be amazing to get lost in. This assumption was quickly proved wrong on Saturday night when the experimental/electronic/noise/rock foursome took the stage. Backed by three impressive cubes hanging from the ceiling projecting images of what can best be described as “digital spin art,” they played only two recognizable tracks from any of their past albums; the rest was all brand new material. The eager audience of people was sorely disappointed by the barrage of unfamiliar and disjointed sounds that were too weird to enjoy, even by Animal Collective standards. Most just sat down as the stream of music continued throughout the whole set. AC made the classic festival performance mistake of not playing any of their hits to try and please a crowd that was not comprised of their hardcore fans. My dream of tripping out to “Summertime Clothes” was sorely destroyed that night …

Best Newcomers: When Irish rock band Two Door Cinema Club took the stage Saturday at the Mojave tent, no one would have expected the entire tent to have been jammed full to the brim with eager fans and pleased bystanders who caught an earful of their upbeat sound and decided to stick around. Two Door Cinema Club has had time to gain some traction here in the U.S. since they released their first album in March, and they’ve clearly hit the ground running. Their danceable and ridiculously catchy songs were irresistible to anyone in a 300-foot radius of the tent and, quickly, people were climbing up the metal banisters and railings of the tent to try and get a view. Simple, uncomplicated, exciting rock was something desperately needed at Coachella this year, and Two Door Cinema Club delivered. Snatch up their music now because they will likely be playing Saturday Night Live before you know it.

Most Exciting Reunion/Comeback: Sometimes at Coachella, you just want to rock out. No folksy, experimental, techno bullshit; just straight-up loud, dirty rock. Death From Above 1979 heard that call and they were more than willing to oblige. Bassist Jesse F. Keeler and drummer Sebastien Grainger reunited after five years apart to tear shit up at the main stage, and they brought dance-punk back with an almost violent force. The vocals are screeching and the bass is pounding; it’s the kind of music you actually want to bang your head to. It’s just a shame they didn’t play on one of the smaller, more intimate stages, where the intensity and magnitude of classics like “Romantic Rights” could have been appreciated full force. I’m just praying to the rock gods that their reunion means a new album is due soon.

Best Late Night Act: If you’re anything like me when you go to Coachella, you know that half of the fun is just walking from tent to tent to listen to new bands and hopefully catch something you really like. For me, it’s like walking through a record store, but more exciting. So Saturday night, as the day was winding down and as I drifted between rocking out to the Black Keys and awkwardly dancing to Crystal Castles, I stumbled upon musical gold. Sweet electronic music drifted out of the Gobi tent and pulled me in. The stage was commanded by four men in suits, ties and forehead-elongating masks. A man (or woman) in a gold lame bodysuit popped-and-locked to the electro-pop dance anthems of a mysterious band called Monarchy. It turns out this British band hasn’t even released a complete album yet, but their music was broadcast into space from Cape Canaveral, making them the first musicians to ever perform live into outerspace. Pretty impressive for a band without an album on the market, but once you get a taste of this techno-pop goodness and smooth vocals, you’ll get why their music was worthy of an otherworldly debut.

So I salute the organizers and masterminds behind Coachella for creating another festival that will go down for many as “the best weekend ever.”  Lets hope next year can top 2011.