The caravan comes rolling down, from the 133 to the 91 to the 60 highways – cars of all shapes and sizes striped and spotted with paint, festooned from window to window with the words “COACHELLA 2012” proudly emblazoned on their windows for all other drivers to see. Fellow festival-goers see these cars marked for the same destination and share appreciative honks or waves of solidarity. This gypsy cavalcade of wanderers has made its way from all across California and the rest of the world to the desert for their time in the sun to bask in the glory of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
Whether you’re a lover of dancing to electronic music for days or sitting in your room and crying to heartbreakingly sad acoustic rock, Coachella had something for you this year. Small-scale raves, mosh-pits, rain, hipsters, swarms of bees, celebrities, half-naked girls, plenty of drugs, a giant electric orchid, and yes, Tupac was even there; not an average weekend for most but the unexpected highs and lows make it all worth the trip.
Attendees of prior festivals will probably tell you that Coachella is normally hot as hell (hence all the semi-naked girls), but this first weekend (yes, there were two festivals this year, brilliant marketing decision on Paul Tollett’s part) was a brief respite from the normally blazing, face-melting heat which has caused weaker humans such as myself to pass out on one occasion. Friday was cold, cloudy and rainy, which was no problem for people like me who packed a change of clothes in their car. People continued to prance around in outfits that would get them arrested for indecent exposure in the normal world; I guess raging in the Sahara tent keeps you pretty warm …
Anyone can tell you that the distribution of people at Coachella is normally as follows — 70 percent hipsters, 10 percent rave kids, 10 percent industry douchebags and 10 percent people who are on too many drugs to fit into any other category. This year, the scale was tipped largely in the favor of the rave kids, aka people who spent the entire weekend listening only to the offerings of the Sahara tent, where electronic, EDM and techno music was blasting from morning to night. Big-name artists like David Guetta, Kaskade, Swedish House Mafia, and Avicii drew in bigger crowds of electronic dance music fans than ever before. This may be a sign of things to come in changing demographics for the festival; less Ray-Bans and flannel, more shutter shades and neon bikinis?
There were some obvious highlights from the festival this year. Arctic Monkeys brought a bit of their Sheffield swagger with them on stage during a short but volatile set, as they powered through a handful of their hits. Matt “the Agile Beast” Helders was a true animal on the drums, while Alex Turner channeled James Dean in his hair. The British boys are always so cute.
Turner and friends weren’t the only English natives to light up the main stage; the Pulp comeback was hugely anticipated by Britpop fans and anyone who was old enough in the 1990s to know that monosyllabic bands like Blur, Suede and Pulp were the shit. Jarvis Cocker, the sexy bespectacled front man was in rare form, whipping candy and grapes at the audience, climbing atop the mountain of speakers, and lovingly humping the stage. Move over Adam Levine, this Brit has truly got the moves like Jagger.
The British weren’t the only Europeans represented in full force; the Swedes found their delegates with The Hives, the pop-punk band we all loved in high school. Lead singer Pelle Almqvist is like the Flava Flav of Sweden, the Energizer Bunny of rock, constantly hyping the crowd up with his immense ego and love of his fans. Decked out in top hats and coattails, the Swedes were relentless with their aggressively upbeat sound; at one point when Almqvist played a game of “Pelle Says” and had the entire audience sit down, he called out the more haughty members of the VIP section who refused to play along; “Just because you paid a little extra money for your ticket or know someone in mid-level management at Coachella doesn’t make you better than anyone else!” Hey, who says rock ‘n’ roll is dead?
For those who wanted to dance but didn’t want to get molested by strangers listening to Kaskade, The Rapture provided the perfect outlet. Late at night, the dance-pop-punk heroes were the perfect act to see; horns and trumpets over the jangle of tambourines and the buzz of shredding guitars set the perfect tone, laid over 1970s disco beats. Their set ended with “How Deep is Your Love?”, arguably one of the best songs of 2011; the amalgamation of synths, cowbells, tambourine shakes and chants of “LET ME HEAR THAT SONG!” made for a near-religious experience.
For those who appreciate violinists with beautiful voices, Andrew Bird was a dream come true. His voice is essentially perfect, soothing and uplifting all at once, carried by the gentle plucks of his violin strings. When he whistles, you expect little cartoon birds and deer to gather at his side like Snow White. His cover of “It’s Not Easy Being Green” was enough to make Kermit blush.
Let’s not forget the ladies, now. Azealia Banks caused a ruckus in the Gobi tent early Saturday morning; the up-and-coming rapper is already a cult star to the fashionable show-goers. Dressed like Beetlejuice and sporting purple waves of hair, she had everyone dancing, albeit awkwardly, to the beats of her French DJ. Backed by two ridiculously flexible dancers, she made Nicki Minaj look like Plain Jane.
Annie Clark, the bewitching beauty of St. Vincent, practically has talent shooting out the tips of her curly black ringlets. Playing her guitar with the intense focus of a chess player, her body vibrates with the hum of static electricity and raw emotion. During the preview of one of her brand new tracks, “Crocodile,” she launched herself into the audience and crowd-surfed like a champion, carried on the shoulders of adoring fans. She returned to the stage with her tights ripped but no worse for wear.
The beauty of a festival the scale of Coachella, where there are almost 150 musicians performing for thousands of people, is that basically ever genre of music is represented. From hip-hop to pop to rock, you can have it all; from the subtle crooning of Bon Iver, Laura Marling and M. Ward, to the full-frontal assault of electronic beats of Afrojack and Calvin Harris, you can sample all the flavors at the buffet. The year’s headliners (The Black Keys, Radiohead, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg) represent just how diverse the gathering truly is. While it’s easy to hate on the festival for some of the people that attend, when you look past the dickish behavior, the pretension and the nasty bathrooms, you’ll see that you’re truly surrounded by people who love music.