(1st of 2 parts)
I’m convinced of it.
The sadistic Coachella gods were mocking me. For the first time, the Coachella music festival in Indio, California, was broadened to encompass 2 twin weekends. The first weekend which took place April 13, was one of the coolest on record for the annual music and arts festival. The weather was gray and rainy, and temperatures dipped into the 40s at night. My kind of weather. I longed for similar weather for week 2 which would begin April 20, the weekend I would be going. Alas, it was anything but. Saturday turned into one of the hottest festival days on record with a reading of 105 degrees on the thermometer. Friday and Sunday were just as bad. Each of the 3 days brought murderous triple digit daytime temps. It was the last thing I wanted…but the gods laughed.
And so, we awoke Friday and prepared…
I used to be under the hazy impression long ago when I didn’t think of this very much that the Coachella music festival was literally in the middle of nowhere. Which, figuratively, to the city dweller, is not far from the truth, but not quite. The festival takes place at the Empire Polo Club, a really fancy upper crust parcel of hot desert land surrounded by affluent homes and dwellings and horse stalls. So the festival is surrounded by a population of humans but the festival exudes the aura of isolation due to the lush palm trees and distant desert mountain peaks lining the horizon. Even the residents seems to keep a healthy distance from the youthful revelry which visits their town once (now twice) each year. In fact, at night, when the concert is finished, you are guided to exit routes which quite clearly take you out of the neighborhood and away from mistakenly encroaching on the local wealth. Residential streets are closed and you can only hop on some major streets that guide you clearly out of town and quickly, to the freeway and beyond. Do not bother the natives!
Walking to the festival from the distant parking is done on old dusty dirt roads, past dried brush and horse stalls, and when the weather is tipping 100 degrees, the organic scents of animal waste clog your nostrils. It seems you must walk forever. Surely the campers and bus-shuttled visitors don’t have to endure this walk. Every effort is made encourage people to utilize every form of arrival at Coachella besides driving. Even people who drive are encouraged to carpool. If we hadn’t gotten these tickets at the last minute, I might have attempted to use other forms of transportation, but when you’re trying to plan Coachella within a month’s time, chances are you can’t afford to be as meticulous as you’d like.
Walking to the festival grounds
As soon as you reach the front security gate, you are subjected to arbitrary and random searches and frisking. I was asked questions and told to reveal backpack compartments, none of them consistent from day to day. One day the security guard sniffed my sun block and he spent a lot of time smelling one tube of Banana Boat I bought last year when I went to Outside Lands in San Francisco. I guess people somehow sneak drugs in this way, but the way he kept smelling the Banana Boat told me he was playing the part of Bloodhound a little too aggressively. I had no drugs, I have no idea what he was smelling…maybe he just liked the smell of sun block. Security guards are weird that way. One day they let my son bring his camera in even though it had a detachable 35mm lens, which is a no-no. The next day, they wouldn’t let him in, so we had to walk all the way back to the car, put it in the trunk, and walk back. Thoroughly exhausting when the temperature is over 100 degrees. And it was Saturday, which meant it was going to be our late Radiohead, 1 in the morning, day, meaning…about 13 more hours of this. Still, you persevere.
When you finally are cleared through by the security goons, you step onto the vast grass tract which has very, very, very little shade. Early in the day it is vast and not crowded and there is a leisurely vibe since no one is rushing around or grouped in swarms yet.
If you arrive later, you will hear music emanating from some of the stages for the unfortunate afternoon bands will have begun playing already. The early scheduled bands are the “leading acts” and usually not very well known or on their way out. It’s a great time to catch some music because the crowds are sparse and you can make your way to the front with little effort. It’s also a great time to catch some unknown acts that may very well one day play the prized “nighttime” slots of such festivals. For instance, while I was eating lunch on Friday, I heard some hard-core rap music booming from nearby. I told my son that we needed to go look. We rustled off and found the band “Death Grips” playing in the Gobi stage. This is a clip of the hard-driving band. I dislike rap in general, but I do have a “soft spot” for some hard-core, thrash-infused rap. I think back to the Beastie Boys’ short union with Slayer back on their License to Ill album in 1986.
Earlier, at the same stage, we had specifically come by to watch “EMA” (aka, Erika M. Anderson) a girl-powerish alternarocker from South Dakota. She has an awesome, petulant songstress aura as she sways and bends and bounces across the stage singing, undulating in her sultry, tormented voice of cynicism. She has received disproportional critical acclaim considering relative obscurity. Her anthem-like song “California” is astounding and biting for its vision of the Golden State’s self-absorbed culture.
The official video:
And this is my decidedly non-professional clip of her performance at Coachella.
By now, the heat was beginning to fray my well-being and I needed to keep a continuous stream of water flowing into my throat. At $2 a bottle, this becomes expensive. The other alternative is free spigot (filtered) water but…the line you must endure leads you to closely examine the worth of $2. Is $2 worth standing in a long, hot line? I found many times it was much easier to write $2 off for convenience, but if you have nothing to do that moment and thirst is not blinding you yet, standing in line for water doesn’t seem like the most foolish thing in the world.
You need water in this heat. You need rest and shade, but some of these kids were tremendous. Where did they get the energy? There was already a little daytime rave about noon when we first arrived at the LA Riots (DJ) performance at the Sahara stage. These people had another 8-12 hours to go. I was tired just from watching them. Standing there and barely moving (other than some geeky self-conscious dance moves) I still sweat about a bottle of water it seemed.
There’s something unnatural about a show like this taking place in the bright hot day. Seems out of place. Not congruent with our expectations. In this video you can see another middle-aged father dissolving into the barrier while his young son enjoyed the music. The unnatural environment didn’t stop a lot of the partiers from dancing and jumping while 100 degree temperatures fell heavily on our chests.
Throughout the day we saw a few more bands but I didn’t care for them. That’s the thing about music festivals. There are lots of performances to choose from and obviously they won’t all be to your liking. But you won’t know until you try. Music festivals are about immersion and experimentation. Music fills the air from all directions, all kind of music and noise and you follow that which beckons you and sometimes you find something you really like and other times you stumble upon something you truly don’t care to hear more of. Music festivals are not a time to be judgmental. It’s about free expression and going with the flow. Music festivals are the ultimate embodiment of the axiom “if you don’t like it, change the channel.” Except, in this case, you move on to the next stage or go get something to eat. No one is holding a gun to your head to make you stay at a stage where the music sucks. There is no good or bad…there is just what you like and what you don’t like. Personally, I did not care for Friday bands Abe Vigoda, GIRLS, Pulp or Arctic Monkeys. However, these bands have large followings, so they are doing something right. I just moved on.
Or I napped. This is all you can do when your body spends more energy at rest than you can possibly salvage.
The most magical time at festivals is dusk when the animals come out to play!
The air lightens, the music seems louder, energy is restored, and even though it is still in the 90s, the sun is leaving and its curse is vanishing for another night. We dance on the cooling grass and embrace the darkness for its splendor hides and emboldens and enlivens our spirit.
Finally, after the sun had left for the day and darkness settled in, we headed over to what I knew would be the highlight of the weekend for me: a glimpse at long last of one of my favorite bands of the last 20 years, Mazzy Star. With dark Pixie temptress, Hope Sandoval, reappearing after a long absence, this was my chance to see a band I somehow never got around to seeing years ago when they performed regularly. Now my long awaited opportunity was unfolding here in the desert, a fulfillment of an elusive musical yearning.
It was Mazzy Star!
Hope Sandoval floated out, as darkly mysterious as I remember her from the 80s and 90s. Hidden by the night darkness of the Outdoor stage and her wavy-haired darkness and black clothes. So much has not changed, and the past revisited for 3 or 4 glorious minutes.