For seven straight years, I made the long, dark Sunday-night walk to the car dreaming of my next Coachella. Even after temperatures hit 105 in 2004. Even after I got sick in 2007. Even after I bruised my ribs in 2009. I always left Indio thrilled by the thought I’d be doing it all over again in 12 months. Until last Sunday, when I left fest No. 8 uncertain I’d even bother with a No. 9.
Not that I had a terrible time. I’m a music nut, so unless you lock me in the trunk for three days, I’m bound to experience some significant concert highs with lineups of this caliber. But this time, Coachella just felt a little off, like somebody had trampled through utopia with mud on his shoes.
Even before Friday’s first drumbeat, a slew of late cancellations—most due to Europe’s airline crisis—set a grim tone for the weekend, but what festival hasn’t had its lineup rocked by some unforeseen volcanic-ash spewing, right? No, what really changed Coachella this year was the crowd, specifically its unprecedented vastness—an official 75,000 per day, likely many more when you count comps and workers and press folks like me. I remember it feeling tight when promoter Goldenvoice let in some 50,000 the night Radiohead and the Pixies played in 2004. Half as many more spread across a site the same size? Let’s just say getting from one stage to another wasn’t a whole lot of fun, particularly in the dark. Sorry, was that your hand I just flattened with my sneaker, or a discarded water bottle?
Traffic in and around the Empire Polo Field has never been a party, but reports pegged this year’s as Coachella’s worst yet. I arrived early all three days to avoid its teeth, and the plan paid off; getting into the parking lots wasn’t bad. Getting out at night’s end? Sucked. I tried two lots with similar results: hours-long, total gridlock, with nary a single policeman or event staffer to direct the herd. But hey, I had Pringles and Fig Newtons and a bundle of CDs, so I can’t complain too loudly; especially since I’m fairly certain some dude is still trying to merge into the exit lane as you read this.
I managed to avoid the weekend’s single biggest headache—a lengthy holdup at the front gate on Day 1 (“They were lucky there wasn’t a riot,” one festivalgoer told me in a tent later on). My entry proved relatively smooth—one short line, a ticket switch for a three-day wristband and then a second, slightly longer line. The security check? As lax as I’ve seen it at Coachella.
Once inside, I could sense the difference in crowd size immediately. Normally, the three tents housing the side stages feel fairly loose in the early afternoon. This year, not so much. Sleigh Bells—a boy-girl duo from Brooklyn without so much as a CD to its name—packed the Gobi Tent at 3:30, and DJ Lance Rock—performing with the colorful cast of children’s cartoon Yo Gabba Gabba!—drew a sizeable throng in the mammoth Sahara (dance) Tent at 2:15.
Such larger tent crowds would require more thorough planning. Want to see Brooklyn indie darlings Grizzly Bear? Get there halfway through the preceding act, Lucero, and push forward at set’s end. Life depends on being up close for the shadowy theatrics of Swedish electronicist Fever Ray? Skip the start of Jay-Z on the main stage and stake out a spot. In both cases the extra effort proved worth it: The intricacies of Grizzly Bear’s dynamically shifting proggish folk shined brightly live, while Fever Ray’s weird costumes and dramatic laser lighting brought a supernatural sensibility to Karin Dreijer Andersson’s moody art-pop.
Other Friday highlights: the 1-2-3 early-evening electronic punch of noisy Russian Proxy, soundscaping Belgian duo Aeroplane and hotly tipped Texas-based DJ Wolfgang Gartner; the peaceful soul of underground icon Gil Scott-Heron (“Those of you who bet I would not be here ... you lose,” the twice-incarcerated 61-year-old joked); the main-stage mayhem of James Murphy’s electronic-rock outfit, LCD Soundsystem (especially late-set number “Yeah”); and Echo and the Bunnymen’s rendition of the classic “Killing Moon,” intro’d as the “greatest song ever written” by its songwriter, vocalist Ian McCulloch. Biggest flop: Brooklynites Yeasayer, who wasted a primed tent with an early run of energy-less tunes.
Saturday, projected to be the hottest day of the festival, instead brought with it welcome cloud cover. All told, 2010 went down as the mildest Coachella weather-wise, hardly insignificant to those of us who’ve spent the past decade battling sunburns and dehydration on those wide-open grass fields.
A strange trend emerged on Day 2: The second stage’s dominance over the main. More than ever before, Coachella’s crowd turned out with indie on its mind, packing the Outdoor Theater for a pair of deserving British bands—dance-pop group Hot Chip and dream-pop trio The xx—and one overhyped New York band, MGMT. I walked away from the latter’s toothless psychedelic pop to check on headliner Muse, whose bombastic rock flew far and wide from the colossal main-stage speakers. Even Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, a ramshackle collective from LA that played Wasted Space not so long ago, drew a herd to the Outdoor, while reunited ’90s alt-metal giants Faith No More performed to a relatively sparse crowd on the main stage (they sounded excellent, by the way).
A few more Saturday highlights: Brooklyn’s Dirty Projectors, whose intriguing experimental arrangements, soulful vocals and expert musicianship combined to produce my single favorite set of the festival (yes, “Stillness Is the Move” was sublime); the skittish beat-mixing of LA laptopper Flying Lotus, who squeezed a feverish crowd into the smallest of tents and gave it no reason to leave; and Devo, that strangest of new-wave throwbacks, still having fun and sounding good 30 years after “Whip It” climbed the charts. Lame city: San Francisco’s Girls, tentative and overly mellow until finally letting loose for one, shoegazey My Bloody Valentine homage.
Which brings us to Sunday, a mixed day in Coachella history if ever there was one. The good? A solid afternoon set from Atlanta indie quartet Deerhunter at the Outdoor Theater, followed by Sunny Day Real Estate’s rocking version of “Seven”; Yo La Tengo’s final song, the epic, Kraut-rocky “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind,” punctuated by blistering noise-guitar from Ira Kaplan.
Also: a righteous reunion by ’90s indie icons Pavement on the main stage—18 songs in 70 minutes (from “Summer Babe” through “Stereo”), frontman Stephen Malkmus in fine voice while whipping up some killer guitar work, and an appreciative audience belting out classic lyrics like “You’re my fact-checking cuz” and “No big hair!”
And the top-attended set of the weekend, an appearance by Thom Yorke’s Atoms for Peace, the lineup for which includes Red Hot Chili Pepper Flea on bass. Yorke played solo disc The Eraser straight through, then returned for an encore that included solo versions of Radiohead’s “Airbag” and “Everything in Its Right Place,” along with several new tunes.
The bad? Coachella’s decision to leave four stages dark and shine a lone spotlight on the act expected to blow all others on the poster away: U.K. “virtual band” Gorillaz. Except this time, there was nothing virtual about Damon Albarn’s crew, nor anything particularly special. Just a band, aided by a few guests (De La Soul, Bobby Womack, Little Dragon), with other key participants—Snoop Dogg, Mos Def, Del tha Funkee Homosapien—present only on recorded backing tracks and premade videos. A technologically mind-blowing setup never materialized; hell, there weren’t even cartoon characters playing along with the songs. Coming off immortal closing sets from Roger Waters (’08) and The Cure (’09), Gorillaz goes down as one helluva weak finale.
Actually, it wasn’t the only ending. Over in the Mojave Tent, one Sly Stone re-emerged from semi-obscurity to, well, I’m still not exactly sure what he was doing on that stage. Originally scheduled for a smaller tent at 7, an absent Stone “postponed” his performance (a Coachella first), then finally showed up around 11, rambling about an arrest and a lawsuit while laying on his back on the floor. By the time he actually tried “singing” “Stand!” I left feeling sad and disgusted. In case I needed one more reminder something wasn’t quite right with Coachella 2010.