For the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, there’s no longer any question of whether, or even when, tickets will sell out: Despite having doubled its crowd allotment by adding a second weekend in 2012, the SoCal desert fest has run out of passes the day they have gone on sale every year since. And yet, judging from this month’s 15th edition, Coachella’s organizers are looking beyond those numbers, toward long-term sustainability as one of the world’s top-rated music gatherings.
This year’s biggest changes addressed the experience beyond the music, an apparent sign promoter Goldenvoice has a close eye on its regional competition. A thoroughly refreshed art program—featuring dynamic new sculptures and interactive displays scattered across Indio’s Empire Polo Club fields—seemed to nod at Northern Nevada’s Burning Man or Las Vegas’ Life Is Beautiful Festival, and the LIB vibe certainly hovered over a significantly upgraded beer program, also a trademark of San Francisco’s annual Outside Lands Festival. In place of Heineken’s usual monopoly, hop heads found themselves with 120 additional craft choices. And eating options, though still relatively lacking, expanded in a more serious direction, too.
Those food and drink improvements were largely made possible by the festival’s recent land acquisition, the latest in a series of footprint evolutions since 1999’s inaugural event. The new-look “Terrace” area also featured enhanced versions of two dance-focused stages: the Yuma Tent, introduced last year but made larger and more user-friendly this time, and the party-centric Do Lab, thankfully transported from its much-scorned, usual sound-bleeding spot in the main field.
That electronic village appeared to hat-tip toward another Vegas festival, Electric Daisy Carnival, and it was far from the only signal Coachella’s short-term path might move further in that dancey direction. While most of the weekend’s guitar-centric rock bands struggled to draw sizable crowds (The Replacements, Superchunk, even the Saturday-headlining Muse), DJs like Skrillex and Calvin Harris and electronic-focused live acts like Empire of the Sun and Disclosure set some of the weekend’s high-water attendance marks.
Five years ago, it felt like EDC’s kandi kids would overrun Coachella, so prevalent were their neon costumes across the festival grounds. They seem, mostly, to have moved on by now, yet electronic acts drew better than ever nonetheless, an indication of just how much the mainstream has come to embrace club culture. Put more bluntly, the Coachella crowds turned out to dance, be it to DJ mixes, OutKast’s Friday-night hit parade or Arcade Fire’s peppy Sunday-night closing set. By and large, bands that failed to get bodies shaking, and fast, fared poorly in terms of turnout.
Many deserved better, of course. Alt-rock vets The Afghan Whigs, in particular, sounded superb in their three-guitar return to the stage, while Ty Segall brought glorious, thunderous noise to a weekend mostly bereft thereof. And in a few cases, rock bands did draw well, on the strength of their legacies and catalogs, as when the Pixies packed a tent on Saturday or when the reunited Neutral Milk Hotel played at sunset outdoors on Sunday.
Still, from behind his furry beard, NMH frontman Jeff Mangum found himself gazing out over a smaller crowd than when he performed solo at the same stage in 2012. From The Stooges to Pavement, legacy acts have played a key role throughout Coachella’s history, and it would be sad to see bookers tap fewer in light of 2014’s unenthusiastic response. Even The Knife, a long called-for inclusion among veteran attendees, found itself with an underattended field, though its strange and unorthodox show was the likely culprit in that case.
Though perhaps the weirdest, those Swedes were among a slew of off-center electronic acts of the kind that rarely finds its way to Las Vegas. Nicolas Jaar made two appearances, DJing Friday and returning as half of shadowy downtempo act Darkside, which produced a consistently compelling set Saturday night. Synthy DFA Records outfit Holy Ghost! kept the energy level high during a Saturday midday performance that suggested the group could follow ex-labelmates LCD Soundsystem and Hot Chip to greater Coachella glory. And the Yuma Tent showcased an array of sounds that ranged from interesting to challenging, for those adventurous or simply curious enough to wander in.
Years from now, Coachella 2014 will likely be remembered most for the reemergence of OutKast, which survived a rocky but entertaining return to the stage, and for Arcade Fire’s fiery finale. The former reminded us of the power of timeless songs, the sort that can send out surges of energy at the end of very long days. And the latter felt historic, not just for Win Butler and his mates parting the crowd after midnight and continuing to play—unplugged with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in tow—but for the way he seemed to fight for the very soul of Coachella. “This is a shout-out to all the bands still playing instruments,” Butler announced, partway through an iconic set that still couldn’t outdraw Calvin Harris.