It hit me Saturday night in the Mojave Tent, just as Grizzly Bear launched into its final song. A young couple, wrapped in glow sticks and not much else, appeared next to me, and as they swayed to “Sun in Your Eyes,” I realized Coachella felt different than it did a year ago. In 2012, it seemed like the dance-tent crowd was everywhere; in 2013, it seemed almost nonexistent, at least away from the dance tent.
It easily could have gone the other way, and many were predicting it would. But by choice or necessity, Coachella didn’t delve deeper into the world of high-priced DJs, leaving that for Electric Daisy Carnival and the nightclubs of Las Vegas. So one year after bringing Swedish House Mafia, David Guetta, Avicii, Kaskade and others to Indio’s Empire Polo Club grounds, Coachella booked just two names from DJ Mag’s Top 25, Skrillex (who played as one-half of Dog Blood) and Hardwell.
That’s not to say the festival abandoned electronic dance music. A new-look Sahara Tent, decked out with a massive LED screen array at one end and nifty screen-sided cubes overhead, screamed otherwise, as did the new Yuma Tent—a cooled, enclosed space featuring hardwood floors and disco balls (Richie Hawtin, Four Tet and others performed there). But if Coachella’s 2013 edition is remembered for any one thing, it could be its recalibration, back toward its traditional mix of current, nostalgic and, yes, electronic acts.
The star of the fest, for me, was the artist I’d hoped would be: Nick Cave. He played twice, Friday night in the Mojave with bluesy punk outfit Grinderman and Sunday night on the main stage with longtime gothic rock band the Bad Seeds. The first seared my psyche, one of the loudest, nastiest throwdowns I’ve seen at Coachella or anywhere else. No one who witnessed Cave demonically shouting “Tippy toe tippy toe!” during “Kitchenette” will ever really be the same, and yet, he outdid himself for his first song with the Bad Seeds, a raging “Jubilee Street”—complete with children’s choir and strings—that threatened to halt Sunday’s chilling windstorm in its tracks.
Cave played to smallish throngs both times, a Coachella subplot all weekend. History-minded music zealots hoping to get close to their heroes had an easy time doing so, be it semi-obscure bands like The Three O’Clock and The Make-Up or iconic inventors like Ian MacKaye (who played with The Evens), Lee “Scratch” Perry and New Order. The big crowds, it seemed, were reserved for the most recognizable names, from acts-of-the-moment like The Lumineers and 2 Chainz to blasts-from-the-past like the Wu-Tang Clan and Violent Femmes.
Folk-rockers Grizzly Bear deservedly filled a tent for a spot-on set Saturday night, and indie rockers the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Tame Impala were similarly impressive outdoors Friday and Sunday; with further seasoning, it wouldn’t be a shock to see any of the three play a headlining role someday. And, as always, some rising acts showed promise (Savages and Diiv, though both bands’ sound outpaced their songs), while others fizzled out (Japandroids, who fell well short of their studio punch).
What the festival lacked? Some extra oomph to put it over the top. The headliners—British pair Blur and The Stone Roses Friday, Phoenix Saturday and the Red Hot Chili Peppers Sunday—felt like safe choices and failed to ignite much fire on the field. Maybe Radiohead can’t play every year, but Coachella cried out for a McCartney, Prince or Björk, the sort of act we simply couldn’t skip. Maybe next year. Meet you at the soundboard for Daft Punk.