Last weekend the most remarkable thing happened at weekend 1 of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. No, it wasn’t Leonardo “I have never taken drugs” DiCaprio pulling off the crowning glory of white guy dancing. Nor was it the formidable myriad of guest appearances that popped up across the weekend (more on that later), or the decision to cut off Outkast before their final song of their triumphant return. And it wasn’t even Aaron Paul closing the festival with Arcade Fire, wearing a mask of the Pope.
The most remarkable thing of the weekend, was that I got to go along and witness the whole thing.
It has taken a week to recover, the post-festival blues are definitely lingering, and I am still trying to make sense of it all. What I can say with certainty is: the music was absolutely incredible. From the first band of the weekend (Wye Oak) to the Last (Arcade Fire), day and night, no matter the stage, every single act completely exceeded expectations. West coast favourites HAIM exuded confidence and completely converted me from cynic to passionate fan in the space of 40mins. CHVRCHES provided a loud and exciting taste of home, mixing their electronic hits with the best patter of the weekend (including Lauren attempting to translate “goan’yerself” for American ears). Sets that are due special mention:
I want to state from the outset that I am not a die-hard, know every lyric to every song Outkast fan. I went along knowing their top hits and expecting to recognise a few other songs. Opening with Bombs Over Baghdad and ripping through a further 25 songs in just over 90 minutes, they completely blew me away. I would go so far to say it was the perfect festival headline slot. Andre 3000 and Big Boi owned the stage, taking us through the history of Outkast from rapping around the kitchen table pre Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, to chart topping domination. Yes we could have done without the painfully awkward sales intermission with Future, and I still can’t believe the sound was cut before they could play The Whole World with Killer Mike. But the energy created during songs like Rosa Parks, Roses, GhettoMusick, Hootie Hoo and Ms Jackson was truly special.
JAGWAR MA / FLUME
These two were the highlights from a strong contingency sent up from Australia. Jagwar Ma, playing in the baking 38c afternoon heat, performed one of the highest intensity sets all weekend. Jono Ma on the synths, samplers and drum machines drove the show, blending each song effortlessly into the next. The continuous wall of noise and psychedelic visuals gave me hope for a new acid house revival, and made me wish Jagwar Ma were playing a longer set later in the day.
I wandered over to see Flume after abandoning the obnoxious and infernal repetition of beats that constituted Martin Garrix’s set. What I found was easily the biggest crowd jam of the weekend. Flume’s expansive deep house translated perfectly live. From smash hits Holdin On and You and Me, to the Balearic minimalism of Insane, and a debut remix of Lorde thrown in to boot, he is in a class of his own. What was especially pleasing was how genuine the affection between performer and crowd seemed. Humbly ending with “I had no idea I had so many fans, thank you.”, Flume owned the Gobi.
Father of big beat dance music, Fatboy gave a masterclass in crowd pleasing electronica that many of the Sahara DJs would do well to study. He beautifully weaved his eclectic mix of 90s rave, Motown and house together with monster hit Eat, Sleep, Rave, Repeat for 60 fleeting minutes. The most outrageous use of Dean Martin’s Let It Snow I will ever bear witness to topped off the performance, snow included. I feel like that sums up Fatboy best of all. Who else could make it snow in the desert?
QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE V PHARRELL WILLIAMS (and co)
I have been waiting to see QOTSA for quite some time. They were definitely the band I was most amped for when the line up was announced back in January. And they did not disappoint. Opening with No One Knows and Feel Good Hit Of The Summer, introduced as a Coachella survival kit, they surpassed all of my expectations in the most powerful performance of the weekend. Josh Homme’s combination of physicality and persona creates a massive presence on stage that demands your attention. So much so that, if it were not for several amps tipping over midway through My God Is The Sun, it was easy to forget they were playing in the middle of a sandstorm that was doing its best to ruin most other artists that night.
One such artist that did not fare so well in the abrasive conditions was Pharrell. Drawing one of the biggest audiences to the Outdoor stage, the wind and sand forced the stage to be partially dismantled, the speakers and screens to be lowered and seriously affected Pharrell’s ability to perform. Yet, the set was fantastically entertaining. With his recent collaboration with Daft Punk, and smash single Happy from No 1 album G I R L, it is almost impossible to miss that Pharrell as a solo artist is dominating at the moment. What it is easier to forget is how many songs he is responsible for as a producer. During his hour-long set, Nelly, Busta Rhymes, P Diddy, Tyler the Creator, Snoop Dogg, Diplo and Gwen Stefani all joined Pharrell on stage for versions of Hot In Here, Lapdance, Drop It Like Its Hot, Aerosol Can, and (my personal favourite) Hollaback Girl. The man is very seriously the Nile Rogers of our generation.
In conversation the next day with my fellow festival goers, the overwhelming nature of Pharrell’s set lead to two interesting conclusions. The first is that the people who can regularly attend Coachella are completely spoiled. I have been going to festivals since I was a teenager, and have been fortunate enough to see live music in Scotland, England, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the States. For me, to attend a gig where guest stars perform has always been the pinnacle of live music, something that you hear about happening elsewhere and can only experience through youtube. But seeing so many cameos over the weekend was not as fulfilling as I had expected. The contrast between how routine the guest appearances seemed at Coachella versus how unique I expected those moments would be remains problematic for me. I think this stems from appreciating how infrequently such moments happen outside of the states, and how it does not stop every single person who loves live music holding on to the dream that maybe tonight is the night. Ultimately, I wish the guest-love could be spread around a bit more.
The second conclusion is less of a criticism of Pharrell but more of a defence of QOTSA. As I said earlier, Pharrell’s set was incredibly entertaining. But the number of cameos and covers served to further elevate my adoration for QOTSA. Not only did they manage to master the weather and give one of the best performances of the weekend. But they did so with no guest stars, no excessive light shows and no staged executions of bankers (I’m looking at you Muse). It was no fuss Rock’n’Roll that has managed to rekindle my passion for, and restore some of my faith in, guitar based music.
While the music was easily the best part of the weekend, there were a few small things that niggled me. I had heard a number of stories about the type of people who now frequent Coachella year in, year out. I am not even going to try and describe such people as it has already been covered by Vice last week. Unfortunately, I have to say that I did not see much in the crowd to prove Vice wrong. I was surprised at almost every act* how chill (almost to the point of indifference) the crowds were. During my beloved QOTSA set, there was no mosh pits and no jumping, it was the same at Glitch Mob and Disclosure and Julian Casablancas. All in all the crowd were almost too respectful, seemingly unwilling to really let go.
*There were some exceptions. Rudimental managed to ratchet the crowd close to the frenzy I would expect. And by the time Nas finally made it on stage at quarter past midnight on Saturday night, it was only a loyal, committed, and older crowd that was left to enjoy his glorious 20th anniversary celebration of Illmatic. Sadly, however they were but the exceptions that proved the rule.
The final criticism I have to posit is that in trying to discover what the festival is at its most basic, you find a “Jekyll and Hyde”-like set up. On the one hand, there is the alternative, community and arts based image the festival presents so avidly to the media. This image is not entirely constructed as a marketing tool, but it was hard to find. The art around the campsite and the installations in the arena were pretty (I loved the spaceman), but it felt forced. My favourite location in the whole festival, which I sadly only discovered on Sunday afternoon, was the area wedged in the back of “The Terrace”. This area hosted The Do Lab (heaps of fun), and the majority of the much heralded craft food stalls. Wandering around here, talking to strangers, being offered free cookies from the lovely people at Fancy Boyz, and eating the most delicious Ice Cream I have ever tasted from Salt and Straw, convinced me that the spirit of Coachella remains.
This almost hippy like vibe (said with not a hint of negative connotations), however, clashes loudly with the corporate like, wankery that is the VIP sections. Fenced areas at the front of each stage are reserved for celebrities, and people who can afford the outrageously expensive VIP tickets. There are even separate walkways around the arena so that they need not rub shoulders with the (probably equally wealthy, but quite smelly) riff raff from the campgrounds. This business like approach to live music is entirely unsurprising seeing as Coachella operates under Goldenvoice, itself part of AEG, one of the Oligarchs of live music. With Coachella being such a profitable venture, it becomes pretty transparent that Outkast were never going to be allowed to play over the curfew.
Thankfully, however, the issues of the “Hyde” mentality of the festival did not go unnoticed. Win butler of Arcade Fire, was quick to criticise the VIP set up of the festival.
“I just want to say that there’s a lot of fake VIP room bullshit happening at this festival, and sometimes people dream of being there – but it super sucks in there, so don’t worry about it.” (Source: NME)
Following on from this, Arcade Fire cemented their place as one of my favourite acts by playing through the curfew, with acoustic instruments and megaphones, while walking through the crowd. It was the perfect way to end the festival. The music should always reign supreme. And with the ahhh-ahhhhhhhhh’s of Wake Up gently lapping through the crowd, it certainly did at Coachella 2014. It is a weekend I will never forget.