I spent last weekend in the desert of Indio, California for the 16th annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Music festivals have exploded across the country and the world in the last few years and Coachella is one of the longest-running and most profitable fests out there. For three days (and now on consecutive weekends), 100,000 attendees flock to a temporarily repurposed Polo Grounds in the desert to revel in larger-than-life art installations and seven unique stages continuously playing music from noon to midnight.
Coachella is a 72-hour explosion of culture where you can simultaneously witness the best and worst our generation and society have to offer. Being able to experience the most exciting up-and-coming modern artists from a variety of genres and also see the best of generations past is an amazing spectacle. The fact that smaller bands can play huge spaces with the potential to attract lots of new listeners is a blessing for the groups and the fans. At the same time, the whole experience feels a bit over-indulgent at times, like an all-you-can eat buffet where you can taste a dozen delicious things all within arms reach without really taking the time to appreciate each individually. On Saturday night, headliner Jack White addressed the crowd during his epic closing rendition of Seven Nation Army, “I hope you realize for a few seconds every day that music is sacred.” White’s seemingly desperate plea for our collective attention followed by his ensuing refrain of “that music is SACRED!” was one of the highlights of the weekend for me. While festivals like Coachella are celebrating the sanctity of music on a bigger scale than ever before, it sometimes feels like gratuitous stimulation in place of more focused, honest appreciation. There was so much beauty and talent to appreciate all weekend, but I found myself slightly jaded about this perfectly concocted consumerist extravaganza contributing to the vicious cycle of our collectively dwindling attention spans. Why watch one concert when you can watch two at once by simply shuffling your feet a few dozen yards? This modern American adult amusement park (complete with $8 per person Ferris wheel rides and $10 lite beers!!) is if nothing else, a shock to all the senses. Bright lights, booming acoustics, delicious food of all varieties, the craziest coolest wackiest trendiest strangest most fascinating outfits you’ve never dreamed up, and oh so much more.
I’ve touched on my conflicted feelings about cell phones in the past, and festivals bring these feelings to light more than any other experience. On one hand, it’s truly amazing that we have the connectivity and technology to relatively easily navigate such an overwhelmingly massive crowd and find friends in the middle of the desert oasis with a simple text message: “Meet me at the top right corner of the rainbow grass structure in 20 minutes!” Less than two centuries after the modern camera was invented, we now have tiny super-computers in our pockets that can record amazingly high quality video and photo – this is truly amazing! However, watching a huge majority of festival-goers experience so much of the world around them, especially at such a unique and beautiful event, through the tiny glowing rectangular screen in their hands is pretty heartbreaking at times. I’d be lying if I said I was immune to this seemingly inevitable consequence of having a smartphone, I’ve been struggling with it this entire trip to be honest. How to find a proper balance between capturing what you’re seeing for memories sake or sharing purposes and actually just experiencing it fully present with all of your senses? Especially when you are paying for a live music experience, it seems silly to instead watch it through a screen when you can just as easily do that from the comfort of your own home now that livestreams of these events are often available. This conflict is another reason why I appreciated another quick reality check from Jack White when he urged the crowd to “put your fucking phone down for 5 minutes and enjoy the show!” Duly noted.
It’s one thing to harness the almighty power of the cellphone to connect with people around the world and another to use them solely to make #memories for the purposes of increased social capital. Watching rising Chicago star Vic Mensa (who performed on Friday) walk through the crowd on Saturday only to be attacked by a swarm of relentless selfie-hungry bros was disheartening to say the least. Rather than taking the opportunity to show appreciation for the young man’s art or even (gasp!) letting him have some personal space, his mere presence was simply being exploited for the empty prize of likes and views and comments that our generation so often relies upon for self-assurance.
Maybe I’ve just read 1984 and A Brave New World too recently but it’s hard to see our growing dependence on technology as a wholly healthy trend. I’m going to keep the faith and keep searching for the beauty in all, but clearly some aspects of the weekend left me scratching my head and pondering the imminent downfall of civilization as we know it. Fun stuff! Back to the music?
With seven stages running all weekend and other activities abound, festivals are certainly no place to have regrets or hold onto attachments of a missed performance or four for that matter. That being said, I’ll share some of my favorite moments from a weekend filled with some incredible performances.
One of the first shows I caught of the weekend was of English producer Jon Hopkins. He makes some of the most complex electronic arrangements around and seeing him slowly build up the pulsating Open Eye Signal in the dark, mysterious Yuma tent was an awesome moment.
My most anticipated show for the weekend was to see Los Angeles producer Flying Lotus for the first time. He is a thoroughly fascinating guy who makes some of the most eclectic, experimental electronic music I’ve ever heard, pulling on influences from jazz, hip hop, anime, and more. His set Friday was the most technologically innovative electronic performance I’ve seen to date, with an immersive 3D video display that really brought you even further into his world than the music itself. Despite only playing for an hour, this modern maestro took us on a journey through all of the emotions, from excitement to fear to joy to sadness and more. He spiced up his set with a stellar deconstruction of Wesley’s Theory, which he produced for Kendrick Lamar’s recent To Pimp a Butterfly album. He even brought out bassist extraordinaire Thundercat to join him for the song and tantalizingly teased a guest appearance from Kendrick himself until the very last second when he cut the beat and had a cruel laugh to himself at the crowd’s expense. It was an awe-inspiring spectacle and an emotional roller coaster of a performance that concluded with a triumphant rendition of Never Catch Me, including an on-stage cameo from the brilliant duo dancing in the music video below. If you’re still with me at this point in the post, I highly HIGHLY recommend watching this next video if it’s the only one you do. It’s one of my favorites ever and adds such a fantastic layer to an already exceptional song. For someone whose pieces are more often than not experimental soundscapes rather than traditional songs, he did a stellar job of translating his art to the live experience.
Following up FlyLo’s masterpiece was the awesome power of ROCK courtesy of the boys of AC⚡️DC. Hit after hit after hit and just so much energy pouring out of these now 60+ year olds for an amazing 2.5 hour performance! Angus Young’s maniacal and seemingly possessed performance on the guitar was one of the most inspiring feats of human achievement I’ve ever seen. So much relentless power and boundless energy coming from a man who has been doing this for decades and on the outside looks like the definition of world-weary. Young’s power chords and the gripping vocals of Brian Johnson were a hypnotizing combination. The mutual respect and appreciation shown during the band-crowd exchange of “For those about to rock…WE SALUTE YOU!” was really something special.
A Saturday afternoon performance I was really looking forward to was the soulful Australian electronica crooner Chet Faker. Daytime shows are a nice change of pace with lots more room to move around than most of the nighttime headlining sets. Chet handled the open space of the Outdoor Stage excellently, setting a relaxing vibe with plenty of opportunities to sing along, whether to his hit Talk is Cheap or to his stellar version of Blackstreet’s No Diggity.
Saturday night was dominated by Jack White, who took multiple opportunities to deliver important advice to the crowd while also playing a medley of hits from his solo and group careers. His band had a great synergy and their ability to play rock, blues, folk, and more with so much passion and variety was everything to be expected from such a legendary musician.
On Sunday the show and my heart were stolen by Florence Welch (+ The Machine). Not only is her voice one of the most amazing and soothing I’ve ever heard (Lana please don’t worry…I will of course still love you when you are no longer young and beautiful) but watching her bounce and dance and run around the stage for an hour was so much fun. Her closing number of Dog Days was a hugely triumphant dance party with people swinging friends new and old around and around in the open vastness of the main stage’s field. Florence herself was so energized by the performance that she jumped off stage at the end and broke her foot upon landing. She’s apparently ready to perform again this weekend like a true champion.
Despite all my gripes about society and consumption, Florence reminded me to end the weekend with an overwhelming sense of appreciation and gratitude for the experiences had and the many lessons learned in a minute, a day, a weekend, and a life. Festivals always remind me of the amazing joy of being outside, the awesome healing power of sitting, the restorative properties of water, and the beauty of spending time with your best friends.
Besides, where else can you play frisbee with a mountie and bask in the splendor of a giant animatronic caterpillar-turned butterfly? All things considered, Coachella is a visual and auditory and tactile treat in a startlingly beautiful venue with perfect weather surrounded by palm trees and desert hills. I’ll take the good with the bad, as we must in any experience. Thanks for the memories.