The Coachella Diaries, Part One

Joseph Kleinschmidt

After half a day at Indio, California’s Coachella Music Festival, I feel like I’ve seen more feather-clad hipsters to put Uptown to shame. Since 1999, music freaks swarm the Empire Polo Fields once a year for three days. Arriving near five in the afternoon, security officials halted about two hundred of us to wait until computer systems could properly scan the microchips on our wristbands. Thirty minutes went by and the crowd was on the verge of a mob. Thus, I’m sad to say I missed performances from quite a few artists. Naming them would only cause me more grief.

Six stages of live music washed any laments I had to wash away first with Lauryn Hill’s performance (sorry: “Ms. Lauryn Hill,” as it’s billed). The first main stage show I witnessed, Hill’s set included “Everything is Everything” and “Doo Wop (That Thing),” pleasing fans enduring the desert sun. Backed up by her soulful band, it was decidedly non-threatening, mellow and relaxed. The veteran’s music lacked much urgency, but Hill’s voice remains strong in the face of Coachella’s enormous crowds. Exiting the stage Hill coolly remarked, “We should do this again sometime.”

I’d had enough of the main stage, with die-hard fans occupying the front most spots. Watching these concerts feel a lot like a performance at a stadium, with two jumbo-trons dominating the view. Interpol was next, but I needed to escape the massive crowd for a decidedly smaller setup at Sleigh Bells. Much like their debut full-length, the reverb soaked pop rock blew my eardrums out (Radio K labels the CD with numerous stars and warnings so DJs don’t surpass VU meters). They turned it up to 11, introducing their set with a version of “Iron Man.” Anthem-like “Rill Rill” was a clear highlight, since the vocals were audible. Guitars swathed the performance, leaving little room for Alexis Krauss’s airy words. My ears nearly bleeding, I sought Interpol for calmer sounds.

Catching the last part of Interpol’s set, I listened again near the back of the main stage, forced to soak in the New York band’s post-punk from afar. I’ll be honest. I’m not sure Interpol has released anything worthwhile since Turn On the Bright Lights and Antics, but Coachella’s sets tend to include a band’s “best of” anyway. This time around, the main stage didn’t really cultivate a lot of the energy the smaller “Mojave” stage produced (where Sleigh Bells rocked out). But then again, that’s Interpol. I swayed to Paul Banks’ singing like an apathetic hipster (“How are things on the west coast?”). My mental image projects the episode of The Simpsons where teenagers collectively sway to Smashing Pumpkins music.

I rushed over to Crystal Castles’ set at the second outdoor stage. The highlight of Friday, I’m pleased to say I didn’t hear anything Kings of Leon played. I was too busy with Crystal Castles singer’s single crutch and seemingly real cast on her left foot. That didn’t prevent any crowd surfing or electronic madness. Songs like “Crimewave” reverberated through my spine in ways Sleigh Bells had with pure bass guitar. Everything Crystal Castles put forward seemed increasingly multilayered; the digitalized production served as a springboard to discordant jams. I was in a trance. But unlike Interpol’s swaying, the urgency of Alice Glass and her black eye-shadowed gaze sparked the crowd’s trepidations.

My sister, brother-in-law, and I concluded the evening with the Black Keys and later, the Chemical Brothers. My apologies if this next anecdote is uninteresting, but it’s what I remember from the Black Keys. During their set, I made my way up fairly close to the stage. I’m still standing maybe fifty yards back, and people are growing angry with a couple folks standing on something, giving them a three-foot height difference. Thus, like the piggy backed girlfriends atop the muscle-y tank top wearing guys I saw so often, the crowd behind these types cannot see very much. Chanting grew more specific, singling out a guy in a striped shirt (“Striped Shirt Asshole,” ad infinitum). Abruptly, someone shines a flashlight to get the kid’s attention. The white light reveals Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s (or “McLovin” from Superbad’s) confused face, spawning the inevitable chants of McLovin! Black Keys owned the mainstage, though. Albeit any possible limelight that “McLovin” could have pilfered. Songs “Howlin’ For You” and “Girl Is On My Mind” showcased the garage rock style blues they’ve trademarked.

I could tell you all about the Chemical Brothers wild rave-like set, filled with glowsticks and lasers and weird videos of clowns, but I’d rather you fill in the blanks. All in all, the electronica relied on visuals to provide the progressive dance tunes. A staple at Coachella, the duo played “Galvanize” and quickly won over the crowd. It was like fireworks after a long day. Well, that’s probably because I was much too tired to actually dance.