Almost by definition, "festivals" are extraordinary celebrations. As soon as you place "music" or "film" in front of the word you further extend the meaning. Every year for the past decade or so I have stuck my finger in the air to take the temperature of modern culture at a handful of major music and film festivals. A month after the chaotic but wonderful circus of SXSW, the proper summer music festival circuit commences in the desert with Coachella. It is perhaps the finest place to witness how "kids" and older folks like myself are experiencing, sharing, recording and distributing the photos, video, and personal thoughts while caught up in the moment. This year I'll provide a practical roadmap to Coachella 2013, but also some hints for the rest of the incredible festivals of the summer. (Caveat, these instructions are directed at hardcore fans looking to optimize time in front of bands, not time spent in the VIP area or bar). Also for those of you heading to Coachella this weekend, this should serve a semi-schedule to follow to the extent you are looking to help map a trail.
Rule number #1: Get there early, the future superstars all play long before sunset. Although it is easy to make excuses for not getting to the grounds of a music festival early in the day, the best music performed by the hungriest artists happens early in the day. Lord Huron, the wonderful alt-country band from LA, played an incredibly upbeat set to kick off the Festival on Friday. The incredible beat-box theatrics of Beardyman, UK indie-dance rockers The Wombats, bliss-pop wunderkind's Wild Nothing, MC-electronic genre-bender Theophilus London, indie-retro-power punk Cloud Nothings and reggae infused indie rockers Wild Belle all played early, inspired sets. I am guessing all of these bands will be back at Coachella playing to bigger crowds later in the day over the next few years.
Rule number #2: Carpe the Moment, not the future moment. When attending a music festival if you are in the midst of a great show, don't leave it for another. Inevitably the one you leave it for will be less good than the one that you left, and will almost always suffer by comparison. A great festival will have many programming conflicts, but you are almost always best committing to one and only leaving when that set is no longer interesting. For the most part I follow this rule obsessively. The one time I broke it was to leave the awesome, swirling psychedelic rock of Tame Impala, which was incredible, for Rodriguez (I just had to) only to find his vocals too quiet to compete with the surrounding dance and rock music. A comparable time, I chose to hang tight for Grizzly Bear, whose heavy, layered Pink-Floydian style of gothic pop, instead of the equally appealing Hot Chip or Yeasayer sets erupting across the Polo Field. That one was a toss up, but sometimes you need to just follow your gut. Pretty Lights played to a massive crowd of deeply chilled fans right as the wind was picking up and a desert sand storm was encroaching. Somehow seemed perfectly timed.
Rule number #3: Take some chances, and discover the joy of the unexpected. You probably already know which bands you love now, but part of the beauty of a festival is discovering new music that you don't know you love yet. There is almost nothing better than wondering into a set with almost not expectations, and having your mind blown. Seventeen-year-old teenage folkie phenom, Jake Bugg, absolutely crushed it proving he can rock well beyond his years and folkie recordings. We stopped by for a few songs, and stayed for most of a truly special set. Ditto with Ben Howard another young British folkie, who I knew I wanted to see, but had no idea how good he was live. Big swirling rustic jams blazing into the scorching afternoon sun. Savages was another mind-blowing unexpected gem. Siouxsie meets Bauhaus in a big, gothic, haunting, loud kind of way. Thee Oh Sees are a SF band who is a bit harsh for me recorded, but was something totally unexpected and awesome live. There is nothing better than entering a set knowing very little and leaving with a new best friend.
Rule number #4: It's so great to see super young bands blowing up right in front of your eyes. One of the best things about Coachella and other great festivals is the ability to witness how quickly a band can go from just starting out to something massive. This is best illustrated by the time and stage a band is scheduled relative to its expected turnout. The genre defining UK psychedelic groovers Alt-J played late afternoon and the tent was justifiably bursting at the seams. Same for Brooklyn indie dance duo Tanlines, whose crowd was riding a huge wave. Grimes fans were spilling out of the tent, despite an unbelievably low vocal mix. Ditto for the always elegant Bat For Lashes. Ditto for Jessie Ware playing her electronica dance grooves to a wildly happy crowd. But there was almost nothing that compared to the absolutely enormous crowd splayed out across the massive main stage field for The Lumineers where almost everyone of the 50K+ fans seemed to know every lyric of every song. Pretty impressive for a band that has thirteen songs.
Rule number #5: Make sure to see a few old skool bands from your childhood because they are actually still great! It is usually pretty black and white how well a band's music and skillset endures the test of time. New Order is still an incredible live band whose music sounds as fresh and relevant (especially in the modern age of electronica) as it did in the '80s. The Violent Femmes are definitely getting older, but those songs are still as fun as they were in the 8'0s. The Selector still sounds crazy good after all these years. Blur can still play a big set with so many hits to pull from. Roni Size, despite the fact that EDM has evolved away from drum and bass, was absolutely killing it. Dinosaur Jr. still has all the brimstone and indie rock fire they had 25 years ago. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are still as brooding and badass as they were eons ago, that said a questionable nighttime Main Stage act. On the flipside The Stone Roses sounded sloppy and flat and the Red Hot Chili Peppers just seemed a bit bored and uninspired, not surprisingly after almost non-stop touring.
Rule number #6: Always think carefully about your sunset set, it's always the best of the day! At Coachella, the Outdoor Stage between 6:00-9:00 p.m. tends to have the best sets. After a day of baking in the sun, there was almost nothing better than Portugal. The Man, putting up perhaps the tightest, most fun set of the festival. One part what Oasis used to have one part something totally unique. It is hard to imagine anything better than Local Natives at sunset, sounding more like Radiohead than there rootsier predecessor, and also so great to see them go from a smaller stage early in the day in 2011 to a packed house at the most enjoyable slot of the day. Check that for Tame Impala, and if you are a Vampire Weekend fan you can't go wrong.
Rule number #7: A lot of times the stuff you think you love, blows your mind because bands play better at a festival. Band of Horses made two great records and one limp recent record, but they caught a great wave for their Friday night set: big, bold, and familiar. Polica just keeps getting better and better with two drummers and a angelic voice, there hasn't been anything like this since Morcheeba and Zero 7 in their prime. Beach House continues to create some of the most beautiful, dreamy ethereal pop on the planet especially on a warm spring night in desert. Foals interpret the Cure through the prism of TV on the Radio, and put up one of loudest yet most melodic shows on the planet. The Postal Service who introduced themselves as an 'imaginary band' played a lovely set to a large and nostalgic crowd. The XX, well they just couldn't be any cooler, except for when they bring out Solange for a killer cameo. Bliss. If you are an Americana-folkie like me, you know how good Kurt Vile is, but it is even better midday baking in the sun jam bandage. It is surprising Airborne Toxic Event isn't a bigger band given what big melodic rock they play, even early in the day on the Main Stage. I know I love Father John Misty, but in a sea of beats-laden dance music his old-fashioned American rock music was just wanted I needed at the end of the weekend.
I've been going to Coachella for many years now and I have also been to almost every other festival of its kind, but somehow Coachella is different. In many ways, depending how you play it, it's like all great festivals, Coachella can be a genuinely spiritual experience. It is not just about the groove of any individual set, but the overall vibe of the festival that continues on a beautiful three-day loop. First, the painted-desert surrounded by exposing mountain views cultivates a surreal dream-like state. Then there's Coachella's programming that for certain kinds of music fans (i.e. indie rock, electronica, and certain flavors of hip-hop), there's just no comparison.
And like all mass congregations of people, you see a sea of phones taking pictures and video. Cell service is still a nightmare, so anything requiring the uploading or files bigger than texts must be abandoned by late afternoon when the crowds roll in. Add to this the fact that as evidenced by SXSW this year, with the exception of Vine, Snapchat, the new breed of messaging platforms (MessageMe, Whatsapp) that rely heavily on decent connectivity, there isn't much new in social media. Fatigue has set in, and obligation has taken over. I guess I think this is a good thing. To be at a festival should be to enjoy a part of a living, breathing collection of passions, sights and sounds, not just together but alone on your phone. Of course I am a bit of a hypocrite having published an Instagram from every set I attended, but this was as much for me as the handful of people that were actually paying attention.
To the extent the opportunity arises to catch anyone of the many incredible festivals passing through a town near you this summer, do yourself a favor and go dive in for at least one. Every year I feel the need to conjure George Bernard Shaw's "Youth is wasted on the young" thought. Not always but sometimes, and for me, youth culture at this scale energizes the old.
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