[Necessary preface: Coachella did not credential OurVinyl, the following reflection is based upon 1 person experiencing the festival in a “normal” way. So with 8 stages continuously running and only 1 set of eyes & ears to take it in, inevitably only a small portion of the overall music could be reflected upon here. However, this is not the reason why the following report leans towards focusing on the organization of the festival as opposed to critiques of artist’s sets – it was sincerely what this author left the weekend thinking about primarily.]
The 3-day music festival is not something that we Americans have been doing forever, unlike our cousins across the Atlantic. Yes, there was Woodstock and Monterrey, and in the 90’s an interesting incarnation of a traveling Lollapalooza that lasted a few years. But the contemporary American youth’s fascination with the 3 day music festival is one that really begun at the turn of the current century about a decade ago. However, it has been only within the past couple years that music festivals have detonated with popularity & size, as we see festivals of all types – located in a wide variety of places (many of which are difficult to reach) – starting to sell-out with relative ease.
Coachella is clearly no exception, selling out in basically a matter of hours after the lineup release. Unfortunately, as the secret is now out concerning music festivals almost guaranteed success, scalpers ended up getting a lion’s share of Coachella tickets. People who bought tickets before they sold out got them at around $280 (over $350 if you decided to camp). Yet most scalped tickets went for $500-$600. Either way the average ticket price paid for entrance could be conservatively estimated to be over $400… quite a steep price… especially when you consider Coachella is in Indio (2+ hrs away from LA) and requires substantial extra traveling and living expenses.
What all of this means is that the music festival is no longer a scarce or infrequent event attended by the most fervent of music fans. Music festivals are now ubiquitous, with more stages than ever before, attended by all types of people, and are consequently quite pricey. This means that to now properly critique a festival, one must reflect upon more than just what musicians were playing and how their sets were, we have moved past that point, now we must compare them to other festivals as well as to their own potential.
So did Coachella 2011 live up to the prodigious hype?
Let’s start by examining some of the numerous positives of the weekend. First and foremost, the setting. Being comfortably nestled into a stunningly beautiful desert valley in southern California, in the middle of Spring, definitely provided for delightful ascetics; as when the sun would set behind the western mountains and the sky would explode into purple, pink and red hues seen behind the omnipresent silhouettes of palm trees. This made late afternoons, sunsets and the evenings almost a perfect setting/atmosphere for taking in constant live music (or for doing anything in general really).
To complement the beauty of the natural scenery Coachella created the most eye-catching man-made visuals this author has seen at any festival to date. With the neon farris-wheel, the luminous metal bugs, the electric spark maker and countless other visually appealing mechanisms Coachella made sure that if you weren’t at a stage you would have some fun & funky stuff to stare at. And more than that, they positively added to the overall vibe.
Another favorable aspect of Coachella was the Sahara stage, or more correctly the Sahara tent. It was the largest of the three tents on the grounds and was used as the stage for the larger DJ and electronic acts (save the Chemical Brothers). What was impressive about the Sahara tent was that besides having a full size stage so that large lights/visualizers could be behind the artist, there was an array of complex hanging lights (which of course was coordinated with the artists lighting scheme) that lined the length of the tent. This gave a 3-dimension aspect to the visuals of the DJ sets, which was mesmerizing and no gimmick, one can expect to see this intelligent tactic copied soon. (Below is video I took from the Sahara Tent so that you can see the awesome lighting scheme)
As for the tunes; the best musical moments of the weekend were those in which Coachella served as the first proof of “this musician has finally made it big”. Boyz Noize played the final Sahara set of Friday to a a thick throng of excited people, along with a massive strobe-based lighting scheme – both aspects that did not exists last year for this ascending and talented German DJ. And while he seemed to play on his more industrial and gritty side, as opposed to the upbeat techno one tends to associate Boyz Noize with, it was still a great set with a raucous vibe. Welcome to now being a headlining act Boyz Noize.
However the best energy of the weekend was probably that which occurred at the set of Mumford and Sons, as they appeared to be wholeheartedly stunned by the immense crowd of people singing along with their every lyric. You could tell they were being honest when they said, “This is easily the largest crowd we have every played to.” And while the set only lasted 50 min, the energy created by their philosophically uplifting music and lyrics was palpable and left a smile on everyone’s face. They played almost all of the songs off of their debut LP “Sign No More”, but also threw in a couple captivating new tracks, which probably made the many ardent Mumford fans in the audience salivate for their next release.
Other musical highlights included Arcade Fire and The Strokes, which probably isn’t surprising to those who have attended their festival shows before. Arcade Fire is no stranger to headlining a festival, but this was the first time they did so since winning Album Of The Year, and there was a little bit of a feeling that they were celebrating that fact in what is the first event of the festival season. Add in their impressive, yet at times odd, on-stage and on-screen visuals (and a purple balloon drop at one point) and it is clear that this band will be placating festival goers easily all summer long. The Strokes proved they can still all play along, if not get along, and that they can deliver their new material (which is very “new-wave” compared to their past material) just as well as they could the old stuff.
Another positive aspect about Coachella was The Do Lab stage, which was a mini-stage set up basically in the middle of the grounds, with an almost all in-closed tent that thankfully providing full shade all day long. The stage and tent was planned to be dedicated to the design of the suspension bridge, meaning it provided for striking form as well as function. Catching KRADDY at The Do Lab, a drummer & DJ act, was probably the surprise-act highlight of the weekend. With their amalgamation of dub step, electro, hip hop and an amazingly talented organic drummer they created for one of the best spontaneous dance parties – as they are not a well known act but people were just drawn into The Do Lab just by the magnetism of their sound on that evening.
Yet for all these wonderful positives, and these memorable shows, Coachella 2011 was really just a mediocre experience & music festival (and not just because it had a mediocre lineup, which it did). Due to the gargantuan buzz (and price tag that went along with it) that is associated with the name Coachella, on this year of 2011, any seasoned festival goer would have to conclude that it was – unfortunate to say – simply overrated. Why? Well it’s just do to the simple aforementioned fact that the musical performances are just an aspect of any festival attendees experience, and that the planning and execution of the event holds just as much sway over the attendees experience as the lineup does. And when a music-journalist leaves an event and feels the need to expound upon the logistics of the event more-so than the music itself, something might be array.
The simple fact is that Coachella does not have enough space to justify the amount of stages it has, and that they used their space poorly. This fact becomes magnified when one realizes the amount of space the festival had control over surrounding the grounds (for camping, parking, etc), some of which could have easily been allocated for the festival grounds. There were essentially 8 stages at Coachella, yet oddly only 1 of these (the “Coachella Stage”) was a traditional “full size main stage.” Then off to the right from the main stage was the second largest stage (the “Outdoor Theater”), but it was turned at an angle so as to be slightly facing toward the Coachella Stage. And since these stages would have acts going simultaneously, unless if you were relatively close to the stage one would invariably hear a bit of sound-bleed. This made those moments in the day when you want to rest by sitting down out of the crowd less enjoyable, as your ears would inevitably be fighting to hear the music you desired. Then a little further south, but not much, were the three long tents stages (Gobi, Mojave, & Sahara), which were places side by side by side with their stages and speakers facing the same direction. This meant that if you didn’t want to hear any sound-bleed from the other stages you were going to have to be inline with the speakers, you couldn’t fan out to the peripheries. This created for crowds at these stages that were long and skinny, making getting up close a pain. To add to that, the near reflections of the tent ceiling didn’t seem to help all of the acts. For compressed and straightforward electronic music it was fine, but for more complex and nuanced music – such as say the reverbed & noise-rock stylings of The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – it detracted from the acoustics of the performance.
Then there are some other odd factors. The most backwards of which is the situation as concerns libations. If you wanted a cold beer, and trust me in the 98 degree sunshine most everyone did, you would have to go to a “designated drinking area” to purchase your $9 pints of beer, and then were not allowed to leave with it. So not only was it impossible to sip a drink near any stage, but there was also the fact that these fenced off drinking areas closed off precious traveling space for people attempting to move around from stage to stage, especially near the three side by side tents. One can’t say whether this way of controlling drinking is grossly antiquated, or just a weird California thing, but either way it’s completely ridiculous and unquestionably diminished the overall experience, even for those who care not for alcohol at all.
But the faulty planning didn’t stop there. For one thing, there weren’t nearly enough bathrooms or water filling stations, as they somehow decided to not let anyone bring in water bottles unless they were empty. Did I mention the concert is in the desert in 95+ degree heat? There was also the inexplicable fact that there was only 1 exit point, and that the 2 taxis stands for the event were literally about a mile from that exit point (one being literally as far away from the exit point as possible), as well as were many of people’s parked cars. This meant that if you weren’t camping one’s feet had to pay for the burden of this odd and inconsiderate planning, and pay they did.
One gets the feeling that the best thing Coachella has going for it is that it has the name Coachella. And if you were someone who just wanted to experience this festival because of it’s reputation, and just wanted a music party in the desert, then you probably had an amazing time. But if you are someone who attends many festivals, and also paid the $400+ (at the very least) it required to attend, then you probably were let down by the confusing and fatiguing paradigm that was Coachella 2011.
Listen, it’s a major music festival, and it’s in a beautiful setting – so of course it was still a good time. Let’s not lose sight of that. But now that the 3 day music fest is found in almost every major city, and each state’s rural parklands, we all have the right to be picky about the way these events go down – because when they go off right they are the most pleasurable events one can attend and worth every penny and more-so.
But hey, things can change, and there is always next year and Coachella 2012. Lollapalozza used to be a mediocre festival as well, due to long lines and the dreaded bottleneck created in the middle of the grounds near Buckingham fountain and the lack of non-crowded open spaces for relaxation. But then they redesigned their plan, opened up Columbus ave, and successfully addressed the open spaces, line-issues, and created for easy stage movement. It is now easily one of the best festivals on the planet.
Coachella 2012: You have the reputation, beautiful scenery, and purse to get any musical acts you want – let’s just hope you learn from your logistical mistakes.
By Sean Poynton Brna