“Difficulty: Intermediate. Build time: 10-15 minutes.” Oh boy, this could be a problem. I’m notoriously bad with my hands and making crafts, and even something at an “intermediate” level, such as constructing the little cardboard snail (a replica of the giant one that roamed the Empire Polo grounds last year) that comes in the Coachella wristband and information box intimidates me. I guess it shows just how much of a Coachella newbie I am. I’ve been to “Couch-chella” (that is, watched the YouTube stream from the comfort of my air-conditioned room on my laptop) many times and wished from afar that I could go, but until this year, it was never possible. When this year’s lineup dropped, however, I couldn’t help myself. Too many of my favorite artists were there, and with Coachella being the closest major music festival to campus, I felt that it was too good of an opportunity to pass up. Now, as I sit in the afterglow of the second weekend of the festival, I can say one thing: It was more than worth it.
Day 1: Well, I guess we’re at Coachella now
Walking up to the gates, I was greeted by gigantic, intricately designed art installments shaped like houses and other things you could climb through (oh yeah, it’s an art festival, too). I was immediately struck by how much smaller the festival grounds were than what I had expected. I expected them to dwarf Golden Gate park, where Outside Lands is held, but the Empire Polo Field was only of a comparable size. Because of the lack of trees in the desert, at least part of every stage or tent could be seen almost anywhere on the grounds. Along with the tents, a giant, slow-moving astronaut dubbed “Escape Velocity” roamed the fields and seemed to follow you wherever you went.
It was a bit shocking to see how easy it was to get fairly close to the stage on the first day. As the day went on it became more difficult, but simply walking your way through a sitting or well-spaced-out crowd was very easy. The biggest exception to this on day one was Bastille, of “Pompeii” fame, for whom the Mojave tent overflowed — it’s unclear why they were not set on a larger stage.
On that note, two of the most surreal moments of the day came from hearing two of the biggest hits of the past year in nearly back-to-back performances. Aloe Blacc, who sings the hit, “Wake Me Up,” best known for its Avicii remix that has permeated radio waves, sang his acoustic version that had the crowd raising their voices as loud as they would all weekend. Bastille immediately followed, and as the crowd ecstatically chanted “eh-oh-oh-eh-oh” as they performed their hit “Pompeii,” I knew I had arrived at the dynamic concert space that was Coachella. Coupled with this, later performances — including watching Billie Joe Armstrong joining the Replacements on stage for their set, and my friend and I casually sitting at the back of the main stage watching Outkast — thoroughly overshadowed a $12 fish-and-chips that included two tiny strips of fish and actual potato chips — not fries!
Day 2: How did I miss that?!
After stuffing some Smuckers and snacks down my throat at the end of a thoroughly exhausting day one, I knocked out. My friend and I decided that hygiene be damned — we used some baby wipes to clean up a bit and set off showerless and disgusting for day two (just kidding, we honestly weren’t that bad). After hitting most of the acts I wanted to see on day one, I knew I was going to have to make some sacrifices on day two.
Seeing people mosh at a concert that they paid hundreds of dollars to attend is surreal in itself to watch, but seeing dudes in flower crowns in the mosh pit is even stranger. As Ty Segall raged on with manic punk offerings on stage, a near-constant stream of crowdsurfing people found their way into the pit — from flower crown dudes to the most petite girls, everyone was welcome. The fact that this was immediately followed by a great performance from electro-pop band CHVRCHES, attended by much of the same crowd, showed me for the first time how diverse and welcoming Coachella crowds could be. The energy could even be felt through the performances that I had to skip that day. As I waited for other shows to start, I heard “Kids” by MGMT, “Shake Me Down” by Cage the Elephant and, perhaps most notably, “Get Lucky,” accompanied by a massive amount of confetti, being sung by Pharrell in the background. Though these songs were only in my periphery, they oftentimes warranted longing stares from fellow audience members wishing that they could be in two places at once, experiencing the cheers and music they heard from afar.
The best moment of the day came at sunset, as Capital Cities, in matching floral suits, led the crowd through a horn-laden electronic dance party of originals and covers. As the band danced onstage with a remix of their ubiquitous “Safe and Sound” continued to play, a band member encouraged every audience member to take off their shirt (“It’s Coachella, it’s okay to show a little skin!”) or hold up a rag and start waving it around their heads. As a mass of colors emerged around the audience, the drop in the remix came, and for a moment there were thousands of swirling neon rainbows bobbing up and down, enveloping the gorgeous Coachella sunset as palm trees swayed calmly in the background.
Day 3: It’s too hot, but we’ve made it this far
By this point I knew that we had way overpacked food-wise — we hadn’t touched the string cheese, and we loved string cheese — but we weren’t going to let our over-zealous packing and wasted cash get us down. Day three promised some bands and artists I was most excited for, and I knew I had to end my first-ever Coachella with a bang.
What ended up making day three worthwhile was two things: a crowd that knew its party was about to end, and well-established artists still playing like they had everything left to prove. Frank Turner and the Naked and Famous both sang their anthems with reckless abandon, as more moshing ensued during Turner’s “Four Simple Words,” and ecstatic jumping followed during the Naked and Famous’ hit, “Young Blood.” Turner’s boundless enthusiasm for every single one of the 50 minutes he was allotted electrictrified the smallest tent on the grounds, the Gobi, and made it feel as if you were getting to watch a festival headliner perform just for you.
I had heard that some of the most special sets occur at sunset during Coachella, and along with Capital Cities, the reunited Neutral Milk Hotel put on a performance to remember. Seeing the disheveled-yet dignified-looking Jeff Mangum lead his old bandmates through a flurry of influential indie-rock tunes was a sight to see. Though the entire crowd wasn’t as responsive as I thought they might be, there were indeed a few audience members who could be seen having obviously emotional moments, closing their eyes and singing along with looks of longing and connection to the legendary act’s set.
As the day winded down, and after Calvin Harris, Beck and Lana Del Rey had all put on entrancing and memorable performances (sometimes a little too much — some of Lana’s fans definitely needed to get a room), only Arcade Fire was left — and their top headliner status didn’t stop them from connecting to the audience in a way that came to epitomize my first Coachella experience. After trolling audience members by bringing out a fake Daft Punk as guests (everyone in the crowd couldn’t tell the difference) the band played with a fearless enthusiasm that one may not have expected from a festival headliner.
The band led the crowd through their hits along with some not-often-heard fan favorites, and had the enormous crowd hanging on their every note. Even after their set ended, they walked through the space between the stage and the crowd, acoustically playing and singing the chorus of their well-known “Wake Up.” Even after I thought they were done, they kept walking farther, and onto the grass, meshing with the crowd as they slowly moved their way through the mob following them. After it took me a moment to realize how far they had walked, I ended my night by sprinting over to the area, and singing along with my favorite band mere feet from them. As I walked away, wondering what the heck had just happened, I knew I had experienced my “Coachella” moment. I understood the hype. I knew why the festival was so beloved.
The next morning, we quickly packed and shoved everything in the trunk. The buzz from the night before was still ringing strongly in my head, and perfect packing certainly wasn’t a priority. There was no line to get out — everything went very quickly. As I drove back down the freeway, completed cardboard Coachella snail riding on my dashboard, I could hardly get any of the weekend out of my head — nor did I want to. Lines from “Wake Me Up” (“So wake me up when it’s all over / when I’m wiser and I’m older”) echoed in my head. I’m still having trouble waking up — all the different people I met, the experiences I had, the new and old music I found and the spirit of appreciation I felt all around me made for one of the most memorable weekends of my life. I keep turning around, expecting to see the giant astronaut that roamed the grounds behind me. I guess I’ll just have to wait till next year’s wristband box appears, when I’ll see the intermediate level required to build my own cardboard astronaut — and know that I can handle it just fine.