It sounded simple enough. Get acts to commit to two festivals on two consecutive weekends—double the tickets, double the money. It’s a win-win for everyone involved, right?
That was Goldenvoice’s idea when it shook the festival world last year and took the unprecedented step to expand the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival into two identical versions of its trademark event.
But as was so clearly declared in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, separate is not equal, and no two Coachellas are alike. Regardless of which weekend you attend, you’ll pay the same $350, and your lineup will be the same. But the experience? It couldn’t possibly be more different.
In 2012, I subjected myself to the experiment and signed up for the second of the two weekends. Like most other first-timers, I was generally appreciative of the expanded opportunity to attend the event nearly everyone in my age bracket competes to purchase tickets for each year. By adding the additional festival, Goldenvoice had suddenly doubled the lanes on a traffic-jammed highway, but little did I know how different our destinations would be.
On the final day of weekend one, after several days of Facebook photos and Twitter updates detailing every last star sighting or special appearance, the spoiler of all spoilers tore across the Internet in what became the most talked-about Coachella moment yet.
A glowing, three-dimensional Tupac Shakur took the stage alongside Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg to end the festival. The hologram performed two classic songs and then disappeared into the night, leaving everyone on the Empire Polo Grounds stunned, and everyone at home miserably jealous.
The cat had been let out of the bag, and for all of the excitement around witnessing such a spectacle, we second-weekenders couldn’t help but feel as though we’d be getting the sloppy seconds.
When we did get a chance to see it for ourselves a week later, it was undeniably exciting and fun, but it sorely lacked the brilliant surprise of its unveiling the first time around. We all knew what was coming. In fact, it was all anyone could talk about the whole weekend. “I can’t wait to see Tupac!” we exclaimed. Like knowing that you had gotten what you wanted for Christmas before unwrapping it—you lose something important when you lose the surprise.
My longing for that element of surprise was what made my decision to opt for weekend one this year. As enjoyable as the second weekend of 2012 was, I couldn’t forgo the opportunity to see the next big surprise in person, before everyone else. Would it be Daft Punk taking the stage with Phoenix, as had been so fiercely rumored for months before? The only way I’d find out was to be there.
The talk of the campgrounds was an act not even on the bill. As Daft Punk’s marketing push for their upcoming album “Random Access Memories” ramped up in the prior weeks, it only made sense that the immensely popular EDM powerhouse would jock their new music for such a welcoming crowd. It had been six years since they last performed at the festival, and as longtime-chellers know, Goldenvoice is fond of bringing acts back to the festival. Just ask Paul Oakenfold and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose 2013 performances mark their fourth and third appearances at Coachella, respectively.
To add fuel to the fire, a rumor had spread that Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo—the plainclothes human counterparts to the robot duo that is Daft Punk—were spotted watching bands and enjoying the festival backstage.
On Friday night, the robots showed up earlier than expected. Simultaneously, across all of the festival’s screens displayed a two-minute teaser for the new album and played an extended clip of the single “Get Lucky.” A quick-handed attendee managed to capture most of the video and upload it to YouTube, where it spread across the Internet like wildfire. Cheers could be heard across the festival grounds as Pharrell appeared onscreen and began to sing alongside Daft Punk and guitarist Nile Rodgers. Well played, Coachella, whetting our palates for their now inevitable appearance.
The perfectly-clear desert stars had seemingly aligned. The sun had set on Saturday night and Phoenix stepped onto the main Coachella Stage to the biggest crowd they had ever performed before. Standing amongst 50,000-plus people as we collectively held our breath after each song might have been one of the most exhilarating moments of the festival.
Then the stage lights turned off. The band made its way off the stage and strangers all of a sudden gripped each other in spine-tingling anticipation. This was it. We clenched our teeth and held each other close for the moment the robots were to rise from the stage atop a glorious pyramid to the triumphant declaration of “One More Time!”
The surprise had arrived.
“My mind’s telling me no!” a voice rang from the stage. The woman beside me shrieked.
“But my body … my body is telling me yes!”
The spotlight lit up R. Kelly as he belted out “Ignition (Remix)” mashed-up with Phoenix’s “1901.” As R. Kelly asked the crowd to make more noise, the punctuation mark at the end of the ensuing “woo” was more of a period than an exclamation mark.
Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. We instantly cycled through the five stages of grief as we processed what was transpiring. We asked for a surprise, and Coachella delivered. Not a soul in Indio that night would have predicted R. Kelly showing up during Phoenix’s set.
Once R. Kelly left, the band continued to play a few more songs before its final encore. Vocalist Thomas Mars capped the set when he leapt into the crowd, walked several hundred feet out to the sound tent, crawled atop it, and then crowdsurfed all the way back to the stage. To be fair, I was impressed by the effort. The Guinness Book of World Records might have something to say about the farthest crowd surf ever. But at this point, the only thing that could satisfy the crowd would have been that elusive appearance by the robots, which was now just a faint glimmer of hope to those who stuck around.
The mood around the cellphone charging table at the campgrounds was one of bewilderment. Most agreed that seeing R. Kelly was fun, if not amusing, but hype and hope are hard to come down from. We were disappointed about not seeing a performance Coachella never told us would happen.
One camper told me that Daft Punk had to perform because this year’s festival had to top last year’s. The only way they could do that was by one jaw-dropping surprise, and R. Kelly wasn’t it.
This is what Coachella has become. Perhaps unbeknownst to festival organizers, the one thing that was their biggest asset is now their biggest enemy. Each year, attendees anticipate a big exclusive performance found nowhere else, and each year the stakes grow ever higher. At some point, they may grow beyond reach, and this year might have been the breaking point.
Coachella’s lineup boasted over 100 acts, many of which people would venture out to see headlining a single performance. But overshadowing them all was a group not on the bill, who steadfastly denied the rumors of their appearance, which fell on deaf ears.
Admittedly, I too looked forward to the big surprise. In a year when the festival circuit looks largely homogenous, Coachella felt as though it needed something to rightfully claim its crown as the king of American music festivals. In years past, it did just fine with its stacked lineups. But in the post-Tupac era, the crowds began to anticipate more. Myself included.
As I slowly made my way away from the stage after the Red Hot Chili Peppers finished their set to conclude the festival on Sunday night, I couldn’t help but overhear a poor woman as she hopelessly hung around the stage and said, “So maybe the Rolling Stones aren’t going to play?” No, dear, they aren’t.
Rather than appreciate the festival for what it was, I fell victim to the hype, just like everyone else. The rumor, the speculation, the mystery—it’s all too exciting not to partake in.
On paper, Coachella 2013 was by no means a bad festival. Sure, the big reunions like the Stone Roses, Blur, the Postal Service, Jurassic 5, Grinderman and Violent Femmes were not as headline-worthy as the return of Dr. Dre, Refused and At the Drive-In the year before, but an otherwise well-rounded lineup made up for it.
Weekend one was filled with its share of memorable moments. You couldn’t help but tear up as a packed house gathered in the Gobi tent to watch and sing along with 70-year-old Rodriguez, the star and subject of 2012’s Academy Award-winning documentary, “Searching for Sugar Man.” Trent Reznor’s How to Destroy Angels played one of their first-ever performances, albeit behind a series of eerie, moving light curtains. Passion Pit got everyone joyously jumping around while the Postal Service reminded everyone of their middle school emotional anguish.
But the three days also had their fair share of mishaps. Upon arriving at the festival gates on Friday, organizers were still arranging the long line of past festival posters leading out into the campgrounds. Some of the big screens didn’t work. 2 Chainz pulled up to his performance a half hour late (albeit, without his ceiling missing). A drunken Isaac Brock stumbled through Modest Mouse’s set before getting cut-off by the festival mid-“Float On” because they had run over their time. The Stone Roses were sloppy and off key. I couldn’t help but feel as though weekend one was a dry-run for the next.
The thought crossed my mind that, had there not been a second festival the following weekend, could things have gone smoother? If Goldenvoice had just one shot at Coachella, maybe things would have been different. According to my 2012 weekend one counterparts, they shared just the same sentiments.
Now that the two-weekend experiment has completed its second year, we can begin to draw some conclusions. I knowingly sacrificed what I thought would be a smoother ride in weekend two for the possibility of witnessing an earth-shattering mega-surprise in the flesh. But at the end of the day, Coachella is a holistic experience. It is unlike any other event. I lovingly cherish the annual pilgrimage to the desert and stepping foot into an entirely new world, one inhabited by giant snails, trash-eating Tyrannosaurus rexes and happy dancing humans.
If it comes down to trading a well-rounded and hiccup-free festival or being “first!” I gladly find myself preferring the former. Weekend one, you were a blast, but next year I’ll let you work out the kinks while I enjoy the perfectly-predictable second.