We’re standing a good thirty feet from the edge of the Outdoor Theater stage waiting for Wild Flag to appear when a gangly, stumbling hippy wearing violet-lens John Lennon sunglasses pushes between us, cradling a slice of pizza on a thin paper plate like his only begotten son. In his single-minded mission to get as close to front-row as possible (a mission shared by roughly 68 percent of all festival-goers and 95 percent of all festival-goers under the age of 18 – seriously, guys, it’s going to be okay if Abel Tesfaye can’t see the drool frothing at the corners of your dazed, slightly open mouth), he doesn’t seem aware of the tired, chronic’d masses he just shouldered through. We give each other the same “dude, come on” look we’ve exchanged about a dozen times over the past 48 hours and forgive him his trespass.
Twenty minutes later, we’re vigorously bobbing our heads up and down to the tuneful shreds of Carrie Brownstein and company. A collective crowd-clap gets going, and seconds later we hear someone nearby conspicuously bashing his hands together to the beat of his own acid-laden drum. We peer ahead and realize it’s none other than Blond Hippy Man, a dead giveaway for the fresh stains of pizza sauce and cheese all over his gray shirt. It was an odd moment of recognition – this guy had seemed the epitome of the festival asshole, who just knew not what he was doing, who deserved a cocktail of annoyed looks, scorn and pity. But he was having such a damn good time, his face so lit up by the prospect of the music, man, the fucking music, that his joy became contagious. As one, my friends and I joined the arrhythmic beat. If there’s anywhere on this good green Earth to not give a damn and start clapping with an unhinged hippy grinning like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, it’s at Coachella.
Oh, and then the chick standing next to him vommed all over the ground. That happened too.
Every year, thousands brave the heat of the Indio desert to make it to Coachella, the Mecca of America’s great musical festivals (or at least Southern California’s). It’s something of a cruel joke that the event takes place on the incongruous green fields of the Empire Polo Club (and no, that’s not just the place’s historical name, as I thought – people still play polo there), where even the 1 percent’s financial resources can’t keep the sun at bay. Indio lies in a narrow valley between the sheer, jagged peaks of two mountain ranges, and farther out you can see swathes of snow at the higher altitudes. It makes for a surreal picture, looking out at dusk over the weird purple and orange spires of the Do LaB toward those cliffs, like you’re on some eerily familiar, alien planet.
The festival itself is laid out like a giant courtyard: an expansive square of lawn in the middle surrounded on each side by either stages or beer gardens and food vendors. Scattered across the lawn are the art installations with names like “Starry Bamboo” (a giant wooden double helix that resembles one of those nightmarish, spiny deep-sea creatures) and “Warmth, Giant Black Toobs” (a bunch of, uh, giant black tubes). The stages themselves were top-notch, from the massive grandeur of the headliner Coachella Stage and to the more reasonable “tent” setups, which looked more like giant repurposed aircraft hangers. For the former, you’re out under the sky, and on Friday you could watch the thunderheads roll down from the western mountains and slowly blot out the sunlight as you waited for the roadies and schleppers to finish checking the mics. For the first time that anyone I talked to could remember, it looked like ¬– and did – rain during the festival, though it was little more than a few fat drops splattering around. But the clouds dragged a cold wind behind them, and even the Molly kids seemed slowed by the chill.
A Brief Discourse on Festival Participants
A good number of Coachellites (Coachellians? Choachellans?) are day trippers who drive or shuttle over from their hotels, or even better, their rented houses. But there’s also a massive contingent of campers who call the grounds home for the weekend, and for a measly hundred dollars, you can park your car in your own little spot and tent up right behind it. By Friday afternoon, a veritable tent city has sprung up around the concert, complete with street signs and thoroughfares, general stores and food vendors. It’s mostly an exercise in party-staycation, as about four out of every five campers are certified bros – not to bash them or anything; I mean, I’m as guilty as anyone of broing out (or at least, anyone who’s not actually a bro), especially if we’re talking sun’s-out-guns-out weather and cheap light beer, which we are, and given that I’ve got my college buddies in tow. But the Coachella campground presents the impartial observer with such a high bro-density that whatever characteristics that may at one time have distinguished them as individuals washes away in a sea of boardshorts, tanks, visors, chiseled jaws and Oakley sunglasses. Overheard at a nearby tent, 2 a.m. Friday night: “Bro, I can’t wait to pound fuckin’ margaritas tomorrow.” It was a sentiment met with sage nods and appreciative high-fives.
All Folked Out
Having never been to Coachella, I can’t really appreciate the apparent diversification of the organizer’s musical billings. This year’s lineup was, though, a pretty fair representation of all that is good in music nowadays, from some of the best spitters in hip-hop to rock revivalists to artists that fully resist easy labeling. From what longtime purveyors of Coachella have told me, given the festival’s origins in showcasing hard-hitting rock music – the first concert played on the Empire club’s field was a 1993 Pearl Jam show – it’s a wonder that Snoop and Dre were tapped as Sunday-night-headliners.
I’m also, shamefully, a newcomer to the world of hip-hop; a year ago, I couldn’t have told you the difference between Biggie and Gang Starr, let alone dive into last year’s excellent crop of rap records. I’d always admired the best rappers from afar for their sheer lyrical talent, the way socioeconomic reality, gilded dreams and wordplay could collide and mesh in the space of a few minutes. Going on to major in English (I done good, Ma) only prepped my budding appreciation for the all-powerful Word, though even by graduation, I was still getting my verbal jollies from the likes of John Prine and Bob Dylan, Sam Beam and Justin Vernon. But 2011 was a good year to start paying attention to rap: Worldwide names like Kanye and Jay-Z solidified their seats in the pantheon, but rash newcomers (to a wider audience, anyway) like Danny Brown, Kendrick Lamar, Main Attrakionz and ASAP Rocky were invigorating a new generation of listeners who, like me, were all folked out.
This is the Way the World Ends
Friday proved heaven for a newly up-to-date rap fan. Kendrick Lamar’s early afternoon slot at the main stage on Friday wouldn’t attract the same crowd as later sets – most tended not to arrive until four or five in the afternoon – and the fuzz of an arena-size sound system is far kinder to guitar distortion than machine-gun vocal delivery. The smaller stages somehow seemed more appropriate for the weekend’s hip-hop; under the tents’ shade, packed together with your fellow man, you could practically inhale a performance’s energy. Sacramento’s industrial noise-rap trio Death Grips performed in the Gobi tent later that afternoon as the storm clouds started billowing overhead and raindrops began whipping around outside – the world already seemed turned on its head for Coachella’s uncharacteristic weather, and the Death Grips set only heightened the apocalyptic mood. Even Stefan Burnett’s sound check was discomforting: Wearing a raincoat with the hood pulled up and low across his brow like an executioner, he just stood there, implacable, until raising the mic to his mouth: “Check…Check…CHECK!”
When he reappeared on stage, shirtless and totally devoid of body fat, it was like watching some kind of ritual shaman calling up the Otherworld; yeah, anger coursed through his voice, but it wasn’t rage for its own sake – there was a kind of detached purpose to Burnett’s delivery, the urgency of a ghost who haunts in order to rest in peace. There was no between-song banter, no attempt to communicate with the crowd, nothing resembling recognition on Burnett’s face. His growls and shouts were made polyphonic by all the reverb, and Zach Hill’s drumming was ferocious, borderline inhuman. It only seemed right to start moshing; even before the bass drop of “Guillotine,” a knot of bodies was being pushed and pulled in the center of the crowd. There’s something addictive to the pit, something about not knowing from where the next assault will come, though it should be said that it was fairly tame – if someone fell, he was helped back up; no one was downright malicious. Crowd surfers were shoved and thrown around above our heads. One old punk – ripped sleeves, shaven head, full beard, thick shoulders and all – hoisted one skinny high-schooler up in the air and sent him cresting over our hands. When the lights came on, it felt like waking up from a lucid dream.
A Brief Encounter with Danny Brown
My friend Tony (my guide in all things hip-hop) and I walked out of the tent exhilarated and gushing about the set, and suddenly, there was Danny Brown, leather jacket and all, walking right by us. It would be difficult to overstate my opinion of XXX; it’s basically been on repeat, whether through my speakers or in my head, for the past six months or so. We immediately accost him, glad-handing and grinning like idiots, and say all we can think to say: “Danny, we’re huge fans. Really.” He’s got a look on his face that says it’s not the first time it’s happened that day, or even that hour; we figure he was just in the Gobi with us, somewhere backstage or maybe even down in the crowd. He’s got somewhere to go, so we don’t hold him up. But we do shout “style!” at his back, and he turns with that unmistakable, tongue-out puckish giggle. He’s enjoying a little recognition for once – as soon as he turns around again, another kid rushes up to him. Tony and I looked at each other. “That just happened.”
Everything is Purple
Fast-forward to Saturday night: ASAP Rocky is about to take the stage in the same tent Death Grips destroyed the day before. The crowd is massive, rowdy, full of both dedicated ASAP fans and bandwagoners (I later find myself mostly alone in screaming the lyrics in my section), but everyone is high as hell and hell-bent on getting as close to the stage as possible. When four upside-down, grayscale American flags are rolled out – while they’re far from anarchist or merely political, the Mob did find a great expression of their anti- attitude in the image – a thousand voices, mostly male, start to chant. The ASAP crew saunters onstage minutes later and blast into a couple of new songs; with Rocky yet to come on, they’re probably tracks from the upcoming ASAP Mob album.
The appearance of Rocky himself yields something of a reckless, cultish adulation from the crowd, and the guy has to stop and let the giant smile on his face fade before he can keep going. At one point, he asks the crowd’s permission to take a sip of water, but after one swill he shakes the bottle all over the front row and launches into the next song. At least a quarter of the show’s run-time is spent in call-and-response “ASAP” chanting, as if Rocky, Ferg and Nast are more interested in basking in glory than performing. It doesn’t matter to us – we are, to the man, intoxicated by inclusion, how saying the words meant temporary ASAP membership. A lot of the mob goes stagediving at various points; Jasper spends the whole set jumping into the crowd. When Rocky asks for a blunt, he gets ten (I guess it’s okay to throw things as long as they’re smokable), and yes, someone really does toss up a baggie of coke instead. I think it was saved for later.
By the end of the set, we’re all hoarse but hungry for more. Luckily, when the crew says goodnight, it’s just a fake-out to make “Peso” even more of an insane finish. And luckier still, when Rocky says goodnight a second time, it’s just a fake-out for an all-out party on stage. After getting grinded on by one of the groupies that mysteriously appeared on stage, Ferg jumps down into the crowd just to bop with everyone. Ending the set in that way tells me that these guys still really have no idea what they’re doing: not to say that musicians don’t like to party, but not many of them want to ball out with the sweaty masses that packed the tent for them. Populism, thy name is ASAP.
Here’s What You Want
But Matt, you’re probably thinking, the Weeknd isn’t rap! Abel Tesfaye is just a jumped-up R&B singer who couldn’t spit to save his life! What gives? I’ll tell you what gives. The Weeknd’s live performance delivers on every promise their mixtapes made or implied; Tesfaye is, yes, a studio rat whose already-inhuman voice is only enhanced when given some digital pampering and looped in on itself. But damn it, the man owns his stage. I immediately think of famous Beatles concert footage when I see the adoration on every girl’s face at the Outdoor Theater for this set, though rather than innocent puppy-love (“I wanna hold your hand”), the context is now raw lust, drugs, strippers, overwrought confidence. Abel Tesfaye only wants to hold your hand if you’re stumbling on the stairs in his two-floor loft.
I feel like someone has to say it: Tesfaye has the best male voice in pop music right now. I’m sure there’s some kind of qualification to make that statement more digestible, but I don’t know what it is. The beats of his producers are excellent, and his success is of course tied to the quality of the backing tracks. When faced with the Weeknd live, though, you can’t help but be caught in amazement when that smug bastard up there opens his mouth. (My one gripe, as far as this set went: Don’t stitch together the two tracks featuring Drake, “Crew Love” and “The Zone,” and sing “here’s what you want” over and over, and then not bring Drizzy out.)
In the end, though, the takeaway was this: Seeing the Weeknd debut in the U.S. was the closest thing to a historical moment at Coachella this year. Tupac didn’t really come back to life, so that’s out, and reunions are wonderful, but rebirths aren’t the same as births. Tesfaye and company have played large crowds before, up in Toronto for Drake’s OVO Festival, but now he was face-to-face with his obsessive American following, and that moment of stardom surely tasted sweeter than any narcotic. It was good for us too.