The American way can be described with any number of clichés, but Coachella has rapidly taken to heart one of the most obnoxious: bigger is better. Bigger artists; bigger stages; bigger crowds; bigger tolerance of alcohol, drugs, and generally seeing who looks the most fucked up; bigger vendors selling bigger fries with bigger amounts of curry mustard, sriracha, pickled onions, pork belly and other gastropub fetishes all over the festival. As the preeminent festival in North America and, Goldenvoice would argue, the world, Coachella should be applauded for taking the initiative in all aspects of its operations, but its seemingly relentless expansion has had its downsides. The addition of a new stage this year in the Sonora provided a blessedly air conditioned arena for a series of up-and-coming punk, garage and indie bands, as well as old fogies Guided by Voices and T.S.O.L., and the re-orientation of the various stages improved sound bleed problems and helped with traffic low.
But it also extended travel times around the festival by significantly expanding the size of the size of the grounds (by 41 acres) as well as creating some impossible to navigate blockages for certain anticipated acts. With the festival at capacity with 125,000 fans attending Weekend 1 (an increase of 25,000 by most estimates) and only so much room and personnel to go around, it’s perhaps inevitable that Coachella may not always get to have it both ways. Then again, Goldenvoice likely doesn’t care too much: gross ticket sales for 2016 generated $94 million, and 2017 will likely knock that out of the park. And for all my “things were better in the old days” bitching, the day-to-day experience has immeasurably increased, from the smoother lines at security (if you were trying to sneak in alcohol and/or frowned-upon illegal substances, the faces of the majority of the attendees at night confirmed that my lax experience at the security lines is proof Coachella is more concerned with weapons than that 21-year-old on molly who won’t stop talking to you) to the more structured paths (choke points were at a minimum) and polished production design. Then again, no one is paying $400 face value for an easy walk from their car. The music, and that timeless, irreplaceable location between scenic desert mountains and impossibly lush, manicured fields, remains the prime selling point. And although Coachella has, for all intents and purposes, sold out to major mainstream and EDM acts in an effort to boost the bottom line, from top to bottom its lineup continues to reveal more treasures than few other festivals can top.
A double dose of some power-pop Friday afternoon revealed some new pleasures and some old surprises. The Lemon Twigs had perhaps one of the most fitting guest spots of a weekend stuffed with them when Todd Rundgren came out to cover “Couldn’t I Just Tell You”, a lovely blessing for a band that is just starting to establish themselves as dweeb-pop experts (they’re already opening for Phoenix at the Hollywood Bowl – that tiny typeface on the Coachella poster goes a long way). And as usual, emblems of privileged indie pop Tennis proved that, for all the shade they may get for their songwriting process (two albums from two months-long yacht sailing trips must be nice), singer Alaina Moore remains one of the most beguiling voices in the scene. Now I just need to figure out if she does that ‘70s afro look on purpose.
The fact that the Main Stage at 4:45 in the afternoon felt like watching a show from the vantage of an egg frying in a pan meant my time at Bonobo was shortened, but it was nice to see Rhye come on for “Break Apart” and his full band lineup was superb. Nevertheless, it was an odd stage placement and set time for an artist whose music has tended to work better on a smaller, or enclosed, stage. I skipped the end to check out Seattle pop punk band Tacocat in the new Sonora tent, which was decorated like a Sesame Street club hosted by the Ren & Stimpy and, best of all, included a number of bean bags and couches to relax on. The music itself was lively and fun, if a bit one note. In other words, like every Tacocat album.
Expectations could not be any higher than for a first ever performance on U.S. soil, but The Avalanches delivered and then some with their sunset performance in the Mojave tent. Featuring a full live band with MC Spank Rock, singer Eliza Wolfgramm to augment original members Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi, the band almost effortlessly integrated their sample-heavy production into a seamless live show. The group did start ten minutes late, and Spank Rock’s mic malfunctioned for the first song, but once the group got rolling it was impossible not to get sucked into their energy, heavy on horns, inventive turntabling tricks, and a crack backing group. “Frank Sinatra” live was a treat, as was getting to hear “Frontier Psychiatrist” performed flawlessly after sixteen long years. When the group ended with “Since I Left You,” with Wolfgramm singing that vocal sample with impossibly perfect pitch, I was almost convinced to buy a ticket for Weekend 2 right there.
I must say I was interested to hear how Father John Misty was going to play the new, divisive tracks from Pure Comedy live, but I probably shouldn’t have been surprised what transpired: as usual, Josh Tillman gave little to no fucks and played them with as straight a face as possible, and the new record surprising dominated his setlist. Tillman gave a bit of a shoutout to his old fans with the closing punch of “Hollywood Forever Sings” and “I Love You, Honeybear,” but for the most part it was Tillman playing Pure Comedy with an appropriately deep backing band replete with strings and horns. Most interestingly was the lack of Tillman’s trademark stage banter and entertaining dance moves – the serious artist was perhaps too obviously on display. In other words, whatever your opinion of Tillman is, this set was unlikely to change it.
A little more regular was electro pop group Phantogram pulling out all the stops on the Outdoor Stage for an evening set that had some of the greatest light displays of the night. Three, the band’s new record, has been criticized by some for its mainstream baiting, but they’ve been building up to this sort of crowd-pleasing moment for years, and their confident presence on stage and the dynamic sounds they were able to wring out of their songs live will make them certified headliners in short time. And in any event, they were largely far more entertaining than Tillman was over on the Main Stage, as made clear by the comparatively impressive turn out they drew.
The unexpected highlight of the day, though, was Jagwar Ma’s dance party on steroids in the Gobi tent, where the Australian group put the stunning resources on hand to good use with innovative displays and an intense light show accentuated by the hauntingly beautiful palm trees swaying in the background. When I last saw the band at Los Angeles’ FYF fest this past August, the band’s energy was high but the sound was a watered-down mix of indie rock and Cut Copy-esque electronics. They had no such problems tonight, blasting out chunky riffs and thick, curlicuing bass lines that were the grooviest tracks I heard all day short of the Avalanches. For a band that is still relatively unknown in America, their control of the crowd put following act Little Dragon to shame. While Yukimi Nagano and crew are always a treat live, the new tracks from Season High never really caught on and the band’s verve seemed a little lacking in comparison to the young guns before them.
While the last few times I had seen the xx convinced me that the trio would never really do it for me live, when I caught the back half of their Main Stage set while dining on the most disgustingly simple, yet strangely pleasing mac ‘n cheese of my life (what was surely some sort of fiery nacho cheese melted over lobster and al dente shells for a junk food treat) I was thrilled to hear the band changing things up. Old hits like “Crystalized” and “Shelter” were remixed and updated to get people moving, and Jamie xx’s more house-influenced production on I See You was reflected in the colorful stage design and an unnerving confidence from a band who used to prefer to sing from the shadows. It certainly helped that the new tracks absolutely bounced live.
The story from Day 1 was, of course, the myriad of sound problems that affected Radiohead during their headlining set Friday night. Things started out smoothly, but when the band got to “Ful Stop” off new record A Moon Shaped Pool, the distortion clearly didn’t get along with the speakers before blowing them out entirely, while the band played on not realizing most of the crowd could not hear. That issue was fixed, but after a ripping rendition of “Airbag” the sound cut out again. The band left the stage for five minutes, yet when they came back the sound again failed and the band left for a second time during “Let Down” – an appropriate song for the crowd’s ensuing reaction. Things were eventually put back to normal and the band made amens with a second half heavy on old favorites, like the unicorn appearance of “Creep” to close the main set before an encore that featured “You and Whose Army?”, “Paranoid Android” and “Karma Police.” It’s impossible to tell at this point who’s to blame – I’ve heard that both Radiohead’s tech crew and those on the festival side were at fault, at various points, and Yorke himself blamed it on “fuckin’ aliens” – but it was an unfortunate blight on what should have been a celebratory opening day for the biggest Coachella ever.