Much like everything in or near L.A., the Coachella throng stays out far longer than you anticipate and rises much earlier than you can comprehend.
After a late night of Gambino magic and Cardi B cameos, I expected the crowd to sleep in, letting music-soaked dreams sort out the best moments of Day 1. Then, at 6:55 a.m., I got up, prepped to beat the shower rush, and found a line extending down the block. Coachella is a lifestyle. You may or may not appreciate the more vapid facets of its expression, but make no mistake: Those who come to the festival work to do it right.
The power is blown in the Camping Center at about 9 a.m. on Saturday, after some genius plugs a power strip into the charging station to charge two phones and a backup battery. The crowd confusion is palpable and at least a little funny. Part midmorning haze, part-incomprehensible inconvenience, jilted teens with hands full of useless technology look around for Shazam to appear.
Once it’s charged though, the tech is great. I used the Coachella mobile app AR overlay to find a toilet without looking around for giant “Restrooms” signs (I assume this is its primary purpose). It also lets you place Postmates Pickup orders for food in case you cannot be bothered with the minimal lines for food vendors on literally every free square inch of the grounds. All the solitary, tunnel-vision joy of the livestream, now available for physical attendees.
For the isolationists, the place to be at Coachella is the Sonora stage, an air-conditioned, dimly lit sanctuary on the corner of the organized grounds before the dueling sprawls of the Outdoor and Coachella stage lawns. On Saturday, Sonora was the place to find the unexpected gems.
Early in the day, the Messthetics (Joe Lally and Brendan Canty of Fugazi, plus guitarist Anthony Pirog) played a riveting set for a meager crowd hungry for riffage. Pirog threw down some of the best guitar work of the weekend without even blinking.
Later in the day, U.K. post-punk act Shame took Sonora by storm. Frontman Charlie Steen has studied carefully at the throne of Johnny Rotten. Punting half-full water bottles across the chasm of the room as the crowd forms a small circle pit in front of the stage, you know he’s playing the part well. Meanwhile, during “One Rizla,” bassist Josh Finerty broke his bass strap and decided the easiest way to sing his backing vocal would be to just knock the mic stand down and sing from the floor.
Sets at DoLab require little to no turn time, so in turn, it acts as a sort of drunk tank for attendees with little conviction beyond dancing with friends and doing exorbitant amounts of cocaine. This is a shame, as the DoLab stage played host to some of Saturday’s biggest moments. DJ Seinfeld played a riveting set in the early evening, sprinkled with housed-up renditions of classics like “Ain’t No Woman.” Later in the evening, Diplo returned for a surprise Major Lazer DJ set, bringing out a cornucopia of collaborators. Given Diplo’s recent announcement to end Major Lazer after this year, this set feels more important than the due it was given by this crowd.
One DJ given his fair share today: Virgil Abloh. The hypebeast horde flocked to the Mojave stage like a bug light. The fashion icon of Off-White and Louis Vuitton fame has nursed a DJ career in parallel, as seen on Instagram and other places to showcase skills and interests possessed to an incalculable degree. In this moment, he had a true Ozymandias moment, looking upon his work in the form of high-end streetwear abounding.
This provided fascinating contrast to the stage’s next DJ, Four Tet, who killed all the lights and spun in almost complete darkness, as if to exonerate the crowd from their burden of presentation. On the other hand, he did play that new Dog Blood (Skrillex & Boys Noize) single with Ty Dolla $ign, as if to say, anything can happen.
The brand presence on the festival grounds at Coachella is at times baffling, other times highly entertaining. Heineken’s stage buried in the back exclusively hosted The Roots and De La Soul, while offering their attendees samples of zero percent alcohol Heineken. The HP-Antarctica theater hosts an immersive new RÜFÜS DU SOL music video, which plays out like a fixed seat version of Disneyland’s Soarin’ Over California attraction.
People cheered for it the same way, too, like there was someone listening. Biggest bang for your buck: Pantene is doing hair styling all weekend. For a camping-centric festival, this could be a real gift for those with little room in their camping setup and want a fresh look for their favorite artist/photo-op.
Calvin Klein hosted a particularly cool exhibit where you walk through a well-manicured house and pose in an interactive bathtub photo op. My wife and I walked through the exhibit with CK-drenched young women in front and behind us in line. As the women in front of us got into the ball-pit bathtub, the photographer reached for a Polaroid, saying that they would put them up in the house as the weekend went on.
As they left and my wife and I got in with our Indiana Jones-style safari hats and indie rock t-shirts, the photographer kindly offered to use our personal phones to take the shot instead. “Cuuuuuute,” whispered the 20-year-olds behind us, with serpentine charm. Hey, I get it – those Polaroid frames don’t come cheap nowadays.
All this to say, it was mind-boggling walking to and fro from the Mojave Stage back towards the main stage (both loaded today) to see the same 50-deep line on both sides of Google Pixel AR exhibit while hours and hours passed. Aphex Twin’s first Coachella performance in over a decade is melting the brains of attendees right beside, and no one in the line bats an eye. Inasmuch, it’s exemplified how all-encompassing Coachella’s draw is for its constituents. For most, the music is only a singular facet of the experience, no matter how historic.
Speaking of historic, J. Balvin. The Columbian singer returned to the Coachella main stage this year after a “Mi Gente” cameo during Beyoncé’s set last year, but this time, the stage was definitely his own. His set marks the first main stage reggaeton set in Coachella history.
“It took us 15 years to be here,” Balvin said to his massive crowd, introducing himself and asking the Latino members of the crowd to make themselves known and heard. The cheer was resounding. Balvin then proceeded to burn through a medley of reggaeton all-timers, just because. “Oye Mi Canto”, “Rakata”, and “Gasolina” set the crowd completely on fire.
Rosalía joined Balvin on stage for a victory lap of “Con Altura”, while Sean Paul joined him later for “Contra La Pared”. Notably, Balvin performed Cardi B’s “I Like It”, not with Cardi B (here Friday with DJ Snake) or Bad Bunny (here Sunday both weekends on the main stage), but with big head dancer renditions of both.
The visuals were colorful and vibrant beyond anything the weekend had seen so far: a parade of balloon animals, a giant toy duck-horse for Balvin to ride around on pushed by cloud dancers. By the time Balvin reached his crowning moment of “Mi Gente”, the crowd was in sugary overload.
• Weezer brought on Tears for Fears to do “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” and Chilli from TLC for “No Scrubs”. Together with Toto’s “Africa” (Toto not present), this made The Teal Album the second-most represented Weezer album of the evening, behind their debut. With a set leaning heavily into their early catalogue (only one non-cover from the last decade) and an ominous note from Rivers that “This might be the last time we play Coachella,” the crowd was left to wonder. But the pyrotechnics on "Hash Pipe" and "Say It Ain't So" put all worries out of mind for tonight.
• Billie Eilish brought out Vince Staples to perform “watch / &burn”. Mac DeMarco watched Ty Segall & White Fence from side stage at the Outdoor before his own set, where he nearly had a heat stroke (“We all had big bowls of oatmeal right before we came onstage,” said guitarist Andy White).
• Finally, Kid Cudi brought out Chip tha Ripper for “Just What I Am”. With his massive Sahara tent crowd and a crushing crowd pinch point towards the exit, his “Keep movin’ forward,” during Kids See Ghosts track “Reborn” felt more like an airport PSA than a single.
But despite all hype and commotion, Saturday’s most notable set came and went in almost complete obscurity.
Aphex Twin’s Mojave stage closing set was designed head to toe to leave you with your senses torched. The electronic producer returned this year to Coachella after more than a decade away. In that time, Tame Impala (as noted by Kevin Parker on stage that night) played Coachella four times. It’s immense to think about how much has transpired in electronic music since that last performance from Richard D. James, how it is perceived in the public eye, and how much in the last 11 years mainstream pop has looted its storehouses for inspiration. Even still, the godfather of the genre still feels as visceral and necessary as ever.
James’ music is simply in an untouchable league of its own, and getting to see it live alongside so many disciples (of varying levels of discipline) is a truly incomparable experience. James’s visuals moved fluidly between his trademark motifs: face replacement, Syro-style noseless portraits, and cerebral heat maps. One segment of Syro-faced celebrities in almost subconscious flashes on the dozen or so screens surrounding the booth felt particularly on point for the Coachella setting. Mixing that with a heat map of the actual crowd, and all of it strobed to oblivion, Aphex’s set was pure overload, and a good reminder of James’s electronic standard, almost three decades running.
The crowd at Aphex was an interesting mixture. The dedicated moved up and tight to the stage to let blinding light and pounding music do their magic at a full dose. Further back in the crowd, it was an honest mixture of casual stage surveyors and those honestly confused about what they were looking at. Here, once again, is a great picture of how Coachella shows off its magic: an opportunity for the dedicated to find treasure in the desert, and a weekend for the work-weary to escape into an unworldly place they hardly understand for themselves.
Either way, it’s an experience hard to imitate elsewhere.