Concert Review

Coachella from Behind a Lens

A seething, primal mass of humanity jockeys for position in front of the main stage as the Indio sun beats down on Coachella 2010. They have moved beyond the point of patience and civility. Their shattered minds have but one thought as they claw toward the front of the stage: is all of this sweat and effort worth a few photos of The Specials?

You bet your ass it is.

That's right, I'm talking about the photographers of Coachella; the guys and gals behind the scenes (and sometimes blocking your $300 view) seeing it all so you at home can too.

You may think you know the whole story on Coachella after reading a few dozen blog posts on the annual festival, but until you've sweat it out in a security pit with photo gear strapped to your neck, your missing out on some of it... probably 1,000 words worth or so.

Take MGMT's performance on Saturday. Much has been made of the soul-crushing process of entering Coachella, but the folks waiting in the front row for the Brooklyn-based band to play "Kids" were literally crushed. Before the band performed, several kids pleaded with bouncers in front of the barricade to lift them out of the throng and into freedom. They landed on the security side of the barricade dripping in sweat and breathing heavy sighs of relief.

The scene was much the same at Florence and the Machine in the Gobi tent on Sunday. If you showed up early, you enjoyed a crowded but wonderful set. If you showed up late, you probably tried to force your way into the tent via crawling under the side of the canvas. Hell, I attempted this too and if it weren't for the solid wall of legs blocking my path, I would have successfully snuck in.

If you saw Jay-Z on Friday, you know that Beyonce was present and accounted for at Coachella. What you may not know is that she's a Ra Ra Riot fan. At the very least she was hanging out backstage during their set on Friday. Naturally, one of the audience members called out to her in his best mosh pit voice: "Beyonce! I would put a ring on it!" I'm sure she's never heard that one before, dude.

There were tons of folks in the VIP section, but none of them stood out more than Jason Statham. Perhaps it was precisely because he was trying not to stand out, but it was hard not to recognize the action star standing near a polish sausage stand. A comrade asked if she might take a photo of him. He simply said, "No." Not round-house kicking that photographer is why Mr. Statham gets to star opposite Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris gets to enjoy God-like status.

And there are several other tiny details observed from a view finder as we photographers rushed from stage to stage trying to get to the next band before the crowd swallowed us whole. There was the passed out guy still holding a pristine, as of yet unwrapped cigar in his hand. There was the dude dressed up like a banana (who I'm pretty sure is actually from Phoenix). There were audience members speaking Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Russian and several other languages. There were thousands of girls "dressed" in such a way to make their father's blush and thousands of brahs ogling them like 12-year-old boys. There was the photographer "from the largest music magazine in Scandinavia" who was a great guy though very frustrated when he (and several other photographers) were suddenly required to provide a waiver to shoot Them Crooked Vultures.

But every detail I saw from the folks congregating under the giant origami crane on the grounds to the sweat dripping down Thomas Mars' face as the sun set led me to the same question: what draws 75,000 people to the scorching desert to see a bunch of bands play short sets and eat $8 slices of sub-standard pizza?

I mean think about it: It's hot, the lines to get in are disastrous, most of the time you're not close enough to see the bands on anything but the jumbotrons set up on either side of the stage and yet 75,000 people showed.

I wanted to know why, so I asked a girl with a mustache waiting for Them Crooked Vultures to go on. She said she came to see her favorite band and in this case, that meant Them Crooked Vultures. A simple answer, right? But perhaps not the whole truth.

No, her mustached face betrayed a different answer entirely as the Vultures took the stage. She sang along knowing every word and every inflection. Her eyes photographed this instant in time as though she was claiming it for herself. She was worshipping at the altar of rock.

Coachella is a pilgrimage or religious proportions full of trials to prove your faith. What drives us through the three-hour parking process, the blistering hear, the multitude of churro carts that make it even harder to walk around is that one moment. That brief instant when a breeze sweeps by at the same moment that you're favorite guitarist hits that high point in that guitar solo that you've sung along to millions of times alone in your car. That moment when you claim a little bit of Coachella for yourself.

So what moment did you bring back, Phoenix?

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Jonathan McNamara