Rather than a self-serving play by play of my weekend bouncing around Empire Polo Fields from show to show, “I saw DJ Shadow and he killed it, and then we went to see Little Dragon, and she looked and sounded amazing, etc.” For the record, he did kill it and she was amazing, but nobody wants to read that review any more than I want to write it. Instead, I’ve opted to represent the weekend with a few moments that shape a kind of narrative that illustrates what a music festival is and what that experience can mean. To me. And hopefully in some measure to you as well, whether you were there or not.
Year in and year out, there’s a small portion of the overall festival grounds at Coachella that gives me nearly everything I need and want, and this year, I learned that area has a name, “The Terrace.” If you look at the map (link), you’ll see it occupies roughly the lower left quarter. That lower left quarter is essentially where all the magic happens, and includes the Yuma tent, DoLab’s festival within a festival, Spicy Pie (and a bunch of other standard food vendors as well as food from ‘real’ LA chefs), the Antarctic Dome, and the Sonora stage. Last year the Terrace included the incredible Despacio sound system. The Terrace holds all the literal and figurative sustenance I need for those three days.
Sure, you won’t be able to see Kendrick or Gaga or even Phantogram, but if you happened to miss Richie Hawtin at Mojave, like a certain somebody writing this may have, then you would have had a second chance with his surprise DJ set later that night. If you wait around long enough, I guess they start coming to you.
The Terrace also happens to house the only stages (two this year) with A/C, as well as the Antarctic Dome which lives up to its name…in that it’s cold, but not as cold as it used to be, and also in that there’s a lot of melting going on up in there.
The Antarctic Dome
It would make me incredibly happy if a video, any video, could convey the power of the sophisticated technology that HP and Intel put into that dome, so you could see, hear, and feel the ebb and flow of the presentation. To be laid out in the desert (literally and figuratively) at the beginning of the video, tribal drumming coming from all sides, then thrust through the depths of space, of consciousness, of time, hopping through dimensions, all while the threat of heatstroke slowly fades away.
It should come as no surprise when I say that a lot of people do a lot of drugs at music festivals, and a lot of people seem to ‘go big’ when the festival is similarly large. In short, lots of folks get good and wasted at Coachella, and what better place for hallucinogenically-advantaged people to expand and/or lose their mind than in an interstellar micro/macro computer journey in a dome? That’s a rhetorical question. There is no better place. It was insane and I overheard a lot of conversations where somebody insisted without a doubt that it was a different presentation every time, that the movie was more like a living, adapting organism than a static film playing from reel to reel over and over. Take it from somebody who camped next to it for four days, it was the same. The only thing that changed was you, the drugs you took, where you were on your trip, and the lack of water in your system. Still…it was pretty nice, wasn’t it?
Every time I think about DoLab, about how to write about it so that I convey properly the experience at that stage, all I can come up with is, “I LOVE DOLAAAAB!!!”
Then I think, do I really need to expand on that? No, but also probably…
DoLab is a stage with its own lineup, put on by the people behind Lightning in a Bottle and Symbiosis, who bring their own beautiful stage and incredible vibes to party in the desert with Coachella. DoLab is also where some of my favorite moments of Coachella past occurred, from Bonobo’s weekend one closing set two years ago, to Rufus Du Sol’s surprise set last year, they put a lot of work into making the space really special, and it shows.
This go round, the high point was easily Justin Martin’s set late Saturday afternoon. I was fortunate enough to be on the back of the stage during his set and I don’t think I’ve ever felt such positivity as I did up there. He operated barefoot, bouncing from foot to foot, never once still during his set. Every so often, he’d do a slow dancing turn around and dance with whoever was behind him, before completing the turn to face the crowd again. I don’t believe it would have been humanly possible to hold still in that moment. It feels like Justin Martin hit his stride last year and he’s been at his peak ever since. His set was like watching Magic or Jordan in their prime, and the Beacon was the perfect place to showcase it.
The Beacon is DoLab’s newest creation, replacing the “Big Fish” from the past two years, and serves as a kind of sampler of their own festival, Lightining in a Bottle. The atmosphere that the people of DoLab cultivated of overwhelming positivity, open arms, and taking care of the people and the space around you pushes it, year over year, to the front of the line at Coachella. It’s also the perfect bait to attract new attendees to Lightning in a Bottle.
Justin had help, too, from fellow Dirtybird Will Clark, who tore ass through house, drum and bass, and some shit I struggled to categorize, but not to dance to. The crowd was amped up and ready to go by the time Justin hit the stage, and he kept it going llke a champ.
It’s great to see big names on this little stage as well, not just because it can be difficult to get up from in the big tents, but the performers seem to switch things up a bit as well. DoLab is a little different than Coachella, so I guess it follows that the sets played there are likewise switched up. Richie Hawtin’s surprise set was mostly techno, sure, but it wasn’t entirely techno, and it wasn’t all his. The same went for Netsky on Sunday night, who played an abundance of house to go with his chest-rattling drum and bass. When he dropped Sigma’s remix of Route 94’s ‘My Love,’ I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. But I know I didn’t die. If I had, I think I’d still be under the Beacon at DoLab…
Coachella does what any good music festival does, and transcends from “a bunch of shows happening close together” to a fuller experience, something that helps relieve you from real life and informs you about what is important when you get back to reality. I don’t just remember the big performances, I also remember going to get coffee with Jimmy and coming back with some abomination called a Monkey Mojo, and my relief when I looked over at Travis and found he’d also been watching the one-armed Jedi at Hot Since 82, happy that I didn’t have to sit and wonder if what I’d just witnessed was real. I will also cherish the time I spent crafting with Chris and Everett in the arts and craft tent. Not only for the awesome Princess Di button I made, but also because of the incredible DJ slinging a soul squeezing run of 90’s hip-hop and R&B. Girl, I don’t know who you are, but the world needs you to keep doing what you’re doing. In all seriousness, that set is in my top ten performances of the weekend.
A Jedi What?
Hot Since 82‘s set in Yuma was a thing of legend, and one of those transcendent moments where the music makes you feel elsewhere and like you may be on another planet, but that’s cool, because this song is amazing.
There’s a lot to look at in Yuma. Six disco balls hang in a row from the ceiling, capped off at the end, just in front of the booth with a disco shark. Around the perimeter are about 20 spotlights that dance around the room and occasionally converge on the disco balls to create a blinding display of light. There are also several heart-shaped lights on the walls and a spread of string lights behind the booth. It’s busy. But instead of watching any of the light show, I found my gaze drifting back to the couple about ten feet in front of me and my friend. At first, it was a fairly typical scene at an electronic music show: a high-ponytailed blond in neon bandage bikini, leg wraps with built-in lights with her completely ripped and shirtless alpha male boyfriend. He pulled out a set of gloves and started giving people light shows, his hands twirling, circling, pairing and splitting in time with the music. Once he was done, the girl would step in and offer gum and a stream of mentholated air from a Vick’s stick as boyfriend massaged their scalp. At first, I thought they were like a full-service rave shop, but then I figured they were just trying to be a good Rave Dad and Rave Mom.
Then came the glovee with his own light show: a high-quality lightsaber replica that he’d somehow snuck into the festival. For whatever reason, he insisted on holding it up between his face and boyfriend’s while he got his glove show. By the look on boyfriend’s face, he was clearly annoyed when the lightsaber kept slipping from the Jedi’s grip and slap against his face. He got through the light show, though, and pulled away rubbing his eyes. The Jedi had a lady with him as well, who couldn’t have been more than 4’10 if that. The two couples chatted for a bit, then the Jedi held his lightsaber up in their air and began waving it in small circles, in what appeared to be an attempt to draw in the drug-addled people throughout Yuma, and maybe a few Star Wars fans. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to find that it worked. Like really well. Sweaty, googly-eyed, slack-jawed kids flocked to the glowing sword, and they’d undergo the full treatment from Mom and Dad. It was weird, it was awkward, and it was pretty much impossible to look away.
Except the next song that came on was HS82’s remix of Joe Goddard’s ‘Music is the Answer,’ and I was enraptured. I was elated. I was in heaven. It is a beautiful rendition of the song in a recording, but live was a hundred times better. For those seven or eight minutes, I bathed in bliss. He could have kept going forever. I wish he would have.
Mom and Dad worked through the throngs of people flocking towards them, helping each other out along the way, and eventually, they gave each other a light show, a scalp massage, and ended the show with a kiss. It was sweet, but still weird.
The Lazarus Effect
Music is a powerful drug. It’s an upper, downer, hallucinogen, sedative, dissociative, you name it. Even when you suffer heat stroke like some kind of amateur on day ONE of the festival, and you have to go back to camp to rehydrate, change out of the clothes you emptied the entirety of your sweat glands into, and in the end, just lay down for a time, right in that moment where you think you might be down for the count. Friday’s clearly a wash at that point, right? Staring up at the top of my tent, bleary-eyed, feeling like I’d been run over, head aching just sitting there, with sharp stabbing pains every time I tried to get up, coupled with lowering temps made a very strong case for going to bed. For giving up. For literally rolling over.
Given the fact that Yuma, an enclosed tent, was easily a thousand feet away, wrapped in the ambient noise of four stages pointed directly at it, on top of the noise from the campers around me…given all that, it would have been impossible for me to hear Bicep start their set, so it definitely wasn’t the sound that called out to me.
Me, then: a forlorn potato chip, the entirety of my bodily moisture lost to the intense heat and a raging headache rolling over me like a storm cloud. I laid there feeling helpless, crippled by the rising wave of pain. Yet something drew me up to a sitting position, then to change my clothes, and eventually to my feet and walking in. Security took one look at me and allowed me to walk through unabated.
I felt as though I was walking through soup with slow, deliberate steps, everything muted and hazy, as if from a distance, until I finally reached the forgiving darkness of Yuma. I walked along the series of A/C outputs along the right wall and deposited myself near the stage.
I stood in place for a time as my senses gradually cleared up and I sort of came to, and really heard the music for the first time. “I know this song,” I thought to myself, and then, “Hey, I love this song!” More cobwebs cleared. The disco shark spun idly and seemed to pause ever so briefly when its eye aligned with me. I nodded back without realizing it. I wasn’t just standing anymore, I was moving, which gave way to all out dancing. It felt holy, that moment, my heart beating in 4/4, my dopey size 13’s trying to keep up, and I felt a belonging and togetherness rare to me. Life can feel cold and lonely, and it’s incredible how being in a room with strangers and music can smooth all of that out. I don’t believe in god, but I believe in music.
Just like that, it was over, and for whatever reason, Dixon just wasn’t cutting it. My headache returned, then doubled down when I stepped back into the sun. After trudging back through the soup to camp, I collapsed in a heap in my tent.
I’d come full circle back to my whimpering, pain-stricken state. I felt empty. In the distance, I heard Sarah Barthel of Phantogram‘s voice from all the way back at the Outdoor Stage. I love the shit out of Sarah Barthel. She’s my spirit animal’s spirit animal. But I just couldn’t make it happen. I felt a guilt in waves and pangs, but it wasn’t enough. I issued whispers of apology to the wind and hoped they carried back to her as I slowly drifted out of consciousness.
A short time later, I flopped back into a rather murky version of a conscious state, reaching out from my brain out to my fingertips to figure out which way was up and what I was going to do. Again, the question was answered for me. The songs from the xx‘s first album are beautiful, and it was one of those songs that compelled me to my feet. Again, it was as if I was being pulled along by a string that miraculously led me right to my friends in the middle of the main stage crowd.
The trio wandered through their catalog as Oliver wielded his bass like a drunken lumberjack trying to hoist an entire tree by one end, Romy mostly hopped in place, and Jamie head nodded back and forth across his console from drum machine to sampler to actual drums. The high point came with the transition into Jamie’s ‘Higher Places’ where Romy and Oliver traded singing the looped vocal parts and a little slow dancing together. Jamie worked in the Hall and Oates track “I can’t go for that” while stuttering at the chorus to bridge into “On Hold.” My headache was gone, my fever had lifted, and I was absolutely ecstatic.
I missed the Kendrick train for a long, long time. It wasn’t until I was falling asleep late at night a couple years ago, and somebody put m.a.a.d. city on and I was blown away. How did I miss this? I blew him off on a couple occasions and didn’t think much of it. Then imagine how excited I was that he was headlining this year. Then imagine my confusion when I was standing there watching Kendrick how I just wasn’t feeling it. That wasn’t what I needed at that time, and it wasn’t how I wanted to close out my Coachella. I felt conflicted and wasn’t sure what to do next. Then I checked my phone and found out Rufus Du Sol was announced as the surprise set at DoLab. There was my answer. I’ve seen Rufus play four live sets and two DJ sets in the past year, so I knew there wouldn’t be anything new to me, but like a broken-in pair of shoes, it just felt right.
Funny enough, they were playing “You Were Right” as we walked up, so it seemed the universe and/or a small contingent of Australians agreed with me. Rufus is a smile, Rufus is aural sunshine, Rufus is some kind of relief. The group’s music and attitude are perfectly compatible with the folks at DoLab, and the positive energy at the Beacon, it’s light funneling up into the night sky one more time, all felt like a perfect send-off for an amazing weekend. Thanks for the soft landing back into reality, fellas. To everybody back at camp that night, thank you for the epic glow stick battle. Coachella, thank you for making it all possible.
I work, live and play in Minneapolis.
I try to tell the story of the people that create music and experiences through pictures as well as through words.