Coachella - Everything under the sun
The Coachella music festival in the Californian desert has great bands, palm trees and a far greater chance of sunshine than Glastonbury. But then, asks Gillian Orr, what's the fun of a rock festival without wellingtons?
Friday 23 April 2010
Imagine Glastonbury with palm trees, temperatures up to 100 degrees and incredibly beautiful people and there you have the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, where last weekend Jay-Z, Muse and Gorillaz headlined the sold-out event.
For one weekend in April, the sleepy desert town of Indio, California, most commonly known for its large retirement community, keen golfers and wind farms becomes over-run with 75,000 music fans as it is turned into the location for arguably America's greatest outdoor music festival.
Now in its 12th year, Coachella is recognised as the official start to the festival season and while, sadly, a number of bands had to cancel due to volcano-related travel disruptions, there was too much on offer to take any notice of absences. Having had 11 No 1 albums in the US, it's not surprising that the crowd were suitably "psyched" for Jay-Z when he took to the stage on Friday night to perform an energetic and triumphant set. He played plenty of his big hits, including "99 Problems", "Big Pimpin'", "Empire State of Mind" and even included "Wonderwall", which he famously started his Glastonbury set with two years ago after Noel Gallagher said it was wrong to have a rapper headline the traditionally rock-oriented festival. This time he once again couldn't resist a little dig at the Oasis guitarist by claiming to be the bigger rock star. His wife, Beyoncé, also made a surprise (and rather lacklustre) appearance for "Young Forever" toward the end of his set.
Earlier that day Vampire Weekend had played a tight set to a packed crowd, with tracks from both their self-titled debut and their more recent offering, Contra, but their attempts at audience participation fell a bit flat. Gil Scott-Heron, however, got the audience revved up by refusing to play one of his songs unless the whole crowd was doing their bit too. He may look his age, but his voice continues to impress and inspire. Sadly, it was nigh on impossible to get close to the tent that Grizzly Bear were playing in, but Them Crooked Vultures more than made up for it on the main stage.
From the huge crowd that The XX drew, it's clear that the London band are currently big news Stateside. Their delicate and heartbreaking beats especially suited the eerie desert setting, which was made extra special as the sun set while they played. And in a sartorial shocker, the black-loving indie band were dressed in desert-friendly white shirts. Later that evening, Major Lazer, the collaboration between DJs/producers Diplo and Switch, turned their tent into a grimy club night with their fusion of dubstep, ragga, dancehall and club party music. They were joined onstage by acrobats and Chinese dragons for a particularly colourful and atmospheric show that recalled Notting Hill Carnival. Headliners Muse did their usual strong live set but failed to really inspire. Saturday seemed to be hipsters day, with sets from Girls, MGMT, Hot Chip and Dirty Projectors.
On Sunday, Phoenix, who currently enjoy indie royalty status in the States, drew a packed crowd. The Grammy Award-winning French band's set started off well but was eventually let down by bad acoustics. Florence and the Machine did a characteristically impressive live show, with Florence Welch appearing to be another Brit who is doing well Stateside as she had the audience singing along to every track. The cult '90s band Pavement, who reunited to play their first show in ten years last month, were a joy to watch before Gorillaz closed the festival on Sunday night. Sadly, Snoop Dogg had to cancel at the last minute, but he still opened the set by appearing on screen, dressed as Horatio Nelson. Damon Albarn was joined onstage by Paul Simonon and Mick Jones of the Clash, De La Soul and Bobby Womack. Hits like "Feel Good Inc" and "Clint Eastwood" left the crowd thrilled as their world, hip-hop and pop-fused music provided a suitable Colorado Desert soundtrack.
It's no doubt a great experience, but there were a few annoying things that threatened to ruin the fun. America loves rules, but here you are greeted with a huge poster of endless dos and don'ts that apply to you if you are to enter. There are rather annoyingly strict drinking rules, stating that you can only drink alcohol in designated areas and therefore can't drink while watching a band, which, call me a lush, seems to be a stupid rule for a music festival.
This year, more tickets were made available and it felt too busy. There were so many queues, which seasoned Coachella-goers informed me was unusual: queues to get in, to use the bathroom, to get food. The acoustics aren't great either; bands are often not loud enough and sometimes you can hear two sets simultaneously from the five stages that the festival has. There were so many times that a band was playing a tent which you could not get near to, and you had no choice but to move on. This might happen occasionally with a buzz band at a UK festival, but it was a constant problem here. Also, hold on to your friends as there is zero mobile phone reception on site – and wandering amidst packed crowds trying to find your mates is no fun in such extreme heat (speaking from experience here).
It really is a fantastic experience, however. The Empire Polo Field, with its pristine lush green lawns and the mountains as a backdrop, is truly a treat. It's fun to spot big movie stars casually roaming the site, it has a laid back Californian vibe and everything looks so clean. But it lacks the spirit and craziness of UK festivals. Coachella may look great, but give me the grittiness and soul of Glastonbury any day.
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