Coachella: Welcome to the world’s weirdest music festival

This year’s Coachella in the Mojave desert had celebrities and guest spots galore. It also had electronic wristbands, an alcohol ban and a sandstorm

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The Independent Culture

From the moment you step onto site – scrap that – from the moment you leave Los Angeles, from where a significant portion of Coachella’s 100,000 punters hail, it is clear that this festival is nothing like an ordinary festival. The drive from LA to Indio might take roughly the same time as it takes to get from London to Glastonbury, but the wind farms of Palm Springs, the spiky Joshua trees and vast, middle-of-nowhere outlet malls boast a strange grandeur unmatched by Fleet services.

And instead of all piling onto Worthy Farm with the distinct sense of everyone mucking in together, where even those with much-sought-after hospitality passes are happy camping, at Coachella people vie to stay as far away as possible from the actual festival grounds. Sure, pitching a tent is an option, but Coachella hierarchy dictates that hotels across the Mojave Desert are totally booked up by festival-goers, with fashion brands, style blogs and corporate money men hosting daytime parties before maybe, just maybe, the attendees, dazed after drinking daytime daiquiris in 100-degree heat, finally roll down to the Empire Polo Club.

Forget mud: Coachella is situated on an immaculate, manicured lawn, which is luridly lush and green, despite the arid climate. Then there are the draconian drinking rules. At Coachella it is prohibited to walk around the site with a drink in your hand, which means watching bands with nothing more than a bottle of water and an arepa – a kind of Colombian flatbread – on your person. Instead, there are designated drinking areas, vodka-scented cattle pens where security keep a keen eye out for those trying to smuggle booze into the main arena. This unusual approach to alcohol consumption could possibly explain why everyone looks so immaculate. Glossy hair and flawless make-up are standard. There’s a definite Coachella look – denim hotpants, lurid tank tops, floral crowns and more floaty fringe than at a Stevie Nicks convention.

There is a way to work around the drinking dilemma – if you’re willing to pay for it. The VIP area, for which you can buy passes for roughly double the price of the standard $375 ticket, offers a view of the main stage and also contains a number of bars. So you can stay here, tripping over the likes of Aaron Paul, Leonardo DiCaprio, Katy Perry, Florence Welch and Lindsay Lohan, whilst drinking $11 beers and watching Calvin Harris deliver relentless banger after relentless banger. Don’t think you’ll be able to blag it in there, though. Getting into places you shouldn’t is the done thing at British festivals, but here it’s nigh on impossible, as each wristband comes with an electronic tag, and everyone has to beep in and out of each area.

There is ground that is even more hallowed than the VIP area. One step above the VIP pass is the Artist pass, which is in no way restricted to those performing at the festival. The Artist area (behind another three electronic-bracelet check-ins) is where the famous frolic with the weekend’s acts. Ice-cold buckets of beer are stashed by each band’s trailer. Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler was one of the few performers to call out the ludicrousness of the whole set-up. “I just want to say that there’s a lot of fake VIP room bullshit happening at this festival, and sometimes people dream of being there – but it super sucks in there, so don’t worry about it,” he said during his band’s main-stage set on Sunday night.

This year’s Coachella line-up was a mixture of the biggest names in rock and pop (Arcade Fire, Muse, Beck, Queens of the Stone Age, Pharrell Williams, Lana Del Rey, Lorde, Motorhead), electronica and hip-hop acts (Outkast, Nas, Calvin Harris, Childish Gambino, Disclosure, Blood Orange) and the hippest rising stars (Banks, Foxygen, MS MR, Jagwar Mar, Temples). The opening night saw André 3000 and Big Boi reform for Outkast’s first Stateside performance since 2002, culminating with their hit “Hey Ya”, watched by one of the weekend’s biggest crowds. Some felt their set – with its simple production of small backing band and minimal table-and-chairs set up – was underwhelming. Muse headlined the Saturday night, playing a set of typically epic rock anthems, including “Plug In Baby” and “Uprising”.

Prince was rumoured to be hanging out  in the Artist area during OutKast’s headline set – but he wasn’t the only massive name on site. As well as the festival’s performers, some of the biggest stars in music took it upon themselves to make some very Hollywood cameos, which ended up raking in far more coverage than the bands who’d been booked for the event.

Debbie Harry unexpectedly joined Arcade Fire for a performance of “Heart of Glass”, and Beyoncé swung by to join her kid sister, Solange, onstage for “Losing You”, while husband Jay Z also got in on the act, appearing unannounced with Nas for a rendition of “Dead Presidents II”. Slash, Drake, Gwen Stefani, Justin Bieber, Busta Rhymes, P Diddy, Diplo and Snoop Dogg were just a few of the other names to make guest appearances over the weekend, adding to the next-level glitz afforded by situating the festival in the back garden of the world’s entertainment capital.

The glamour factor took a beating on the Saturday evening as a sandstorm hit the site. Not only did it ruin people’s looks, but also the sound, the vibe and the crowd’s view of the bands. Across the festival the big screens were lowered because of the wind and Pharrell complained that the dust was affecting his voice and his show. We could hear who was on stage, but we couldn’t actually see them. Even the VIPs were pulling bandanas over their faces in order not to inhale the grit. The air cleared by the final day, but it’s interesting to note that the most powerful guest this weekend was Mother Nature – not another denim-shorts sporting pop idol.