Ever since I learned of its existence, the goal was to attend the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
For a long time, I didn't even attend concerts. While I have always loved music, it didn't occur to me that I could see all this lovely music live, and in person, instead of imagining music videos in my head as I walked home. Then once in 2005, I decided to see Bright Eyes and The Faint at the Grand Olympic Auditorium. The seats were awkward, distant, and obstructed by the underside of the mezzanine above, but I've been all about concert hunting ever since.
I've come to believe that any music is made better live, even the ones that don't line up with my taste. It's something to do with the power of loud, the bass resonating with your ribs, and the groupthink adoration of the fans around you. Concerts are brief windows into an upper reality. The best ones have that moving moment where you forget you're in an audience and for a tiny moment a song is an experience.
A music festival? What greater thing could there be in this world? Coachella is the one that stole my heart, over the plain shoe-sponsored mega tour, or the annual radio station brand name ones. Mostly because of the lineups - something for everyone, yet nothing I found repulsive. Partially, it was the idea: A secluded, out of the way, artificial desert town to host the biggest and best names in music, surrounded by ridiculous art installations and themed stages. A concert was a nice night out. I wanted Coachella to be a lifelong memory.
2008 might have been the year if I cared about Jack Johnson or Prince. The lineup had to be beyond solid to make it feel like I was getting my money's worth. 2009 was definitely a stronger line-up for me. Paul McCartney was the biggest headliner, which made it feel like much more of an event. Say what you will about his modern work, but in time having seen him will be a badge of pride. I chose Friday's show, knowing I'd miss out on the compelling Saturday (Fleet Foxes, Amanda Palmer) and the intriguing Sunday (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Okkervil River). Friday didn't just have The Beatle. It had more of my favorite, unseen acts than any other: I could finally witness the searing cynicism and energy of Los Campesinos!, the pounding electric buzz of Crystal Castles, and the cutting edge of Silversun Pickups. The potential of Girl Talk, Beirut, and that prolific musical constant of my brainspace, Conor Oberst (with Mystic Valley Band in tow) played a role in my decision making too.
The sealer of the deal, though, was the idea of seeing Leonard Cohen. He's a folk legend as good as Dylan but not as much fanfare, as evidenced by his billing below Morrissey & Franz Ferdinand. He didn't even tour anymore (although just my luck, he launched one soon after) and here he was, in his old age, but still strong in voice. He did one show, some time before Coachella, in Europe. I looked up a video of it on YouTube singing his classic, ubiquitous "Hallelujah," and it looked like a potent affair. He bellowed melodies with ease and the crowd sang every word. I wanted to be part of that. So I laid down the bill to buy my ticket.
The day came, I drove my hour into the desert, and came upon the otherwise starving city of Indio. It's an interesting place to hold a major music festival. There are other fields just as big, just as capable of accommodating a gigantic crowd, but the Coachella people have always decided to put it here, in this small town far into the desert. Far from the dense population centers, they choose to take us on a trek and take us away frome verything. I imagine it supports the entire economy there.
The thing about Indio is that it is not joking about being a desert. You think that stretch of freeway on the way to Las Vegas is a desert, but no, that's just a lot of dirt. Indio and the surrounding badlands are desolate and dryly scorched, the kind of place people can die of thirst. That's why it's such a shock to walk into Empire Polo Field, where Coachella takes place, and see this perfect stretch of green that goes on into the horizon line. It's like AstroTurf or crab grass or some kind of nature-defiant plant growth. Amanda Palmer calls it an entirely artificial town because of all this mucking with the natural order:
"palm springs, california, is like a huge human postcard to god saying "oh yeah?""
Maybe that's what makes it the ideal venue for a music celebration on this scale.
The first band I lined up to see, which I knew very well could be a highlight for me, was the charismatic Los Campesinos! Coachella came at a perfect time, just as I was at the peak of my Campesinos kick, gobbling up and memorizing heart-exploding tunes like "We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed." The perpetually exclamation-pointed Welsh punksters came out quietly before blasting us with a righteous fury. It was a perfect crowd, we danced and sang together throughout the entire set. During in-between downtime we yelled and screamed. The band dove into the crowd and I patted a shoulder. They climbed stacks of giant amps to tell us, "One blink for yes, two blinks for no," and with fists in the air we ate up every goddamn word. It was only a 50 minute set and the start of the day, but already I had been to one of the best shows of my life.
We waited next on Conor Oberst, but in the meantime, we basked in the non-music going-ons. For example, did you know there is a green-light tinted dome of overprice Heineken? How about a small hut where those over 21 get two free packs of cigarettes? Or an intense variety of food and drink to choose from? In between everything there were huge art installations, handy for landmarks - you could go to your concert companions and split up, knowing that it was easy to meet up after at the towering Tesla Coils, or the inexplicable cube of christmas lights.
Above and beyond them all was the fearsome Serpent Mother. By day, it was a giant metal snake, baring teeth and protecting a giant egg. It was probably the length of two school buses when unfurled. Propped ten feet in the air, above our heads, it was even more awesome. I use that word in the biblical sense. By night, the chrome beast comes to life. Its jaws start to move, and, oh yeah, it's on fire from fang to tail, along its spine. Its presence becomes impossible to ignore, projecting a combination of rage and absurdity. When its mandibles open to end the world, it spits fire.
Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band warmed up what seemed to be the folk stage. Although the guy is a major part of my music listening fandom, I had recently seen him in concert just days before. Thus, I stuck around for a couple of songs and ran off to see Crystal Castles.
This was more like it. While I was vaguely disappointed at the lack of moshing at Los Camp!, Crystal Castle fans made up for it by being completely unruly and refreshingly callous. I stood at the edge of a giant tent, mashed into others, barely able to see the stage. But when the show started, when the electro duo came on stage just a few minutes late, I think everyone lost it. I was no longer a concert goer in a crowd, I was a person being whisked away by the violent current of a river made of people.
Without even trying, I was pushed, shoved, and danced to the front, until I was only a few feet away from the screeching and beautiful Alice Glass. She shrieked indecipherable lyrics over us while we reached to the sky in approval. We jumped and shove and danced as best we could, but there was literally no space, let alone comfort bubble. Those who couldn't handle the flow retreated, giving more air to those of us who didn't give a shit about a bruise or two. I found myself pressed and sandwiched, as I myself pressed and sandwiched. Within minutes at the heart of this monster, you were covered in the sticky film of others.
I left early because I was getting tired and I had an appointment to see other bands. As the sun went down, the field cooled to a more merciful temperature, and I took a brief moment to collapse into the earth post-Crystal Castles. Leonard Cohen was next to the stage.
Although it was his performance that ensured my Coachella going, I had already had such a good time that I didn't mind missing much of the beginning of his set. In fact, I had only started to walk there when I was sure he was singing "Hallelujah." The crowd wasn't singing along like they did in Europe, but it might have been for the better. The lighting was a simple row of yellow and white, blinding the crowd with a harsh wash and turning Cohen into a suited silhouette. I turned around and watched the awed faces of the crowd, varying in age, and then turned to the stage again to join them.
"Hallelujah" is one of the most covered songs and with good reason. It's amazingly well-written, moving, and epic without being overproduced. It chills you whether backed by gospel choir or sung a cappella. Seeing Cohen sing it, even from a distance, added a tinge of once-in-a-lifetime significance to the night.
It was officially night, so we wandered into Beirut's tent. I maneuvered the crowd and got as close as I could. The first thing I noticed was the liveliness of the crowd. Everyone was into it like he was playing dance music. I knew Beirut was good and his shows were entertaining, but I didn't expect people to be getting down to trumpet-laden, somewhat Eastern European jams. Rays of purple and blue lights broke through the stage fog enveloping Zach Condon and I realized his music takes on a different flavor live. It becomes head-banging and hard, like you were hanging off every percussion beat.
Before I knew it, it was time for the main event. Almost every stage ceased performing to allow for the mega-headliner to dominate, with the exception of the distant Metal & Techno/Trance/House stages. I took a nap on the grass somewhere in the middle and stared at the skyward searchlights that met at a central point above the grounds, like a tent of night.
McCartney was a tiny dot in the distance, but he was playing in front of a large graphic screen and on either side were two additional screens the size of god. Despite being something like ninety feet tall, they were crystal clear and sharp with good color and lighting. It must have been an expensive technical marvel.
Here's the thing: When I see a band, I'm somewhat disappointed when they sound just like the CD. I don't want them to be too clean or too spot-on. I like it when they're a little rough, when they change a few words, when they play some different notes. If I wanted them to be perfect, I'd stay at home and play the CD really loudly. With Paul McCartney and his band, they are flawless performers and executors.
Which, on one hand, is really exceptional and impressive. But as I stood there, watching every tap of the guitar string echo out with expensive clarity, it also felt a little fake. Not that they weren't playing their instruments, but if they had just played a studio recording I wouldn't have been able to tell.
So for the first half, I was a bit underwhelmed. The songs themselves were pretty good, well crafted, refined, but almost too polished. I couldn't emotionally connect to it, couldn't forget myself and taste that upper reality. I was watching an HBO concert special, production values and jump cuts and sound edits and all. It didn't help that at first, instead of engaging in human banter between songs, he checked off strange, one line rock concert-isms like, "We are here to rock ... your ... roof!" and the ever popular, "Woo!"
Luckily, things changed. As the night went on, he started hitting the hits, but more than anything it took on a feeling of profound significance. Maybe because it was so long it couldn't feel like anything else other than an event. There was also the impeccable magical quality of the Beatles songbook and the explosion of fireworks during "Live And Let Die." It's hard to pinpoint when or why the mood changed, but it did.
McCartney came back for two encores. I could have sworn it was three, but other Coachella write-ups list it as two. Really, it should have been three, because if any living artist in the entire world is going to have three encores, it's gonna be Sir Paul Fucking McCartney.
Something special happened after the first encore. He had suitably convinced us that the night was over. Even the metal & techno stages had finished their main acts, and the entire festival, save for McCartney's stage, was more or less shut down. So the crowd began to leave. Like sheep being herded, we all started to slowly trudge through the mud and grass towards the single gate in the corner of the field. Thousands of people, spread out, slowly funneling toward one point. Then the man came back on stage with an acoustic guitar and began: "Yesterday..."
We all stopped. Even those leaving other stage headliners like The Crystal Method or Genghis Tron were caught along the way by the familiar chords of "Yesterday." Movement ceased and we watched from where we stood. I turned around, and once again we were all lit by the glow of the stage. At that very moment, thousands of people, scattered all across this massive field were transfixed on one man with one guitar on a big white stage. This is what it's all about. Whether they were a few feet away or a literal mile, people stopped to listen to the famous song, if just for a few minutes.
I drove home that night through the dead desert, dried in my sweat with exhaustion setting in my bones. The music of my car stereo played softly familiar tunes, and it almost seemed pointless. The songs and sights of the day were replayed on a loop in my mind and I thought about that tight connection we make between the substance of life and music, and how those two so often come together.