In its final hurrah, the third day of Coachella’s 2016 attempt ultimately rode its highs and lows far into the Colorado Desert sunset. For most of the day I found myself posted faithfully in front of the Outdoor Theatre, which should always be a must-stop for any seasoned attendee, as it is oftentimes an honest preview of future main stage invites. The Mojave, another stage that always boasts solid lineups, was where my time was spent for the latter half of the day as evening fell and the tent’s glittering structure began its light-show. This is also one of the unsung and often ignored joys of Coachella, as these early slots lack the time conflicts that so often plague headliners. Absent of the anxiety of trying to map out your game-plan around an overwhelming array of artists and bands you need to see (although to be honest, this is also part of the fun), the earlier you get into the festival the more likely you’re to be treated to an unknown gem that could very well become your new cult favorite.
According to Mint Field’s Spotify statistics, a majority of fans of the band’s introspective indie-rock live in Mexico, particularly the nation’s capitol and Tijuana (from which the band traveled to attend the festival). Los Angeles sits close behind at number two, with San Diego and San Francisco trailing behind, but that could all change after their incendiary set at the Outdoor Theatre. A waxing hybrid of Southern California’s delirium of shoegaze outfits and trippy desert rock, Mint Field’s set may have been subject to the cruelties of an early slot and midday heat, but for those wise enough to head in early on day three the trio pulled a modest amount of unaware bystanders. Delightfully unpolished, the shared vocalizations between its female members Estrella Sanchez and Amor Amezcua, as well as the occasional bass quips from Andres Corella, were as charming as they were dreamy. Singed guitar medleys mingled with Amezcua’s muffled poundings while Sanchez’s dusty echoes drew fans into their smoky mirage of noisy clamorings. While relatively unanimated, Mint Field (like the beach goth heroes of SoCal fame) struck a tasteful chord with locals delighted to find their underground genre represented, albeit in the unexpected but welcomed form of a Mexican indie-band.
“I just miss how it felt standing next to you. Wearing matching dress before the world was big,” sang Girlpool in their toneless harmonies from the Outdoor stage. Los Angeles locals, Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad were no strangers to the dust and heat that was kicked-up a notch on day three, but the singer/songwriters mustered up their smiles and eagerly plucked at the forgotten nerves of nostalgia with their imagist poetry turned folk-punk ballads. Both continue to wow with their drummer-less lineup, preferring to shoulder the weight of their whimsical tunes on the back of Tividad’s bass and the duo’s wails (a tough feat accomplished with enviable ease). Their poignant imagism at home in the sunny, palm-dotted paradise of the Empire Polo Fields, the ladies of Girlpool put to rest any naysayers that their emotively folksy tunes were too bare to overtake the festival’s second largest outdoor stage.
The first genre break in the day came from Scotland hip-hop collective and ethnically diverse Young Fathers. One part lo-fi reggaeton and one part adrenaline rushing R&B suppliers, the trio pulled an avant-garde vein of similarity to OutKast, while onstage they jumped from rowdy rap beats to thoughtful crooners in a matter of seconds. Holding tight to the generous crowd that had gathered around the outskirts of sound towers that sat around the Outdoor Theatre, Young Fathers boiled over as curious onlookers found themselves unsure of what they were listening to. To dance or to head-bang, the answer was unclear; but what was crystal was that the verbal inferno the trio tossed between one another onstage was as ravishing as it was intimidating. Give these guys time to cement a few more albums into their repertoire and they’ll be contenders for the Sahara and Main in no time.
Jazz, the newfound genre niche that found itself finally apart of Coachella’s bill, was brought forth in a raving set by Kamasi Washington. Already abuzz on social media and in the music industry, Washington has playing and producing credit on everything from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, to work with Thundercat and Flying Lotus. As such, it’s no surprise that his godly saxophone antics set a fire under the feet of his crowd, one that started at an admirable size and eventually grew as passerby caught the pacifying hum of his ensemble’s red-hot compositions. Dancing and sweating up a tidal wave, it was impossible to stand still and engage in the common half-assed body swaying that abounds concerts and festivals–no, if you were standing in the way of Washington’s tenor, you were going to start grooving in ways you didn’t know you could.
By the end of Wolf Alice’s set, Ellie Roswell, the band’s unapologetic rock crooner, was dripping in sweat as the day’s heat peaked in the nineties. Like The Kills before them, the North London four piece’s bold, female-led melodic take on grunge at first seems better suited for the rowdy club scene. But Roswell’s molten howls burned like kerosene against Joff Oddie and Theo Ellis’ inflamed guitar hooks–from the provocatively off-kilter “Your Love’s A Whore,” to the impetuous percussion rushes and soaring vocalizations of “Bros.” Put a folk-rock band in a garage and light it on fire, that’s what Wolf Alice sounded like as they wrestled the heat with their charred guitar brouhaha. As the hazy wails of “Moaning Lisa Smile” were echoed back to them from the now massive crowd that maddeningly head-banged to the song’s gorgeously caustic riffs, Roswell’s fingers cut like machete’s on her guitar strings as she stared down the setting sun. Their set made their studio recordings appear deceptively tame, because from the edge of the Outdoor stage Wolf Alice’s audacious rock trampling sounded more like stadium-ready anthems.
Watching people leave the main stage with the final notes of Matt and Kim’s “Daylight” and flock to the Outdoor Theatre for Cold War Kids was sight enough to send goosebumps up my spine. I have always had an affinity for Nathan Willet and company, as much of the group hail from my neck of the woods and a few even attended college with one of my former teachers–then there is the fact that their soulful rumination of blues and rock contain the most thoughtful storytelling in music right now. Their short set juggled a healthy array of songs from their newest work of brilliance Hold My Home, along with some oldies but goodies. But as always the Long Beach natives powered through their set with that same nonchalance–to this day I don’t know if it’s a practiced confidence or they’re just naturally lax, Cold War Kids is one of those bands that seemingly wakes up ready to play. It doesn’t matter if they’re at the Observatory or a festival, Willet’s lofty croons cut like a knife, Matt Maust is his usual quirky self grabbing people’s heads as he fingers his bass, Dan Gallucci is jumping on speakers ripping out those blue-eyed riffs, with Matthew Shwartz’s impossible to mimic backing howls and dazzling keyboard romps holding it all together. Between the opening piano thunderings of “Miracle Mile” which had fans roaring hoarsely along and the saucy rhythmics of “We Used to Vacation,” it was easy to find yourself lost in the whirlwind of hits that abound the band’s discography.
French transplants Melody’s Echo Chamber reconfigured the Mojave into a fantastical rhapsody of graceful, neo-psychedelia and cheery dream-pop. Benefiting greatly off the evening’s intimacy, modest groups shuffled into the tent and nestled against the draping curtains as Melody Prochet caressed them with her soft falsetto. A student of Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, with whom the young singer collaborated with on her early work, Prochet has developed an apt for crafting opulent synth hooks and lovingly woozy sense of psychedelia, without overshadowing her pensive lyrics. Her spacy trills filled the Mojave like liquid velvet, and on the gorgeous keyboard whims of “Quand Vas Tu Rentrer,” Prochet’s singing in her lush native-French didn’t need translation to be beautiful.
Much like EDM, the exploitation of rap at major music festivals has led to some disappointing moments (like Drake’s publicity-heavy but relatively hollow Coachella 2015 set). Ice Cube’s appearance Saturday was a thankful exception, bringing out Snoop Dogg and members of N.W.A. to do justice to the children of L.A.’s historic hip-hop scene. Then there was Anderson .Paak and his Free Nationals, who brought out T.I. to perform “About the Money” and “Bring Em Out.” Born into the heart of rap culture in Oxnard, .Paak, like most at the festival, was no stranger to the art form’s SoCal roots. Coarse and chopping through his 90’s stylized rhymes like a razor-edged cleaver, .Paak cut through his narratives with an unrestrained penchant for raw honesty. Free of the sometimes annoying habit some have to jump and flail onstage, breathlessly incoherent and robbing their lines of any steam, .Paak could not only talk the talk but also walk the walk. A true performer, the rapper knew that having hot rhymes was only half the battle and didn’t put up a egocentric wall between fans and him. But while eager to show off the results of cutting his teeth in the studio alongside Dr. Dre, like Kendrick Lamar, the thirty-year-old rapper has an affection for R&B and soul concoctions. Bringing out fellow Coachella performer and blues rocker Gary Clark Jr. the duo traded rhymes and lines for “The Season/Carry Me,” “Put Me Thru,” and “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance.”
Not long after Beach House and Chainsmokers had concluded their sets, you found yourself with one of three choices. If you weren’t already at Sia’s revolutionary vogue set, you could rush over to perhaps catch the last of it and secure a spot for Calvin Harris pyrotechnics, or you could head to Flume over at the Outdoor. While the trail of people moving in those directions was large, an even more impressive amount flooded the confines of the Mojave one last time that weekend for the return of dance-pop collective Miike Snow. One of the few electronic centered groups to retain an ounce of substance (make that gallons) this weekend, heart-wrenching vocalist Andrew Wyatt oozed with charismatic allure as the trio’s lightning rod of danceable emotion radiated through the Mojave. Gushing with more energy than the crowd could absorb, Wyatt, alongside Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg, rekindled the chilled popularity from their hiatus. But if they were in any way rusty, it didn’t show–it was as if the three had been just released from a cryogenic chamber they’d stumbled into back in 2012. Running through hits like “Paddling Out” and “Cult Logic,” Miike Snow’s pop hook were an elixir to wearied fans (who waved green glow sticks that had been thrown into the crowd) looking for a fix to push them through the night. After a sublime performance of a newly remixed version “Heart Is Full,” which featured a live brass section, the trio gave their one-two punch finisher in the form of the blissful “Genghis Khan” (which had fans attempting to reach those thrilling helium notes), and the erratic trumpeting of “Animal.” With the stunted priorities of today’s audiences, people would rather pull out their phones to record than dance to a song, so when a group like Miike Snow can push the entirety of the Mojave tent into a frenzy of graceless but enamored movements of love and soul (not just shallow waving of hands and nodding heads), it’s a truly extraordinary thing to find yourself at the center of.
While still the commercial money making machine it has become–self-evident in its shameless curation of dollar-shitting headliners (Jack U, Calvin Harris), grubby outreaches into fashion, and most egregiously its lousy treatment of early afternoon acts robbed of crowds because fans can’t get in due to poor organization–Coachella remains the premiere festival experience. In its nearly two decades of existence, a fact flashed at attendees from nearly every piece of merchandise with the assertion “since 1999,” Coachella is quick to remind critics (looking at you New York Times) that it has successfully created another world that for two weekends every year exists on another plane of existence. When you’re lost in the middle of it all, swallowed up by the exceedingly elaborate and gorgeous art installations (for which the topper this year was the four massive chairs that sat like skyscrapers at the center of the field), likeminded music lovers, and the singularly crucial melting-pot of genres that is its lifeblood–it’s easy to forget what you don’t like and fall in love with what you do. So while the flower-crowned socialites and stage-spot leeches (people who obnoxiously talk while waiting for the next artist during the current performer), Coachella is as much a microcosm of the state of music culture as it is a macrocosm that has the power to affect it. An ever expanding universe that refuses to stay within the border of technicolor palm trees that accentuate its domain, Coachella is here to stay–and we must learn to live with it, because life just isn’t the same without it.
Words: Steven Ward
Photography: Coachella / Goldenvoice