“We’re very excited to be here tonight,” Grizzly Bear’s Ed Drost said to an ocean of fans Friday at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
“LCD Soundsystem, Jay-Z, Fever Ray … Is it too much?” he asked with a grin.
The answer turned out to be yes, actually. The January announcement of the festival’s notably rich 2010 lineup had been the talk of music blogs and magazines for months.
Unsurprisingly, over 75,000 people snatched three-day passes, selling out the festival just days beforehand. In spite of capacity concerns from festival veterans, event organizer Goldenvoice seemed more than happy to open the gates to the largest weekend audience the festival has ever brought together.
The sun hung low in the air Friday, baking the Empire Polo Fields with radiation as the early birds trickled in, filling the stages faster than at previous festivals.
When P.O.S. entered the Gobi tent at 1:25 p.m. to deliver a rousing set of hip-hop, the crowd was already spilling out of the tent’s side entrances. The Minneapolis rapper, visibly stunned by the human sprawl, thanked the audience profusely for its attendance.
This sort of shock became a motif throughout the weekend.
Boston electro-pop outfit Passion Pit was similarly surprised to see the size of the crowd that had assembled in the Outdoor Theatre to hear the band’s set in the coveted sunset slot Friday evening. Vocalist Michael Angelakos remarked that the crowd was the largest the band had ever played to. The turnout seemed to invigorate the band, fueling the members to a fist-pumping finish.
The energy in the fields grew throughout the night. Grizzly Bear gave the tracks of Veckatimest new life under sinister green lights, LCD Soundsystem brought its disco punk dance party to the Main Stage and Fever Ray unleashed her tribal electronica upon the Mojave tent near midnight with demonic costumes and a frightening laser show to enhance the experience.
By Saturday, the excitement brought on by the large crowds began to crumble into mass frustration. Festivalgoers became visibly confrontational, pushing their way toward the stage barriers as early as 4:25 p.m., when indie poster kids Beach House showcased its icy dream pop in the Mojave tent.
While polarizing alt-rock veterans Coheed and Cambria and Faith No More took the main stage, the Outdoor Theatre again drew a growing audience as Pitchfork darlings the xx and Hot Chip delivered respective sets of atmospheric sex rock and funky electronica.
As the sun disappeared behind the mountains, The xx’s Oliver Sim pointed to the main stage where a small fire had broken out, already releasing a stream of black smoke into the sky.
After dark, the experience of navigating between stages began to feel like being an extra in Spartacus. With tens of thousands roaming the grounds — not to mention the throngs of ketamine-eyed teenagers splayed on the grass outside the Sahara tent as trance D.J.s Kaskade and David Guetta pounded away — the act of simply drifting from Muse’s melodramatic, distortion-heavy headlining set on the main stage to Devo’s New Wave throw down in the Mojave tent was an act of remarkable physical endurance.
On Sunday morning, Indio coffee shops were packed with concert attendees, visibly exhausted and storing up energy for the final day, headlined by Damon Albarn’s much-hyped Gorillaz project. Once again, the Outdoor Theatre became a mob scene by sunset, as Sigur Ros frontman Jónsi began the night with a deeply moving set of songs, his cherub-like vocal highs piercing the warm air with aural beauty.
French rockers Phoenix followed with an infectiously fun set, playing heavily from its recent pop masterpiece Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Frontman Thomas Mars leapt into the euphoric crowd twice along with several inflatable animals.
The night — perhaps even the festival — ultimately belonged to Thom Yorke. Under tubes of light and backed by his supergroup Atoms for Peace (boasting Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, among others), the Radiohead frontman played from his solo album The Eraser, giving the songs incredible passion and diverse emotional power.
As if his first set were not enough, Yorke returned to the stage after 10 p.m. for an encore of Radiohead favorites “Airbag” and “Everything In Its Right Place.”
Gorillaz, with lackluster energy and unimaginative video-screen animation, paled in comparison, playing to a largely bored crowd.
Without transcendent sets from artists like Yorke and Fever Ray, the weekend would have been nothing more than a failed experiment in crowd control. Coachella has clearly outgrown its independent roots, but in order for the festival to preserve its friendly communal atmosphere, serious revisions need to be made. If Goldenvoice is unwilling to sell fewer tickets, then perhaps a larger grounds or even a sixth stage might be in order.
However the event organizer decides to address its capacity issues, the future of the festival will hang in uneasy balance for those that remember its more pleasant years.
2010’s overselling of the event is a dangerous step toward the reckless commercialization that made Woodstock ’99 a disaster.
Unless such problems are addressed by the festival organizers, it won’t be long before someone gets seriously hurt.
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