Coachella: Music, Culture and…Phones

The resurgence of American music festivals over the past decade seems inversely correlated to the fate of the global music business. It is, however, the best possible microscope through which to observe the technologically-enabled metamorphosis occurring in modern culture.

Coachella is perhaps the most important of these events, for a few core reasons, and provides the perfect ground zero for my annual state of the union on the landscape of our increasingly social and ubiquitously connected digital world. For starters, it is the first major U.S. festival of the year, as well as being one of the oldest–with the first taking place a dozen years ago when it was still a two-day affair–and its roots lie in the burgeoning world of indie rock and electronica, despite the fact the every year the headliners seem to grow bigger and broader. This year the festival managed to sell out pricy three-day-only tickets within five days, thanks to Kanye, Arcade Fire and Kings of Leon, and although this creates–at its peak–nearly impenetrable 80K crowds, it also generates mass audiences for most of the 190 some-odd bands that will someday be able to look back at Coachella as a kind of credible tipping point.

For many, the grassy desert oasis is a three-day party attended by an almost bizarrely well-behaved crowd, bookended by a handful of bands that have already been validated by the Grammy-watching masses. But as with each of my prior pilgrimages, I approached the weekend with a kind of surgical precision, beginning with the building of a curated schedule, which can now be accomplished by downloading the still rather primitive Coachella app to your phone. I mention this because for those who don’t see much live music, increasingly what you witness as you stare toward today’s stages is a cascade of sleek black smartphones pointed at stages, or the backs of heads buried into phones blasting out texts, tweets, statuses, and ever more sophisticated photo streams. In other words, phones are very much a part of the live experience.

When I look back over the past four years at the way I have chronicled and shared my personal experiences, it has gradually evolved. In 2008 there were a handful of blog posts, MMS photos, and individual texts and emails catalogued sloppily across the still-nascent and less-connected social graph. In 2009, my phone was better, Facebook was bigger, and Twitter was growing. That year, trying to be a judicious, non-polluting reporter, I tended only to post the truly epic performances (Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses, etc.). I did this largely using Twitter, which I pushed to Facebook for maximal efficient coverage. I can revisit my Coachella experiences of last year by rereading my real-time, band-by-band, set-by-set trail of digital crumbs left by a combination of Foursquare check-ins and primarily text-only tweets (SMS to Twitter, due to choppy mobile service). In 2011, however, without much foresight, my play-by-play was published exclusively using Instagram photos, with a varied palette of filters depending on time of day, distance from stage, state of mind, etc. After I snapped my first picture, it just made sense to stay consistent. The other new addition to my repertoire was the group texting pod we set up to communicate with the 10 people in our party. There are a couple to choose from: Groupme, which leverages SMS, and Beluga (recently acquired by Facebook), that operates from a sleek mobile app. The concept here is simple. Instead of sending multiple threaded text messages, you send one message that publishes to small hand-selected groups usually in and around events.

This new breed of apps represents a rather beautiful kind of evolution. Not so long ago, each of the developing platforms had a very specific use case: Twitter was for text and links, Facebook for text status updates and photos, Foursquare and Gowalla for geo-based check-ins, and Flickr for photos. Now everything is seamless, and a user can publish to the interconnected social web using almost any of these services to do everything all at once.

Returning to Instagram, my tool of choice of 2011. For every set I would snap a photo using one of the 15 or so different filters, write an occasionally clever note on the band, and add a stage location. Each of these posts would appear first to my Instagram network, then push to Twitter, which would then bounce to Facebook. Each of the core services (Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare) now allows users to take and share a photo, text some narrative, and add location, thus the decision really becomes about where you decide to start your own publishing chain.

For the first time in four years, I managed to take in most of the Friday Coachella line-up, which in many ways was the thinnest day of the three day line-up but still rock solid, optimizing for the real masses who tend to arrive that night. As such, with the sun beating dryly down on the mercifully flat green polo field, LA’s all-girl Warpaint set the tone with a groovy, almost Luscious Jackson feeling set of head-bobbing indie rock to a thick but comfortable crowd of global hipsters. Looking back, this would be one of a handful of emerging bands that left a real lasting impression.

Day one would also have a very specific 80s new wave arc to it, in retrospect. From the twee pop of Pains of Being Pure Heart, reminiscent of the underappreciated Sarah Records bands of a bygone era, to the synth heavy jams of Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti–complete with funny hairstyles and John Hughes sweetness–to the more angular dance vibe of YACHT, the afternoon was a nostalgic trip through my adolescence, all performed in the more intimate shaded tents providing shelter from the rays. There is simply nothing like the sweeping relief you feel in the late afternoon moving out of the tents and into the setting sun and open air of the Outside Stage framed beautifully by the backdrop of palm trees against the surrounding mountains. Australia’s Tame Impala played another of the day’s best sets with their psychedelic guitar-driven melodies that exist somewhere between a subtler Verve and rockier My Bloody Valentine, again playing into a broadly 80s theme.

Night fell with the largely two-piece Black Keys, playing the bluesiest tunes of the festival and doing a remarkable job acoustically filling the night sky to a massive crowd. It is hard for me not to root for the much-deserved success of my original hometown heroes. From there, amidst the comfortable temperature of desert night, Aussie band Cut Copy played a tent full of uber-optimistic electronica. The VIP oasis off the main stage provided exactly the right environment to observe the masses lap up the radio-friendly area rock of Kings of Leon. Kids love ‘em. I am, sadly, no longer a kid.

Day two, again hot and cloudless, evolved toward the modern, leaving the 80s behind in favor of a post-modern eclecticism. Another handy consequence of a connected festival is that a quick visit to Pitchfork or Wikipedia on your phone can provide all the context you need to make sense of the music being discovered that you would otherwise know very little about. It began with another one of my favorite sets performed by the loopy, stoney, and groove-laden Brooklyn-based Here We Go Magic. The tight, meandering indie rhythms share a Grizzly Bear influence, and fit perfectly with the slow build of the day. From there, Sweden’s Tallest Man On Earth, a Dylan disciple playing solo acoustic guitar to a massive crowd, bled into an unexpected barn-burner from Oxford’s Foals, who channeled Robert Smith through a dancier punk-funk prism. Next, the beautifully bright Radio Dept, another one of the great Swedish bands to bless the polo grounds in 2011, played a blissful set of shoegazing modernism.

One of the beautiful things about Coachella is stumbling upon totally unexpected sets, which leads me to the quite wonderful Erykah Badu, witnessed from thick shady grass off the main stage. Pure, unadulterated authentic funk and R&B is hard to come by in this day and age, but here it was–a flukish find in the search for shade. It led right into Toronto supergroup Broken Social Scene’s great main stage set, playing the role Pavement filled last year: indie rock for aging hipsters. Perfect stage and time programming is another one of Coachella’s distinguishing characteristics.

The sunset shows on the Outside stage are always among the best, and it was America’s best indie pop band The New Pornographers who put on one of my favorite sets of the festival, with the sublime vocals of Neko Case mixing with the relentless perfection of AC Newman’s pop sensibilities blowing through the cooling air as again the sun released the crowd from the cloudless heat. Next up, the back half of an incredibly moody set by England’s Elbow, whose beautiful melodic grooves drifted gracefully into the night sky. The beauty of the main stage slot before headliners like Arcade Fire and Mumford and Sons is that the crowds begin to make their way over early to get within a quarter mile of the stage. As such, indie wunderkind Bright Eyes ripped through an earthy rock set in front of a much bigger crowd than they would have on any other stage. The nearly full moon hung over one of the most enthusiastic crowds of the festival as Mumford and Sons performed, rather straightforwardly, their radio-friendly breakthrough. For my money, I’ll take the Fleet Foxes, Blitzen Trapper, and Midlake long before this watered-down concoction, and so a few songs into it I wandered over to Big Audio Dynamite, who were rocking to a much smaller and older crowd, sounding every bit as good as they did in 1985. As a zealous fan of Ireland’s Frames, and hopeless romantic and fanatic for the film “Once,” I found the gorgeous set by The Swell Season further proved Glen Hansard again to be the most humble and talented not-yet-a-bonafide-rock-star on the planet. Animal Collective’s weird and wonderful soundscapes bellowed from the main stage in the background, setting the table nicely for perhaps the most anticipated set of the festival, Montreal’s Arcade Fire, who might be the best big rock band on the planet. There is nothing compromised about the music they play and the seriousness with which they take their craft. Most of the festival turned up in droves. One must feel sorry for the handful of bands that had to compete at this time slot, but ripping a page from Springsteen and channeling it through the best indie music of the past twenty years, it is always such a joy to see a little band not even a decade old grow up right before your eyes.

By the time Sunday rolls around, festival-goers are either fully in the groove or totally burned out. I am always the former, and so folk super group Fistful of Mercy (Ben Harper, Joseph Arthur and Dhani Harrison) started the day oh so gently, and perhaps too gently. Thank goodness for Best Coast, Bethany Consentino’s fusion of Liz Phair and The Go Go’s, who shredded through an infectious set of pop jewels. I predict a bright future for young Bethany. One of the buzzing bands to emerge in the past twelve months, LA’s Foster The People, played to a crowd that was much bigger than the smallish tent they played previously. Again, a very bright future for these kids.

Sunset at the Outdoor stage featured yet another of the best sets of festival, with The National filling the fairgrounds with a ferocious, intense, enormous sound. Like Arcade Fire, these guys are all grown up. Duran Duran played a greatest hits set to a thin crowd around the same time, but for the third straight day, dinner at the Kogi truck was in order–and the business that hit it big on Twitter was right there at the center of it, right across from the misting stations in the lush VIP oasis. Eating a spicy pork burrito while swaying to the comeback sounds of The Strokes was the perfect culmination to another epic festival. The festival ended for me with a nostalgic set by PJ Harvey. She was wrapped in a flowing white gown and looked every bit like the indie royalty that she is, playing a wonderful mix of old and new as the festival reached its dramatic end. Many credit Kanye with helping to sell out the festival in five days, but as I trudged wearily but contentedly across the massive crowd bobbing to his loud, energetic set, I was content, still replaying Harvey’s epic “Down By The Water” in my head.

To spend three days in the desert, soaking up the sun, amidst a real-life social network of youth culture passionistas, feeling the same liberating wave of emotions conducted by a dizzying array of incredible acts is an unbelievable privilege. Anyone equipped with a phone can now publish real-time thoughts to those less fortunate, watching at home on YouTube, or through the pictures shared across the connected social web, leaving a digital trail of memories which would have been unimaginable a decade ago. I guess I feel this way every year, but as an old married guy with three kids, live events matter now more than ever in an age without record stores. Art culture is best witnessed in person, not merely through the interwebs. In our increasingly connected world, we need to drink in the real-life versions of all the content we experience, or we will very quickly lose track of what it feels like to experience what is really happening in the outside world. I am already longing for my next visit to the desert…

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