Offering something for everyone, everything for someone, with acts other festivals can only dream of boasting, the lineup for the 2010 edition of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival blew away the competition and was more impressive than ever. The weekend of weekends finally came and faces melted to the nightmarish spectacle of Fever Ray, crowds were thrilled by the showmanship of Jay-Z, and bodies danced to the welcomed plethora of electronic music inside and out of the Sahara tent. While Coachella has always been more than a collection of the finest and hottest acts in music, the significance of the experience itself became more apparent than ever in 2010.
Upon arrival at Empire Polo Club, cars were directed to park in a massive staging area to be searched for entry to onsite camping. This staging area was a large field with around a dozen lines of automobiles, each already approaching the back of the fence at 2:50pm. Sara from Sacramento described the situation by stating “it’s a clusterfuck.” Having arrived at noon to beat the crowd, Sara was still waiting for her car to be searched three hours later. Sara’s quote would go on to define not just the on-site camping staging area but the entire weekend, as “clusterfuck” became the buzz word of Coachella 2010.
Unconfirmed reports claimed that car searches did not begin at noon, as advertised on the official website, but instead at 2pm, and there were seemingly not enough security to search every lane of cars until even later. To the gratitude of everyone waiting, the lines began moving significantly faster after 3 p.m. The search itself was a five minute process of looking under the hood, underneath the car itself, and searching a couple bags at random for most lines, but more thorough and time consuming in others. In the instances where one piece of contraband was found, the entire car was emptied, with the car and its contents searched thoroughly. Considering the strict rules enforced by the local community, searches and the resulting wait were understandable, expected, and seemingly forgiven once inside camp as attendees embraced and cheered.
Once inside the campgrounds, cars were ushered into spots that were not exactly 10×30 feet, but it did not seem to matter as spirits were high. Just like every year, attendees partied and made new friends, but now they had cars with which to power grills and makeshift dance tents. Alarmingly, one important element was nowhere to be seen at El Dorado One: showers. In previous years, shower trailers surrounded what is now one of several lots, and punters could shower at night with no wait and with a maximum of one hour in the morning. Security stated that showers would be coming to their usual spots on Friday morning, but a few were located in the lot behind the Spicy Pie vendor.
Friday morning arrived with the harsh glare of the desert sun, but these new showers never did. Campers wandered the grounds aimlessly looking for showers that some security did not know where to find. Plenty of people seemed to have no problem finding them, because the lot that was a fifteen minute walk from the opposite ends of either car camping lot was swarmed with thousands of people desperate to use one of seven trailers by 8 a.m. Friday morning. Most campers that received showers during the day had to wait up to four hours for a shower, while others were sent back to their tents because water ran out. Even worse, others could not handle waiting for several hours and fainted in the heat.
Growing pains were definitely not limited to campers, and commuters just might have experienced the worst of them. While security ran out of wristbands now and then at the camping staging area the previous night, reports of wristband shortages were far more prevalent among people staying off-site. One woman who did not wish to be named said her group arrived at 2 p.m. on Friday and did not make it inside until 7 p.m. Members of the official messageboard have posted horror stories of people being unable to attend at all after being told that parking was gone. Traffic was understandably a nightmare getting in and out of the festival each day, but considering how traffic had improved in recent years compared to the earliest editions of Coachella, surely a magical solution will be worked out in time by 2011.
Inside the festival grounds, the extra fifteen thousand people were noticeable throughout the entire weekend. When Kate Miller-Heidke, the first act of the weekend, plays to a full tent at 12:30 in the afternoon, a festival is definitely crowded. Thankfully Goldenvoice improved the filtered water program to perfection in 2010. Plastic bottles were available for $12 and included unlimited refills all weekend, and the water was self-serve, so attendees were able to drink as much water as they could handle, dump more on their heads, and then fill their bottles for later use without having to wait for more than a few minutes. Unfortunately, the 10 for one recycling program ran into some problems as they ran out of new bottles in the evening.
Throughout the weekend, fans could be heard at various stages loudly questioning why their act of choice was playing such a small stage. Why, indeed. Considering how Veckatimest is one of the most deservedly critically acclaimed albums of 2009, and how the band played the respectively 2,200 and 4,000 capacity Wiltern and Palladium in Los Angeles last year, isn’t the Mojave tent too small for Grizzly Bear? Wouldn’t Grizzly Bear’s renowned harmonies work better on the Outdoor Theater at sunset instead of the electronic beats of Passion Pit? Isn’t Grizzly Bear more popular, anyway? Thankfully the crowd calmed and the pushing and fainting subsided once Grizzly Bear took the stage, but unfortunately, the crowd remained rowdy and dangerously packed during La Roux’s entire set in the Gobi tent next door.
While Florence and the Machine is not the first international superstar to play Coachella’s smallest stage, the expanded capacity and large percentage of international visitors resulted in a Gobi tent that dwarfed Beck’s last-minute 2004 set in terms of overflow. Thousands of fans and curious onlookers swarmed the Gobi in a failed attempt to see Florence Welch and hear the powerful pipes of the NME covergirl, only to be crushed and fried as the sun decided to shine through the clouds and hit only that crowd. More people than usual remained in the Gobi tent at the end of Florence and the Machine to see Charlotte Gainsbourg on her first ever tour. While the tent quickly filled for Gainsbourg, it fortunately did not reach the same critical mass as it had an hour earlier.
Inexplicably, Atoms for Peace, the supergroup featuring Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers, played the second largest stage despite being one of the two most popular acts of the day and arguably the de-facto headliner. Is there a reason why Yorke and company could not play the main stage from 7:30 to 9 p.m., with Pavement on the Outdoor Theater from 9:10-10:20 p.m.? For Phoenix earlier in the evening, the crowd stretched well past the Do Lab and for Atoms for Peace, the crowd was predictably packed like sardines — well beyond the soundboard booth and half an hour before their set was scheduled to start, all with the Pavement and Orbital reunion shows still running. Although Goldenvoice admirably attempted to accommodate the larger than usual crowds on Coachella’s second stage with a larger space, extra speakers at the back of the field, screens at the sides of the stage, and the DoLab’s stage facing away from the area, it was not enough for Atoms for Peace. These conditions resulted in what was musically the best set of the weekend being difficult for many to enjoy. What’s worse, Atoms for Peace have only performed live 11 other times in their existence, with one of these shows having taken place during Coachella, and with no other shows currently scheduled or even rumored, it was a missed once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many. Sure, any informed person knows getting a great spot for anything involving Thom Yorke at a festival or solo gig requires spending an entire day waiting, but at least on the main stage there would have been more breathing room in the crowd and an audio/visual system capable of reaching out to over seventy thousand people.
Coachella has become increasingly popular over the years and growing pains are to be expected, but 2010 felt like the breaking point. Hopefully the 2011 edition will feature a scaled-down crowd, better organization with the wristband exchange and parking, more showers, and the biggest acts playing the stages on which they belong. Seeing as how issues from previous years such as lines for water refills, the absence of RV camping, in and out privileges, beer at camp, and cell phone charging have all been fixed, if any festival can be relied upon to improve and change in response to the times, it is Coachella.
Photography by Ted Maider.