A day at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival near Palm Springs is less the relaxed day-in-the-park its gorgeous grounds might suggest, and more like turning yourself into a human pinball, crazily crisscrossing the vast fields and trying to catch as much as possible on the (now) seven stages and tents. Here's what such a 13-hour experience might look like, highs and lows and otherwise.
11:57 a.m.: Call me an overachiever, but getting in early pays. We breeze into parking, past gate-check guards that would shame the TSA agents at McCarran, and into the Empire Polo Fields.
12:15 p.m.: Day starts off swimmingly with the atmospheric synth-rock of IO Echo, which I discovered on Sirius XMU last year. Follow that warm-up set with shuffling Americana sextet Lord Huron, which will sound great on the Beauty Bar patio when it pays Vegas a visit in July.
1:45: Coachella promoter Goldenvoice has taken a few cues from Insomniac and Electric Daisy Carnival with regards to the Sahara dance tent, now decked out with multiple LED displays and a structural configuration that's less like a tent and more like an airplane hangar. But it's wasted on the novelty EDM pop of C2C.
2:45: Just watched the band to beat for the day: Youth Lagoon, a headphone band that translates astonishingly in a music festival tent. Each of its songs is an indie prog journey, combining elements of Sigur Ros, M83, Mercury Rev and Explosions in the Sky. Stream or purchase (hey, it's Record Store Day) the band's exquisite new Wondrous Bugman album.
3:00: On the prowl for a burrito, I hear the blissed-out strains of The Chemical Brothers' "Star Guitar," coming from the new Yuma Tent. I run in and encounter a makeshift, air-conditioned club reminiscent of the Absinthe tent at Caesars Palace. Mario Cotto is behind the decks and driving the half-full dance floor into euphoria. I return over 90 minutes later to hear the transition from URB publisher and DJ Raymond Roker, who favors mature house, into Essential Mix guru Pete Tong, who immediately fills the tent with both bodies and the sort of progressive house that's no longer welcome at the Sahara tent/hangar. It's time to bail for Vancouver rawk duo Japandroids, but I will definitely be returning to Yuma, my favorite new thing about Coachella.
5:10: Bad move. Japandroids vocalist and guitarist Brian King ruins the set by consistently failing to hit notes and employing dull guitar tones that saps the resonance of his band's anthems. A huge disappointment, given the exhilaration of the band's 2012 album, Celebration Rock. Worse, the twosome saves its most salvagable moment for a Gun Club cover, rather than one of its own songs. Japandroids are not ready for Coachella — at least not as a duo.
5:55: Who knew the skitterpop of Alt-J would catch on so well and draw such a large crowd? Ditto for Of Monsters and Men's banal "traditionalism"?
6:00: Four Tet is due in the Yuma Tent, to which I'm only too happy to return. But once I arrive, the largest line I've seen in 14 years of attending Coachella greets me. There's no way I'm getting in, so I settle for DJ Nicky Romero at Sahara, a terrible choice once he drops an execrable mashup of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Smack My Bitch Up," which thrills everyone but the one bystander who was out of puberty when both those songs were popular (ahem).
6:30: Whoa, who are Palma Violets? Apparently, a righteous British rock 'n' roll band who finds a middle ground between The New York Dolls and The Clash (with some Stones and Kinks occasionally thrown in). Despite tech issues, both band and crowd conquer the Mojave Tent, the former playing one rousing song after another. When singer Samuel Fryer and drummer William Doyle take over, allowing the other musicians and crew members to rock out like drunkards on stage, it still trumps whatever Japandroids attempted an hour earlier. The first of what I hope to be several Coachella discoveries.
7:25: A considerably expanded Modest Mouse takes to the large Coachella stage and despite my interest in the new songs (which exhibit ambition and strings — and very little of the pluck that initially drew people to this band), Isaac Brock and company can't project from a festival main stage — I yawned through its set at Sasquatch once — like it can in a theater setting.
7:55: Bored, I venture over to Sahara, giving that shitshow another shot for Dog Blood, the new project by Boys Noise and Skrillex, the latter whom I have had little time for in the past. But I'm instantly impressed. I lose track of both the amount of tempo changes and genre flirtations within a single song. There's techno, reggae, old-school breaks, acid house, metal and, yes, a smidge of bass music all blasting out of the speakers. It would likely annoy both traditionalists and dubstep loyalists. But given the rut and rigidity into which so-called EDM and bass music has descended, this is a breath of fresh air, an attempt to breach the comfort zone established by the paycheck panderers of current dance music. It's the first thing I've heard all day that's unpredictable and forward-sounding, two artistic attributes I've heard less and less at Coachella over the years.
8:40: Upon hearing Yeah Yeah Yeahs launch into "Zero," one of the best electro-rock songs of the decade, I run over to the main stage and watch not only Karen O (in an eyesore of a jacket she must have borrowed from Doc Severinson) work the stage like a seasoned master, but her backing band roar through a versatile sampling of the YYY's catalog. While I'm kinda cold on their new album, Mosquito, its selections in this 50-minute set improve greatly from the recorded versions, including single "Sacrilege," which features a choir. I'm usually put off by choirs used in rock songs that otherwise have little to no gospel overtones beyond the backing singers, but this works.
9:55: Fuck you, Stone Roses. After 22 years of hearing and embracing your classic, self-titled debut album, and waiting all those years to finally see you live, you have the nerve to saunter on stage and phone it in. The opening "I Wanna Be Adored," the Manchester, England band's most beloved song, falls flat despite guitarist John Squire's best attempts to resuscitate it. Two songs later, during the dance anthem "Fool's Gold," which sounds utterly lifeless and devoid of its usual Madchester mojo, I'm so disappointed, I bail.
10:15: I don't connect much with Nick Cave's sleaze-rock outfit Grinderman, but I've never seen the Australian icon live before, and after the Stone Roses bum-out, I need to witness a performer with some goddamn effort — and holy shit, does Cave and company deliver a tour-de-force set (rumored to be its last, as the diehards nearby tell me — "this set is particularly spirited!" exclaims one devotee). Cave works both the stage and the crowd like his life depended on it, shouting his dirty exhortations to smitten young women and throwing his body around like only a performer with his lanky stature can do. It's a full-tilt vampy blues revue, both campy and evangelical, and, well, I could just end the night here.
11:10: Grinderman having ended its set 10 minutes early — dudes are probably (and rightfully) exhausted — I wander into the Gobi tent to catch a few Foals songs, because goddamn, I can't pass on the opportunity to see them even if it's just for a few songs. As great as they are, I make way for Blur, which I've seen four times previous, and has played less inspiringly with each of those performances. Fortunately, Damon Albarn, his three bandmates, and a full complement of horn players and backing singers are on point, nailing classics like "Tender" and "Beetlebum." For the end set, though — as loyal as it is to the Blur experience — it's a little sleepy, Albarn himself looking like a quaalude just kicked in, and I wander over to see what the big fuss is over How to Destroy Angels, Trent Reznor's not-Nine Inch Nails project. The band's minimal synth palpitations aren't as hypnotic as the visuals that both color and shroud the performers, but it's a curiosity to me and the (only) two-thirds-full Mojave tent. I return to the main stage to see Blur knock out "The Universal" and the woo-hoo song, and stagger back to my car likely another zip code away.