Over the years, Coachella has grown from a niche festival with rock roots into a full-fledged cultural phenomenon. At no time was that more apparent than Saturday night, when Beyoncé delivered on the hype that’d been building for more than a year and performed an instant classic of a headlining set. “Beychella” attracted thousands of eyeballs through online streams in addition to the roughly 100,000 attendees packing Coachella’s main stage as all other performances came to a halt.
But I wasn’t there to see it. That’s right -- I attended Coachella for the sixth time this past weekend and didn’t go to what was perhaps the most anticipated set to ever take place at the festival, even when there weren’t any other alternatives on the Polo Grounds. And I don’t regret it.
I can already hear the BeyHive swarming to tell me how I missed out on the experience of a lifetime -- and I don’t exactly disagree. It seems like it was amazing, and Beyoncé deserves the respect of anyone who considers themselves a music fan. But I have my reasons, which will be revealed below in a recap of the best and worst moments of my sixth trip to Indio, California, for a Coachella that will be remembered for marking a historic shift in the festival’s culture.
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Staying in a house roughly two miles from the campgrounds in Indio (as my group did) can be a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, you don’t have to travel nearly as far to the Polo Grounds as the many people who stay in Palm Springs about 45 minutes away. Unfortunately, it also makes you feel a bit confined to the surrounding area, away from most of the pre- and post-parties.
My girlfriend and I had the option of attending Goldenvoice’s Day Club PS pre-party at the Hilton Palm Springs each day, but with it mandating at least a 90-minute round trip, we elected to get ready for the festivities with friends in the comfort of our Airbnb. We’d end up making up for that laziness later on in the weekend.
Highlights: After a surprisingly breezy process to enter the Polo Grounds around 3:30 (this wouldn’t be the case every day), we bop around and check out the new layout implemented by Goldenvoice this year. The Sahara tent is now directly next to the entrance and oriented so that it’s wider than it is long, with the option to enter at any location. This is a vast improvement on trying to squeeze yourself through one of several crowded openings alongside sweaty college kids and the rest of the rave crowd, as was necessary in years past. It also makes more sense to have the Sahara between the Yuma tent and Do LaB, the other two stages focused primarily on dance music.
The first show we check out is Greta Van Fleet, a Michigan rock group that’s been exhaustively compared to Led Zeppelin and was even invited to play at Elton John’s famous pre-Oscars party this year. From watching this set, you wouldn’t know that rock’s influence at Coachella has waned -- the Mojave tent was filled to the brim with fans of all ages. Led by frontman Josh Kiszka and his uncanny vocal resemblance to Robert Plant (it took no more than 10 minutes before I overheard the Zeppelin comparison from an awed Generation X fan), Greta Van Fleet fed off that energy and seemed motivated to make classic rock fans out of a new generation.
Jamiroquai drew a tough set time against headliner The Weeknd in the British funk act’s first U.S. show since 2005, but nevertheless played to a jam-packed Mojave tent. And he didn’t disappoint, providing fans with perhaps the most unexpected surprise guest of the weekend in Snoop Dogg. The Doggfather was mostly inaudible as he smoked a blunt and mumbled his way through a revised version of “Gin and Juice,” but his presence was a thrill all the same. The true highlight of the performance was “Canned Heat,” the jubilant 1999 disco tune given a second life after it was featured in the 2004 indie film “Napoleon Dynamite.”
But the most innovative performance of the evening undoubtedly belonged to 69-year-old electronic music pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre, who’s finally embarking on his first U.S. tour after roughly four decades of revolutionizing how synthesizers are used in music. Coachella founder Paul Tollett hyped Jarre’s show as this year’s version of Hans Zimmer’s universally praised set from 2017, and specially updated the Outdoor stage for it by installing three huge screens for the Frenchman’s famous LED light show.
Different versions of that spectacle have attracted more than 1 million people to Jarre’s shows on several occasions, setting the Guinness World Record several times over. However, there weren’t even 1,000 people present as his set kicked off at 10:30. The pull of SZA at the main stage, as well as fellow dance music figures Soulwax and Alison Wonderland, proved too strong for many Coachella goers. It was certainly the smallest crowd I’d witnessed at the beginning of an Outdoor stage set in six years at Coachella.
But Jarre’s showmanship wowed those who did show up. He played a “laser harp” that featured five vertical lines of colored light, which beautifully distorted when he played them to create different sounds. And in a moment made for virality, he devoted a couple minutes to a short video message from Edward Snowden about the importance of online privacy, imploring the crowd, “If you aren’t going to stand up for it, who will?" It’s unfortunate his message didn’t directly reach a bigger audience, but everyone in attendance will likely spread the gospel of Jarre for him.
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Lowlights: There really wasn’t too much to complain about music-wise on Day 1. Perfume Genius didn’t seem too appreciative of his relatively small audience at the Gobi stage, and stormed off in a huff as soon as he sang his final note at 10:20 pm. But he still displayed his commanding stage presence and didn’t experience any hiccups that I saw.
My girlfriend and I also left the Do LaB minutes after arriving there at 9:15 p.m. for a surprise guest, who turned out to be R.L. Grime. But that was more about us growing old and not being able to handle bouncy trap music than any shortcoming on the DJ’s part.
What was easily the worst aspect of Day 1 was the disastrous process of exiting the Polo Grounds. Anyone taking an Uber (the exclusive rideshare sponsor of Coachella) had to walk through a winding path that took nearly an hour to traverse out of the campgrounds. Most of that time was spent in a rectangular area that couldn’t have been more than 30 yards across on either side, but only featured one way out in a corner that bottlenecked into a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare.
Once we finally escaped that calamity, we made our way to the Uber line and were told by workers that it was a 2+ hour wait. My group was rather lucky as our house was located about 2 miles from the festival, so we decided to walk. But with one of our friends suffering debilitating back spasms (she was eventually spotted limping by a covert rideshare driver and offered a lift home after we got far enough from the gridlock traffic), we didn’t return to our Airbnb until 3:30 a.m. after the final act had ended at 1 a.m. It was an awful experience that shaped how we approached each night’s final hours differently for the rest of the weekend.
Highlights: After meeting up with friends to pregame at their campsite -- and avoiding the Uber gridlock by enlisting a Lyft to take us to an unofficial drop-off zone -- we entered the festival a little after 4:00 pm to see former surfer turned DJ Fisher at the Do LaB. When he dropped his breakout singles “Stop It” and “Crowd Control,” it was easily the wildest we’d see that area party all weekend. In fact, Fisher was so obviously popular that Goldenvoice changed the Weekend 2 schedule and decided to book him to play the Yuma tent on Friday, forcing two other DJs (B. Traits and HITO) to share their time on the decks.
Canadian group Alvvays graced the Mojave stage with a shimmering indie-pop display. Lead singer Molly Rankin’s haunting yet delicate voice mixes perfectly with the band’s dreamy sound, with singles that match the aesthetic of the 1960s (“Marry Me, Archie”), the 1980s (“Dreams Tonite”) and today (“In Undertow”). Alvvays were sadly cut off during their last song after taking the stage 15 minutes late due to apparent audio issues, but they still managed to play all their hits and justify their surprisingly late set time.
The final set of Day 2 we witnessed on the Polo Grounds was ZHU’s surprise appearance at the Do LaB. Though Fisher might’ve elicited most energetic crowd there earlier in the day, ZHU attracted the most people to the independently-booked stage and threw down engrossing remixes of his own cuts ("Faded," “Working For It,” “Dreams”) and other intense techno tracks. It was personally my favorite set of the weekend, but it likely came as a surprise to those expecting more laid-back offerings. But, hey -- it's Saturday night at Coachella!
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Which finally brings us to Queen Bey. My girlfriend and I entertained the idea of watching her Coachella coronation after ZHU, but decided against it for a few reasons.
The first was an intriguing alternative, even though it wasn’t at the main event. Framework rented out the HITS Desert Horse Park to host an indoor-outdoor post-party featuring DJs Maceo Plex, Pachanga Boys and Jackmaster that lasted until 4 a.m. Neither my girlfriend nor I had ever attended a Coachella afterparty, and Maceo Plex had unleashed her favorite set on Day 1.
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The second was the sheer magnitude of the #BeyHive. By the time we finished watching ZHU, an innumerable mass of people was stacked up in front of the Coachella stage, with the main viewing area, the beer garden and the VIP zone all seemingly near capacity. Watching a show at the main stage from the back of the pack isn’t exactly ideal.
The third and perhaps most significant reason is that my favorite part of Coachella has never been to see the headliners on the main stage amid a sea of people. Those shows have disappointed (Outkast, LCD Soundsystem, Radiohead in 2017, Calvin Harris) more often than they’ve lived up to the hype (Arcade Fire, Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg). Instead, I crave a more intimate experience that I can share with just a few friends, like a cherished secret.
You can find the fourth and final justification in the Lowlights section of Day 1. If we stayed through Beyoncè, we’d have to compete with an even more intimidating mass of people to find our way home.
Instead, we waltzed our way through an eerily empty campground before a Lyft picked us up in the same informal zone we’d entered Coachella earlier that day. We made it shortly after midnight to Framework, where the decorations made it seem like we’d entered a warehouse party with the theme of Netflix’s “Stranger Things.” Long, spider-like legs and Slinkies descended from the ceiling while dark figures shifted around rhythmically on the dancefloor and red lights hung up on the walls flickered to the beat.
With no desert dust inside, we were able to rest our lungs and dance our hearts out for nearly four hours, with the occasional break outside to observe the colorful scenery of the famous celebrity-laden Neon Carnival afterparty just hundreds of yards away. We even once heard Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love” playing over the booming speakers.
But I waited to watch Beyoncè’s actual performance online when I returned home Monday, and I’m glad I did …
Lowlights: … But it would’ve been cool if Coachella’s exits strategy flowed well enough to let me witness both Beyoncé and an afterparty. You’d think they’d have this down by now.
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A long night out meant a late entrance into the festival just before 5 p.m. on Sunday (we weren’t alone -- it took us more than an hour for our Lyft to weave through the rest of the late arrivals and drop us off by an entrance). Even then, we were still feeling sluggish.
Highlights: Thankfully, Cardi B gave us a shot in the arm. Even though I’m not entirely sure where she allocated the reported $300,000 she spent on her stage set (do visuals, dancers and a makeshift set of monkey bars for them to hang from really cost that much?), her 30-minute performance was full of enough spunk, special guests and sing-alongs to function as a spiked shot of espresso.
Seattle electronic duo ODESZA were tasked with warming up the main stage crowd for Eminem on Sunday, which is a pretty lofty assignment for a group without a massive radio hit. But they handled it with aplomb, putting on a cinematic show featuring a 12-piece drum line and striking visuals that perfectly aligned with their atmospheric sound. The peak involved a synchronized fleet of 420 drones flying above the stage to arrange themselves in different formations, including ODESZA’s six-pointed logo, in what was a genuinely breath-taking sight.
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Lowlights: Before Eminem’s finale at the main stage, my girlfriend and I took advantage of our backstage Do LaB passes for the first time all weekend and got a close look at Black Madonna and Jackmaster switching off tracks in a surprise back-to-back (b2b) set. I’d seen each of the house music icons DJ a couple times before, and this was the least inspiring outing for both. The pair didn’t seem to have a ton of chemistry, and the energy just wasn’t there with most Coachella goers likely preparing for Eminem, Migos and the other closing sets.
While I certainly wouldn’t consider Eminem’s set to be a complete disappointment -- he hasn’t lost his airtight flow or signature percussion-like cadence -- it took 50 Cent coming out halfway through the set for the crowd to fully embrace the moment. To be sure, “In Da Club” banged and was probably the most well-received moment of the set. But what does that say about Slim Shady?
When Skylar Grey appeared to aid Em in “Walk On Water,” a person near me could only wonder, “Where’s Beyoncé?” Grey also stepped in for Dido and Rihanna on “Stan” and “Love the Way You Lie,” and while she capably filled their shoes, it also felt a bit anti-climactic.
We also have to address that cringeworthy “Mean Tweets” segment, assisted by a pre-taped Jimmy Kimmel. Though it was endearing on a personal level to see Eminem give the audience a few laughs at his own expense, it also interrupted his momentum and ended up being a little too brutal. When one tweet insinuated that no one had been paying attention to Eminem since 2003, and the rapper only replied that he “wasn’t mad at that,” it felt like he’d lost some of the gruff bite his fans adore him for.
Coachella has taken a lot of flak over the past few years for allegedly being a haven for spoiled, white millennials. But the booking of Beyoncé marked a cultural shift that welcomed a more diverse crowd to the Polo Grounds. And that’s huge, because Coachella is perhaps the most important music event in the United States due to the significance artists put on it.
This is the festival that started the trend of musicians bringing along countless special guests to their shows, featured an unprecedented Tupac hologram and now can lay claim to hosting the most talked-about performance by the most iconic performer of our generation. Every publication from the New York Times to Cosmopolitan covered it, and deservedly so.
But while the festival’s attendance cap has grown to 126,000 from 99,000 over the past couple years, Coachella has not capably adjusted to accommodate such a swath of people migrating to Indio, California (population: 88,488). The town doesn’t possess the public transportation that other festivals such as Chicago-based Lollapalooza does, and the festival’s shuttle system and exclusive deal with Uber leaves thousands of people wandering the streets hours after the final note has been played.
And it’s likely only going to be worse on Weekend 2 -- the festival announced Wednesday it would delay the opening of its on-site camping until 3 a.m. on Friday morning due to severe windy conditions forecast for Thursday. I do not envy the poor souls who will be rushing at the wee hours of the morning to budge through a long line of cars and set up camp instead of getting a good night’s sleep.
Perhaps their spirits will be raised by the prospect of witnessing the performance of a generation on Saturday night in a deeply communal experience. But some, like me, will decide to do something only they can remember -- and that’s okay, too.