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The mooing would have been cute if it weren’t so appropriate. On Friday, after sitting in a long, long line of cars trying to reach the parking lot, Coachella-goers found themselves standing in a large, large crowd to enter the Empire Polo Fields. As is to be expected from already-blotto music fans who don’t look twice when someone costumed as a taco or a unicorn walks by, the masses around us emitted cattle sounds as they were slowly herded ahead.
That’s sort of how the whole weekend went. Getting into Coachella was a hassle, and organizer Goldenvoice’s new policy of only selling three-day passes meant the vast majority of the 75,000 or so attendees were stuck for the weekend. That gave rise to a kind of Zen-ness overlaying the ultra-crowded festival. After all, it just made business sense to try and eke enjoyment out of every moment. When handed lemons, the Coachella crowd made delicious, THC-and-vodka-laced frozen lemonade.
Take Thom Yorke’s set outdoors Sunday night. The Radiohead front man introduced his band—featuring Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers—as Atoms for Peace. He said they’d play every song from “our” album The Eraser, which was weird: The Eraser came out under Yorke’s name alone—four years ago. Audience members, many expecting either a slew of new songs or Radiohead covers, initially seemed befuddled by the clanking, funky renditions of that album’s fidgety electronica. But then they tried dancing. Things got freaky; we caught one dude grooving sans pants. By the time Yorke eased into acoustic performances of Radiohead’s “Airbag” and “Everything In Its Right Place,” he’d already satisfied his audience—largely because the audience wanted to be satisfied.
Before the set by Orange County expats and OC Weekly cover boys Local Natives early Sunday afternoon, a gaggle of girls in front of us—whose median age couldn’t have been higher than 15—chatted about how they were going to call a friend of theirs when “Airplanes” came on. Then a chant went up in anticipation: “Lo-cal Na-tives, Lo-cal Na-tives.” It sounded like a hometown crowd, but the Gypsy Lounge this wasn’t. And the band sounded appropriately massive, delivering impeccably harmonized four-part choruses backed by bustling, sternum-rattling percussion. On closer “Sun Hands,” they unleashed a swell of shouts and distorted guitar that sounded more metal than indie. The crowd loved it but, again, wanted to love it.
Nattily dressed but nevertheless schlubby LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy seemed aware that the congregation in front of the main stage Friday night was more curious than devoted. He kicked off with the accessibly repetitive jam “Us V Them” and delivered his graying-tastemaker testimony on “Losing My Edge” with hilarious nonchalance. At one point, he apologized for playing two new songs back-to-back, but he didn’t have to: By the middle of each track, he was getting his choruses sung back to him.
And so it went for the whole festival, with the most successful acts demonstrating they knew who they were playing to. Jay-Z’s headlining rap set Friday came with rock dynamics and plenty of goodies: hits, a Barack Obama video clip, fireworks and Beyoncé singing “Forever Young.” On Saturday, Faith No More opened with a faithfully serene rendition of “Reunited” by Peaches & Herb before Mike Patton and company segued from lounge crooning into their trademark riffs ’n’ squawking. Headliner Muse performed their epic pseudo-prog with the swaggering abandonment of taste that their music deserves, laser show and guitar-solo cover of “The Star-Spangled Banner” included.
On Sunday, Pavement attracted fewer watchers than they should have, but that just meant the true fans could worm in close for the quintet’s tight delivery of slacker classics and irreverent, intra-band banter. At the end of the night, the Gorillaz’s mash of rock, hip-hop, electronica and cartoon characters put an eccentrically tied bow on the weekend. Earlier in the day, Deerhunter recovered from technical problems with a gut-busting ode to Coachella. “How many condoms broke at the hotel,” Bradford Cox wondered, “supplying festivals of the future with their audiences?”
It was interesting to see the second outdoor stage each night host bands that played to Coachella’s base of hip-cuz-it’s-fun college chicks and frat guys in glasses. Vampire Weekend performed chipperly enough, but the acoustics weren’t as crisp as they should have been. MGMT perplexed by drawing heavily on their bizarro new album and omitting their biggest hit, “Kids.” Phoenix, though, hit the sweet spot with their tricky, danceable guitar pop. The Frenchies’ lighting guy was stranded in Europe because of volcanic ash. So, as singer Thomas Mars pointed out, the crowd would only be treated to songs and a sunset. That was more than all right: By day three, the masses were well-schooled in the art of gleaning thrills from making due. From April 16-19 Heard Mentality posts.
This column appeared in print as "Coachella Cattle Calls: The Coachella crowds were determined to have a moo-ving experience, lines and volcanic ash be damned."