As Coachella Expands in Size, Old School Intimacy is Hard to Come By

Everyone remembers the sight of their first Coachella. Like most hazy, sunburnt memories from far too long ago, mine started with stepping onto the Empire Polo Field as a wide-eyed 21 year old who’d barely just experienced his first taste of festival life in 2006. Looking out onto the endless sea of green grass, monolithic sculptures and half naked bodies felt like being an astronaut landing on the surface of the moon. Naturally, the Buzz Aldrin vibes have sorta faded a bit over years after 11 straight Coachellas in a row. That is until this year, when I took one look around and felt like I was entering a very different festival. This is to say nothing of the double weekend madness we’ve lived with since 2012 or the insanely big acts that top the festival lineups—just in terms of sheer size Coachella 2017, my first thought was that this thing is way too goddamn big this year.

While it definitely shouldn’t have come as a surprise given the amount of coverage the expansion has received since it was announced around this time last year, to see the physical manifestation of what happens when you take a 99,000 capacity fest begin transforming it into a 125,000 capacity fest that eclipses the population of most of cities in OC is pretty daunting. Seriously, picture fitting the entire population of Costa Mesa (a mere 112,174 people) onto the polo fields for a weekend. Though the expanse was promised to be gradual, pushing the Outdoor stage another quarter mile out and making a new field that used to be a parking lot, so far it’s felt pretty drastic. It’s enough to make any veteran Coachella goer continue to wonder (or whine about) whether bigger necessarily means better.

I got my first taste of it running toward Sampha on Day One around 4:20 pm (natch) to catch the start of the buzzworthy R&B British crooner’s set. It wasn’t until I got more than halfway to where the tent was that I realized I could barely hear him performing because it was still too far away for the sound bleed to penetrate my ears. While it was nice to finally get there and hear the triumphant, piano and percussion-driven soul of the singer’s breakout album Process uninterrupted, it was also weird to not hear a bit of that natural sound competition you hear at a festival. For the most part, each set at stages around the fest felt like its own concert versus a constellation of acts that were all existing at the same time.

With the midday energy so spread out, it was harder to capture the same electricity of the festival now that it’s chemistry has been altered. It’s clear the fans will need time to adjust. Amateur acrobats and cacao-snorting yogis will definitely have to add more moves to their show off routines as they flip and cartwheel their way across the polo fields. Especially if they felt like making it all the way to the newer elements of the fest—the Antarctica dome and the Sonora tent. Much like the shift in location of the Do Lab a couple years ago, these new facets of Coachella culture were pushed to the outskirts of the expanding festival border.

Walking into the massive, blue-lit dome arranged with aisles filled with quasi-beanbag seating, the virtual reality verticle roller coaster ride through space was a Captain EO like experience that you didn’t even have to be stoned to enjoy (that says a lot, especially coming from us). Zipping through far flung dimensions and desert-inspired trips with surround sound immersion was definitely a major sign of the fest coming into a new age of visual spectacle that festival goers responded to with hoots and hollers in the darkness. It was also cool to see the subliminal shoutouts to past Coachella icons like the giant caterpillar, butterfly and the giant spaceman.

In some ways it also highlighted the disparity in energy at their second addition, the Sonora stage, a late addition to the fest that revolved around the inclusion of punk and  Latin alternative bands earlier in the day. The vibe of the enclosed, indoor stage was cool, vibed out with a throwback warehouse party vibe that gives a nod to Goldenvoice’s early Huntington Beach beginnings, when warehouse parties and shows in illegal spaces gave their their underground cache.

The vibe definitely felt handmade and cool, but it was a shame that it’s far away location snuffed out most of the natural foot traffic of people who came to check out bands on the other side of the fest. The fact that Ohio alt-rock legends Guided By Voices couldn’t even fill the tent to a third of its capacity was pretty rough. But who knows, maybe the next few days will awaken people’s consciousness to what’s going on there, if they feel like making the long trek.

The only time when the space between stages was a non-factor came during Travis Scott’s closing Outdoor Theater set that had what felt like the entire crowd singing along to Auto-tuned acapella verses of Sky Fall and reveling in explosive trap beats of “Mamacita,” “Pick Up the Phone” and “Antidote.” “I wanna see the fucking rage Coachella! I came for the chaos Coachella! If you’re not tryna mosh, if you’re not tryna crowd surf, if you not tryna lay on the ground tonight, get the fuck ouuuuut!” Between his unstoppable swag and bizarre stage props (including a giant animatronic bird) he was definitely able to harness the energy of the entire festival and make the expansive grounds feel like the most expensive backyard show ever produced.

We were also reminded that no matter how much Coachella grows in size, the Goldenvoice production is still not immune from the technical problems that befell the same local shows they used to put on decades ago. From the opening notes of Radiohead’s set on the mainstage at 10:35, it was clear something was amiss. Several times during the set, the band’s sound cut out and assaulted our ears with violent feedback. Then again…and again. About 20 minutes into their set, the sound in the stage speakers cut out completely, leaving most people toward the back of the confused, impatient and ready to start the long exodus back to the car. However, plenty of diehard fans held their ground, and in some cases pushed up for a chance to hear the band continue to play with just the faint sound of their naked amps which was probably inaudible to anyone farther than the first few rows, let alone if you happened to be chilling by this year’s massive stonehenge of crazy looking rectangular animal statues.

But just as Coachella seemed to be tripped up by it’s own massiveness, the sound crew were able to fix the problems and get Radiohead broadcasting their set back at full power even though a huge chunk of their audience had abandoned them. The fans who bared with the band through their host of technical problems weren’t forgotten though. The end of their set was a flurry of late ‘90s and early ‘00s awesomeness, including classics “Idiotech,” “Nude” and “Creep” to close the main set and dive into a mind melting encore of “Paranoid Android,” “Body Snatchers” and “Karma Police.” During the set some fans who stayed seen dropping to their knees, overcome with emotion as they wept through the band’s rare, epic closer that drew the faithful from far and wide of the expansive festival grounds, reminding us that no matter how much the festival embraces the expansion of its manifest destiny or how many miles you put on your pedometer throughout the day, it’s the moments where Coachella feels intimate that still make it great.

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