April 23rd, 2011 | Live reviews

I’d only been to Coachella once, in 2004, when the horse-flavored dust was hot enough to scorch my nostrils on its way to my lungs. By the end of the weekend, I was more than glad to leave: as my crew headed for the car on the last night, I got on my knees and pounded my fist in the dirt, screaming “NEVER AGAIN!!!!”

But time changes a lot of things, as does a free VIP wristband and a press pass. And so with a tinge of trepidation, I found myself in the early afternoon hours on Friday in a Coachella parking lot in Indio, California, loaning some of my precious sunscreen to a jeepload of bucking bros, who were slathering their muscular chests and explaining to me how to hide drugs when going through the guard checkpoints: socks could be checked, but probably not sacks. “Just put it in your underwear, next to your balls—last year they rolled down the elastic band of my boxers, but that’s the worst they’re gonna do.”

I headed in, and after two checkpoints, the first being suspiciously more laissez-faire than the final one (where my sack was only slightly brushed during a hearty leg-pat), I found myself within the Coachella grounds, which seemed peppier and less barren than I remembered them seven years before. There were T-shirt stands and help desks and water carts, but also more installation art and domes and carnival rides, extra little structures here and there where skin-saving patches of shade could be savored. It felt like they were making a stronger effort to get every dehydrated kids out of the sun and under a giant metal tarantula. The only thing there was less of was people—was attendance down this year, or had they somehow made progress on getting the lines shorter, the parking easier, and the hassles less hassly?

Excision by Dan Collins

Excision by Lainna Fader

But I didn’t question things as I rushed to the Safari tent to see the last dregs of Excision’s set, which was making the early Coachella crowd go apeshit with dancing, screaming, and adoration straight out of a church. This Canadian’s wobbly-based dubstep, spun from behind a giant desk/platform that would have looked good with Mao Tse Tung behind it, didn’t match the sunniness of the afternoon for me, so I was forced to wash him down with a $9 tequila sunrise at the adjacent VIP rose garden, and an $11 margarita at the VIP tent near the Coachella main stage, where Ozomatli were sounding exactly like what you’d expect them to sound like if you’ve ever heard fourteen seconds of their music at any point in their recorded history.

It was in the VIP lounge that I realized how different the Coachella experience would be with a press pass than how I’d spent it in proletarian misery seven years before. The big VIP area had a fountain, an air-conditioned tent bar, free wifi for the press, delicious Woodfire pizza, and close proximity to the main stage itself! Sure, you were still too far away to see the actual physical performance, but you could hold a drink while not seeing it. And anyway, despite the near-nudity and the “” banner being pulled behind a plane in the sky, Coachella is not exactly about the intimate experience.

Dan Collins interviews Yacht

Warpaint by Dan Collins

Perhaps because of that lack of intimacy, I craved seeing bands I was familiar with. So after a brief interview with YACHT, I headed over to the Outdoor stage, Coachella’s second largest, to see Warpaint. Margaret Wappler from the L.A. Times says they were dressed “like the shipwrecked daughters of a one-eyed pirate captain and Stevie Nicks” but aside from singer Emily Kokal’s amazing Sheila E. coat, the other members actually wore the kind of billowy nineties dresses you’d see models in Sassy wear circa 1992. They were great—Jenny Lee Lindberg on bass danced around and boogied it up with Stella Mozgawa on drums, and Kokal and guitarist Theresa Wayman more or less swapped singing duties every other song. Their pretty, dark wave, shoegazey-chimey-crunch worked great on a blistering spring afternoon, like sprinkles of cold water on your back. And maybe this is what Coachella’s alternate stages are best at—letting bands you’ve only heard on the radio wow you with how good they sound on a big stage, with a roaring crowd, clean vocals, and the natural lighting of the sun!

Ariel Pink by Lainna Fader

Ariel Pink by Lainna Fader

And all that Vitamin D was giving me a delicious energy, which I should have used to watch Cee Lo’s famed meltdown, but instead used to get to Ariel Pink early, at the Gobi stage. Aaah, a shady side tent, where the crowds were small and I could zip right on up to the photographer area in front of the stage. Drummer Aaron Sperske spotted me in my photographer’s perch and gave me a little “sup bro” head nod: it was an isolated moment of connection with a band in a weekend where the barriers between artist and audience were rigidly enforced. And that kind of isolation can lead to trouble—perhaps this is why Ariel Pink stormed off the stage, telling us that we must “hate” him, when in fact we were all really enjoying the souped-up Gary Numanisms on display, vocals and all. Ariel, I’m sure there were no monitors and a whole lot of ‘tude from the sound guy, but maybe you could have just rolled with it?

Same goes for Lauren Hill, who on the main Coachella stage had a tiny little tizzy about the sound that delayed her set uncomfortably close to the “will they pull the plug” threshold. But I liked that she dressed just like I would if I were a woman—hoop earrings, a funky knit hat under a second hat (trés Bartholomew Cubbins), and a stripey dress so big and billowy and protruding in the front that she’s just got to be pregnant again with her sixth kid.

Drunk with the power of my media wristband, I took a first saunter into the very front of the Coachella stage, only to have an authoritative white woman looked at my wristbands and tell me “You don’t have a photo wristband: you have to leave.” I walked out, sullen and confused, but not before I got a good glimpse of Ms. Hill’s hijinks close up, the way they look best. Though the big video screens on the sides of the stage captured her swagger, they did NOT capture her slight figure, her frail, crazed humanity, or the baby bump, which I repeat is DEFINITELY a baby on the way and not a trick of the light or media hyperbole. And it was a good listen: lively versions of Fugee and solo Hill songs bopped, booped, and poked out at us from the stage. Hill had a damned good backing band, with tubas as tight as the bass, and when they closed with “Doo Wop (That Thing),” I felt like maybe it was going to be a pretty cool weekend.

That feeling dissipated later, when I foolishly departed from Interpol’s sunset performance to check out Kele and Sleigh Bells. Really? Is this what the kids are into these days: anthemy showdown music with the most boring guitar punctuation in the history of power chord cheese, and vocals that were 45% just “Whooooaaaaaaaaah?”

Marina and the Diamonds at the Gobi stage were more entertaining. Though some of their actual recordings are rather overproduced (I doubt you’d ever play them in the car for your friends), the band had a real patchwork charm live, like Bjork trying to cover Annie Lennox while dressed in Josie Cotton’s outfits. Principal songwriter/performer Marina Diamandis enticed me with her glitter and Raggedy Ann hair, but she nailed my heartstrings to a fucking cigar box and picked a chord on them them when I realized her earrings were little bananas. And the crowd went a little bananas when she jumped into the hit single “I Am Not a Robot,” her arms outstretched in an unironic Bono pose.

I heard glimpses of Cut Copy and then the Black Keys on my way back to the press tent, but being unable to enjoy any band from the Coachella stage without feeling like I was just at a movie with good surround sound, I headed to the Dome, where I saw the best performance of the night and possibly of the whole weekend: Beardyman, a UK hip hop import who would fit right in on Fake Four or Plug Research. More than that, he was possibly the best beat boxer I’d ever heard, and I’ve seen Doug E. Fresh live. Beardyman clearly had his mouth in the game, and could do great block-rocking beats a capella, but his technique of recording mouth loops on the fly and then manipulating them into Low End Theory-style glitch hop/dubstep beats was more than impressive—it was clever, and soulful, and made me think he was a force to be reckoned with, even if he was playing all the way out here on the furthest outreaches of Coachella (albeit in the most awesomely decorated stage of all Coachella stages, which was adorned with spray-painted tatters of cardboard sculpted into an Avatar-esque tree creature seemingly imbedded in a 1960’s style monkey bar set for giant toddlers).

Leave wanting more, I thought, and since Flying Lotus was scheduled to play at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs that night, I grabbed Associate Publisher Lainna Fader and headed for the exit. At least, I thought it was the correct exit, but after a wrong turn supplemented by bad instructions from completely clueless guards, we ended up walking for miles against incoming Coachella traffic, taking random lefts and rights around stables and golf-cart garages, each dusty trail leading to more guards who couldn’t direct us to Lot 4 but still wanted to search our bags and beep our wristbands.

At last we found the car, and liberated from the dust, the glow lights, and the Chemical Brothers, we headed to the oasis of the Ace Hotel. After a day in the dirt, I didn’t want to pound my fist in the ground, but it was nice to see a quality DJ spin in an intimate environment. Flying Lotus and friends reminded me that while a desert spectacle can be impressive, music is better when it’s part of a community. Hopefully the next day at Coachella would provide a little of both.

Dan Collins