When you get to whatever far-flung location you traveled to Indio, California, from, people hit you right away with, “How was Coachella?” Could be your spouse, could be a neighbor; they always ask that same simple question.
The answer is more complicated and depends on when you get asked. Sunday night? You might get a 1,000-yard stare and a grunt. It takes time to know how Coachella was. You have to get the dust and dirt off, you have to re-hydryate, you have to, well, blow your nose. A lot.
It’s no exaggeration to say Coachella is a living thing, I had lots of worries about what would make it through the pandemic: restaurants, bars, nail shops, civilization. But I never worried about Coachella. It’s the beating, breathing residue of a couple hundred thousand people. When you return to your tent, your hotel, your home after a night of Coachella, it’s still happening, you can still feel it and may feel it for days, the thrum, the vibration inside your body from being around all that bass, all that volume, all those people. Yes, you can hear ringing, but you feel that thrum, that essence of the ordeal, the ecstasy, the lights.
Coachella tests you, every time, in myriad ways. The wind, the crowds, the vast distances – photos can never do justice to the queen of the desert; it’s too big. Something like a mile by a half-mile. The tents are crazy big, on the order of a hundred yards squared, and then there’s the Sahara Tent, a massive man-made structure bristling with light rigging and looking like nothing so much as a piece of space hardware, only there’s 20,000 dancing, smoking people inside it. By Day 3, you think nothing of walking a half-mile to go get those dumplings you saw yesterday, to hopscotching from the main outdoor stage to the Mojave tent, and then back to the Outdoor stage. How much walking is that? For many people it works out to about a mile, maybe a little more, per band. Saw 10 bands? You walked 12 miles. It’s not for the wary.
The weather this year, as is often the case, had a mind, a will, eccentricities all its own. Day 1, it was blowing, gusting 20-30 miles an hour, especially at dusk when all the heat of the day leaves the desert valley in a long whoosh that makes your hoodie that you lugged around all day seem laughable. Would a meteorologist say it was 62 degrees that night with a wind chill that made it feel 10-15 degrees colder? Maybe. All those stylish, barely clad sunburned folks paid, deeply, for their choices on Friday night. Saturday, Coachella relented, bringing forth a day of relative heat, enough to keep the night warm, and the winds died down, other than the occasional dust devil. Coldchella gave us a pass this year, other than Day 1. Sunday, though, the sun made everyone pay mercilessly, the mercury blasting up and over 90 and making it a game of hydration. These things matter to a festival-goer, they change their experience. Now they’re looking for shade, for air-conditioning, for the water misters up on the Terraces, where shade and moisture give rise to a Coachella subculture, with people making a day of it, hiking a half-mile for food or restroom. The vibe is the same inside the air-conditioned Yuma Tent, where ravers make themselves at home for three days, breaking only when the night shuts them down.
Most people don’t know that Weekend 2 Coachella-goers have a whole different experience. Sure, Lizzo and Kendrick Lamar popped up on Friday on the main stage with Harry, but for the most part, it’s slim pickings guest appearance-wise. There’s no Shania Twain with Harry Styles, no Damon Albarn with Billie Eilish. And, there’s no Arcade Fire set, period. They never showed up for this past weekend, despite being a late addition the week prior. OK, well, Lizzo did pop up at Harry's set. At 1 a.m. Not all of us were there.
You have to understand the scale of Coachella to properly understand the thing, to understand why photographs are eye-popping but just can’t do the place justice. It’s really too big to see end-to-end, something like a mile by a half-mile. Everything takes forever. Gotta go the bathroom? OK, leave the Sonora Tent, walk all the way around it, past the hundred-yard gap between it and the Mojave Tent, walk through hundreds, maybe thousands of people spilling out of the “tent” which is really an open air shed, then walk the hundred yards to the left of it, then battle hundreds of people for a Port-a-Potty. And framing it all, the iconic craggy mountains of the Coachella Valley, and the half-mile long string of balloons, lit up magically and changing color, klieg lights shining into the night sky from the art installations and the stages, the driving bass everywhere – boom, boom, boom – pounding in your head and your chest. The main stage and its bracketing screens are in the neighborhood of the length of a football field, and half a football field high. Every tenth of a mile or so away from the stage, there are light poles with speakers, going back, back, back to the very back, where, you’re so far away, that the audio has to be adjusted for what you see on the stage screens or they would look out of synch.
If there was a big negative this year, it’s the creeping sensation that Coachella is moving toward an experience for the 1 Percenters. Each year, the terraces and beer garden adjoining the main stage field seem to contract more and more. It’s gotten so bad now that thirsty folks have to leave the area entirely, walk a quarter-mile away to use the restroom. Is it like this in VIP land? I doubt it. And then there are the prices.
Coachella is largely a cashless world now, but every time you buy something, you have to touch a screen recently well-loved by a thousand other people. And you’ll pay dearly for it all. Pizza, sort of a baseline for the economy, was $11 a slice. That’s not a typo. That’s not fancy pizza for the gourmands. And, incredibly, that’s taxed. So, really, you’re handing over twelve bucks for a slice. Beers start at a dozen dollars, too, plus tax and tip. Mixed drinks are even stiffer, pardon the pun. Food’s not a lot better. Eight dumplings set one back $16, plus tax, plus tip, as will a bowl of bland rice, dry chicken and a couple squirts of hot sauce. And you have many, many more expensive options. Happily, the one thing still sensibly priced is water: $2.
So, what cost an unpleasant $9 for a beer three years ago has swollen by nearly 4 bucks with tax. Just once, I’d like to go out and buy something that has gone up by the oft-cited 8.5% inflation. That would be, what? A ten-dollar beer?
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Still, one wonders if some of this is intentional. High prices+difficulty ordering drinks+bathroom challenge=a lot less visibly drunk people. Crazy like a fox? Maybe.
How was my Coachella? Great. Ask me next week.
Many of the restroom areas are gender-neutral, which has lots of women scouting port-a-potties for TP late at night. Still, we never encountered crazy long lines, just long lines.
PHRASES THAT SHOULD BE BANNED: How you doing, Coachella? How you feeling, Coachella? Weekend 2 is way better. Put your hands up, Coachella. Ugh. Just ugh.
What is better this year is that there are many, many more hydrations stations, with lines that can be just crazy too. Lines for churros, lines for charging stations, lines everywhere you go.
And standing in those lines? Chill, good-natured, patient folks, who rarely rise in emotional temperature. In eight or nine years of attending Coachella, I’ve never seen a fight, maybe just one or two arguments … how do they do that?
ACTS WE LOVED, IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER
- Harry Styles
- The Regrettes *
- Epik High
- The Regrettes
- Amyl & the Sniffers
- Phoebe Bridgers
- Giselle Woo & the Night Owls
- Omar Apollo
- Still Woozy
*Best set of the day
- Danny Elfman *
- Megan Thee Stallion
- Billie Eilish
- Beach Goons
- Surf Curse
- Beach Bunny
- Japanese Breakfast
- Girl in Red
- Vince Staples
- Duck Sauce
- The Weeknd
- Swedish House Mafia *
- Doja Cat
- Karol G
- Maggie Rogers
- Orville Peck