Music Festivals

Ralphie does Coachella without credentials

This isn't your daddy's Woodstock, your hippie cousin's Bonnaroo or your yuppie Chicago Uncle's Lollapalooza. This is Coachella, man, and it attracts the most pretentious music fans on the planet, who all choose to gather in grassy polo fields and endure intense desert heat for the same reason. We're here to experience a range of acts, from established artists to artists on the upswing to artists who, sadly, should never be let near a stage again (Sly Stone) to dance DJs who absolutely murder crowds (in a space that seems like it was lifted directly from a downtown club and plopped in a giant tent in the Sahara).

Coachella is huge. It's so huge, in fact, that the problem isn't finding an act you'd like to see; rather, it's dealing with the frustration of all the acts you want to see performing at the same time. Coachella could be one of the greatest music festivals in the country, and while this year's edition was one of the best yet, it didn't come without a few major downsides.

When I booked this trip back in January, I figured the days of being spoiled were in the past (despite my best efforts to score some free tickets). Now that I'm out of radio, there would be no more VIP parking, backstage access, artist interviews, golf-cart shuttles from the parking lot to the gate, shuttles from stage to stage avoiding the massive crowds, onstage photo access, air-conditioned trailers, dedicated internet access -- you know, all the perks you take for granted.

Going into this year's event, I figured I would celebrate my birthday by spending a weekend in the California desert enjoying great music. In other words, I was in for the same experience as everyone else.

Usually at Coachella, temperatures hover in the 100s, with crowds of around 50,000 each day. This year, temps were a welcome change -- in the high 80s and low 90s, which soothed fraying nerves a little (particularly for those camping in "tent city") and helped when dealing with the worst traffic and parking situation I've ever seen.

With crowds this large, delays in and out of the festival were to be expected, but this was ridiculous. It was almost as if organizers did not expect most of the sold-out crowd to show up. Estimates put the size of each day's crowd at about 75,000, the same size as at a Broncos game. Now, imagine if everyone attending a Broncos game was forced to funnel onto one lane entering the gates (actually, you don't have to imagine; just remember the DNC).

While that was bad enough, what really ground me in the gears was how the police sat idly by on their motorcycles in the busiest intersections doing absolutely nothing but observing as one lane of traffic was forced to obey by a normal rotating traffic signal - a left turn green arrow signal, no less.

It probably sounds like I'm exaggerating -- but I'm not. At all. On Friday night, we left our hotel at 6:30 p.m. and finally gave up the ghost sometime around midnight. We were STILL a good three miles from the festival grounds when we realized it was a lost cause -- an all-too-painful reminder that there wouldn't be any sort of rock-star treatment this year.

That's all right, I thought. There would be plenty of things to see in the next few days to make up for missing the first night.

But from what I heard, I missed a lot on Friday. Deadmau5 and Pretty Lights reportedly killed in the Sahara tent, while Public Image Limited gave the old schoolers a great show. The thing that lit up Twitter afterward, though (not during, mind you: Cell coverage was also a joke), was Beyonce showing up to sing "Forever Young" with Jay-Z. The rumor of Dr. Dre showing up was just that, however.

Thankfully, Saturday was a different story. We prepared for a giant mess and managed to enter the grounds early. And once we were in, there was nothing to complain about. The massive art installations, beautiful lights and killer sound caused even the most frustrated fans to say it was all worth it. The day easily stood out in most people's minds as their favorite. My girlfriend and I went together; this is how our day went:


2 p.m. - Headed toward festival grounds, proceeded to sit in traffic.

4:15 p.m. - Parked in general parking lot, applied buckets of sunscreen and walked toward the gates.

4:45 p.m. - Waited in a somewhat short line, passed the surprisingly lax security and headed straight for the beer tent.

5:30 p.m. - After more walking and waiting in line, we finally got that first wonderful, refreshing, overpriced beer. We overheard Tokoyo Police Club on the Outdoor Theatre (I'm still surprised they were tapped to play the main stage).

6:15 p.m. - Headed toward the Outdoor Theatre to catch XX.

6:40 p.m. - Fought falling asleep standing to XX. WOW! What a boring set. Walked back toward the Coachella Stage for Coheed and Cambria.

7:05 p.m. - Decided to leave Coheed and try to catch some of the artists in the tents. I'm not sure what it was about Coheed and Cambria this time, but it just didn't quite fit the vibe of this year's festival.

7:20 p.m. - Felt like a salmon swimming upstream. Gave up on going over to the tents and headed back toward the outdoor stages.

7:35 p.m. - Caught Hot Chip at the Outdoor Theatre. The bouncy, live dance beat had everyone moving. I'd caught them a few years back when they played Coachella in the Sahara tent, and claimed to be from LA. This time at the Outdoor Theatre, they said they were from London. Hmm...

7:50 p.m. - Headed over to the Coachella Stage for what was my favorite part of the entire weekend: Faith No More. Mike Patton and company opened with "Reunited (and it feels so good)." Spirits were lifted almost immediately. This was one of those magical moments that made enduring the heat and crowds more than worth it. (Thank you, Coachella, for checking yet another band off my bucket list.)

The performance was amazing, and was probably the hardest-rocking set I saw all weekend. Covers of Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson were spliced in almost subliminally, as only Mike Patton could do. Loved it!

8:30 p.m. - Walked toward the tents, purposely avoiding MGMT -- still annoyed with how awful their new album, Congratulations, is. Seemed like people agreed with me, as most of us were fighting each other to get to another stage, until something unexpected happened: "Electric Feel" came through the speakers and everyone stopped in their tracks, and suddenly a massive dance party broke out. Another magical Coachella moment. It wasn't good enough to make people want to stay to see the end of their set, but it was cool, nonetheless.

8:45 p.m. - Back at the beer tent, we overheard David Guetta play a jam-packed Sahara tent. I had to see what the deal was.

9 p.m. - Slammed the beer and headed over to listen to Guetta spin "Smack my bitch up." He was surrounded by two dudes in suits covered in LEDs, with freaking laser beams coming out of their hands, followed by smoke. Everyone inside the tent lost their damn minds, and that was generally the feeling of the Sahara tent all weekend. They could probably have powered the stage with the energy being generated in that tent.

9:45 p.m. - Headed to the Mojave tent to see Major Lazer. I suppose the lack of name recognition (even though Major Lazer is Diplo and Switch) kept them out of the Sahara tent? As it turned out, fest organizers made the right call by keeping them in the smaller tent, as their crowd was less than large.

10 p.m. - Made the decision not to fight the crowds and walk across the festival grounds to catch Muse. In retrospect, I really wish I would have seen at least some of their set, but this is a marathon, not a race. Battles need to be chosen, and knowing the Sahara tent would be slammed for Die Antwoord, we decided to grab some water and watch Z-Trip. Plus, Muse has a canceled show to make up for here in Denver, so I knew I'd see them on this tour at some point.

10:30 p.m. - When DJ Z-Trip took the state, he said he's spinning with a broken collarbone (um, what?!). He then threw down one of the sickest sets I've ever seen him spin (and he recorded it ... not sure what he's doing with it, but the sound man had two digital recorders rolling the entire time). The man became a legend with his Coachella set years ago. Unfortunately, with Muse onstage as a headliner at the opposite end of the park, the tent wasn't nearly as packed as it should have been.

11:35 p.m. - We hadn't moved an inch since Z-Trip went on when the most anticipated act of the Sahara took the stage: South Africa's own Die Antwoord played their first-ever show here in the States. While only a half hour long, we still were treated to the dick-swinging Ninja in Pink Floyd boxers. Yolanda's high-pitched voice and the next level beats had everyone proclaiming they'd just seen their next favorite band. Dita Von Tesse tweeted, "Best of Coachella so far, Die Antwoord". I won't go so far as to say that, but they showed up and exceeded my expectations. Fooking zef.

12:05 a.m. - Exhausted, we walked past the packed Mojave tent where Devo was playing. I heard it was a great set and apparently Paris Hilton was there, but I just wanted to make it to the car and survive the massive headache of leaving the festival.

12:30 a.m. - Tiesto was on the main stage as we walked back toward the lot. I still don't understand why he commanded a headlining slot on the main stage, but I suppose it could be worse.

3 a.m. - Finally got out of the lot and headed back toward our hotel.


11 a.m. - Woke up and began preparing for a much more low-key day at Coachella. Really only looking forward to the Gorillaz, Pavement, De La Soul, Club 75 and Thom Yoke. There were a few other artists in there that would be great to see, but again, Coachella is all about choices

1:30 p.m. - Left for festival grounds

2:15 p.m. - Are you shitting me? We only sat in traffic for 45 minutes? The day started off just fine!

2:30 p.m. - Beer tent!

2:50 p.m. - Sunday was the hottest day of the festival, and we were feeling it. Tried our best to stay hydrated and energetic, but could feel our bodies shutting down. Hoped to catch our second wind.

3:50 p.m. - After eating taquitos that tasted like dirt wrapped in paper, De La Soul took the stage. I'd say about 70 percent of those inside the festival stopped to catch De La's first-ever Coachella set. There was a full band, and after every song De La thanked the crowd and showed their appreciation. Great set, one of the highlights for sure.

5 p.m. - Walked to the Sahara to see what Club 75 was all about -- and so did anybody who had even the slightest bit of party left in them. This tent was jam-packed, front to back, side to side, spilling out of every open section. But there was WAY too much heat to stand for more than about fifteen minutes. We danced and then made our way back to the beer tent.

6 p.m. - Julian Casablancas played a packed set in the Mojave tent. I saw one song, which was enough for me at that point. My patience was clearly wearing thin.

7 p.m. - Sly Stone was nowhere to be found. Giant disappointment.

7:15 p.m. - We decided to take a ride on the Ferris wheel to see Phoenix from the sky. Like MGMT the day before, I hadn't planned on seeing this set at all. For me, nothing will ever top when they played the Bluebird on the day Michael Jackson died. And I didn't want to ruin that previous experience with this exhausted day three Coachella set.

7:45 p.m. - Exhausted, we headed to the beer tent, as it had the best places to relax. I laid back, listened to Pavement (which sounded really good, despite being about 200 yards away), and looked at text after text fly in when my phone got about ten seconds of service. (Note to AT&T: I thought you promised added coverage for us? Lies!)

9 p.m. - Headed over to the Outdoor Theatre for Thom Yorke. Wish I could have seen more!! I heard he did a few Radiohead songs, and that Flea and Thom Yorke impressed the hell out of everybody. Coachella, choices and all that. We found a picnic table and chilled with twenty Australians as we waited for the Gorillaz take the stage.

10:30 p.m. - Gorillaz! A video of Snoop played, welcoming everyone to the Plastic Beach, followed by an orchestra and a full live set actually showing the faces of Damon and the rest of the crew -- not just a sheet up with animation playing. This had 75,000 people or so mesmerized, and served as a fitting end to an incredible and unforgettable weekend.

Some were disappointed in the Gorillaz's somewhat low-tempo set, and they did play a lot of tracks from their new CD. Even so, it was a good choice for a headliner. Some suggested that Jay-Z should have closed it all down, as his headlining set was the most powerful (wish I would've seen it!), but after three long days of sunburns, heat exhaustion and sensory overload, Gorillaz was just what the doctor ordered.

10:50 p.m. - We got word that Sly Stone had been found and would be taking the stage at the Mojave tent! We missed getting over there by about five minutes, but from what I heard, it was one of the most horrible and just plain sad sets of not only the weekend, but all Coachella history. He played in front of about 100 people, most of whom either walked away or laughed at him. He never should have been on stage; he was just an absolute mess.

11:45 p.m. - We left a few songs early to beat traffic. Good choice; we get out of the lot at 12:20 p.m. and headed back to our hotel, hoping to recharge for our trip home.

CRITIC'S (EXTENDED) NOTEBOOK Acts I wish I would've seen: Too many to list, but LCD Soundsystem, Public Image Limited, Jay-Z, Mike Snow, Flying Lotus, 2ManyDJ's, Muse and Pretty Lights top my regrets. Biggest dumbass move on my part: Thinking the private pool party I was invited to on Saturday featuring Denver's DJ Rex and Pretty Lights was from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. -- yeah, it was 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Most annoying trend: All the feathers and warpaint everyone was wearing. I thought Nava-glo style went out a few years ago? Note to Cali hipsters: It's racist and offensive to mock Native Americans like that. What are you going to accessorize with next year, a noose? Take that shit off. Best new camping feature: Lit-up swing set Thoughts for next year: Camp in an RV and bring a bike. Festival organizers say they'll improve parking, but I don't trust them. Suggestions for Mile High Music Festival: Allow overnight camping! Having a DJ spin on an outdoor roller rink until 3 a.m. and not needing to worry about being pulled over on the way home is a great way to spend a festival evening. Hopes for the 2011 festival: No volcano ash keeping UK acts away, cleaner porta-potties and BETTER TRAFFIC MANAGEMENT.

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Chris Randour