The beauty (or not, depending on your point of view) of the Coachella Music and Arts Festival is that there’s no longer one Coachella Music Festival. Once a one-day event attended by 10,000 people, the Indio bacchanalia has become a rite of passage for North America’s 25-and-under population.
In 2013, it occupies half the weekends in April, with over 100 acts competing for attention, spread out across seven stages and enough art installations to satisfy even the most ardent aesthetic snob. Headliners this year include the reunited Stone Roses, Blur, Phoenix and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Rumors of a Daft Punk appearance remain rampant.
But if there’s a unifying theme that’s emerged from the last few festivals, it’s that electronic music has supplanted rock as the primary locus. That’s not to say that there weren’t bravura sets from America and England’s most celebrated rock bands, but none could match the MDMA-addled hordes that congregated in the Sahara Tent, the festival’s dedicated airplane hanger for electronic dance music.
There’s even a fissure in terms of the dance music that you might expect to hear. There is “EDM” and there is “electronic dance music.” The former is theoretically a acronym for the latter, but it’s become a shorthand for the explosive heavy metal-like incarnation of American electronic.
Its main stars clotted the Sahara tent on Friday: the LA moombahton maestro Dillon Francis, Bassnectar, Wolfgang Garner, and Dog Blood. Don’t be surprised that you don’t know who Dog Blood are. Comprised of EDM superstars Skrillex and Boys Noize, Coachella was one of their first performances together and anticipation was feverish. Judging from the pandemonium of the crowd and the adulatory response on social media networks, Dog Blood was a festival highlight for thousands of concertgoers.
If you rank among the uninitiated to the cult of EDM, both the volume of the worship and the music may perplex you. The kids in the Sahara Tent live for the drop—the moment the beat kicks in and the bass turns behemoth. Flashing strobelights attack with epileptic fury. No one is quite sure how to dance because there is no pocket in the beat, so they just pogo around and wave their arms and go berserk. It replicates the feeling of a constant barrage of grenades being hurled, and you have to keep bouncing for fear of your own self-destruction.
Unless you were up close, it was almost impossible to see Skrillex or Boys Noise. The visuals at a 2013 EDM show are meant to augment the inherent limitations of being a guy head-banging in front of a laptop (no matter how cool your haircut is). So there were flashing LED screams and the name Dog Blood scrawled in anarchistic lettering. It felt like attending the world’s most joyous Satanic ritual.
Dog Blood played a dubsteppier remix of the Skrillex and A$AP Rocky collaboration, “Wild for the Night.” It fit the mood and the crowd writhed in Pavlovian response. They reworked the Die Antwoord song, “Fatty Boom Boom” with bass that felt sonic. It was mystifying but fascinating—the Sahara Tent became its own congregation complete with everything but the swinging incense.
The question was, Do you believe in the gospel or not? A different but similar ceremony was conducted directly by the group, TNGHT. Another electronic super-group composed of Canada’s Lunice and Scottish DJ wizard and Kanye West-affiliate Hudson Mohawke, TNGHT delivered the day’s most dazzling electronic performance. Whereas Dog Blood took the most searing moments of hardcore punk and metal and turn them into beats, TNGHT fuse classic hip-hop, Southern trap rap, and avant-garde electronic into an innovative new form.
The crowd at the TNGHT show was only half the size of Dog Blood, but it was still swarmed. With deep grooves and iron-fisted drums, the DJs got the audience to roar along to anthems like “Higher Ground” and “Gooo.” They remixed Kanye West’s “Mercy” (which Mohawke played keyboard). They re-worked West’s remix of Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like” and in the process took it from a Southside Chicago trap anthem into an afro-futurist dance party in a dingy London night club. They proved that electronic dance music is far more than the response you get from turning the volume up to 11.
Blur, meanwhile, proved that they still remain the best group to emerge from the mid-’90s Britpop scene. Even though “Parklife” was an anthem intended for the alienated English youth of the post-Thatcher era, it still resonated with the American masses in 2013.
Buoyed by four backing singers and a horn section, the Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon-propelled ensemble are the rare veteran outfit whose songs evince little soppy nostalgia even two decades on. Maybe it’s the hyper-specific nods to British life that statesiders can’t fully empathize with, or maybe it’s just that timeless songs transcend any generational gap. But songs like “Beetlebum,” “Caramel,” and “Tender” were touching even for those whose favorite movie isn’t Trainspotting.
Damon Albarn deadpanned, “it’s nice to enjoy your sunshine,” drily noting the contrast between the dour London weather that inspired his songs and the sizzling Southern California sun. The set ended with – what else? – “Song 2.” The crowd might no longer feel heavy metal, but they still dig Blur. Woo-hoo.
Other highlights: Jurassic 5 reunited for their first performance in six years to bring their old-school feel-good vibes to a festival that could always use more. Earl Sweatshirt was aided by Tyler, the Creator and Domo Genesis to deliver the most kinetic and energetic rap performance of the day. Lowlight: The entrance line at the Yuma tent was so long that few people could see the electronic wizardry of British star, Four Tet. by Jeff Weiss