Another sun has set on the biggest festival in music, with Weekend One of Coachella 2016 wrapping up its 17th iteration. And while festival-goers are already talking about next year, the debate over whether this year lived up to the hype rages on. In the words of Charles Dickens, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times—and here’s the breakdown.
Worst of Times
This year it seemed that the only place to get some breathing room was in the parking lot. Perhaps it was the lure of Guns N’ Roses’ Sunset Strip-era rock and roll, but even VIP looked like a pack of well-dressed sardines—and that was just Friday. By Sunday, the sea of people was so massive you’d have thought some sort of human ice cap melted.
The Cameo Crisis
With the right cameo, some of the worst music on Earth can be dubbed an overall success. It’s not just about bringing top performers to the desert stage; it’s about who those performers bring along with them. When Ice Cube, who was doing just fine on his own, only reunited two-thirds of the remaining members of N.W.A., it felt like a bit of a letdown. When did that happen? When the expectation of a mind-blowing cameo eclipses the talent of the performer, you get Madonna kissing Drake. A cameo’s purpose should be the elevation of the performance. It’s now a tricky situation for artists whose fest power is predicated on the heft of their address book. We loved a great cameo where it worked this year (see: Ke$ha’s powerful moment with Zedd, or Angus Young with Guns N’ Roses), but as years go by, the cameo crisis will only breed more indignation.
Coming off of Drake’s cringe-worthy Sunday set last year, the festival had some making up to do. Scottish DJ Calvin Harris is no slouch, but bumping other people’s vocals over heavy house beats for two hours with only Rihanna as a heavyweight special guest (which he did in 2012 for the exact same song) made it seem more karaoke than Coachella.
Best of Times
Most performers would relish the ego boost that comes with playing one of the biggest stages in the world, but not Sia. Anyone who caught her intensely passionate Grammy performance with Kristen Wiig would be equally amazed by her live act on Sunday. The singer delivered powerhouse vocals from the side of the stage and shifted the visual attention to her performers, namely 13-year-old Maddie Ziegler, who gave the desert one of the best pieces of performance art Coachella has ever seen.
The Festival Landscape
Subtle changes to the grounds made for a much more visually appealing experience. While there was no caterpillar metamorphosis or oversized astronaut this year, the art pieces this year were tasteful and appropriate. A giant flowered “Besame Mucho” art piece provided all the romantic Coachella snaps one would need. “The Armpit” was an intentionally janky installation that gave elevated views of the festival most have never seen. Signage was more than just block lettering, with even tree planter boxes being decorated with recycled posters from years past. Even the path through parking had some art piece, making the skyline of portapotties that much more interesting. If less is more was the approach, the plan worked well, and the view from the Ferris wheel was a sight not to be missed.
If You Can’t Beat ’Em, Join ’Em
Spoiler alert: Guns N’ Roses f’n rocked. From their opener of “It’s So Easy” to album cuts like “Estranged” and “Double Talkin’ Jive,” GNR brought a nostalgia to the main stage that still felt as vital as it did in 1986. Confined to Dave Grohl’s throne-on-loan to mend his broken foot, Axl still gave his trademark wail and serpentine wiggle to the main stage audience, many of whom were surprised he could still hit those high notes. “Sorry I can’t do my thing,” he offered to the crowd, referring to his foot, but as consolation he brought the biggest surprise guest to the stage, AC/DC’s Angus Young to rock covers of “Whole Lotta Rosie” and “Riff Raff.” If that weren’t enough, the crowd went berserk when it was revealed that Axl would take Brian Johnson’s place as the new lead singer of AC/DC. If anyone could upstage AC/DC after their headlining spot last year, it would be Axl Rose actually joining AC/DC.
Gary Clark Jr. at the KROQ House
Sometimes, the best things in life are free. Watching blues artist Gary Clark Jr. close out the weekend by playing an intimate set at the KROQ House was incredible. Granted, this backyard pool party with artists playing throughout the weekend isn’t open to the general public, so our recommendation is to keep KROQ on speed dial in the run up to the festival to win passes. (Or bake cookies for Stryker. Maybe that’ll work.) Of all the offsite activities that go on during the weekend, the KROQ Party House keeps the focus on good vibes and great music, so if you get the chance, go.
Here Active Listening
For those who received their wristbands in the official Coachella packaging, you may have noticed a card with a code for the Here Active Listening earbud experience. Unlike last year, where purchasers received a pair of Dubs earplugs, this year Coachella festival-goers have the exclusive opportunity to purchase these units with that code. We got a pair to test, and we can report these things are cool. They don’t just cut the decibels. By allowing you to control the EQ of the sound in your ears, listeners can tailor make their own sonic Coachella experience. Want more bass during Ice Cube or when the beat drops in the Do LaB? Turn it up. Want to mellow and shut out the crowds? There’s a preset for that, too. The only downside is that the phone app that pairs with the buds is yet another drain on your battery, so pack a portable charger. According to the company, units for Weekend 2 patrons are still available. Not going to Coachella but still want a pair? You can join the waitlist, currently around 80,000, on the Here Web site.