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The 12th edition of the Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival – long considered the U.S.’ preeminent music fest, with a format that’s been a blueprint for everything from Bonnaroo to the current incarnation of Lollapalooza – got underway at the Empire Polo Fields in Indio, Calif. Friday
Day 1 featured notable sets from major artists including alt-rock hitmakers Kings of Leon and former Fugee/notoriously unreliable diva Lauryn Hill, as well a microscope on its logistics, thanks to a near-disastrous last year that organizers have since admitted put the field the fest is on far over capacity and led to a situation that security officers have been quoted as saying was near riotous.
The changes that’ve been made since then were obvious to anyone who’s a veteran of the Desert-based festival: gone were time consuming, easy-to-take advantage-of lines trading paper tickets for wristbands via casual volunteers, replaced by an efficient, mechanical system to ensure that admission (in the form of high-tech coded, embedded microchips) was legit. Gone were the gate-crashers, replaced by major security on the outskirts of the festival grounds, and a rigid, no-nonsense policy on sneak-ins. And gone, thanks to both these policies and a lower cap on sales, was a too-crowded field, it’s expansiveness ensured not just from the new security policies, but a block of land that’s been leveled and given over to the crowd rather than to vendors, leading to more air, more grass – and far less stress.
The changes (and more minor ones, including the addition of a small dance dome and screens at every one of the five main stages), along with a typically-eclectic, top-heavy lineup, made the day feel slightly less overbearing than Coachella usually is – an excellent start to a weekend rather than an overly notable collection of music on its own.
Of course, there were exceptions: for many, the aforementioned Hill just showing up was enough to lead to mass excitement; the fact that her set was full of tight, joyful renditions of some of her most-beloved hits (“Everything Is Everything;” “Fugee-La”) was mere icing. The Killers’ Brandon Flowers convincingly preened through ’80s-leaning numbers like “Crossfire” on the smaller Outdoor Theater stage before surprising the audience by inviting his bandmates Dave Kuening and Mark Stoemer to join him on their hits “Read My Mind” and “Mr. Brightside,” effectively reuniting the 2009 headliners for a more-intimate set.
There were disappointments, too: the ultra-hyped hip-hop group Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, a revelation recently at South By Southwest, were eaten up by their placement on the dance-heavy Sahara stage (originally playing to a jammed tent full of buzz-hungry hipsters, by their second song, the audience was leaving in droves, and even a cameo from N.E.R.D.-leader Pharrell Williams couldn’t save them). Soul man Cee-Lo Green came on late, bitterly blasted through three songs (including his breakthrough hit “F–k You”), and was cut off by the venue overlords during a version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” And headliners Kings of Leon’s roots-inspired rock seemed divisive at best, with many attendees choosing to skip out on it and get some rest either to dance afterwards for a late-night Chemical Brothers set or to prep for Saturday’s headlining set from recent Album of the Year Grammy Winners The Arcade Fire.
But despite all that, it’s clear that Coachella’s got it’s groove back; with two more days to go, a slow start is OK – so long as it picks up momentum, without also somehow acquiring hangers-on.
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