The best four hours of live music I’ve ever experienced took place at the Coachella festival in 2004. It was a Pixies/ Radiohead/ Kraftwerk/ TV on the Radio back-to-back-to-back-to-back string of sets that only Coachella or a European festival could have offered. The Empire Polo fields in the California desert have been sacred ground for U.S. music festivals ever since Coachella’s inception in the fall of 1999, and that spring afternoon in 2004 — my fifth time at the festival — was so epic, I have yet to return.
My day started much earlier than the Pixies’ set but that’s what I remember kicking off my “Afternoon Not to Be Forgotten.” The Pixies’ reunion tour had started about two weeks earlier, and I had already seen them three times, having flown myself to Minnesota to catch their first reunion show. (Yes, I know I have a raging battle with the concept of moderation.) I needed to see them with 40,000 people, and it was wonderful. Not a bad appetizer for Radiohead, who took the stage just as the last bits of purple sunset were ducking out of site in the desert sky. They made a majestic offering to the gods. They’re one of the best live bands in existence right now and, fan or not, they’re worth seeing. I suspect that is why they’re performing on the Grammys, to give those who have never seen them a little taste.
This is where the experience gets uniquely Coachella. We left Radiohead’s set after about an hour because my electronic automaton heroes, Kraftwerk, were playing in a tent a few hundred yards away. There’s something incredibly illicit-feeling about having a dance party inside a tent in the middle of the California desert. I’m not a hippie, but I imagine this is why some people are. That Kraftwerk set marked what was supposed to be the end of the night, except that word had traveled that TV on the Radio were playing an on-grounds afterparty for Urb magazine that we talked our ways into. It was nice to see some familiar faces out in the desert, some New York faces, introducing themselves and their music to the Cali heads. Their hour-long set sort of crept up on people, from the tuning of instruments and migrating into what I think was their first song, “Young Liars.” By the time they were done, it was 1:30 a.m. and we were off into the desert night to cause mischief.
There’s been a lot of chatter here in the office and with friends online about how the Coachella lineup this year isn’t that amazing. Paul McCartney, the Killers, the Cure, Amy Winehouse, etc. Sometimes we live in insular bubbles, and hearing the names of bands that come through New York all the time doesn’t really pack a punch. But that’s not what has made my past Coachella experiences memorable. For me, Coachella is about the unexpected. It’s about trapezing from one stage to another, rushing to see Sigur Ros play to an afternoon crowd in one tent and then rushing off to dance to Underworld a few minutes later. It’s about sampling the dozens of bands those of you who don’t live in New York or L.A. or Chicago or San Francisco haven’t seen yet.
And it’s also about the desert. It’s about absorbing the heat and running into old friends and making a stop at Joshua Tree on Friday morning and partying long into the night at some band’s golf-course villa on Saturday night. It’s about dipping into the pool on Sunday morning and seeing some of your favorite bands in a place that just seems a bit unreal.
And because of 2004, I’ll probably never go again …