INDIO, Calif. — Jay-Z’s most talked about Coachella performance might not have been his headlining set on Friday.
Though the rapper’s triumphant hit parade overjoyed the tens of thousands of fans crowning the first night of their three-day odyssey of music, art and California desert vibes, spotting Jay’s sunglassed visage at the side-stage indie rock shows became a favorite game for the audience.
There he was, shaking hands with Brooklyn’s electro-pop exotica act Yeasayer (or, as Jay shouted them out on the Main Stage, “the Yeasayers”). Perched up front and displayed on the video screens overhead, he nodded along with the spare and romantic beats of London’s the xx.
Wandering with wife Beyonce, who also briefly joined him onstage Friday for the most pure pop presence in Coachella history outside of Madonna’s 2006 turn, Hova let his freak flag fly to L.A.’s hippie revivalists in Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros.
Something about the weekend compelled Jay, who could have been golfing in Dubai or keeping the White House’s Lincoln Bedroom warm, to stick around.
But then, he earned his weekend pass. Onstage, Jay ran through many of his most beloved hits — “Big Pimpin’,” “Run This Town” and “Show Me What You Got,” as well as his biggest hit to date, “Empire State of Mind.”
As well, Jay reprised his cover of Oasis’ epochal hit “Wonderwall” — an oblique reference to the rapper’s gangbuster festival debut at the U.K.’s Glastonbury Festival in 2008, the year Oasis’ chief songwriter, Noel Gallagher, decreed it was “wrong” to have a rhyme-spitter claim the top spot at the historically rock-oriented festival.
How times have changed, a reality punctuated in the closing moments of his set with a blaze of pyrotechnics illuminating the sky over Indio. The crowd roared its collective approval and extended the Brooklyn-born MC by forming his characteristic “diamond-cutter” symbol. The kick-off set the tone.
For weeks leading up to the festival, fans griped on Facebook over ticketing changes that eliminated single-day passes. Unlike in previous years, there was no dipping in for one favorite band on Saturday and then back home to a pool party, unless your nearly $300 ticket was chump change.
Despite the griping, this was Coachella’s first weekend-long sellout, and at an estimated 75,000 fans per day, its biggest and most successful turn yet.
And a bevy of new features, including the late-night DJ series in the campgrounds, the remote-controlled sharks trawling the grounds and an A-list of L.A. food trucks, appeared to make a certain promise to fans: If you followed Coachella down its new three-day rabbit hole, you’ll come out the other end thrilled in ways you wouldn’t get in small doses: Everything from the art to the music to the unlikely friendships that grow over a whole weekend together.
Clinton Helzer, a 28-year-old carpenter from Philadelphia and a Coachella newbie, wouldn’t have considered anything less than the whole bill. “If you’re going to do it, do it all,” he said, while taking in a Saturday afternoon at one of the Coachella’s most seminal off-site parties, the Anthem Lagoon.
Though Helzer expressed enthusiasm for Hot Chip’s soulful and precise electropop, he said it was the “great variety of acts and talent” that appealed to him.
Most of all, Helzer echoed the confidence that many Coachella fans have in the festival. “I’ve heard so much about it. If you’re down with new music, you go to Coachella. It’s a crapshoot — you just pick a band and it works out.”
Not everything worked out to plan. Early festival gossip buzzed from a flurry of cancellations, including Delphic, Frightened Rabbit and Bad Lieutenant, due to the ash released from an Iceland volcano grounding flights throughout Northern Europe. And a counterfeit-ticket scam spoiled the weekend for many hopeful deal-seeking fans.
The festival also always yields some fizzles. Wale missed most of his set, and Fever Ray’s theatrical goth didn’t benefit from its Mojave tent setting, but these kinds of misses are beside the point. Coachella’s successful because, on a per capita basis, it remains a generally low-risk way to sate a curiosity for new music.
It’s a cultural crash course, designed to enlighten, but always with optimal freedom to ditch out for the beer garden or the DoLaB, the festival’s euphoric dance and performance art locus with fire dancing and aerial acrobats.
This year’s lazy Susan approach to fans’ schedules meant that mid-level bands could catch a fire and fill a tent with passersby.
Already high off their buzzed-about appearance at this year’s South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, the xx outdrew the Main Stage with its unlikely but exquisitely moving blend of R&B vocal duets, dubstep-inspired drum loops and ethereal guitars that recalled the best of New Order and the Cure. Yeasayer’s arabesque melodies and euphoric tribal techno cemented it as one of the most capable passport-pop bands today.
The Brooklyn duo Sleigh Bells, despite scant recorded output, pushed a lunchtime crowd into near delirium with its metal-inflected party pop, and Die Antwoord, the deliciously trashy South African hip-hop duo who lit up the Internet as a suspected novelty act, proved they had an overwhelming magnetism and a ferocious, deadly serious lyrical flow.
The true left-field acts were the cachet elder bands, namely the reunited ’90s indie heroes Pavement and the snarling post-punk pioneers Public Image Ltd., who offered a master class in the volatile blend of disco, dub and the avant-garde that informed LCD Soundsystem’s rapturous punk-funk (especially in an explosive take of its single “Yeah”) and many of Coachella’s previous breakout bands, such as Bloc Party.
The Coachella appearance can also be the ultimate validation for a fan devoted to one artist. Arty electropop cutie La Roux drew a crowd of fanatics for her Gobi tent appearance. The bombastic soundscape pop of Muse had fist-pumping shirtless men spread all over the polo field.
The three-day ticket rule, along with the ins-and-outs rule, helped foster community, the kind that Nevada’s participant-driven Burning Man festival has been building for years.
The ubiquity of Coachella-related iPhone apps made it ever easier for friends to stick together and spread the word about great new finds. And unexpectedly cool weather — topping out in the low 90s — kept spirits high and dehydration low.
Coachella’s always been a destination point for new music fans, but in past years it’s worked more as a facilitator of particular acts, or as a casual weekend out for Angelenos. For better or worse, Coachella’s new format requires much more devotion — in time, money and attention. Fans had to believe in the totality of the experience.
In return, Coachella’s organizers had to believe in its audience, that festival-goers could be challenged and tested and relied upon to show up and take advantage of everything on offer. All signs suggested that the experiment worked, and that it will alter the fest in deep and permanent ways in the future, changing the type of person who attends and the motivations that fans arrive with.
Less important now, perhaps, are the Paris Hilton cameos and the volleying texts about the coolest after-parties instead of the best music. Coachella is asking for a commitment. If Jay-Z and Beyonce liked the whole weekend enough to put a ring on it, so can the rest of us.