By Steve Baltin
If you interviewed all 60,000-plus Coachella festival attendees you'd likely get 60,000-plus different descriptions of what makes the desert festival special. Sure, 30,000 to 40,000 of those people are often watching the same Coachella moment, like when Gwen Stefani, Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, and more came out for Pharrell Williams' star-drenched performance, or when Arcade Fire schooled the youngsters in attendance on the GRAMMY-winning band's roots, bringing out Deborah Harry to sing lead on the Blondie dance classic "Heart Of Glass."
Kicking off April 11, weekend one of the 15th installment of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival was filled with these types of individual moments that augmented three days overloaded with musical highlights. One of the more anticipated acts on day one was the Replacements, making their first California appearance since the '90s. Their set was vintage Replacements, occasionally haphazard, like the false start on "Bastards Of Young," where frontman Paul Westerberg asked, "Is that all we're gonna play?" But when it all clicked on songs such as "Left Of The Dial," the full version of "Bastards Of Young" and "Alex Chilton," it was a beautiful memory brought back to life. And for the guy wearing the Mats jersey with the number one on it, who seemed to keep his arms raised for more than an hour, it was clearly the high point of the weekend.
Other Friday highlights included the Afghan Whigs, another reunited band. The Greg Dulli-fronted group went heavy on their yet-to-be released new album, Do To The Beast. A loyal group packed the Mojave Tent and welcomed the new songs fiercely. They were also rewarded with stellar versions of Whigs' favorites such as "Fountain And Fairfax" and "Going To Town," generating loud sing-alongs, even from those pushed up against the barricade. AFI also delivered a crowd-pleasing set on the main stage, bringing some of the loudest and most effective rock of the weekend, and inspiring tons of photos directed at both the stage and the huge screens.
But the main event of Friday — and arguably the weekend — was the reunion of GRAMMY winners OutKast, comprising André 3000 and Big Boi, who are celebrating the 20th anniversary of their debut album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, in 2014. Fans began streaming to the main stage just before 11 p.m., with many other musicians, including Prince, making their way into the front VIP-viewing area. The duo delivered a roller-coaster set, which featured favorites such as "Hey Ya" and "Ms. Jackson." Working through some technical difficulties, André 3000 complained multiple times about not being able to hear monitors, but guest Janelle Monáe brought additional excitement to the proceedings for her song "Tightrope," which features Big Boi. But for so many of the fans dancing or perched on the shoulders of someone else, it was more about being there for OutKast than the music.
That is often the case at Coachella, which has transformed into a true destination. The festival sells out annually, this year in record time. The reason can be found in not only the fans, but what constituted one of the festival's most eclectic lineups ever, boasting acts such as Muse, Lorde and Chance The Rapper to Motörhead, Aloe Blacc and Zedd, among others.
Talking backstage in the artist area while charging cell phones, a true bonding experience at Coachella, one young teenager asked who I was psyched to see. When I answered "Replacements," he answered, totally respectfully, "Old school." But he was more likely one of the fans who helped overflow the Outdoor Theatre (or second stage) for 17-year-old Lorde's Saturday night set so completely that some came back into the VIP area and watched it on TV rather than fight the capacity throng.
Whatever the Coachella 2014 experience — whether it was spending all day in the Sahara or Yuma tents for dance music, hanging by the main stages, making multiple visits for Spicy Pie pizza (another Coachella tradition), or lying on the grass to score a tan — it was a world unto itself. Coachella has truly become an escape.
(Steve Baltin has written about music for Rolling Stone, Los Angeles Times, MOJO, Chicago Tribune, AOL, LA Weekly, Philadelphia Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, and dozens more publications.)