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Coachella 2015 Raised The Playing Field For DJs and Live Acts

Coachella Music Festival took place this past month in Indio, CA, and if you weren’t there - it was amazing. I say amazing in the way that I'd imagine an 1800’s circus ring leader would announce to an audience, “You will be amazed and astounded by what you see forthwith!” This year’s premiere acts managed to shine through the usual, unengaged song surfing, which I’ve come to expect from electronically dominated music festivals. While the Sahara tent kept the party rolling day in and out with great acts like Oliver Heldens, Deorro, and What So Not to name a few, what was developing in the Gobi and Mojave tents surprised and engaged me the most.

Coachella has typically been the only true “pop music” festival.  They’ve highlighted in previous years some now dominant pop acts such as Janelle MonaeMiguel, and Jessie Ware, and the festival has thrived in showcasing these talents.  Recently, their pop roots have been overtaken by hard hitting electronic dance music acts, and it has proven difficult for other genres such as hip-hop, indie, and rock to compete.  For example, last year Outkast battled to keep attention on the main stage while being compared to acts such as Girl Talk and Chromeo.  This is because in the sonic field, battling perfectly mastered and carefully produced sounds from a DJ set with live instruments and a microphone is a nearly impossible task.  But what I saw this year in the alternative genre arsenal was a level in performance that absolutely raised the competition.

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Adapting to festival attendees’ desire to move their feet, acts such as Stromae and Todd Terje incorporated a more “world” interpretation of dance music in their sets, applying slower beats more comparable to moombahton that allowed listeners to move while still enjoying an actual performance unfolding before them. I want to highlight Stromae for a second because his performance was something that truly amazed me. This pop act from Belgium did an entire set in French to a packed Mojave tent of mostly English-speaking Southern Californians. Skimming all genres through his performance, he gracefully transitioned from world beats to electro to everything in between. He highlighted his all-encompassing musical style with the most daring and engaging performance I’ve ever seen.

One minute he was dancing to marimba beats, and the next he was sitting in an armchair, casually applying lipstick and other makeup to a hysterically cheering crowd.  While this androgynous shock tactic along with his Beyonce-style dancing did wonders for crowd energy, his performance went even deeper with each successive song. My favorite moment came as he stumbled across stage muttering drunkenly what I’m sure are beautiful French lyrics before he completely collapsed. It provided a somber and sobering lull to the festival’s unending succession of highs. 

Acts on other stages such as Father John Misty on the Outdoor Stage brought performances that moved and grooved, and of course, the festival came to its ultimate apex as Drake sang atop a waterfall, “just hold on we’re going home.” Performance aspects also remind you that there are real live musical decisions being made in front of you. Not everything was spotless, but it was human. Odesza opened their set by bringing the USC Trojan Marching Band on stage for live drums that were triumphant and infectious. Unfortunately after the drumline’s beautiful performance, Odesza’s audio seemed to suffer some problems with the bass frequencies cutting in and out for the rest of their set. An unfortunate mishap and reminder that there is risk in any live element being added to electronic sets.

Other spectacles that stood out as especially amazing were Tokimonsta and Wonkers at the Do Lab—the tent consistently partied like I’ve never seen, with large super soakers spraying the crowd and mud pits that dirtied dozens of festival yolo-ers. I was also happy to see such enthusiasm and support for the Yuma tent, which was a bigger space than I’ve seen in previous years and a haven for the groovier and the darker. JES+S, a combination of Jackmaster, Eats Everything, Skream, and Seth Troxler, shaped an experience on a different plane of existence, entering a world of chaos and distress that played well to my realistic sense of the world's condition. This was balanced well with the groovier Chris Malinchak performance in the Yuma tent too.

Coachella is unique in its ability to spotlight not only the best in electronic music, but strikes a balance in genre variety that is truly special. If they can continue to curate lineups like the one from this year, their reputation in the festival circuit should only continue to flourish, and if live acts continue to raise the bar, DJs may have to step it up as well.

Cover image by Creation.com

Written by Jeff Sontag

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