There is literally nothing worse than hearing someone tell you what a fun time they had at a festival. So we will not do that (too much). Instead, consider this a guide, culled from our experience at the 2014 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, to enjoying the several thousand other festivals happening in America this year. There are so many. Here’s what you can expect to see, hear, and feel from many of the artists who will be there.
What to Expect: Sometime between the Grammys and Coachella, our girl Ella really upped her live-performance game, and her Saturday set commanded respect from anyone there who wasn’t already on her #team. Dressed like a lost sixth member of TLC circa 1996, she ran through most of Pure Heroine, plus “Biting Down” from her EP The Love Club. Her voice sounded truly excellent, which even an irrational defender like myself was not expecting. The set was noticeably lacking in the buzzy cover, a Coachella staple and an artist’s chief means of getting their livestream trending on Twitter, but considering her last gig, maybe she needed a break from old-people music. She took an extended speech break during the intro to “Ribs,” in which she hilariously/adorably fretted about getting older, and also, notably, commented that it had been exactly a year ago that she was booked for the festival. Nobody in America knew who Lorde was a year ago! (Except maybe me!) Way to have your finger on the pulse, Goldenvoice.
Whom You’ll Be Surrounded By: Dudes with Camelbacks hydrating their vocal cords before belting out the lyrics to “Tennis Court,” grown adult women repeatedly screaming “QUEEN” at the stage.
Most Tone-Deaf Crowd Moment: “I’m kinda over getting told to put my hands up in the air.” Cue … well, you know.
Festivals Where You Can See Her: Lollapalooza; Osheaga. —E.Y.
What to Expect: The exact same thing that Gregg Gillis, a.k.a. the lord of recombinant frat-pop, has been doing ever since 2006’s Night Ripper took mash-ups to their dumbest and thus most logical conclusion: all highs, all the time. Surrounded by a massive pair of Jordans and a bullpen of curiously addled female fans — how are these people recruited, exactly? — Gillis spins colliding fragments of pop, rap, and classic-rock songs until everyone has to go take a nap. That he’s still at it and as successful as ever — Busta Rhymes, E-40, Too $hort, and Juicy J showed up in Indio to rock with him — is a testament to the enduring mindless enjoyment of hearing Biggie rap over “Tiny Dancer.” (Also, apparently, Paul McCartney was dancing onstage to Gillis’s set, in case you want to imagine Paul McCartney dancing to Too $hort.) The highlight of his Coachella set was a predictable but nonetheless undeniable fusion of Schoolboy Q’s “Man of the Year” with Led Zeppelin. This is pure Girl Talk: silly ideas with no goal but the pleasure center of your soul. Gillis had quite a week, releasing the surprisingly adept Broken Ankles EP with Freeway before Coachella, though he restricted his set to the pop Frankensteins that put him there. All hail mangled interpretations of fair use law, we guess.
Whom You’ll Be Surrounded By: All members of Greek life in a 90-mile radius; confused Elton John fans; confused M.O.P. fans; persistent Stunna Shades enthusiasts; terrifyingly good dancers; Paul McCartney.
Beware Of: Flying confetti; stray balloons; limbs; Busta Rhymes’s expanding waistline.
Festivals Where You Can See Him: Big Guava; Firefly; Hangout. —S.F.
Chance the Rapper
What You Probably Expect: A rap concert at an outdoor music festival, which more often than not does not work well, unless said rapper has 20-plus songs that every human with access to music knows line for line. For Chance specifically, there’s probably also a fair expectation that he’s young and not that famous yet, so his set will be unpolished and he’ll just default and bring out 50 of his friends.
What to Actually Expect: One of the best sets at any festival he plays this summer. As a very real fan of his last mixtape, Acid Rap, I did not think it would translate well on the large festival stage (he played the main stage). But I was greeted with something I did not know: He’s a front man. He’s got that X factor to him — already — that gives him the confidence of a lead singer, which is key for any solo rapper when performing in these types of venues (see: Kid Cudi).
Also, he’s just a disgustingly talented performer. He dances a lot. And he’s backed by a small but very top-notch band, best exemplified by the trumpet player, who, at times, was as much of a stage presence as Chance. Also, there’s a pretty decent chance he’ll bring out Biebervelli.
Finally, he’s doing this cover of the theme song to Arthur. And if you are of the generation that knows about Arthur, D.W., and the gang, few things will make you happier than this rendition. Trust me.
Whom You’ll Be Surrounded By: A lot of dudes who have a decent chance of smoking with Chance after the show and a lot of girls who have a decent chance of getting hollered at by Chance after the show.
Percentage of Set During Which You Will Cry: Whatever percentage of the set is dedicated to Arthur covers, so probably 8 to 10 percent.
Festivals Where You Can See Him: Counterpoint; Hangout; Big Guava; Sasquatch; Governors Ball; Bonnaroo; Firefly; Lollapalooza; Osheaga. —R.B.
What to Expect: To have your hair singed off. As great as last year’s Days Are Gone is, it doesn’t approach the Haim sisters’ live version of shredding, pounding, and hair-swinging. Not long after some impossibly perfect harmonizing only siblings could pull off, during “Fallin’,” Este took a moment to encourage everyone to settle in for lemonade and snacks. “Since you guys invited me into your home,” she started, “I want to invite you into my home for a second. I want us to pretend we’re all sitting Indian-style, and there’s a weird Persian rug from the ’70s that mom owns.” The point was that in the Haim house, they jam, and jam they did, on an extended five-minute version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well,” replete with a bass-face-filled interlude and the second of the show’s five or six nasty guitar solos. Danielle Haim’s guitar sounded like it was melting in the desert heat. You could slather it on pancakes. Before “My Song 5,” Este let the crowd know it was her favorite song in their set, because people “shake their fucking asses to it.” Asses shook.
Beware Of: Headbanging too hard; feeling insecure about your hair’s lustrousness; the inclination to play embarrassing amounts of air bass.
Festivals Where You Can See Them: Big Guava; Sasquatch; Outside Lands. —R.M.
What You Probably Expect: I can’t lie; I don’t know what one would expect. All I know is that I watched people passionately run from the (really good) Haim set to the AFI stage once AFI started, which was my first hint that I have no idea what anything means anymore.
What to Actually Expect: An electrifying concert by a very confident rock band. If you need a comparison point, it’s like a 30 Seconds to Mars show for adults. Davey Havok is like Jared Leto, but with four felonies, three of which he got expunged and the fourth of which he blamed on Jared Leto. He has all the rock star moves, most of which he does on this platform that seemed custom-built for climbing on and then jumping off of.
Whom You’ll Be Surrounded By: People channeling their inner middle-school selves. Which is such a specific self, one that doesn’t give a singular care about anything that doesn’t involve screaming. Which, some would argue, is one’s best self.
Percentage of Set During Which You Will Cry: 80. And you won’t see it coming, either.
Chances You Will Kick Someone in the Head: 164 percent.
Festivals Where You Can See Them: Lollapalooza; Osheaga. —R.B.
Neutral Milk Hotel
What You Probably Expect: To be one of roughly six people who will show up for a vibe-killing curiosity performed by a man who hates us, but In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was your curl-up-and-cry music when you were 16, and damn it, you owe this to yourself.
What to Actually Expect: For a festival where guitar-based music released before 2005 is regarded with slightly less contempt than the grit you pick out of your teeth on the way back to the Uber lot, the mood at NMH’s sunset set was shockingly pious. A bearded, beflanneled Jeff Mangum, bearing only spiritual resemblance to whatever photograph of him from 1998 you last saw, opened the set with an acoustic rendition of “Two-Headed Boy,” and the robust crowd immediately erupted into a hoarse sing-along chorus. Mangum was then joined with a full band (tubas, trumpets, banjos, singing saw, antique bells, etc.) for an Aeroplane-heavy set, with a couple On Avery Island songs and rarities thrown in for the real ’heads. In other words, an incredibly crowd-pleasing set from a notoriously cagey band. Oh, and Mangum’s voice has not changed since he recorded that album.
Whom You’ll Be Surrounded By: A lot of people still in rave shades who you would not have expected to know every word to “Ghost,” and their somewhat nonplussed significant others.
Percentage of Set During Which You Will Cry: 55.
Festivals Where You Can See Them: Bonnaroo; Pitchfork. —E.Y.
What to Expect: Millennial discord? Overwrought space metaphors? Pleas for a How to Make It in America revival? The truth is, Kid Cudi commanded the largest and most worshipful crowd of the weekend. According to a 2013 story in the Desert Sun, “The city of Indio only allows 99,000 people per day for both festivals, based on a Special Events Agreement approved by the City Council.” Is it possible there were more than 50,000 people losing their minds for Scott Mescudi on Saturday? It’s probable. Which is an interesting notion at a festival that featured au courant pop stars like Lorde and Pharrell and festival icons like Skrillex and Arcade Fire. Cudi, whose following is loyal and rabid, dotted the far reaches of the Coachella fields, extending past the sculpture garden out into the festival entrance. This was a large patch of land, filled out in full with dead-eyed recalcitrants.
How does Cudi do it? I can’t really say. Despite his malcontent-loner rep, Cudi was earnest, gregarious, and wearing a midriff-exposing T-shirt. He seemed at home in his first Coachella performance. Cudi’s magic bullet is the dance remix, which has been employed on several of his biggest hits, including Steve Aoki’s amped-up “Pursuit of Happiness” and the Crookers remix of “Day and Night” — probably the most antic, Live Aid–for-stoners moment of the weekend. Did you know Cudi released an album earlier this year, charmingly titled, KiD CuDi Presents SATELLITE FLIGHT: The journey to Mother Moon? It doesn’t matter, Cudi’s set is one big drift, uninterested in songs new or old, his lolling vocals and melancholy, I am the only depressed man who is alive lamentations acting like a siren song for all the sad young bros. And it works.
Whom You’ll Be Surrounded By: Everyone, apparently.
Important Social Media:
Festivals Where You Can See Him: Sasquatch. —S.F.
What to Expect: The realization that the head-bobbing goodness of The Bones of What You Believe lends itself to a surprisingly big crowd. Live, Chvrches goes a step further in explaining how humanity can possibly be squeezed from one tiny woman and a dude with a drum machine. Lauren Mayberry’s wonderfully self-effacing presence helps. She apologized for wearing sunglasses, because apparently living in Scotland is like living in a wet cave. She commended the craftsmanship of the girl holding up a blown-up image of her face. She also sounded perfect. The highlight of any Chvrches set is the bounce-inducing thrill of “The Mother We Share,” but there’s something about the contempt in Mayberry’s voice during “Gun” that digs past the synth and down into your bones.
Beware Of: Sore calves; how OK you’ll be with a flat-brim-wearing Scot singing during “Under the Tide.”
Festivals Where You Can See Them: Bonnaroo; Lollapalooza; Outside Lands; Osheaga; Free Press Summer Fest. —R.M.
What to Expect: If you’re headed to Lolla this year, don’t kid yourself, you’re going to see Calvin Harris. If you’re enough of a culture slave to find yourself at a festival in the first place, you know you will know every song he plays, and if you want to try to tell me you have no interest in seeing 12,000 people dancing to “We Found Love” under an array of laser beams and pyrotechnics, I’m assuming you’d also find the Louvre a snore. Calvin Harris’s set is like the best version of a wedding reception imaginable — all people of all ages, happy to be there and raging/not raging at their own pace. Because this was a main-stage set and not at the more EDM-dedicated Sahara tent, there was more crossover appeal; it was just as possible to stand on a terrace or at the edge of the lawn and sway with a beer in hand as it was to dive into the confetti-drenched crowd and burn up your last reserves of party energy. Harris stuck to his tried-and-true hits, peppering them with periodic de rigueur festival DJ hard-style drops, but never lingering too long on anything scary enough to alienate your mom. Harris understood the crowd, and our vibe on the last night of an exhausting three days, and did his best to send us back into the world in a good mood.
What Not to Expect: Any guests. No Florence, no Ellie, no Kelis, NO RIH.
Goose Bump Factor, on a Scale of 1 to Skrillex: .75 Skrillexes.
Festivals Where You Can See Him: Lollapalooza. —E.Y.
On Saturday, the authors of this story spotted Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler at a local Palm Desert bistro, where he stopped in to use the men’s room before making his way to Coachella. He looked glorious. [End interlude.]
What to Expect: One month ago, little more than an entertainingly dramatic set from a synth-lounge act signed to venerable indie 4AD. Now? Now is Samuel T. Herring’s time. Because this happened two weeks ago.
Ever since, fans of Baltimore’s Future Islands, post–musical performance David Letterman exclamations, guttural howling, and chimney sweep–style slide-dancing finally have something in common. Herring’s achingly sincere and uncontrolled charisma is front and center at every Future Islands performance, but fans know what to expect now. Herring had to contend with a slick stage floor at Coachella, but he shimmied nonetheless, profusely apologizing for being unable to grind harder.
Whom You’ll Be Surrounded By: Aimless Cocteau Twins fans; Paul Schaffer stans; wanderers enraptured by Herring’s dance moves.
Festivals Where You Can See Them: The Le Guess Who? Festival in the Netherlands. The band is touring America this year. —S.F.
What to Expect: All the hits, and I’m not just talking about his. Zedd is having his moment right now. No EDM act has been a more consistent fixture on Top 40 radio in the past year, with “Clarity” sticking around for almost all of last year and “Stay the Night” making the most of its Hayley Williams–ness to pick up where “Clarity” left off. Zedd’s live presence is a nod to that ability to make people sing their souls out. There was a version of Bastille’s “Pompei,” some “Sweet Nothing,” and I want to say a snippet of “Latch.” I don’t know, I was distracted by the half-dozen video screens, which seemed to be filled with a spinning, hypnotizing Z in ever-changing colors at all times. The only real surprises of a Zedd set are what singable, bounce-worthy tune is next — not the spin he’ll put on it. And that’s fine. Everyone was just there to sing “Clarity” anyway.
Whom You’ll Be Surrounded By: Fairies; ghouls; goblins; the neon-clad.
Beware Of: Charred vocal chords; people born after 1997.
Festivals Where You Can See Him: Hangout; Free Press Summer Fest; Bonnaroo, Electric Forest; Paradiso; Lollapalooza. —R.M.
What to Expect: The synth-pop duo was one of the more curious acts booked on the main stage, and as the big lawn started to fill in, even in the sweltering midday sun, I was genuinely impressed. MS MR is a band I like, and also a band whose popularity I had zero conception of. Good for them! Singer Lizzy Plapinger’s transformation into Envy Adams is complete, and she vamped and hip-shook across the stage with convincing theatricality. She can lead an angry breakup chorus (on “Think of You”) just as capably as she can start an angsty Millennial dance party (“Salty Sweet”), which makes me wonder how long it will be until MS MR make the jump to Top 40. If you know their songs, you’ll have fun, and even if you don’t, their just-seductive-enough cover of LCD Soundsystem’s “Dance Yrself Clean” is pretty much guaranteed to make you smile.
Whom You’ll Be Surrounded By: A female-heavy crowd populated with strong looks and stronger feels.
Most Desirable Stage Fashion Item: Plapinger’s humongous hoop earrings with “Lizzy” in metal script in the middle, customized with your own name (or not).
Festivals Where You Can See Them: Beale Street; Big Guava; Bonnaroo; Firefly. —E.Y.
What to Expect: Sheer contempt and sludge-thrash. “To all the people leaving, it’s OK,” Casablancas gurgled to the many attendees streaming away from his new band’s performance on Saturday. “This music is meant to alienate all the right people.” Mission accomplished. And yet, the erstwhile Strokes front man’s actively irritating set with his new band, the Voidz, offered a perverse kind of pleasure. Like repeatedly shocking yourself with a low-wattage Taser. The distortion was deep and Casablancas’s famously muffled vocals were even more garbled than usual. The result was one part art project, one part troll job, and one part wandering artistic statement. (If you’re Julian Casablancas — avatar of a faded era — what are you supposed to do with your career at this point?)
Whom You’ll Be Surrounded By: Basically no one.
Festivals Where You Can See Him: Casablancas and the Voidz were a last-minute addition to the Coachella lineup. The band doesn’t have any other dates lined up, but you can bet they’ll be alienating across America this year. —S.F.
What You Probably Expect: A show where every song is good and loud, but sounds pretty much the same.
What to Actually Expect: A concert experience that has greatly benefited from two albums since Sleigh Bells’ classic debut, Treats. While that album is still the foundation of the concert, the newer songs help diversify the feel of the show. This is not to say there are now ballads every third song, but at least you can’t define the set by one sound anymore. There’s a little more “something for everybody” (providing that “everybody” likes music that is an all-out assault on your ears). Also, lead singer Alexis Krauss is a force of nature, and she works so hard onstage that it makes you want to jam with her.
Whom You’ll Be Surrounded By: A very weird cross-section of people who like Sleigh Bells. For four years now, I’ve had a very hard time determining what a “Sleigh Bells fan” is, even as I consider myself one. And after seeing them again, I still don’t have an answer.
Percentage of Set During Which You Will Cry: 5 percent, because at one point, you will bang your head so hard, you will accidentally launch random eye juices from your cornea. I don’t know exactly what they are, but let’s just call them tears.
Festivals Where You Can See Them: Counterpoint; Big Guava; Governors Ball; Firefly —R.B.
Cage the Elephant
What to Expect: Someone should get some SportVU data for vocalist Matt Shultz during these sets, just so we could know exactly how much ground he covers. It took about one song for him to get tired of swinging around the mic stand and start running around like he was on fire. By show’s end, he’d covered every inch of the stage, plus a good chunk of the scaffolding. It was an ideal look for what was pretty much the start of the day (they went on at 3:05 p.m.), and that make sense, because Cage the Elephant is an ideal festival offering. Shultz and crew are a very good rock band in a not-rock-band world. You know Cage the Elephant songs, even if you don’t know they’re by Cage the Elephant. You might even like one or two.
Whom You’ll Be Surrounded By: It seemed like a lot of the crowd was there casually, people wandering toward the main stage just after walking in. Even Shultz joked that most of the folks up front were probably waiting for Muse. But when he bolted down the makeshift runway at the front of the stage, everyone surged forward. The whole thing was worth getting a little closer to.
Festivals Where You Can See Them: Shaky Knees; Sasquatch; Free Press Summer Fest, Sasquatch; Bonnaroo; Firefly; Lollapalooza. —R.M.
KNOWLES FAMILY INTERLUDE
1. Watching this happen in real time, two days after National Sibling Day, really continues to prove that there ain’t no party like an Offspring of Tina Knowles Party.
2. Here’s a picture of Tina Knowles wearing a crown at Coachella.
3. Walking by Grouplove playing on the main stage, I was abruptly stopped in my tracks by their cover of “Drunk in Love,” which put a spell over every human within earshot. The next day, this happened.
4. Jay Z came out for Nas. And seeing them onstage together will never stop being beautiful.
[End Knowles family interlude.]
The Naked and Famous
What to Expect: Thanks to a somewhat shadily procured wristband, I found myself in the VIP section on the last day, which turned out to be an interesting place from which to listen to more consecutive songs by the Naked and Famous than I ever had in my life. And the VIP crowd shows up for the Naked and Famous. What is it about this band that rich people just go ape for? Did they just like the name (so relatable!) and stop paying attention after that? Let it be known, I have nothing against the Kiwi ensemble or lead singer Alisa Xayalith, who make the kind of shiny, synth-driven pop-rock that instantly gets licensed for 10 car commercials. But they essentially have one speed, and they stick to it for their entire hour, which is hard to be riveted by, especially in a Day 3 haze. When “Young Blood” finally came on, I had to double-check to make sure it was actually that song, because most of their songs sound like a variation on “Young Blood.” The band’s good-natured comportment (Xayalith did the instantly endearing “iPhone photo of the crowd” move, which none other than Calvin Harris would repeat in his set that followed) won them a lot of points, but otherwise this was pretty missable.
Whom You’ll Be Surrounded By: The (nearly) naked and (pseudo) famous.
Most Accidentally Appropriate Line: “Ay-yay-yay-yay, I don’t ever want to be here.” Like I said, Day 3.
Festivals Where You Can See Them: Sasquatch; Free Press; Governors Ball; Bonnaroo; Osheaga. —E.Y.
What to Expect: Several members of the A$AP crew onstage, shouting indiscriminately about Trap Lord season and “Ace-fuckin’-SAP.” The burly, straitjacketed Ferg has none of the refinement of his comrade A$AP Rocky, nor did he have a sense of set pacing, playing songs fans wanted to hear, hygiene, or resisting the desire to give A$AP Mob a cushy three-song set right in the middle of his own brief seven-song performance. Ferg played Rocky’s “Wild for the Night” without Rocky present — 10 minutes later, Rocky showed up and performed an intriguing new song that not a single person had ever heard before. By the time Ferg got to “Shabba” and “Work,” much of the crowd had dissipated. In other words, the Hood Pope is still figuring out this festival thing. Bear with him.
Whom You’ll Be Surrounded By: Lords; hopefully the girl I saw in a behooded black one-piece bathing suit brazenly rocking a studded Versace fanny pack. That girl seems cool.
Important Social Media/Fergie Bomb:
Festivals Where You Can See Him: Bonnaroo. —S.F.