Aging Out of Coachella, in Five Easy Steps
Unwilling to deal with the mishegoss, I mourned the loss of my youth in Las Vegas
“Who the fuck is James?” The shirtless bro leaning on the barricade in front of the stage is looking right at me when he bellows his question.
“They’re a Britpop band. Know the song ‘Laid’”?
The title has his attention, but not his recognition.
“Came out in, maybe, 1993?”
“Dude, I wasn’t even born yet!”
There wasn’t one particular moment that planted in my head the idea that I was too old for Coachella. It was a series of events, a slow slide into irrelevance that had been in progress for a couple of years. It was watching The Postal Service, a band that meant much more to me than a pop group probably should, and standing behind two women whose ages maybe added up to mine, stuck on social media for the band’s entire set. It was the disappointment of seeing one of my favorite hip-hop groups of my childhood, Outkast, underperform on the first night of their reunion.
And it was waiting for Lana Del Rey, while being surrounded by teenagers, each throwing elbows to get closer to the stage, their sense of entitlement giving them permission, despite showing up after everyone else, to push the waiting crowd out of their way. And realizing that if I answered elbow-for-elbow, it’d be child abuse.
Faced with my fifth year of standing around in a polo field, fighting off the nightly sandstorm and being far from comforts like indoor plumbing, I pulled a Fat Elvis.
I went to Las Vegas.
One beneficiary of Coachella’s expansion from one to two weekends in 2011 has been Sin City. Since the split, venues like The Chelsea at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas and the city’s branch of the Brooklyn Bowl have gone talent shopping during the week in between festival performances, booking performers who find themselves with free time in the middle of the desert. It’s the perfect pairing: A city built on creature comforts, hosting concerts for people unwilling to deal with the mishegoss that comes with standing alongside 100,000 of your not-so-closest friends, standing on tippy-toes in a low-probability attempt to see the stage.
So, I went through the five stages of grief to mourn the loss of my youth — to a soundtrack.
“Vegas!” St. Vincent yelled from the stage at Boulevard Pool at the Cosmopolitan. “It’s like America, with an exclamation point at the end.”
If I had headed to Coachella, I would have fought through the mainstage crowds, dealt with the claustrophobic feeling, caught the elbows, all of it, to see St. Vincent. In Las Vegas, I’m able to slide myself to within ten feet of stage, and have a buffer of personal space in which to watch the show.
Later, in the middle of the set (which was twice as long as her performance would be two days later at the festival), I catch up with a couple of friends who live in the city. During this Coachella and Coachella-adjacent time period, more than 30 bands would end up playing in Las Vegas, and among the group there, someone I knew may have been at every show. We chat between songs, make a trip to the poolside bar during the encore break, and revel in the reverb and guitar solos of show-closer “Your Lips Are Red.”
For that night, every part of what one might want out of a live music experience was available: A critically-acclaimed artist playing her full set, a cloudless night, a gorgeous view of the peculiar neon beauty of the Las Vegas Strip, and as my local friends would remind me, copious amounts of alcohol. St. Vincent finishes, we head inside for a nightcap cocktail, and then I head back to my hotel room, only having to stand in one quick taxi line (rather than the mess of a festival parking lot) to do so.
The quickest way to feel your age is to wake up hungover in Las Vegas. The pounding in your head matches the pounding of the bass from the pool outside, it’s easier to get beer than water and the comforts of home — carbohydrate-rich foods in particular — are well out of arm’s reach, unless you’re willing to spend half of your hotel cost on room service. It seemed so much easier a decade ago, waking up in a blackout curtained-room with that momentary disorientation, not knowing the time (or, in some cases, the place), and stumbling to a very, very late breakfast.
Instead, after a couple of false starts, I end up in the back corner of Culinary Dropout at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, working on keeping down a salad and some tea. My first set of music for the day is the unplanned mashup of the restaurant’s acoustic guitarist, running through the classic rock songbook, and the basslines of the dance music bleeding into the dining room from the resort’s poolside “dayclub,” Rehab. The genius of The Eagles may have been not putting a dubstep drop in the middle of “Hotel California.”
The want of distraction drives me to my phone, and social media gets me caught up on what I missed on the first night of the festival. There are complaints about entrance lines and video clips with horrendous distorted audio from the dance tent. Kanye West jumped on stage with French pop artist Stromae at one point, leading to his travels around the festival grounds being tracked and mapped like Billy’s path in a Family Circus cartoon.
And of course, there are the photos. People’s faces cut off at the edges, people jumping in unison, and people toasting… whatever there is to toast in a festival beer garden. This was a side of Coachella that I had never gotten to see, in many ways, spending most of my time in the Indio desert covering it for different media outlets, running from tent to tent, alone.
The guitarist has moved on to what might be “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” It’s getting harder to hear over the bass.
“I like younger bands,” the woman behind me at the Pearl Theater at the Palms insisted, to no one in particular but her wine glass. “Like Lenny Kravitz!
Most years, Coachella welcomes a legacy act to the festival, a big name that the average concertgoer might know from a parent’s record collection. Some are reunions, like when the Stone Roses headlined night one of the fest in 2013 (the site whothefuckarethestoneroses.tumblr.com has preserved the social media reaction). Others are relevant as progenitors of a current trend, like 2017's appearance by New Order, possibly arriving to show modern synth junkies how it was done. And this year that act is Steely Dan, the kings of smoothed out, late-70s yacht rock.
I am, for the first time this weekend, the youngest person in the room.
Watching Steely Dan perform live is a lot like listening to the band’s records while surrounded by drunk uncles and aunts. That’s not an insult to the band, mind you: singer and keyboardist Donald Fagan in particular is a known perfectionist, and going note-for-note with the album versions of songs is impressive. And that level of detail applies throughout the show experience, too; I’ve never been to a pop music concert that sounds as clear as this one.
So I sit in the balcony, surrounded by fans laughing at guitarist Walter Becker’s dad jokes while constantly refilling their wine glasses and making small talk as if the band onstage was the record player in an upscale living room. When Steely Dan launches into its ode to older male lechery, “Hey Nineteen,” the gray ponytailed, cargo-shorts-wearing men around me maybe relate a little too well. And the song’s coda provides an interesting age check for the room: “the fine Colombian” meant marijuana up until about the time of Scarface, a fact I only learn later, after watching a bunch of 50-somethings yell about what I think is cocaine.
Maybe I’m not ready for the balcony seats yet.
In the space of a two-mile cab ride, I’ve gone from being one of the youngest people in the room to, quite likely, the oldest; standing in the crowd of would-be clubgoers outside of Marquee Nightclub at The Cosmopolitan feels similar to standing elbow-deep in teenagers at Coachella. The well-dressed (and, in some cases, barely-dressed) push and cut their way to the front of the scrum to try and get past the riot line of clipboard-wielding hosts, would-be partiers dropping names of promoters, spinning tales of separated woe (“my friend’s already in there!”) and offering increasingly desperate bribes. The experience gained with age gets me past it all quickly; just buy tickets in advance. A pleasant exchange at the check-in counter, and I’m in an elevator, heading high above the Strip.
At the door of the club, a glassy-eyed, weak-kneed guy is getting carried out by his friends. He is the first of three partygoers I’ll see over the next few minutes, each flanked by their respective squads, who needs assistance in getting out of the club. Rookies.
Porter Robinson is taking his spot on the DJ platform when I get to the dance floor, around 1 a.m. — a perfectly acceptable time for the then-21-year-old wunderkind to start the party. From the modern dance music world, he’s a personal favorite of mine: One of his favorite bands is Stars, a Canadian indie pop group, one that he’s said he was “very sentimental about in high school.” I would say the same thing (subbing out “high school” for “late 20s”).
Eventually, Robinson plays “Divinity,” the lead track from his debut full-length, which features Stars vocalist and songwriter Amy Millan. It’s a slower tempo than almost everything that’s come before, and the dance floor starts to resemble the end of prom, with couples slow dancing and groups of friends interlocked, arms resting on each other’s shoulders, swaying back and forth. I sway too, by myself, off to the side. And it’s this moment that’s the darkest — not because I’m too old to be here, but rather because I’m alone.
Then the woman next to me vomits in the trash can.
Sundays in Las Vegas are my favorite. The crowds, after late recovery brunches and looking much worse for wear, head for either the highway or the airport. I used to as well, but learned over time that it’s worth staying an extra night to avoid the hellscape that is the I-15 South, heading back to Los Angeles, on a Sunday afternoon.
That evening, I head to Fremont East, Las Vegas’ current version of a hipster neighborhood. Zappos came in a couple of years prior and dumped millions into creating a community here, and while it may have never reached the heights that the company’s founder Tony Hsieh had hoped, it’s still the most walkable space for locals and those not impressed by the Strip.
I duck into The Bunkhouse, a divey music venue, and find a seat at the bar. It’s not difficult — there are three of us in the room, including the bartender. The band on stage is an Austin psych-rock trio, I’d Die For Lo-Fi, and while they’re putting some energy into the show, the small crowd may be weighing on them; the bassist has decided to play while holding his beer.
After their set, I buy a CD and the bassist’s next round and introduce myself.