It’s not hard to find rock and roll at Coachella. If someone were to map out their day and carefully plot out where they want to be to catch musicians wielding guitars, they still couldn’t check out all the festival has to offer in a single day. It’s an event whose first iteration in 1999 included a pair of headliners in Rage Against The Machine and Tool that go so far into the rock spectrum they could even potentially alienate the most casual fans. And over the years, it has been known for championing bands like Arcade Fire, The Killers, Phoenix, and The Black Keys, providing a key part of the narrative that turned them into rock royalty. In a sense, Coachella is built on the sturdy foundation of rock, but that relationship makes less and less sense every year.
2018 was the first time ever that Coachella lacked a traditional rock headliner, but the change has been coming for a while. It could be seen in 2017 when even a Radiohead appearance failed to capture the massive crowd you’d expect out of a headliner. And it could be seen in years early, when large font artists like Ryan Adams failed to draw sizable audiences despite their plush booking, or when rare acts like Blur and The Stone Roses were virtually ignored by the masses. It wasn’t shocking that the highest billed rock artists in 2018 were the pop-leaning Haim sisters and the crossover success story of Portugal. The Man, whose big song “Feel It Still” found nearly as much success in the pop world as it did the rock. What was more surprising was that it took this long for Coachella to drift from its rock past.
Scouring the polo fields in Indio, California for a rock experience this year felt a lot like swimming upstream. This was even literally the case at times, as the road to rock sets often featured a swarm of bodies headed the other way. But the waning interest in recent years didn’t keep rock bands from earning plush time slots. The War On Drugs was gifted an Outdoor Theatre appearance just as the sun was setting, while St. Vincent and Fleet Foxes played that same stage after dark. In fact, that stage was the home for many of the biggest rock bands on this year’s bill, which also included a stage-closing Sunday night set from A Perfect Circle and a sunset slot for rock legend David Byrne. But watching these sets with a couple thousand people felt as much like a wake as it did a celebration, always knowing that the other 98% percent of attendees were happy doing something, anything, else.
At that, certain artists played to a tiny crowd better than others. Seattle folk rockers Fleet Foxes exude so much positivity and warmth that their music feels intimate even in large spaces, with leader Robin Pecknold’s genuine on-stage joy making it feel like he’d almost prefer playing a more modest audience. If their performance was a chance for people to take a seat and enjoy a moment of calm within the chaos, then all the better.
Angel Olsen displayed a similar ease that made her afternoon Gobi appearance feel like a success regardless of how many people turned out. Sure, her songs are beefier live than on record, but Olsen’s stage persona is a perfect mix of cool and comfort that makes her shows feel like a bond is formed between the audience and the artist. Like Fleet Foxes, it felt appropriate or even ideal that the experience was shared with just a select few, like too many others might corrupt the chill vibes and turn these moments into just standard festival fodder.