The first time I went to Coachella was in 2018 to watch Beyoncé’s now-legendary headline set. After witnessing the spectacle that was Beychella on YouTube, I decided, on a whim, to book a flight, blag a press pass for weekend two and a day later, found myself solo in the Californian desert.
The first thing for non-Californians to note about Coachella is that it isn’t actually very near LA: a fact I didn’t realise on this first jaunt. One very expensive LAX Uber ride later, there I was, watching Beyoncé and her collegiate cheer squad put on a show that will go down in festival history. That is my resounding memory of that weekend. I seemingly had blocked the rest out.
So when dates aligned and I found myself in LA for several weeks for the 2022 festival, with a couple of friends, it seemed remiss to not attempt to go back.
Several things had happened since 2018. The first being the global pandemic, the second being the inevitable passing of time. Things that seemed easy at age 34 (staying up late, standing up for hours on end, finding summer clothes that fit) are less easy at 37. In other words, I got older. And with close to two years spent largely inside, my tolerance for any kind of extended stint of fun, waned. That said, years in music journalism had made me hardy and my love of live music and festivals has never wavered, so how bad could it be?
Bundling into another expensive Uber from Echo Park (this time split three ways: less painful), we embarked on our two-and-a-bit hour trip into the desert. Planning a festival at the end of an already quite boozy holiday was perhaps not smart, with hindsight. I slept the whole way.
Checking into our hotel – a steal, for Palm Springs, I thought – we work out where we needed to collect our wristbands. The box office at the Indian Wells Tennis Club, though a 20-minute drive, was an $114 Lyft ride away. While we had a mild panic about what the fuck to do about that, the price dropped, by 50% – Surge Pricing is real out here. We grabbed the chance and booked it. $60 to collect a wristband. Cool.
If you were a VIP or Artist Guest the wait at the Tennis Club looked like it would have taken all eternity. Press, fortunately, didn’t have to wait in line. We had pre-booked shuttle passes to ferry us to and from the festival for $100 for the weekend. There was a shuttle waiting and we were fairly quickly on our way to the Coachella site at the Empire Polo Club in Indio.
Aboard the shuttle was the first time alarm bells started ringing. In a sea of dayglo, 20-year-olds blasted songs from their phones and sang in unison to people who sounded like The Kid Laroi but probably weren’t The Kid Laroi. “It’s probably just American stuff”, I thought, trying to convince myself I am still in touch and relevant and good at my job.
From where you’re dropped off on-site, it’s about a 30-minute walk to the main festival; pretty standard stuff for a festival arrival except most festivals aren’t hotter than the surface of the sun. For $20 a person, rickshaws will save you this walk: something that at the start of the schlep seemed an astounding waste of money, quickly became very appealing.
The security checks were pretty minimal. The party line was that you couldn’t bring any open containers, alcohol, vapes, weed. Spot bag checks were happening but no sniffer dogs, no UK festival-level searches.
Inside you’re greeted by the Ferris wheel, the Spectra rainbow-coloured tower and a sea of influencers in the wild, posing in front of said landmarks as some long-suffering sidekick takes 724 photos of them. Here, the entertainment starts. It’s mesmerising! As a person who contorts their face and body into so many levels of awkward when a camera is pointed in their general direction, I find this kind of narcissism both nauseating and enviable. I vow to find my angles by the end of the trip.
A stroll across the site and I’m reminded of a couple of things: it’s hot. Really fucking hot. But the site itself isn’t that big. It’s more akin to Reading in size than, say, Glastonbury or even Latitude. There aren’t separate areas – it’s just one big field, with multiple tents and stages that look to be positioned too closely together but miraculously avoid any soundclash.
We join an ID check queue, which takes about 30 mins, to get a wristband that allows us to enter the penned-off areas that sell alcohol. There are three or four on-site, none near the stages. If you’re drinking, you’re drinking; you can’t also watch the bands or roam around the site.
The truth is though, you’re not really drinking. The lineup is so great there isn’t time to visit the pens if you’re serious about seeing stuff. Drink prices start at $17 for a small can of Heineken. Mini cocktails are $20. A flute of sparkling rosé, $22. And that is before tax and tips. You aren’t allowed to take alcohol into the ajoining area to buy food so the whole experience of having a drink is utterly miserable and becomes a race to down it so you can leave your rowdy little pen. Sober festival it is then.
It’s unclear specifically why the festival does things this way but perhaps to avoid too many people getting sunstroke. “Stay hydrated” does seem to be the Coachella catchphrase. Maybe it’s to avoid the mega cleanup job of picking up a sea of paper cups. Maybe it’s to save time at the stand by not having to check every single person’s ID. Maybe it’s because everyone is on drugs anyway so doesn’t care about this stuff.
There is no denying this is a festival lineup to rival the best. The world’s biggest artists are all here and they have spared no expense. The staging and production is inventive and expensive looking. Watching Brockhampton’s giant inflatable gorillas on the Mojave stage is up there with one of the best festival performances I’ve seen. Unlike UK festivals, it feels like the artists are paid enough buck to do Coachella right. That, or they just recognise the power of this global stage.
Because the site is fairly small it’s easy to pack loads in, nipping between acts if there are impossible-to-choose-between clashes. Ironically, as it has a reputation for attracting more influencers than die-hard music fans, the music is the thing that SHOULD draw the most people. Crowds are easy to weave through. The sound is great everywhere. Artists really go all out.
If you ignore the booze prices and are with a vibey group of mates, you will have a really good time at Coachella. Everywhere I go, I see lots of people having lots of fun. I cry at Phoebe Bridgers, Doja Cat is phenomenal. There are a lot of positives – until hometime.
If you have a GA pass, leaving Coachella is pure hell. The acts finish close to 1am and then the entire site treks the half-hour walk off-site to the coach stops, which all head to a different area. You will likely stand in a queue for over an hour before you can board a coach. If you are wasted, exhausted or incredibly dehydrated from hanging out in a literal desert, this will feel like even longer. Then you need to get to the nearest hotel stop, which may be a walk, in the dark, from where you’re staying. (NB. Travel with friends if you can. It’s not the best idea to be doing this solo at 3am). For us, in Palm Springs: from headliner ending to getting in bed was about two and a half hours. On the second morning, I wake up with a cockroach scuttling over my body in my hotel bed. It perhaps wasn’t such a steal, after all.
If you plan to head to an after-party, there is also an Uber and Lyft stop which will take you wherever you need to go. Expect similarly long queues. I did this every night during #Beychella year as I was too late to book a shuttle pass and I swore, never again.
If you’re with an artist or crew, there are of course super speedy routes off-site that avoid all this. In fact, maybe that’s the takeaway here. Unless you have some jammy level of access or are willing to fork out the extortionately high fees for VIP everything, perhaps Coachella is best left to the kiddies. Us oldies have Glastonbury and Green Man and Latitude: maybe the Jenners, Biebers and Hadids of the world can keep this one for themselves.
READ MORE: The Big Coachella 2023 review: live from the desert