Ever since Coachella announced its 2016 lineup, one band has dominated discussions about the festival: Guns N' Roses. According to Twitter, 64 percent of all tweets about the Coachella headliners are about #GnFnR. It's the greatest goddamned reunion in rock & roll history.
So surely, when Axl's throne wheeled out onto the Coachella Stage, the entire festival would be there to witness the event, right? And the artists playing opposite them — seven on official stages, plus whoever would be playing the Do Lab and Heineken House — would be screwed.
To find out if this was true, we tore ourselves away from “Welcome to the Jungle” and did a sweep of the other stages to see what was going on. That's right, L.A. Weekly readers; we missed “Rocket Queen” and we did it all for you.
Read: More Coachella 2016 coverage
The Outdoor Stage was closed for GNR, presumably to avoid noise bleed. So we started with the Gobi Tent, where Toronto jazz combo BadBadNotGood were ripping sax solos for what looked like a pretty big crowd. On closer inspection, however, it became clear that because two-thirds of the audience was seated, they were taking up way more space. Coachella booked a lot of good jazz acts this year, including BBNG, Kamasi Washington and GoGo Penguin, and good on them for doing so. But maybe jazz is just not what most people come to the festival to hear.
Over at the Mojave Tent, however, it was a different story. Here, electro-pop warrior princess Grimes was holding forth for a massive crowd that spilled out the back of the tent. When we arrived, the projection screens onstage were all flashing Bernie Sanders graphics. Maybe Bernie supporters aren't down with Guns? Whatever the reason, Grimes' Claire Boucher was clearly unfazed by going up against the biggest rock band on the planet.
At the EDM-centric Sahara Tent, we started wondering what the hell was going on. Despite being the biggest tent we'd visited yet, the Sahara was even more rammed. Every square inch of space inside the tent was a sea of bodies bouncing to house DJ/producer ZHU, and in defiance of the laws of physics, more packs of raver kids pushed into the tent in a steady stream, many sporting the thousand-yard stare of someone whose drugs just started wearing off. Not a single person in sight looked over 25.
Did this mean that, despite all the hype, there actually weren't that many over at the GNR reunion? So far, it certainly appeared as though the rest of the festival was doing just fine without them. Surprised, and wriggling our way through the Sahara's overflow crowd, we pressed on.
The last two stages we visited were the smallest: the Do Lab and the Yuma Tent. You will not be shocked to here that both were humming along at full capacity, with glitch-hop duo Pantyraid providing the soundtrack in the former and Justin Martin of house label Dirtybird Records holding court in the latter. The enclosed Yuma Tent was so crushed that we couldn't even get inside — and neither, presumably, could most of the kids waiting in line outside, who would just have to settle for an impromptu mashup of Martin's throbbing beats and Slash's tender guitar solo rendition of the “Love Theme From The Godfather” — which floated in, wind-distorted, from the Coachella Stage's massive speakers in the distance.
By now, we assumed that GNR's set must be shaping up to be the biggest bust in Coachella history. We had covered the entire rest of the festival, and everywhere we went was a churning sea of humanity. Even the food court areas were swarming with Coachella-goers for whom a slice of Spicy Pie clearly mattered more than finding out if Axl could still hit those high notes on “November Rain.”
Half expecting to see a barren, windswept field dotted with a few middle-aged couples in matching Use Your Illusion T-shirts, we cut through the VIP area and made our way toward the Coachella Stage. And there, just as the opening notes of “Sweet Child O' Mine” pealed forth from Slash's Gibson, it greeted us: by far the biggest crowd we had seen yet.
We have no idea how many people were down there on the field — 60,000? 70,000? However many it was, they stretched almost farther than the eye could see, all the way to the giant “Katrina Chairs” sculpture that stood midway between the Coachella and Outdoor stages and beyond.
During our circuit, Grimes, ZHU and BadBadNotGood had finished their sets, so some of those crowds might have flowed back this way for GNR. Even so, it was an overwhelming sight. An agoraphobe seeing it would probably drop dead of a massive, panic-induced coronary on the spot.
The official capacity for Coachella is 99,000, and even though it pretty much always feels like there's that many people swarming the Polo Grounds, the reality is probably that most of the time, the venue is no more than about two-thirds full. Many attendees skip a day to hit the pool-party circuit, or don't arrive until sundown to avoid the worst of the heat. But Saturday night, it was clear that virtually every one of those 99,000 people was present — and it's a very, very good thing that, under normal circumstances, the festival isn't quite so full.
So, well-played, Coachella. We assumed you were totally screwing over all the artists playing opposite Guns, but clearly we were wrong. Which is one of the great things about Coachella — no matter what style of music you're into, it's probably playing somewhere at any given moment. All you have to do is find it — if you don't mind braving a few crowds along the way.
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