Coachella returns bigger and brighter than ever, but some fans miss the ol' days

When Radiohead’s sound cut out a few songs into its Friday night headlining set at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, one fan watching the performance on the main lawn was spotted putting her head in her hands and wincing.

“This feels like the election,” she was overheard saying, alluding to the sense of sudden shock at an unexpected result.

Radiohead played off the sound system woes with good humor, but the comment was indicative of our increasingly politicized era. Now in its 18th year — and its largest ever — the fest has long positioned itself as a resort-like escape rather than aligning with music’s more rebellious tendencies.

Yet amid a tumultuous cultural climate that followed a divisive election season, Coachella’s stakes couldn’t help but feel a little raised. The festival, produced by AEG-owned Goldenvoice, this year swelled in size by about 20 acres and added a new punk- and Latin-driven stage. This all after a last-minute pop-star lineup switch that saw Beyoncé having to step down due to pregnancy and cede the spotlight to Lady Gaga.

But some fans felt a little overwhelmed.

“It’s too crowded, you can’t enjoy yourself and it’s not as fun,” said Jane Gaje of San Francisco. She’d been to four Coachellas and loved each one, but this year she had trouble settling into the broader layout and bigger crowds.

The fest received a permit for an estimated 25,000 additional fans this year, up from 99,000 in 2016. “We only saw the intros to everything,” Gaje said.

But on the first two days of Coachella, any grumblings were notably apolitical. There were no significant onstage protests or sense of Trump-driven discord from a typically liberal crowd. Fans were more inclined to play beer pong in the sunny campgrounds or feast on vegan tacos than spend energy on political outrage.

That might change with sets from Lady Gaga and Kendrick Lamar later in the weekend — Lamar released the searing, furious new album “Damn.” just before Coachella, and the typically outspoken Lady Gaga was set to perform late Saturday evening.

Some artists, such as the Argentinian band Las Ligas Menores, had some last-minute visa woes that could have spelled trouble for their sets. The group was approved for travel into the U.S. just 10 days before the launch of the festival, which will repeat again next week on the posh grounds of the Empire Polo Club.

But so far, it seems the youth-driven liberal resistance movement hung up its protest signs for Coachella and is taking the weekend off.

Still, though, other fans were concerned that Coachella’s continued growth would lead to exhaustion.

“It’s not the same. The vibe is still cool, but there’s too many people,” said Eddie Gutierrez, who came down from the Bay Area for his third Coachella. While he had a blast seeing acts like the EDM producer and DJ Dillon Francis, he too felt like the expansive festival had become a bit unwieldy.

“It’s a time to enjoy music from all different genres, but its not as enjoyable this year. You had to fight crowds to get to see bands, so our night ended early. I feel like people aren’t even really here, they’re just here to say they’re at Coachella.”

Sound system woes aside, however, there was plenty of notable music to be had at the fest. From Father John Misty’s regal sundown set to Stormzy’s fiery modern hip-hop and Sampha’s heartfelt experimental soul, Coachella’s taste remained as current as ever.

For early arrivals, special guests included Todd Rundgren playing with the Lemon Twigs and Curt Smith of Tears for Fears playing “Mad World” with the L.A. band Zipper Club.

The enormous new art installations — particularly the colorfully psychedelic “Chiaozza Garden” from Terri Chiao and Adam Frezza, and Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan’s pastel-colored monuments — bolstered the feeling of other-worldliness that fans seemed to crave.

For Jesse and Dede Flemming, co-founders of the Do LaB, a longtime Coachella staple, the sense of escapism and rejuvenation through music was more necessary than ever this year. Their Burning Man-influenced aesthetic had always been a popular Coachella niche, but in 2017 fans used it as a respite from from the heat and throngs — and maybe even to help navigate the tumultuous world outside.

“This blows people away and inspires them, and hopefully all that trickles back into real world,” said Jesse Flemming. His brother and partner in tests like the L.A. raver staple Lightning in a Bottle agreed.

“They're not checking the news when they're here, and you get that purer sense of what community is,” Dede Flemming said. “People crave that. Living out in real world with politics what they are and now that we’re flirting with new wars, people want to get back to the roots.”

august.brown@latimes.com

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