As the U.K. folk-revival quartet Mumford & Sons, all of whom are in their early 20s, stared out on the 70,000 people or so gathered to watch their set at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival on Saturday night, they couldn't help but remark on how much had changed for them. "In 2008, I was a punter sneaking in here for Rage Against the Machine," one of the Mumfords' string players cracked in disbelief.
That a kid could go from sneaking in the side gate to playing the main stage at nightfall in a span of three years says everything about this year's iteration on the 12-year-old desert bacchanal, the first in recent memory to draw its star power mostly from artists who formed, grew careers and scaled to the peak of their profession within the 2000s.
And taken with this year's new emphasis on keeping out gate crashers, easing transportation in and out of the grounds, and keeping those inside entranced with stages and light sculptures, the weekend felt like it was competing for the long-term loyalties of a generation that considers endless sensory stimulation a necessity.
In fact, Coachella's been operating long enough now that it's helped rear bands from buzz act to featured attraction. Arcade Fire expanded its fan base tremendously during its first two Coachella appearances, in 2005 and 2007. In February, the Montreal group shocked many Grammy watchers with an unexpected album of the year award — but for most who had caught the band on the Polo Grounds in years prior, such pomp was a forgone conclusion.
"There is a communal feeling here, backstage and out front," said singer PJ Harvey, who performed at Coachella for the first time Sunday night. "A combination of the two is needed, young and old. Everything informs each other. The great artist's parcel gets handed down."
Whatever you think of Kings of Leon's blustery Tarzan rock, Arcade Fire's gang-chorus earnestness or Kanye West's ambitions for hip-hop and high-end furniture blogging, this much is undisputed about Coachella 2011: Roger Waters was nowhere in sight, nor was his flying pig. There was no Paul McCartney set (well, save for Macca's brief piggyback cameo with the dance producer Afrojack).
While sitting on the grass during British art rock band Foals' electric set, Jazz Brice of Laguna Beach underlined pages in a textbook for a paper due Monday. The Pepperdine student described herself as a "Mumford & Sons enthusiast" who had already seen them four or five times this year.
"This year's lineup is really strong," said Brice, 22. "It always seemed a bit off to have Prince or Roger Waters. I mean, it's cool, but this feels more generational."
Other second-billed acts such as the Black Keys, Bright Eyes and the Strokes all caught their headwinds in the aughts too, and the hottest-tipped (but ultimately fraught) set of the undercard came from the L.A. teenage rap posse Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All.
But it wasn't milk and honey for everyone. While many of the festival's logistical problems had been eased (microchip-embedded wristbands discouraged wanton counterfeiting, and shuttle buses eased some of the infamous traffic snarls), an unexpected new one emerged as faulty video monitors and squelching feedback brutalized otherwise powerful sets from R&B experimentalist Erykah Badu and blues-adventurers the Black Keys.
But those problems didn't take away from this year's distinctly more relaxed energy.
A festival that can rely on a crop of young bands to do its heavy lifting is ensuring its own growth as much as it is paving the way for increased album sales or new discoveries.
"I think it's a healthy sign," Guy Garvey, frontman for England's Elbow, which performed a Saturday sunset slot in the Mojave tent, said of the sprightly lineup. Though the band plays arenas back home, where it won the Mercury Prize for "Seldom Seen Kid," Coachella affords Elbow an opportunity to make new fans in the States, where it is still not as well known.
"It's a curated festival where not every choice is based on record sales," Garvey said. "It would be a shame if you knocked that out and only went for the biggest game." Of course, the emphasis on youth and Internet-era fame can make some wonder about the big picture. Is Odd Future in this for life? Is Kings of Leon's "Sex on Fire" our "Light My Fire"? Maybe, maybe not.
Regardless, the weekend made an impression that's bound to remain as the years pass.
"It's its own utopia," said 24-year-old Lauren Mosenthal of Boston, who came for the adventurous disco of Cut Copy and Crystal Castles and the tent-revivalist energy of Arcade Fire. "The natural surroundings of the mountains and perfect weather, the constant visual stimulation from the art installations, the fashion and mind-blowing sets and lights make you forget about the outside world."