INDIO — It wasn't yet 1:30 p.m. on Saturday in the Sahara Tent, but 16-year-old Niall Bauer had already met up with friends on the lawn in the massive, LED-flashing venue inside the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which began the first of two consecutive weekends on the grounds of the Empire Polo Club on Friday.
"It's so much bigger than I expected," he said, a little wide-eyed behind his sunglasses. It was the Beverly Hills resident's first Coachella, and in many ways the festival that launched 15 years ago has been much bigger — and full of more rarified pleasures.
This year's Coachella offered new and expensive ways to wall yourself off from its crowds of some 200,000 attendees over the three-day weekend. Yet amid a sprawling roster of performers that included Outkast, the Replacements, Bryan Ferry and many others, the festival had moments where almost every fan dug into its most populist attractions.
On one hand, well-heeled guests could practically replicate a night out in Los Angeles on the festival's arid grounds. With a VIP wristband, one could enjoy hand-crafted drinks at outposts of bars like Honeycut and Seven Grand, have dinner at Coachella editions of Eveleigh and Baco Mercat, and perhaps crash in a $6,500-per-weekend Safari tent, complete with air conditioning and concierge.
On the other hand, in the minutes before Atlanta rap duo Outkast's headlining reunion show closed the first night Friday, the thousands of fans assembled at the Main Stage crackled with energy, awaiting the duo's hits like "B.O.B." and "Hey Ya." When Outkast played those songs, the field erupted in dancing, a reminder of why fans come to music festivals in the first place.
"We're not here for all the VIP things," said 18-year-old Dani Smith, also from Beverly Hills. "We came for the music."
Unlike the blustery and rainy weather that opened the last two festivals, temperatures on Friday stayed in the low 90s. The wind picked up at night, however, and occasionally knocked out sound to a few speakers around the main stages.
Friday saw a total of only 23 arrests, according to Benjamin Guitron of the Indio Police Department, compared to last year's 33 arrests on opening day. Nine of the arrests this year were drug-related and 14 involved alcohol. "Considering the thousands of concert-goers," Guitron said, "we're doing fairly well. There's been no significant issues."
This year's attractions shifted a bit, moving the electro-focused Do Lab stage to the rear of the fest to make room for a field of art installations. One, a monolith of mirror-walls dubbed "Reflection Field" by artist Phillip K. Smith, was by day a sly commentary on the rampant self-portrait-photo impulses of the festival crowds. By night, however, the walls turned into iridescent pink and yellow backdrops, and turned all those people into framed silhouettes.
The mood inside the tents reflected the shifting sands of taste this year. Many of the fest's other vaunted reunion sets felt strangely under-attended. Friday's return of beloved Minneapolis indie rockers the Replacements was met with just a smattering of old-guard fans on the Outdoor Stage.
The Swedish electronic duo The Knife returned to the stage for the first time in nearly a decade to put on one of Friday's strangest and most enticing sets. But aside from a few thousand enthusiastic fans (which reportedly included the rapper-mogul Sean "Diddy" Combs), most of the crowd seemed to be bouncing to the mash-up set from Pittsburgh DJ Girl Talk or waiting for Outkast.
The energy was all in the Sahara Tent, where crowds of neon-adorned revelers overflowed day and night Friday and Saturday in a sea of strobe lights. They frolicked to the high-energy electronic dance music of teen favorites like the 17-year-old Dutch producer Martin Garrix and Russian/German producer Zedd, who has worked with pop star Lady Gaga and scored a hit single with "Clarity."
On Saturday afternoon, much of the pre-show buzz was around a semi-secret new project, 11 11, from the Israeli-born electronica artist Guy Gerber and his collaborator, Diddy. Gerber was on the bill inside Coachella's more refined, club-styled area for dance music, the Yuma Tent, but in-the-know fans seemed to suspect something bigger might be afoot for his set.
Given the "lots of new music, crazy landscapes and beautiful girls," Gerber said, "anything can happen."
As much as Coachella is about trying to dazzle repeat visitors with one-of-a-kind attractions, the sheer scale of the festival is a novelty for many. Brian Cleary, a 46-year-old from Los Angeles, is a member of the indie rock band Radar Brothers, which is signed to the same label as Sunday's headliners Arcade Fire. But this year, he was attending Coachella for the first time as a fan, and for him, the whole was also bigger than he expected.
"It's a sweaty, half-naked festival," Cleary said. "But it's a sweaty, half-naked festival where I got to see Bryan Ferry."