Thursday morning I wake up in LA and realize the insanity of my predicament. Did I really just put ninety bucks on my credit card and commit to spending two days, outdoors, in the desert, with masses of sweaty bodies in a field of grass? My destination is Indio, CA. at the Empire Polo Field to attend the two day Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Through a little research, the Californians let me know it will be at least ten degrees hotter when I head south. I honestly consider selling one of my passes because the quest for good music seem to have blinded the rationality of my senses. But this is an old mission, one I’ve been trying to fulfill since 1999, so I won’t be giving up easily.
It was 1999 when I first heard other’s experiences about an amazing electronic festival that took place out west. In it’s first year, Coachella brought mainly electronic musicians and DJs, and over the past four years it has evolved to have more of a rock oriented vein. At first the sales and attendance were dismal. But by 2001 Goldenvoice (the California company that puts Coachella on www.goldenvoice.com ) finally broke even. 2003 was the year Coachella solidified its reputation and more major musical acts committed to playing for this year: Radiohead, The Cure, The Pixies, Kraftwerk and Flaming Lips led it to be the first year that Coachella has sold out, presale, in its five year history.
Arriving into Indio and the Palm Springs area (a town about 20 minutes outside of Indio) every place showed signs of being overrun by Coachella goers. Trips to a Denny’s bathroom yielded lines of others who wanted to freshen up, change clothes or even take a standup bath?! People plugged their cell phones into any outlet they could find in the restaurants. It was clear that some of the servers at these restaurants had a certain level of stress. There was event a divide going on at grocery store: resident vs. concertgoer. You could easily pick out the Coachella goers in a lineup.
From talking to those who attended Coachella last year, this year was much hotter and the sheer quantity of people had increased. Shade was limited and we tried to scrunch our bodies underneath whatever side tent we could. The usual comfort zones were set aside as strangers napped next to strangers and recuperated from the intensity of the heat. As the hottest hours of the day grew nigh, sunburns were a plenty, along with hats and the loss of clothing. I later found out the heat peaked at temperatures at 107 degrees.
By day two the event staff working the concessions clearly had enough; they began to put up signs that said, “We work 14 hours a day for your tips.” Were the kids getting stingy? When water costs you about three bucks, and to maintain general hydration you might need a need a minimum of three of those…the costs can definitely begin to mount. The variety of food, however, was a plenty, and offered good choices in all fare from vegan, vegetarian to hella deep-fried.
While looking over the day’s schedule (http://www.coachella.com/set_times_print.html ), I soon realized that cloning would be the only option to seeing everyone I wanted to. To choose between MF Doom or Kraftwerk? Mogwai or the Flaming Lips? This was going to take some serious science. I initially had planned to catch portions of certain bands or DJ sets, but the running around part soon faded away. However practical the idea, it was only successful for about two bands because the heat just wasn’t letting me function past a certain point. By the time Stereolab came on at 8pm on day one, I finally just took to the grass, collapsed, closed my eyes and let the sounds sink in. From herein I ran around less and enjoyed more.
Belle and Sebastian has been on my list of bands I’ve wanted to see since around 1998. They played the largest stage on day two, and surprisingly, their sound carried very well in this type of environment. Most of the other bands overpowered the sound systems and the subtle nuances didn’t come across as well as they did with B&S. The lead singer had gone to church earlier that day and the locals were concerned about the noise that Coachella was creating. He dedicated a song to that member of the congregation, promising them that the sounds from his band would not be too loud. Their succulently sweet, and albeit bitter songs, melted gracefully onto the dry Indio air. I was impressed and content, even while people kept trying to walk over me to join the maze of bodies strewn on the ground.
The French band Air followed with pleasing live arrangements, better than their last show that I had seen at the Ogden Theater. Their newer stuff ties closer to the feeling of their earlier albums like “Moon Safari.” They, however, played songs from all of their releases. It was strange to see the same big screens that showed us the faces of Radiohead also showing us a band I’ve loved since 1998. People are actually liking instrumental electronic pop? The sea of people showed me, clearly, I am not alone.
As expected, the Pixies performed to perfection, perhaps a bit too mechanically as they rolled through their hits. A part of me wished that I could have seen them in more of a creative form, because it felt at this point a little forced. Even with such confines, I still felt honored to be experiencing them live.
Back at the Sahara Tent, the place were all the DJ’s threw down, I got close enough to Tommy Lee to take a picture of his back. He was there during the 2 Many DJ sets, a duo known for their eclectic mashups, blending the indie with electronic. These two were the only DJs I ventured to see, mainly because the environment of the “Sahara Tent” didn’t attract me like it did back when I was nineteen. Electronic music is still my world, but I won’t ever faint for it or rub against people who are high, sweaty, and almost naked.
There were a few famous folks who ventured outside of the VIP area and kicked it in the heat: Fred Schneider from the B-52’s, Jared Leto, one of the twins from Red Kross, Cedric from Mars Volta, along with the drummer from Q And Not U who told me Alicia Silverstone was hanging out backstage. The line between privileged and not was pretty defined. Those who were “special” got certain variations in a colored magical sparkling wristband. Security was very strict about letting in friends and whatnot…as in…none. No amount of talking would work, and believe me I saw plenty of people trying.
The VIP area itself was a joke, and it took me a few days to figure out why it was VIP. It was ELEVATED on a hill, as if to say,“OH SMALL PEOPLE BELOW ME LOOK UP AND REVEL IN MY VIP GODLINESS.” The VIP area is mildly closer to the “famous peoples huts,” a.k.a. trailers, where you can hope and pray that they actually decide to mingle with the masses. The “smaller” stars had divided trailers, i.e. a larger trailer sectioned into three small private relaxing areas, while the bigger headliners were obvious and grand with four posted beds and fountains (okay, so I’m making that part up).
I discovered another rich versus poor division when I out that Erase Eratta was only paid $100 (plus passes) and Q and Not U barely had their expenses covered. They weren’t necessarily complaining, just stating the facts. Goldenvoice proclaimed Coachella 2004 as having the largest crowds ever, and it seemed like all involved musically were very proud to be a part of this event. The organizers of this even have definitely sealed its reputation as being reputable and with good intentions, and it’s clear there are musicians there willing to support it.
With a time restraint to get back to LA, and the four-hour time it took to leave the Coachella parking lot, we left halfway through the Cure’s set Sunday night. We made it back to LA around 2am and was very grateful for a bed after a night of sleeping in the car. The physical exhaustion aside, a part of me wanted to keep going. I realized that I could have easily kept driving east over the next few weeks and followed quite a few of the bands on their way back to the east coast or as they continued the rest of their given tours.
California treated me well and definitely wanted to return. Wasn’t there some show that I wanted to fly back out to LA for? I checked, and the Cardigans were already sold out. Maybe they’ll play Coachella next year…