Coachella Festival heats the beat

Times Staff Writer

INDIO -- The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival has been praised to the desert skies for redefining the American rock festival, but on Sunday the affair also tweaked the meaning of "record heat."

When the DJ called Luckyiam capped a midday performance by flipping his vinyl into the crowd like ebony Frisbees, it was a gesture of frustration.

"Why not toss them? They all melted -- they warped right on the turntable," he said of his set with the group Atmosphere. "I've never seen anything like it. But the crowd still seemed to enjoy the show. And, you know, it was still a good show, somehow."

And with that Luckyiam summed up the weekend as succinctly as a desert resort postcard mailed to Wisconsin in wintertime. Sure, it's dizzy hot, but don't you wish you were here?

The festival's fifth anniversary found it bigger than ever, and the density of the more than 50,000 fans a day at times added degrees of discomfort to the heat, which was already a chest-heaving 103 degrees at its Sunday peak. But it was still a good show somehow.

The return to rock by the Pixies and Radiohead's cold-fusion heat (and their startling inclusion of "Creep" in the set list) were the talk of Saturday, while Sunday chatter was taken with the riveting performance by Bright Eyes and the loopy bonhomie and props of the Flaming Lips set.

"He's in a beach ball!" one fan shouted as, sure enough, Lips leader Wayne Coyne rolled over the crowd's raised palms inside a bubble. The stunt had his handlers biting their nails backstage, but the audience density and good cheer kept Coyne safely afloat.

If there was a moment when good cheer wilted it was on Saturday at the aptly named Gobi Tent, where Beck, a headliner at the 1999 Coachella, tried to fit his show under the tarp.

The beloved local hero was an informal addition to the bill, but his name in the schedule book was enough to pull more than 8,000 early-arriving fans to the set, a number that immediately and dramatically overwhelmed the tent.

The majority of the crowd outside was packed clavicle to shoulder blade, and the napes of their necks faced a blazing sun. A late start and the acoustic flavor of the set didn't help matters for the distant fans, and dozens of them surrendered and pushed their way back out to get air and shade elsewhere. The ordeal wasn't lost on the singer. "I thought about going goth last week," the singer told the audience. "I'm glad I didn't."

Over the two days, the temperatures and marathon music led to scores of medical tent visits for heat exhaustion, dehydration, chest pains, etc. Alcohol and drug use by some fans exacerbated their heat problems, but none to medical crisis level. As the Cure was bringing the curtain down on the show Sunday night, Dr. Paul Willis of the safety staff said the weekend's most significant injury was a broken ankle.

As far as law enforcement, there were about four dozen arrests, almost all for ticket scalping and drug offenses, according to police spokesman Ben Guitron.

The relatively smooth and safe sailing raised the question of whether the festival would continue its climb up the growth chart, but promoter Paul Tollett said the 2005 edition may be the same or even smaller. This year, tickets were sold in all 50 states (a special welcome, by the way, to those six Alaskans) and the crowd from Europe climbs each year. "The balance is this: There are so many people who didn't get a ticket this year, you want to open it up for them, but you also need to make sure that everyone who gets in has a good time," Tollett said. "You want to make it special and give people these moments they can remember."

One of those moments on Sunday saw the band the Killers, usually a foursome, increasing their ranks to two dozen by drafting, at the last minute, a choir from the Mt. Calvary Holy Church in Indio. Filing on stage in white robes with gold trim, the singers offered an angelic response of "I got soul, but I'm no solider" to the call of the ominously named band's finale. Choir director Dieann Simmons Williams said it was curious booking for her group, but "wherever we can witness, that's where we go."

Besides gospel singers, the willfully eclectic festival also presented some other sights not typically found in the mosh and mess of rock festivals. There was Belle & Sebastian presenting band members who arrived on stage not only with guitars and a French horn but also with wardrobe varying from kilts to summer tops with spaghetti straps. There was Section Quartet using violins to classic rock effect on Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love," and a rock star, Perry Farrell, offering not one but two performances as dance DJ in the swelter and coronary beat of a dance tent.

There was Saul Williams, hip-hop-minded poet, comparing the Bush administration to acne ("You can't get rid of a whitehead with bloodshed ...") and Kraftwerk sending robots on stage to handle part of their set.

Perhaps the strangest scene of all played out in the parking lots of the venue after the show, where the mad jumble of cars, dust and darkness left many of the sun-addled fans wandering literally for hours looking for their ride home.

Some shot off fireworks to find lost friends.

"I do this every year," said Nevadan Perry Harring. "I wish the music would just keep going so I could wait for the sun to come up again. Hot is better than lost."

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