Rock Makes a Splash in Desert

Times Staff Writer

A lifestyle both rural and retiree sets the low-desert rhythm of Indio with its equestrian trails, golf courses and sun-baked subdivisions. But Saturday an amplified, young and urban beat took over. It was those kids again -- the 50,000 or so music fans who piled into town for the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival.

"It makes one helluva lot of noise, if you like that stuff," grumbled Jim Crawford, 85, who gets an earful at La Quinta Ridge Mobile Estates, which sits jarringly close to the festival, making its sixth appearance this weekend.

Crawford handles the invasion by "filling up the icebox" and staying home. His neighbor, Wayne Cates, 78, has a sound solution for what he calls the "madhouse" weekend: "I have hearing aids," he said, shrugging. "I just take 'em out."

Other residents unplug in a more dramatic way: They pack up and leave before the huge amplifiers power up.

With 90 bands over two days, the festival may rock loud and long, but locals have learned to tolerate the onslaught in exchange for the economic benefits from an event that has so far been well behaved.

"It is really Indio's shining star," said Mark Graves, director of communications for the Palm Springs Desert Resorts Convention and Visitors Authority. "The business that this one event brings to the valley, everybody has to be grateful for Indio."

Indio also hosts an international tamale festival and a golf tournament named for Bob Hope that draw tens of thousands of people to an enclave also known for roadside sales of date shakes.

After six editions of the Coachella rock and electronic music festival, the town finds itself internationally known among rock festival fans. The show has gone from a risky venture to a franchise that is covered by the international music press, attracting acclaimed names such as Coldplay and Bright Eyes.

Although most fans are from the concrete hubs of Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, visitors come from all 50 states and, with each passing year, more carry European passports.

The result is an odd juxtaposition of spooked horses and wide-eyed retirees studying purple-haired kids.

This year, acts play on two outdoor stages and in large tents set up on the lush 80-acre Empire Polo Grounds. The tickets were on sale for $81 at the door Saturday.

By midday, the crowd on the vast polo field had reached half capacity. It was warm, but festival veterans called it comfortable compared to the triple-digit heat of previous years. Like the music, fashion varied considerably -- red knee socks, cowboy hats and Japanese parasols.

"Dress naked and wear sunscreen," said Brandie Durso, 27, of Huntington Beach, sharing her strategy for survival. Clad in shorts and a bikini top, she was eating an ice cream cone.

The vibe was more country fair than mosh pit as concertgoers milled past oversized sculptures and stopped to bang on massive drums on display. They listened to the Raveonettes, a band from Denmark, and Perry Farrell, Jane's Addiction's singer, took a turn as the deejay in the sweltering dance tent.

Outside the venue, restaurants braced for overflow crowds. Lodgings from Palm Springs to Desert Hot Springs to Indio sold out two months ago -- "Rooms have just been snapped up left and right," Graves said. At the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino, all 251 rooms for this weekend have been reserved for four months. Larry Saward, director of operations at the resort, said 800 employees are working this weekend, twice the usual number.

"Of course it's all hands on deck," Saward said. "It should be rocking."

One of the few 24-hour dining options in town, Denny's restaurant, makes about $40,000 over festival weekends -- a month's worth of business. In past years, exhausted concertgoers started lining up on the sidewalk Friday evening and didn't disperse until Sunday afternoon.

Kelly Barnes, a Denny's supervisor, said the visitors might dress wild but they tip well and are usually polite. "Our regular customers are harder to deal with than them," said Barnes.

In the early years, some locals voiced trepidations about beginning a relationship with rock rebels.

The inaugural show in October 1999 came on the heels of that year's ill-fated revival of Woodstock. That concert in upstate New York closed in a fiery finale as looters and arsonists attacked vending trucks. Woodstock fans blamed the chaos on price-gouging and harsh conditions.

Coachella promoter Paul Tollett has pushed to make his concert festival a calm, more comfortable affair for ticket holders, with $2 water bottles, free parking and very little of the heavy music genres that seem more likely to stir negative crowd emotions.

Police said young fans typically arrive, party and leave with little trouble.

Last year, 24 people were arrested on the concert's first day and 29 on the second, for offenses that included public intoxication, petty theft and drug possession.

By 9:30 p.m. Saturday, police had arrested 20 people on suspicion of drug and alcohol offenses, and six people were taken to the hospital. One of them was a woman who went into labor on the field.

Concert infractions are typically trespassing, ticket scalping, and wandering too close to the horses, cows and chickens on nearby property.

But Indio police spokesman Benjamin Guitron said the town is no "Ma and Pa Kettle type of environment." Country estates ring the concert venue, a vast, emerald lawn dotted by horse statues and ringed by palm trees. The setting is countrified, but also affluent.

"There are high-end chickens living by the place," he said.

And how does that high-end, rural populace react to concerts that have included the guitar havoc of Rage Against the Machine and the late-night dance thumps of Underworld?

Guitron noted that in the early years, residents called to complain about the ground shaking. "My paintings and china are rattling too much," was how he summed up the reports. In the years since, the calls have come in the weeks before the show.

"They call and want to know the dates, not because they want to attend but because they're going to take a two-day vacation," Guitron said.

But Coachella is considered the Cadillac of American concert festivals. It has won many top honors from Pollstar, the concert-industry trade publication, and promoters from other states and countries have flown in every year to take notes.

To improve traffic flow, a new plan this year focused on funneling cars from the freeway to the venue. The plan got good reviews, but some visitors complained that it took them an hour to travel from Interstate 10 to the festival gates. Some Coachella veterans camped overnight Friday to avoid the hassle.

Rudy Acosta, Indio's director of economic development, is trying to leverage the festival's enormous crowds into more hospitality businesses in Indio.

The city has been growing at a rate of 1,000 new residents per month for the last year, with more coming. About 27,000 homes are slated for construction over the next five to seven years, which could more than double the population of 65,000.

"We're in a very serious pace to catch up retail-, commercial- and hospitality-wise," Acosta said. In the meantime, the little desert city is getting culturally comfortable with its yearly rock and roll immigration. The other day, when the fire chief likened concertgoers to extras from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," it was with a touch of endearment.

Rudy Valenzuela, a lifelong Indio resident and real estate broker, said the sour notes he heard in the early days of the festival have gone away.

"The music festival at first was kind of, eh, we didn't know if this was right for Indio. All those crazy young people coming in. After the first one, it was a hit. If that many people are coming in, of course you're going to have problems, even if it's a church revival.... Things like this put Indio on the map."


Times staff writer Geoff Boucher contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2018, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World