To understand the electronic, tribal ethos of the often misunderstood rave culture, you merely had to watch the set by Groove Armada at the seventh annual Nocturnal Wonderland, which delivered what appears to be the largest rave in U.S. history to this small desert city over the weekend, drawing close to 40,000 fans.
As the British DJ duo worked through a bouncy, funk-inflected mix, fans in the scene's trademark fanciful dress took turns lining up along the lip of the stage to dance--completely obscuring any audience view of the stars working at their turntables. Because the rave culture is more about audience experience than artist spectacle, no one seemed to mind a bit.
"A good day at the office," Andy Cato, one-half of Groove Armada, shouted over the beat during the performance. "A good day indeed."
A good day for music, yes, but not without a tainting subplot--the rave scene's ongoing perception problem as a haven for drug use will not be helped by the nearly 50 drug-dealing arrests made by police.
The massive, overnight electronic music festival at the Empire Polo Field got off to a shaky start Saturday evening as traffic snarls on narrow city streets delayed fans and artists alike, but as the cool night progressed, Nocturnal Wonderland lived up its colorful name. Many fans seemed to be channeling Lewis Carroll or perhaps Dr. Seuss with their psychedelic outfits, while the music and special effects suggested some cosmic way station had been erected in the Coachella Valley.
Raves sprang up in Southern California about a decade ago as illegal and ragged dance parties in warehouses, and while many of the events have now grown into legal, professionally staged festivals, the subculture still faces criticism. Much of it has to do with the perception by many in the mainstream that raves are merely elaborate rituals for indulging in Ecstasy or other drugs.
With that in mind, law enforcement at this year's Wonderland was intently focused on drug offenders. About six dozen undercover officers, many of them state or federal agents, worked the crowd to identify and approach drug dealers, according to Indio Police Cmdr. Lance Mueller. Only a handful of non-dealing arrests were made, including one of a man with a stack of counterfeit tickets, Mueller said.
By comparison, there were a only a half-dozen arrests of any kind last year at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, a rock and electronic music event that drew about 50,000 people to the same venue.
Privately, organizers of the show were surprised by the extent of the undercover operation and noted that any similar stealth effort at a rock, rap or other type of show of this scale would probably yield similar numbers.
Mueller did not see the number of arrests as especially alarming. "I wouldn't say this show was problematic," he said as dawn approached. "Events like this are good for the city, good for the public. . . . We don't have a negative view of it at all."
Three people were also transported to a local hospital for drug-related medical treatment. The only other injuries reported were minor, many of them suffered by fans who had a hard time making their way through litter and sprawling fans in the dark expanses between the nine stages.
Another headache for security was gate-crashers, or, more precisely, fence-cutters. About 100 people were ejected after they were caught making their way through stables, orange groves and the chain-link fences that hem in the 78-acre site.
But the real story of the night was the music, an eclectic survey of the different frontiers of the electronic genres. The fare ranged from the relentless beat of "happy hard core" to the quirky hip-hop of Kool Keith. The crowd, while still dominated by teens immersed in the scene, was far more varied in age and interest than those at raves in the region just a year ago.
The success of musicians such as Moby and Fatboy Slim has paved a more accessible path for new fans, says Steve Levy, an early Los Angeles rave promoter who now heads Moonshine Music, a record label that organizes an annual national techno tour.
"It's now more acceptable for a more mainstream audience to be into it," Levy says. "Only a couple of years ago, the rave kids were the fringe. As the music has infiltrated the soundtracks to commercials, movies and video games, it has been accepted by a wider audience. The music hasn't changed too much, but a bigger audience understands what the music and the DJs are all about."
The DJs are now international celebrities, jetting across the globe with turntables and boxes of vinyl records in tow--a far easier endeavor than rock bands lugging crew and equipment. While they are hardly mainstream brand names, some of the top-name DJs at Nocturnal this year got fees of up to $70,000. The event's budget could hit $1 million after expenses are tallied.
At this year's Nocturnal, crowd favorites included Rabbit in the Moon, the Florida trio that mixes world music strains with house music, and Paul Oakenfold, a hero of the British acid house movement and a pioneer of the melodic, sweeping sound called trance, perhaps the most popular subgenre in electronic music today.
"The last three years I've been spending a lot of time in the U.S. and the scene just keeps getting bigger and bigger, and now this," Oakenfold said moments after his set. "It's the youth culture here now. . . . The people who are suspicious of it need to take the time and energy to come here and see this and understand it. It would change their minds."
The event's lead promoter, Pasquale Rotella, is accustomed to the widespread view that raves are dangerous. He got his start in the business during the illegal warehouse era, and in 1998 he saw his Nocturnal Wonderland event end with police in riot gear firing tear gas into a crowd outside the event.
Media scrutiny of this year's Nocturnal was especially intense because it was held one year to the week after five young people died in car crash on a winding road in the San Gabriel Mountains following a night of rave. All live music events with large crowds face a certain measure of safety risk, Rotella says, but raves have been unfairly targeted.
"I just want to prove with this event that the scene is growing and worthwhile," he said at about 4 a.m. as he navigated through the crowd in a golf cart. "I want to represent this music and help people understand it. . . . I hope we get to do it here again next year."