A concert oasis or a fleeting mirage?
That was the question in October 1999, when a group of maverick promoters from Los Angeles headed to the desert to launch the Coachella Music and Arts Festival, a sprawling, European-style event that aspired to become a Southern California tradition.
Fans of cutting-edge music were enthused by the lineup--Beck and Rage Against the Machine led the list, and the deep roster was dense with electronic dance stars--but there was also good reason for skepticism. The lineup purposely excluded the radio-hit acts that power most festivals, and the chaos and crimes that marred Woodstock '99 were still fresh in the public mind. The concert site in Indio, tiny and about 125 miles from Los Angeles, also presented access, traffic and weather challenges.
In the end, the inaugural Coachella festival enjoyed great reviews, the praise of the music community and a two-day crowd topping 50,000. But the event also lost money (the promoters decline to say how much) and suffered from triple-digit temperatures that called into question the likelihood of repeat customers in the future.
Now the great concert experiment in the desert returns Saturday with a pared-down format--one day this time--and a new spot on the calendar that promises at least slightly cooler weather. The thing that has not changed is the eclectic musical offerings. There will be rock from a reconstituted Jane's Addiction and Weezer, beats from electronic dance heroes Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers and high-minded hip-hop from the Roots and Mos Def. In all, four dozen acts will perform on the vast and verdant Empire Polo Field during the 14-hour program, and the core sound of the event is the pulse of electronic music.
The concert's promoters at the Goldenvoice firm are enthused that early ticket sales are outpacing those of the first edition. A report by Ticketmaster shows that fans in 46 states and six countries have bought the $65 tickets, which Goldenvoice president Paul Tollett credits to a powerful promotional tool--the memories and word of mouth created by the first Coachella festival. Tollett and his partners hope to attract 30,000 to 35,000 fans.
"The first time, it took a leap of faith for people to drive a couple hours out of town, into the desert, for something they didn't know what it was going to be," Tollett said. "There had been some horrible festivals, obviously Woodstock, and then talk that festivals just weren't cool. It took a lot. And I think now we'll get a lot of those people back. And they will have a great time."
Tollett points to the wide range of underground heroes and cutting-edge artists on this year's roster as a feast for true connoisseurs of music. Cult favorites range from archetypal punk forerunner Iggy Pop to jazz-rap fusionists Gang Starr, and from the alt-rock of the Dandy Warhols to the hip-hop informed Latin funk of Ozomatli.
Musical strains and splinters from all over the globe will appear, including Iceland's Sigur Ros and Austria's trippy turntable wizards Kruder and Dorfmeister. From the local scene, such well-known Los Angeles DJs as Christopher Lawrence, Doc Marten, Jason Bentley and Raymond Roker will appear, as well as Orange County's Uberzone.
To Lawrence, the event is a proving ground for the domestic product in the genre. Even though house and techno were born in the clubs of Detroit and Chicago, the music's direction had been largely defined by Europeans in recent years. Now, Lawrence said, that's changing.
"I regard Coachella as a testament to how far American dance culture has come. . . . American artists used to work overtime to break Europe," the DJ said. "Now the situation has reversed, with European and U.K. artists working overtime to break the U.S. Coachella is a barometer which proves that America's festivals, clubs, DJs, producers, labels and incredible crowds are not [just] emerging--but are already major contenders in the global dance arena."
"If you understand music well, if you're informed, it's a great lineup, honestly," said Tollett. "There are people that don't know a lot of artists, which is OK, but the people that do know are just blown away."
Count Paul Oakenfold among those eager and informed fans. The British electronic dance star is one of the headliners at this year's edition of Coachella, but the pioneer in the sweeping, melodic trance genre plans on showing up at the 78-acre venue well before his late-night set on the main stage.
"There's so many people I want to see myself I'll probably be there all day," Oakenfold said. "There's Nikka Costa, who's quite amazing, and Mos Def and Roni Size. And Jane's Addiction, of course, which should be incredible."
The reunion of the famed Los Angeles rock outfit marks the band's first performance since 1997. Singer Perry Farrell and guitarist Dave Navarro have solo albums coming out in June, and the Coachella invitation to re-form Jane's was a matter of serendipity, the singer says.
"We're all in very high spirits, and the timing is just right," Farrell said. "You know the concept that you're never late, you're always on time? That's where we're at right now. We didn't even expect to be playing. But it is always so much fun playing in Jane's. We're a really great live band."
Farrell performed at the 1999 Coachella show as a solo artist and says he can't wait to return to the picturesque site.
"It's so warm out there and the mountain ridges are all around you," Farrell said. "You can flop on your back and look up at the stars and listen to great music."
Farrell and other return visitors will find many of the same sights and creature comforts that were hallmarks of the first festival. For festival-goers looking for a break from the music, there will be massage tables, an e-mail center, a large food court and two hot-air balloons offering quick aerial views of the festival.
Merchants and quirky art exhibits (with an emphasis on the large, mechanical or psychedelic) will be stationed near the center of the grounds. After much of the blame for the riots and fires at Woodstock '99 was attributed to a crowd turned surly by miserable conditions, the watchwords for Coachella are comfort and audience respect, Tollett said.
"The vibe is important," he said. "We don't pass out pamphlets and advertisements and stickers during the show. Some of the festivals across the country arejust a marketing convention masquerading as a festival. And we have staff that cleans up during the event and doesn't just wait until the end. Last time, the main litter issue was water bottles. They were everywhere. It was so hot."
The heat wave leading up to the 1999 Coachella festival probably scared off many prospective concert-goers, said Rick Van Santen, Tollett's partner in Goldenvoice. "People were reading in the paper that it was 100 degrees out there and it was hot in L.A., hot enough that people just thought twice about going," Van Santen said. Ticket sales sagged in the last few days--the opposite of the typical trend for large shows--and the hearty fans who did attend were often lethargic or searching for shade during daytime sets.
Dodging the prospect of another Indian summer was a top priority for Goldenvoice this time around, and the one-day format will keep the crowds fresher as well, Tollett said--although, he added, the decision to abbreviate the festival was driven by "available talent" and the goal to provide a meaty bill. "I like two days better," he said. "It just didn't come together so we went with one instead of forcing it."
But soaring temperatures in recent days have given Goldenvoice leaders heartburn and bad memories. Will thermometers again signal wilting crowds for the festival?
Weather forecasts show a slightly friendlier climate for Coachella fans this time around. The outlook for the Indio area on Saturday is for clear skies, with temperatures topping out between 95 and 98 degrees, according to Tom Carlson, a meteorologist for Weather Central, which provides forecasts for The Times. After dusk, the heat will subside quickly and temperatures will fall into the low 60s or upper 50s by the time the final rave music acts perform.
There's also less figurative heat this year as well. In 1999, there was some unease in the Indio community about the prospect of hosting a massive festival for rock and rave-style music, but it was largely dispelled by the smooth sailing at the first festival. Also, the same venue hosted a far more controversial event called Nocturnal Wonderland in September--an overnight rave that drew 40,000 dance music fans. Although that event was marred somewhat by traffic snarls and four dozen drug-dealing arrests (compared with half a dozen arrests over two days at Coachella), the city of Indio is growing more comfortable with its novel role as a youth music epicenter.
How certain is the future of Coachella? Tollett and Van Santen are cautiously optimistic that this year's edition of the festival will not lose money, and they are resolute in their pursuit of creating a tradition and international name for the event. Tollett said the exposure and perception of the event have also been a boost to morale and, indirectly, to business in the Goldenvoice offices.
The Coachella festival spotlight also added luster to the 20-year-old Goldenvoice as an asset. One of the last remaining major independents in an industry rife with consolidation, Goldenvoice was finally scooped up this year by Concerts West, a division of Anschutz Entertainment Group, in a transaction valued at $7 million.
Van Santen said the deal, finalized on April 1, should not alter the course of Goldenvoice, which has built up strong credibility in rock and punk circles through the years and handled early Southern California shows in the careers of Nirvana, Jane's Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. "They're letting us do exactly what we want to do and what we've been doing," Van Santen said, adding that the holdings and national reach of Concerts West will add "more juice" to Goldenvoice projects.
Tollett said one of the key goals for Goldenvoice is to build the brand name of its festival in the Coachella Valley. "To the city of Indio, we would like it to be just another nice event they're used to," Tollett said, citing the golf and tennis tournaments that have become key calendar dates in the Coachella Valley and Palm Springs region. "And on the music side, we would like this to become an international event on par with the European festivals that have been around for years."
Though Europe has massive, multi-day festivals with regional appeal such as Reading and Glastonbury, their U.S. counterparts have typically been touring shows such as Lollapalooza and Lilith Fair or music festivals anchored to street fairs in urban centers, such as Bumbershoot in Seattle. Coachella also avoids the all-star, flavor-of-the-week mind-set of radio tie-in shows that have become a staple of the music world. Oakenfold says there is a far more tribal feel to the remote, sprawling festival approach.
"I've had the good fortune to play a number of these in Europe, and they're great fun," Oakenfold said. "You get there early, the sun will be shining, you check out different groups, some you've heard, some you haven't, and you're with your friends. The day slips into night. It's usually raining in England, but I don't think we have to be concerned about that at Coachella."
Oakenfold was the first DJ to ever play the main stage at Glastonbury, the British festival noted more for its rock headliners, and he got a taste for the Coachella venue while playing the outdoor main stage during Nocturnal Wonderland in September. "The main worry on the main stage is making sure the records don't jump."
Another headliner, Fatboy Slim, has a different take on the outdoor aspects of the festival scene--he would rather take the act inside a tent, even if it limits the crowd size. He and the Chemical Brothers, the two biggest crossover stars from the electronic dance world, will be performing side-by-side sets inside a tent that is large enough to canopy a regulation football field.
"I'm not a big fan of playing outdoors," said Fatboy, whose given name is Norman Cook. "I don't think it ever quite works. There's an atmosphere you need, that warm hug of everyone pressed together. I've only played outdoors one or two times. So for this one I think they wanted me to be on the main stage, but me and the Chemical Brothers told them we need a tent."
While the club sweat and swoon are preserved by tents, Fatboy said there is still a special festival mentality that infuses the European festivals and, he expects, their unique American cousin, Coachella.
"It's the togetherness vibe you get in clubs, but more. At a club, you get there half after midnight and you're out by 3, where at a festival you're there for 12 hours. . . . . You get what we English call the Dunkirk spirit of we're all in this together," Fatboy said. "If someone falls down in front of you, you help them up. At a club, if someone falls down, you just think, 'Oh God.' It's a bonding thing, a bit like 'Stand by Me' for grown-ups."
* Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, Saturday at Empire Polo Field, 81-800 Ave. 51, Indio, noon. $65. (213) 480-3232.