Choosing just one defining moment for a concert as massive and artistically splintered as the Coachella Music and Arts Festival is like counting grains of desert sand. Expect to miss more than you catch, and then suffer a sunburn for your effort.
But, for the sake of trying: Not long after 10 p.m. on Saturday, the litter-strewn center of the 78-acre Empire Polo Field was treated to a jolting collage of sounds. From one side came the caterwauling of Jane's Addiction, and from the other direction the relentless beat of Roni Size's drum-and-bass assault. Swirling in with that came the banda-with-a-breakbeat of the Nortec Collective, Mexico's percolating new dance sound, and off in the distance, the old-school hip-hop songs from the break-dance tent.
The Coachella festival is nothing if not eclectic. The second edition of the event, returning after 18 months and a fair share of travails, was a one-day marathon of rock, hip-hop and, most of all, electronic dance music that drew more than 32,000 revelers to this small desert city east of Palm Springs.
The heat, the biggest concern of promoters, did climb into the neighborhood of human body temperature, but breezes all day and then the cool curtain of nightfall took the edge off. There were a few dozen reported arrests, most of them made by undercover officers trolling the crowd for drug dealers.
"That is not a lot of arrests at all for a crowd of this size," Indio Police Cmdr. Kerri D. Latham said. Heat-related medical aid requests kept steady business going in the first-aid tents, but no major injuries were reported.
By midnight, the greatest danger was navigating the vast, dark expanses between the huge tents and stages. Divots, reclining fans and mounds of plastic water bottles threatened ankles and sent the dense crowds zigzagging into each other. Above, green laser beams strafed the sky, the tall palm trees and the craggy desert mountains.
"It's absolutely amazing, quite honestly," said Tricky, the British trip-hop hero, as he nodded to the landscape. "They told me this was going to be in the desert, they told me how big the crowd would be and that Jane's Addiction would be playing. It sounded like something you couldn't say no to, really."
The reunion performance of Jane's Addiction was the top draw of the day, with fans packing close to the main stage and singing along to "Three Days," "Jane Says" and other well-known songs by the Los Angeles band. The adjacent tents housing the all-star DJ bill of Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers also packed in sweaty throngs by the end of the night, while daytime favorites included the buzz-saw proto-punk of Iggy Pop and the buoyant Latin funk of Ozomatli (joined by David Hidalgo of Los Lobos).
"All colors and creeds--there's a rainbow up here on stage," announced member Kanetic Source over the group's brass, turntables and guitars.
Another popular stop was the tent devoted to the music and art of the Nortec Collective, the 10-member squad of electronic dance alchemists from Tijuana who synthesize the traditional sounds of banda and norteno with club beats. Traditionalists back home still scratch their heads at the sound, said Pepe Mogt, the DJ from the group Fussible. "They think it's something for the kids, they don't take it seriously, but that is starting to change," Mogt said.
Although electronic music is earning more acclaim and a larger fan base, some artists say it is still enduring growing pains. Backstage, a group of well-known turntable wizards commiserated about the performance conditions at Coachella and the mind-set they say it represents.
"This is essentially a rock show trying to do electronic and not doing it very well," DJ Dara said as two other performers, Dieselboy and AK 1200, nodded. "They don't understand that turntables need to be in a place where they don't jump, and the sound crews are all rock people. They don't get it."
Although many of the DJs had no problems (see review on F3), there were shouts of "train wreck"--the catcall of choice in DJ music when a record jumps or a mix is off--during some sets, when it was obvious only to those in front that unsteady stages and not hands were the culprit.
"It's like trying to perform as an athlete at the Olympics with a broken leg but you're not wearing a cast so nobody knows," groaned Dieselboy. "They dropped the ball with the production, but the thing is, everything is well-organized and nice. I had fun today with everything except the DJ aspect of it."
The first Coachella festival, a two-day affair with more harder-edged headline acts such as Rage Against the Machine and Tool, was the first attempt by maverick Los Angeles promoters Goldenvoice to present a European-style festival in Southern California. Instead of packing a lineup with radio-friendly hit bands of the moment or taking to the tour road like Lollapalooza or Lilith Fair, Goldenvoice opted for a standing event with high credibility and underground acts that created a roster greater than the sum of its parts.
The inaugural festival lost money and was battered by triple-digit temperatures, but Paul Tollett of Goldenvoice said Saturday that the earliest signs show the new edition will end up in the black and likely will return again.