In the Coachella Spirit


It was just one among dozens of singular musical moments at the third Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, but the frenzied Saturday night set by a turntable wizard named Z-Trip seemed to encapsulate the defining ambitions of this massive music gathering in the desert.

Weaving, grafting and scratching, Z-Trip created a vinyl collage of disparate music (Who would expect Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" and Rage Against the Machine's "Testify" to lend themselves to merger?) that had fans howling and bobbing. He closed his set with a Beck song--and Beck himself. The singer, bearded and breakdancing with a guitarist in tow, leaped on stage to sing over his own sample, and send the crowd over the top.

That slice of performance not only spoke to the festival's aspirations to become an industrial-sized sampler of both rock and electronic dance flavor, but also summed up the Coachella ideal of placing stars with mainstream clout alongside obscure experimentalists.

The approach has won over fans--this year's edition appeared to be on track to make its first profit, and the announced Saturday attendance of 30,000 was a single-day record for the event--and made the show one where artists come to check out other artists. "There's one big pot out here, stirring it up," said Chaly 2na, the frontman of acclaimed hip-hop collective Jurassic 5, one of the numerous Los Angeles acts performing. "You want to see what everybody's doing, too. I just checked out KRS-One and it was amazing."

The first half of the two-day show unfolded under picture-perfect weather, and despite some vicious early afternoon traffic snarls on the overwhelmed surface streets of this small desert city, 125 miles east of Los Angeles, the event proceeded without any major logistical bumps or bruises.

In all, 50 acts were scheduled to perform from noon to midnight on five stages over the weekend, including major names such as Bjork, Oasis, the Prodigy and the Foo Fighters. The fan favorite on Saturday night seemed to be the show-closing set by the Chemical Brothers, who returned to Coachella for their third visit.

If the British duo looked out on the crowd, they saw the familiar sights of nighttime Coachella: the friendly chaos of thousands of fans dancing, kicking back on blankets or, most commonly, navigating their way to the next stage to catch as many glimpses of different performances as possible.

After the crowd reached peak size under the amber full moon, it was impossible in most areas to walk three paces in any direction without colliding with someone. The mash of music from each stage could be heard in the field's center, and squiggles of light from the ubiquitous glow-sticks dotted the night.The crowd itself is part of the pop culture collage, and totems from different eras abounded, from tie-dyed shirts and disco outfits to Hacky Sacks and the fanciful rave scene regalia. The quick currents and drifts of the pop world could be seen not only on stages--Siouxsie & the Banshees one day, the Strokes the next--but in the crowd, with ghosts of MTV past and present wandering by in the form of original VJ Mark Goodman and "The Osbournes" family member Kelly Osbourne.

The median age for the third edition of Coachella seemed to skew older than in previous years, with more fans in their 20s and 30s who came with eclectic allegiances. "You see the kids that are into rock, then you see the emo kids or the rave kids and the hip-hop fans--this is the ideal kind of concert, really, the kind of show I'd love to see more of," said Mike Shinoda, MC/vocalist from Linkin Park, playing the part of music fan for the day.

Shinoda and his group finished 2001 with the year's best-selling U.S. album and they are a powerhouse in radio--placing them in a pop landscape far removed from most of the Coachella acts. More common are "buzz" acts, such as Icelandic curiosity Sigur Ros last year or, on Saturday night, the Vines, an Australian rock band that many expect to fit nicely into the spare, no-frills guitar rock movement spearheaded by the Strokes and the White Stripes.

But Saturday night, despite the contortions and caterwauls of charismatic singer Craig Nicholls, the crowd that packed into a tent to see the group largely stood stiff-kneed and blank-faced. It was late, and after a full day of music and sun, the hardiest Coachella fans were off with the dance groups, and the rock explorers looked spent. "They made an effort to come see us at least," Vines bassist Patrick Matthews said with a shrug afterward. It was the group's first festival show and only their second U.S. date.

Jack Johnson, the Santa Barbara-based singer-songwriter, has more performances under his belt than the young Vines, and he said that festival advantages such as the size of the audience can be countered by the crowd's divided attention.

"You get spoiled playing your own shows, and you have to go into a festival with an open mind and realize a lot of people are positioning themselves for a band or two down the line," Johnson said with a chuckle. "As long as you aren't getting booed, though, that's cool. You do look out there and make eye contact with people, and you know they're just waiting [for another act]. But I can't blame them. There's a lot to see."

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