Despite weather, fans get into spirit of Coachella festival

INDIO, CALIF. — Cool temperatures, drizzle and wind didn’t dampen the spirits of campers like Jonathan Tesfaye on Friday night at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

The 24-year-old Texan still looked forward to playing impromptu volleyball games on the festival’s campgrounds in the middle of the night and watching some of his favorite bands throughout the weekend. “I’m not stoked it’s raining,” Tesfaye said, “but this is about the whole experience.”

Coachella, which kicked off Friday at Indio’s Empire Polo Club, long ago graduated from music event to vacation destination.

FULL COVERAGE: Coachella 2012

The Goldenvoice-promoted event is now in its 13th year, and bigger than ever after expanding from one weekend to two. This year at least 75,000 wristbands were sold for each of the three-day weekends. The majority of tickets, which top $300 once service fees are added in, sold out last June, before the lineup was even announced.

Early Saturday, those with wristbands — about half of whom were staying on Coachella’s campgrounds after paying $82.50 per slot — wondered how early they should stake out a spot near the main stage to see Radiohead, the experimental British rock band set to play after 11 p.m.

Yet music isn’t always the main attraction at the desert event, which boasts an air-conditioned restaurant and bar, a dodge ball court and a Ferris wheel, among other sideshow attractions.

Musicians playing the festival found the setting impressive. Jean Cook, a violinist with the British reunion act Pulp, said, “You see some pretty stunning images from the stage — the rain, the lights and the crowd with the palm trees is quite surreal.”

Wind alerts that were exciting for artists and fans had officials on edge Friday, especially after the 2011 tragedy in which winds caused a stage to collapse at a Sugarland concert in Indiana.

Dan Talbot, battalion chief for the Riverside County Fire Department, said one festival-adjacent street was lined with a “couple hundred skeletons” of pop-up tents that had blown over from the campgrounds. He estimated that there had been minor damage to some vehicles in Coachella parking lots.

Winds on the ground weren’t clocked at much higher than 25 mph, and Talbot said the Coachella main stage is designed to withstand winds of at least 90 mph.

Those who braved the cool conditions Friday witnessed a musical changing of the guard.

The top-billed act Friday night was bluesy rockers the Black Keys, but it was dance/production collective the Swedish House Mafia that was clearly the largest main-stage attraction, with fans dancing in the rain to its brute-force rhythms.

Across the field, DJ Amon Tobin also played electronic music with a more experimental edge.

“It’s different this year,” said Jessica Gonzales, 20, of Los Angeles. This is her fifth year at Coachella. “Dance music is definitely taking over.”

The changing of the guard was evident at Arizona’s Zia Records, which is now a permanent fixture at Coachella with its annual pop-up shop. General manager Brian Faber said Coachella’s DJs drew some of the longest lines at the store’s artist signings.

“It’s a vibrant part of this event, obviously,” Faber said. “We’re always really curious at how well the DJ signings will do.”

As the winds tempered and the sun showed itself Saturday, the fans and officials were clearly in a good mood. Talbot said this was a relatively incident-free festival and dubbed it “Mellochella.”

Indio Police Department spokesman Benjamin Guitron said all 39 of Friday’s arrests were alcohol- and drug-related. That number is up from the 20 arrests on the first day of Coachella last year.

Talbot had no information on how many festival-goers needed medical treatment, since his department signed off this year on allowing Goldenvoice to use private contractor American Medical Response.

A medic with AMR referred requests to Goldenvoice, which did not provide any medical data. Although the on-site first aid worker declined to give his name, he said the company had treated fewer patients than last year, when about 150 people sought medical attention on the first day of the festival.

“Just bee stings, ant bites, people falling out of things — the usual,” he said.

Minor scrapes and weather aside, some fans were already plotting their Coachella strategies for 2013.

“I’ve already decided I will be back next year,” said Jane Puchniak, 27, of Winnipeg, Canada. “I called my best friend in Winnipeg and told him to start planning. I’m in fiery lust with the great state of California.”

FULL COVERAGE: Coachella 2012