The keys to Coachella on a T-shirt

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Times Staff Writer

There are myriad ways to take in the massive sensory overload that is the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Many people cram in as much music as they can - over 100 artists this year, over three days. But you could also just sit and read the T-shirts in the crowd as they go by.

Three randomly noted shirts added up to a cogent comment on the Festival, which opened Friday at the Empire Polo Field. The first shirt advertised the legendary art-punk band Richard Hell & the Voidoids. The second celebrated the vintage video game Pokemon. The third extolled the jam band Blues Traveler.

Coachella reflects all of these influences. By featuring stars on the edge of (or wholly beyond) pop’s mainstream - performers Friday included Bjork, the Jesus and Mary Chain, DJ Shadow, and Sonic Youth -- it connects the dots between art-punk elitism and today’s “indie” culture. Its loyalty to dance music, including club-friendly bands like Friday standouts the Brazilian Girls, is part of the neo-psychedelic aesthetic that connects video games to raves and the interactive art installations that make Coachella’s grounds a blast to walk.

And though this cutting-edge event is hardly a hippie gathering, Coachella shares values with the jam-band scene: musical eclecticism, creature comforts, and the belief that a crowd is always also a community.

This is Coachella’s happy paradox: it features outstanding artists, but music is only one factor in its appeal. There will always be truly special moments - Bjork’s opening-night set, featuring her new all-female brass band, was one, as was the Jesus and Mary Chain reunion and the Rage Against the Machine reunion is still to come.

But most of Coachella’s artists will perform similar sets at many festivals this summer. As its influence expands and helps define America’s summer concert season, the music still matters, but other things - the grounds, the food, the fun to be had beyond its five stages -- matter even more. It’s a tribute to Coachella’s organizers that they’ve figured out how to enact the story those passing t-shirts tell.