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.