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Oasis or mirage? Your call

Coachella has a sizzling rep. And Kanye West. And -- Madonna? Is that hot, or not?

April 27, 2006|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

SAY you're wandering in the desert and your canteen springs a leak. Half your water spills out on the sand. Is your first reaction to be glad -- hey, you did manage to save half of it, after all -- or is it to grumble about what you've lost?

In that same way, there are two ways to view the 2006 desert bash that is the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Is it half-full or half-empty?

First, the optimistic view: Today, organizers of the massive festival in Indio will announce that Kanye West will be a surprise addition to the Saturday main stage, adding a zing to a lineup that already featured Depeche Mode, Tool, Massive Attack, Franz Ferdinand and (could it be?) Madonna in a dance tent. Going into this seventh edition of the franchise, Coachella is one of the most potent brands in the business and a model that changed the way huge American festivals are staged.

But, there are also those nagging thoughts about what has already evaporated: The months of fan chatter about a Coachella-hosted reunion of the Smiths and the Smashing Pumpkins never materialized (the latter, it turns out, was never really a viable option -- more on that later). And seeing Depeche Mode and Tool at the top of the bill feels vaguely like a repeat episode: Mode recently did three arena dates in the L.A. market and Tool was a headliner at the inaugural staging of Coachella, which runs counter to the festival's goal of avoiding recycled bookings for the top spots.

There's also muttering that the curious booking of Madonna is hardly the way to win over the proud, cred-conscious fans who have made Coachella so successful. Some would argue she earns a pass here because of her electronic-dance credentials, but others say aging pop stars should be left to Wango Tango, not the premier festival for music on the new edges. The addition of West will add to that swirl of opinions; critically acclaimed, certainly, he's also the most mainstream pop act ever on Coachella's main stage.

None of this should suggest Coachella is wilting in the sun, even with that (ugh) 97-degree forecast for Sunday. It's on track to be a sellout, with 50,000-plus expected each day and, at $85 per ticket per day, that's a powerful vote of confidence from the public. And the second and third tiers of the bill are arguably the strongest and strangest ever, with Sigur Ros, Daft Punk, Matisyahu, Common, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Sleater-Kinney, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley, Hard-Fi, Wolfmother, Cat Power, Gnarls Barkley and plenty of others from rock, dance and hip-hop.

An optimist would say: This is a sparkling chance to see a future headliner on the way up. A pessimist might counter: All it means is that this year the main stage doesn't matter. That's the thing about wandering in the desert, people can't agree on whether they see an oasis or just a mirage.

SOMETIMES Paul Tollett isn't even sure what he sees in Coachella. Tollett is the affable chief promoter of the festival, a quiet guy in a business that is geared more toward barking P.T. Barnum-types.

"I can't really tell what we have, what type of show it really is, until we make the poster and I can see all the names together," he said. "When I book it, I book it off a list. It doesn't seem as real until we make the poster. When it's just sitting in black and white on a piece of paper, I don't understand it all the way."

A few weeks ago, between bites of an ahi tuna sandwich at Pete's Cafe in downtown L.A., Tollett admitted he had fretted about the Madonna booking and how it would be perceived, but in the end he was won over by the pop star's instant affinity for Coachella and its goal.

"I don't want there to ever be a typical Coachella, I don't want people to really put it in a box because then it's less exciting for everyone," Tollett said. It was no snap decision to bring the pop icon to Indio; Tollett was talking about it at last year's show after he ran into Guy Oseary, Madonna's co-manager, who attended the festival with another of his clients, the Prodigy.

The booking of West, however, was very much a case of late-minute serendipity. The deal came together only last week and Tollett was plainly thrilled by it, and with good reason; when the Village Voice tallied the votes of 795 music critics earlier this year, West was said to have the best album of 2005 ("Late Registration") and the year's best single ("Gold Digger," which teamed West with Jamie Foxx). West has also earned rave reviews for his stage show, which is far more theatrical than most hip-hop shows and features live musicians, props and, on special occasions, plenty of guest stars.

Booking a festival is like mapping out the paths of shifting icebergs and trying to pick a spot in the sea where, months from now, the shiniest of floes will briefly come together. Some icebergs take months to capture. For eight years, Tollett had tried in vain to lure Daft Punk to Coachella. This year, he got them.

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