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Temperature extremes challenge Coachella festivalgoers

April 19, 2009|Chris Lee

INDIO, CALIF. — Dressed in a green bikini, knee-high socks and cowboy boots, Nadine Tran sat trembling in the evening chill at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on Friday.

The weather in Indio had dipped from 89 degrees earlier in the day to an unseasonably cool 58 once the sun went down. Bathed in the glow of a giant video screen projecting Paul McCartney's image over a massive crowd packed into the Empire Polo Field, Tran, 24, of Newport Beach expressed regret about her wardrobe choice and about underestimating how that temperature swing would affect her.

"I could not be any colder right now," she said. "It's not supposed to be this cold. It's supposed to be hot here, right?"

Not exactly what you'd expect from a festival that has become identified with sun worship and heat defeat.

In its 10th installment this year, Coachella has the distinction of being the first of the "large footprint" multi-genre music festivals: It kicks off a summer season packed with big-draw events across the country, such as Bonnaroo in Tennessee and All Points West in New Jersey. But arriving in late April for the last few years, Coachella has become synonymous with staggering temperatures and looming heat exhaustion; in 1999, the mercury reached 120 degrees during the fest.

As such, event organizers have built in measures to help festivalgoers conquer the searing sun. Attendees have adjusted their habits -- seeking hydration and shade almost as reflexively as clamoring to hear jangling guitars and bombastic beat. The myriad ways people keep cool remain nearly as diverse as the colorful tattoos, dye jobs and facial hair on display over the event's three-day weekend.

But the big challenge in '09 has been staying cool by day and warm by night.

With thermometers registering 95 degrees Saturday afternoon, ground zero for Coachella cool had to be an art installation-cum-performance area called the Do Lab. At the makeshift oasis cobbled together from wooden palettes, potted plants and shade sails, dozens of scantily clad people danced to jungle trance beats as a fine mist of water sprayed continuously over the crowd.

Befitting the freewheeling "one nation under a groove" reputation the festival has built over the years, the crowd reflected an equally eclectic response to repelling UV rays. Wielding parasols and fans, attired in bikinis and swimming trunks, attendees danced ecstatically or lounged in the shade wearing a variety of headgear: sombreros, straw boaters, porkpie hats, cowboy hats, baseball hats and even top hats.

To be sure, it was hot. But heading into Saturday evening, not many people had been overwhelmed by the heat, a medical staff member on the scene said.

"This year has been low-key so far," said Dr. Paul Willis. "There haven't been any heatstrokes and very little heat exhaustion. People are getting the message that when they come here, they have to stay hydrated. We'll see how it goes Sunday, when it's supposed to be 105."

The Rock-N-Shop kiosk was doing a brisk business selling apparel appropriate for both temperature extremes.

"During the day, they're like, 'Get me out of these clothes,' and they buy bikinis or sundresses. Fans and hats are flying off the shelf," said employee Allison Goetze. "Then it gets really cold at night. People have been buying a lot of sweat shirts this year."

According to Danny Yost, a bartender in one of the festival's cocktail enclosures, beer sales were strong, although that probably had less to do with the weather than a certain festival joie de vivre.

"People are going to drink a lot of beer regardless of the temperature," Yost said. "Fireballs could be coming out of the sky and they'd still drink beer. It actually dehydrates you."

A line about 25 feet long stretched out the door of the AT&T Cool Down & Charge Up, a geodesic tent offering air conditioning and a place for music fans to recharge cellphones.

But in Coachella, where hierarchy is defined by what kind of backstage bracelet one possesses, access is everything. And a VIP area consisting of decked-out RV trailers and swanky bamboo divans not only provided a place of shady respite, it also hosted the people who were undeniably the festival's coolest customers -- its rockers, rappers, DJs and electronica superstars.

Not far from the madding crowd, the members of the heavy metal quartet Mastodon lounged on deck chairs beneath a giant umbrella outside their trailer. The players in the Brooklyn art rock combo TV on the Radio strolled the premises sipping beverages out of plastic cups.

At midday Saturday, with temperatures nearing triple digits, one attendee refused to be bowed by the heat. Sweating steadily while seated on a patch of grass near the main stage, Stevie Trujillo, 32, of San Francisco was wearing leather trousers, a leather vest and a leather cowboy hat.

"Look at it this way: Come tonight, I'm the one that's going to be happy," Trujillo said.

"And the guy in the swimming trunks with no shirt on is going to be the one who's miserable."

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chris.lee@latimes.com

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