No Sleep Till Indio

Road trip to Coachella

Road tripI hadn't planned on going to the Coachella Music and Arts Festival. I hate big events, with their heinous lines, horrible sound, and often moronic attendees. The last time I went to a large concert was at New York's Shea Stadium in 1989 to see the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels tour. I paid $50 to sit next to a guy who spent the whole set alternately throwing up and passing out; meanwhile, the stage was so far away that I could barely tell Mick from Keith. Not that the distance mattered, since the music sounded as if it were coming from inside a cardboard box.

But Coachella, which is held near Palm Springs at the Empire Polo Field in Indio, Calif., was supposed to be different. Now in its third year, the festival is billed as Lollapalooza meets the Love Parade (Germany's massive dance party), with a touch of Burning Man thrown in. This year's event promised 60 artists spread over two days, with bands like the Foo Fighters and Belle & Sebastian sharing billing with electronic and hip hop DJs such as Sasha & Digweed and Dan the Automator.

This being the 21st century, the show had to have its share of ridiculous rules and regulations. For instance, you had to stuff everything you needed for the full 12 hours into either a purse or a fanny pack (the fashion horror!), and the list of what you could bring (small towels, purses, cigarettes, hats, sunblock) was minuscule compared to what you couldn't (weapons, drugs, stuffed animals, outside beverages, etc.). This last item was the most contentious, as the weather was quite warm; last year, according to several sources, official event sellers ran out of water by 10 p.m.

Still, once I got inside the fairgrounds on Saturday, everything was kosher. You could practically get a contact high from a trip to the bathroom, and the fields were beautiful, save for the occasional horse patty or roving band of probation officers. There were four stages -- two outside for live bands and two under tents for DJs -- and a wealth of food stands and merchandise tables. I'd heard complaints about the rampant commercialism and high prices of last year's festival, but neither seemed extraordinary. There were even some freaky exhibits taken from Burning Man, like a light tunnel through which you could walk wearing light-refracting glasses, and a huge, revolving scale on which people lay blindfolded as musicians played weird instruments in their ears. (OK, so they all sound pretty silly unless you're high; fortunately, practically everyone was.)

As for the music, it was decidedly uneven, thanks to the usual swirly outdoor-festival sound. Eighties icon Siouxsie Sioux complained about it (and everything else), while Chameleons UK, Queens of the Stone Age, and Cornershop tried to solve the problem by cranking up the volume, with little success. Lou Barlow of the Folk Implosion appeared even more curmudgeonly than usual in the harsh light of day, and new "It" group the Vines sounded like warmed-over grunge. The two artists who fared the best were Björk and the Beta Band, neither of which I'd grokked before. Each act's style -- ethereal and soaring for the former, chaotic but orchestrated for the latter -- worked perfectly with the late-night air and the increasing sense of festival anarchy.

Over in the DJ tent, with U.K. act Groove Armada spinning Michael Jackson, trance, and Indian techno, it became apparent that this was not your regular clubbing crowd. Instead of the usual expert moves (which look to me like a combo of tai chi and runway vogueing), people were getting funky up, down, and somewhere around the beat. It wasn't pretty, but it sure was real. Suddenly I saw that these were my people: the rockers who'd discovered it's fun to dance and the dancers who don't need music to be cutting-edge for it to move them. I got a glimpse of what those first raves must've been like -- that feeling of inclusiveness, of genuine affection for complete strangers, of a shared love of the beat.

As the evening drew to a close, with the Chemical Brothers spinning the last of their "block-rocking beats" onstage and a couple next to me completing their agile sexual congress, I watched the people filter out. There were thousands of empty water bottles left behind, strewn across the field like excavated jewels from some future archaeological dig. It was a beautiful sight, in an odd way. With the overhead lights shining off the empty plastic, I realized that this may be what these big festivals are about: finding a glimmer of beauty among all that trash.

 
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