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Tribal Gathering 

Coachella festival: It's all in the mix

Wednesday, Oct 6 1999
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Photo by Charlie Gross
IN 1970, I SAW BLACK SABBATH, FUNKADELIC, THE Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin and more all on the same bill at an open-air three-day rock fest in northwestern England. This was before marketing terms like "heavy metal," "folk rock," "acid rock" and "whatever rock" sliced 'n' diced up youth audiences to a point by the mid-'70s where it would have been unthinkable, laughable even -- especially in America -- to have Ozzy, George Clinton and Jerry Garcia on the same concert stage.

1970 was the era of our beloved Radio Caroline, the grande dame of offshore British pirate radio, where DJs dropped whole sides of albums like Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica or Miles Davis' Bitches Brew uninterrupted. Anything went. It was all still thought of as radical "countercultural" hippie music by the establishment, but to us young, longhaired music fans graduating from '60s caftans, beads 'n' bells to muttonchops, loon pants and layered proto-mullets, it was the dream antidote to the tame pop drivel of BBC Radio One. The scene was as "alternative" as you could get before that word was sadistically bludgeoned by everyone in the post-punk world from whitebread collegiate geeks and ne'er-do-well trust-fund prats to third-rate bar bands and skinny big-hair skeeks who'd thrown in their bandannas and spandex for short hair, plaid and plodding midtempo pop rock by the early '90s.

As for 1999, one of the big ideological hopes for some major participants in today's vibrant worldwide electronic-music scene is that smelting global musics will blur geosocial and marketing boundaries enough so that organized sound will eventually have only three sonic zones: the good, the bad 'n' the ugly.

Thanks largely to the vital and overlooked music scene in Manchester, England, during the late '80s, British and Euro electronic artists have coexisted culturally with Brit-pop guitar bands for so long that their audiences are no longer mutually exclusive. Concurrent to that development, in America, two consecutive versions of '70s hard-rock revivals identifiable by different haircuts and stage outfits exploded in L.A. in the '80s and Seattle in the '90s, co-created by MTV in collusion with major record labels -- hype phenomena that held up the advancement of electronic-music culture in the U.S. for more than a decade.

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In contempo Europe, it's no big deal anymore for electronic artists and guitar bands to play the same event, like Glastonbury Fair, the Reading Festival and the many other outdoor fetes, which are probably the only places in the world where you might see thrash-metal monsters Sepultura on the same bill with outer-space soundscapists The Orb. Last year, Bob Dylan and Tony Bennett played Glastonbury alongside the Asian Dub Foundation, Roni Size, and god knows who and what else. Cross-genre interplay 'twixt 'lectronica and organica came to a commercial head two years ago when Britpop kingpin Noel Gallagher collaborated with electronic big-beat titans the Chemical Brothers on "Setting Sun," a No. 1 radio smash in mainstream Britain. More recently, ambient-pop whiz William Orbit produced Blur's last album.

I was thinking about such cultural exchange and those long-gone days of Caroline as I drove over to interview Rick Van Santen and Paul Tollett, co-owners of Goldenvoice and L.A.'s most creative rock-concert promoters, who are currently touting their self-financed Coachella Arts and Music Festival at the Empire Polo Grounds in Indio, near Palm Springs, on October 9 and 10. Over a quickie Chinese lunch in the company staff kitchen, the pair told me that three years ago they were bored to tears by the idea of regular rock festivals, although Van Santen was pushing to put on some sort of international event anyway, so the two hauled off to England to study the annual Glastonbury Fair.

"We were amazed by what we saw," says Tollett, "and we immediately wanted something comparable to the Glastonbury vibe. We want people in SoCal to enjoy a similar experience of diversity, where more isn't necessarily more and the focus is coming up with the best musical goods possible. We're not trying to set attendance records, and we're sure not trying to be the US Fest or Cal Jam 4 or whatever.

"But there are a surprising number of skeptics here that you'd think would know better, who just don't get it," he adds. "They say, 'Why risk playing a bunch of techno DJs and live rock bands with no mega-stadium headliners?' Where have they been?"

The Empire Grounds, which holds 30,000 to 35,000 people, is a polo field smack in the middle of the capital of Southern California golfing terrain. It was discovered by the two partners six years ago, when they were desperate for a venue to handle a late-added Pearl Jam show when the Seattle band was on the outs with Ticketmaster.

"Traffic flow for that P.J. show was bad," says Van Santen, "but we learned from our mistakes the hard way that night. It was too last-minute, there wasn't time for fine detailing. This time around we've had nearly three years to plan everything right."

For talent, Van Santen and Tollett wanted to go international from the beginning, with bands and electronic DJs/programmers from Europe, Japan and the USA. Most of the latter were selected by Goldenvoice staffer Lauren Matsui; some are big names in the Euro trance, hip-hop and jungle underworlds, with an equal number of their U.S. counterparts, including some of L.A.'s best. Acts will perform in five different areas: one amphitheater-style main outdoor stage, one smaller stage and three dance tents for DJs.

While there's no obvious common linkage among the bands, and if things seem a little shy in the estro department (some of the acts, like Morrissey, Perry Farrell, Moby and Beck, create the impression of a slightly demented male Lilith, an antidote to the drunken three-day frat-boy sex fest at Woodstock '99 and the recent spate of ragin' jock riots at Dave Matthews Band gigs), Tollett says, "To be honest, we didn't dwell on quotas, although there happen to be a few female DJs and a band or two in there somewhere, so hopefully we'll get off with a slap on the wrist and a warning citation from the P.C. Police."

THE COACHELLA FEST FALLS SOMEWHAT ALONG THE lines envisioned by Farrell a few years back for his ENIT festival, an outdoor staging of live bands and electronica that might well have functioned as an embryonic version of Lollapalooza: the Next Logical Step, had Farrell's businesspeople fully grasped the concept. Instead, they pushed Metallica onto Lollapalooza with no goal other than to boost numbers, a deal that was doubly embarrassing in that, with Lollapalooza sold down the river, the big financial killing that Hetfield & Co. were supposed to deliver never quite panned out anyway, thus driving the final nail into the old Lollacoffin.

ENIT, however, is an idea whose time has finally come, and Coachella '99 arrives with the full blessing of the city of Indio, a.k.a. "City of Festivals." There are plenty of hotels nearby, and October was chosen because the weather will hopefully have chilled a little.

"We're targeting slightly older people who are sick of festivals," says Tollett, "and others who might consider going to one for the first time if it was done right. We want people to think of it as they would a day in the park, with great music, and for them to feel they're not being treated like animals and fleeced for as much as possible while they're there."

So here's the deal: For 50 bucks a day, with free parking thrown in, the promoters promise to freshen up the site daily and not let garbage pile up. Even better news, especially for women, is that there'll be no gross-out Porta-Potties -- these disgusting monstrosities will be replaced by trailers with flushing water and mirrors. And since there's scant chance it will rain, and there's no dust anyway -- the site is a lush 78 acres of grass with tons of shade and picnic tables -- the event is unlikely to deteriorate into one of those annual mud fests the likes of which the poor old long-suffering Brit music fan has endured for decades.

Says Tollett, "I used to go on three-day camping expeditions, and always thought two days was enough. We're planning nine hours of music a day, from 2 p.m. till 11 p.m., for two whole days . . . that's a lot to take in, don't you think, even for a hardcore music fan?"

 

The Coachella Arts and Music Festival, Empire Polo Grounds, Indio; Saturday and Sunday, October 9 and 10; (323) 692-9361.

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