By: George Varga
INDIO — Woodstock was never like this.
The 11th annual Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival offered a sunbaked extravaganza of music at a palm tree-lined event that is a model of pinpoint planning, well-oiled execution and state-of-the-art technology.
For a post-MTV generation of hipsters and music geeks that downloads most of its songs and lives in a nearly all-digital world of constant information overload, this three-day festival of alternative-rock, electronica and hip-hop provides a welcome opportunity to come together with like-minded young music fans whose lives are inextricably connected to the Internet. And like the muddy, rain-drenched Woodstock audience 41 years ago, many at Coachella crave a greater sense of community and real-time experience.
“I think when people go to festivals now, like Coachella or Glastonbury (in England), they are looking for spiritual escape,” said Matt Lamkin, 26, whose band The Soft Pack delivered a rousing, April 18 performance in Coachella’s enormous Mojave Tent.
At Coachella, which took place April 16-18, there was a lot of room to escape in.
Held on two outdoor and three tented stages, the festival site covers 400 grassy acres of the Empire Polo Field, which also boasted eye-popping public art installations, dozens of food and drink vendors, and an enormous laser-light show that could be seen miles away at night. Other options included air-conditioned VIP bars, enormous LED screens for close-ups of the top performers, an air-conditioned tent equipped with PlayStation consoles, and an on-site CD and vinyl record store that held daily autograph-signing sessions by dozens of Coachella performers. Add in a high celebrity quotient — this year’s festival attracted such celebs as actor Danny DeVito, alt-rock icon Beck and the ubiquitous Paris Hilton — and you get an event that has become an annual Woodstock for Generation Text.
“I feel like the majority of young people who go to festivals are hoping they’ll get to be part of something special, part of that Woodstock experience,” said Ray Suen, 24, who performed at Coachella last year with The Killers. “But that will never happen again. Festivals today are too corporate and too organized.”
Among the acts on this year’s Coachella lineup was Woodstock veteran Sly Stone, whose twice-postponed Sunday night performance qualifies as perhaps the biggest musical train wreck in the festival’s history. The hard-rocking group Them Crooked Vultures, which co-headlined on Friday, features John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin (which turned down an offer to play the Woodstock festival in 1969).
But that’s essentially where the similarities end between Woodstock and the uber-high-tech, computer-driven Coachella, which drew a record, sellout crowd of approximately 75,000 for each of its three days (only three-day passes were sold at a cost of $269 per pass). Friday’s headliner, hip-hop king Jay-Z, was born in 1969, the same year Woodstock was held. He was joined on stage by his wife, Beyonce, for a rousing version of their mega-hit, “Crazy in Love.” The power couple spent the next day at the festival, checking out such young buzz bands as Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes and happily complying with fans’ requests to pose for photos.
“People in their 50s and 60s may prefer to go to a concert in an air-conditioned arena, but Coachella is an extremely important event for their children and grandchildren,” said Gary Bongiovanni, 59, the publisher of Pollstar, the concert industry’s leading weekly publication.
“Coachella features the best and most hip music from a wide array of contemporary genres, the young ‘buzz’ acts — which this year include The Gossip, The xx and Florence & The Machine. And Coachella has really taken advantage of technology and the explosion of social networking and mobile devices.”
Indeed, the festival is now wired in ways that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago in the PiP (or Pre-iPhone) era. And The Gossip, led by volcanic-voiced singer Beth Ditto, turned in one of the weekend’s most exciting performances. She was matched by Florence & The Machine’s lead singer, Florence Welch, who seems destined to equal her European stardom in this country, and by Radiohead front man Thom Yorke, who turned in a mesmerizing set with his offshoot band, Atoms For Peace, which features Red Hot Chili Peppers veteran Flea on bass.
As for the social networking and mobile devices alluded to by Pollstar’s Bongiovanni, for the second year in a row, Coachella offered a variety of free iPhone applications that fans could download to make their festival experience as smooth and interactive as possible. Performance schedules, friend finders, photo uploads and interactive maps that enable attendees to “mark” their parking space and camping site locations — you name it, Coachella had it.
Coachella has 30,000 followers on Twitter, 80,000 on Facebook and more who participate on the festival’s online message boards, in real time, as the event is happening. The festival website (coachella.com) got 2 million hits in December and 9 million in January, the month this year’s lineup of performers was announced. There have been more than 5 million hits each month since.
“Being able to instantly communicate with our Facebook and Twitters followers is a huge advantage,” said Dani Lindstrom, the online marketing manager for Goldenvoice, the Los Angeles company that produces Coachella. “If you (didn’t) go to the festival, you could read about it on our message board and upload pictures of it from our iPhone app. Plus, this year we introduced apps for Droids (short for Android, Google’s version of the iPhone), so we have more ways to reach people in real time.”
That is an advantage to many fans, who want to be able to access accurate information immediately and share their own experiences.
Then again, relying on technology to plan or heighten your festival-going experience can sometimes backfire, as Chris Marcellino discovered. His father is Jocko Marcellino, who performed at Woodstock in 1969 with Sha Na Na and still leads the band today.
A Coachella veteran who works for Apple computers on its iPhone software, Chris Marcellino last summer attended the weekend-long Outside Lands in San Francisco. The festival is produced by AEG Live, the same company that puts on the Coachella festival through its subsidiary company, Goldenvoice.
“I went with all these friends of mine, who also work at Apple, and we all had our iPhones so that we could text or e-mail our friends and meet up with them,” Marcellino, 25, said. “But none of us could get a signal.”
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