INDIO -- The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival is just too unwieldy a title, so let's think of the ambitious two-day affair at the Empire Polo Field here as simply the Anti-Woodstock 99.
Yes, the weekend event--which was highlighted by superbly revealing performances by Rage Against the Machine and Beck--was a civilized experience, a mixture of commerce and culture in which artists, promoters and fans all treated one another with respect.
That may not sound like such an accomplishment, but the weekend experience was reassuring after the trauma of July's Woodstock 99, where greed seemed to outstrip common sense on the business side and where the lawlessness of a small number of fans left a stain on the whole rock festival concept. Goldenvoice, the maverick Los Angeles concert firm that hopes to make Coachella an annual event, helped refocus Saturday and Sunday on the positive aspects of the festival experience, thanks to a number of key decisions mainly designed to enhance fan comfort.
Musically, the standards were equally high. The emphasis was generally on quality and even sophistication, rather than just current hitmakers. How can you help having a warm spot in your heart for a rock concert where you didn't see a single Korn, Sugar Ray, Blink-182 or Kid Rock T-shirt in the crowd either day?
Despite an ample supply of mainstream pop-rock attractions, including Tool and Morrissey, the emphasis was on the imagination-rich world of electronic dance music. Though this music was chiefly housed in tents around the grounds, some outstanding dance acts got chances both days to step onto the two main stages--the Chemical Brothers and Underworld on Saturday and Moby on Sunday.
The only unwelcome intruder was the punishing sun, which pushed the temperature into triple digits both days. The heat worked during the afternoon hours against one of the festival's most inviting features. By presenting some 75 groups and DJs in virtual nonstop fashion from 1 p.m. until 11 p.m., the organizers created a giant musical buffet table. But the heat caused most fans to stick to a single location rather than roam the grounds, conserving their energy for the long night ahead. After the sun went down around 6 p.m. both days, however, the sonic exploration began--and you came away from the weekend with a wonderful collage of sights and sounds--from the Roots' "human beat box" Rahzel and the turntable dynamics of DJ Shadow, to the soaring ambition and individuality of British bands Spiritualized and Lamb, to the endless, endlessly tantalizing parade of DJs, to the renewed inspiration of Bob Forrest, the L.A. alt-rock hero who is back with a new band, the Bicycle Thief, and some affecting songs about feeling out of step.
On the main stage Saturday, the colorful L.A. singer Perry Farrell proved once again that he is a remarkable pop conceptualist, putting together an entertaining package of dancers and singers dressed in exotic clothing to underscore the various world music influences in his music. English cult hero Morrissey, on the other hand, was, well, Morrissey, treating his loyal fans to another serving of his usual musichall pathos. Saturday's high point was Beck, whose delightfully party-minded, R&B-style set, which included tunes from his upcoming "Midnite Vultures" album. Sunday's top attraction, the politically conscious Rage Against the Machine, also had new and valuable musical wrinkles to unveil. The group--clearly the evening's main draw--has no equal in the 90s when it comes to energizing an audience.
Led by Zack de la Rocha, a singer and lyricist whose passion and commitment draw strongly from Bob Marley, the L.A.-based group has worked so hard at honing a lean, raw sound that in recent years it has threatened to become one-dimensional. Every time Rage stepped forward recently, it seemed to be throwing the same straight-ahead punch. Though it was usually a knockout punch live, you eventually began longing for a bit more range. The band delivered it Sunday.
Rage mixed in some musical jabs and left hooks as it introduced inviting numbers from its upcoming "The Battle of Los Angeles" album, which is dueNov. 2. Every new twist, from the wider range of textures to the contrasting moods, seemed to lift the band to a new level. But the musical awakening hasn't come at the expense of either the group's intensity or the urgency of its message.In "Guerrilla Radio," which will be on the new album, De la Rocha continued Sunday to rally support for his crusade for social justice. Holding thousands of fans in his grip, he screamed the song's closing lines: "It has to start somewhere/It has to start sometime/ What better place than here/What better time than now."
It was an electrifying moment, but it also brought a tension to the festival grounds.
When adrenaline is so high at a massive public event, there is a potential for danger. As thousands of bodies swirled and jerked on the lawn with startling force, you wondered whether somehow it wasn't going to get out of hand, a la Woodstock 99.
But the audience's fervor quickly ebbed as Rage finished its set.
Two other acts followed--the fiercely independent and primal rockers Tool on the main stage and the more inspiring and magical Moby on the second stage--but the Anti-Woodstock 99 was, for all practical purposes, over after Rage's performance.
De la Rocha announced early in the set that he was suffering from laryngitis, but he sang with such force you couldn't imagine his giving any more of himself. On this night in the desert, Rage once again lived up to its own legacy--and the festival itself laid the foundation for what someday may be a legacy of its own.