Sunday, 18 April 2010

Coachella Culture Shock

I have now experienced a day at Coachella Festival, what's tipped as America's answer toGlastonbury, and feel suitably informed to be able to give you the lowdown.

I've come here to report on it for BBC 6 Music with a fellow music journo, but also to see what a festival in the desert has to offer for a hardened festival nut like myself.


Photo by Vaughn Youtz from

We're doing this festival with a group of American Coachella old-timers who know the game. They've hired 'condos' for us in the sleepy city of Palm Springs, known for its retirement credentials.

The festival itself is an hour drive away from our peaceful retreat. I think it's the way to do it as camping would be uncomfortable in this heat, to say the least. You'd wake up half-baked at sunrise. However, it's swings and roundabouts. Last night it took two hours to get out of a grid-locked car park. It not just the UK's infrastructure that can't cope with the influx and mass-exodus of festival-goers!

To picture it, imagine an expanse of polo fields, surrounded by palm trees, set against a backdrop of mountains. By day it's a scorcher, 86 degrees plus, which apparently is quite 'cool' according to our American friends. It's not! By night, the temperature drops and it turns into an otherwordly land of beautifully lit art installations with a pyramid of lasers shot into the sky directly above the plot.

A fenced-off VIP area, fit with speakers, looks out over the pitch where the main stage is located so all the media lovies, hollywood stars and groupies don't even need to move and get to see some music as well. Bonus! Mind you that is where the beer is so I'm not surprised it's always full. Even the latest Dr Who, Matt Smith, has parked his tardis here and got involved. Other spots include Beyonce, Jay-Z, Danny DeVito, the Arctic Monkeys, Alexa Chung,Jaime Winstone, the list goes on.

The crowds are some of the most attentive and polite audiences I think I have ever experienced at a festival. Maybe that's because of the strict rules of where you can drink alcohol and where you can't. You have to buy and finish any beverage in the drinking area from which you brought it, which means... shock horror... you can't have a beer while watching the bands, rendering you thirsty for ever-more. Every cloud though, it does mean there is not a flying cup of urine in sight. You have no chance of a crowd-surfer landing on your head, or getting insnared into one of those mosh pit circles of death.

The 75,000 strong hoard each day is mostly made of up people dressed to impress, but not in the English way where you don a silly hat and some garish lycra. Here the masses don their finest shades, are on trend in every way and it's less 'put your lighters up', more 'put your iphones up'. I've even seen a stretch hummer leaving the car park.

I don't want this post to sound too scathing because on the whole this festival does have a LOT to offer. The surroundings and idyllic sunsets are a thing to behold and above all, the music is excellent, which is why I've come. Pretty much every act I've seen has been a highlight and I was fully blown away by Fever Ray's set. The sound at every stage and tent I've visited has been bang-on and the artists have exceeded my expectations, but it's just it's so regimented. There are so many rules in place that you can't quite let go. You don't see the unique spectacles that grace festivals in Europe, whether it's the emo trolley wars I've seen at Reading, a gig from a band hanging in a tree at Secret Garden Party or the general fancy dress idiocy of Bestival. It seems like a bit of a trade off to me, but my mind might be changed. I've still got two more days to go!

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