Shake and Bake

Gang of Four Performs at Coachella Festival
With palm trees swaying in the background, Gang of Four performs at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, a two-day affair in the California sun that drew 90 acts. (Jonathan Alcorn For The Washington Post)
By Sean Daly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 4, 2005

INDIO, Calif.

O n a lush plot of paradise in the cruel heart of the California desert . . . in a logic-defying wonderland where you can drink 14 bottles of water in one day and somehow never need the bathroom . . . where half of the crowd looks like porn stars and the other half looks like porn renters :

More than 50,000 of the nation's young, hip and Coppertoned (Cameron Diaz included) and 90 of the world's hottest rock, rap and pop bands (Coldplay included) invaded this sun-baked, dust-caked retirement town last weekend for the sixth annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, a two-day endurance test and the ultimate concert-going experience on the planet.

You think the HFStival is a long day? You think braving the Warped Tour takes courage? Try scampering across an oven-hot 80-acre field and darting among two outdoor stages, three concert tents and various performance-art installations, all the while ducking and weaving through swarms of music freaks who are just as hyper as you to hear Weezer play brand-new music.

Now repeat this over and over for 24 hours .

Like skydiving, streaking and driving across the country with annoying friends, Coachella (a bargain at $150 for both days) has become one of those things in life you just gotta try once. It's rewarding, but it's a slog, too. Since its humble beginnings in 1999, when it was modestly launched by longtime Los Angeles punk promoters Goldenvoice, the event has taken on mythic status. Think rock-and-roll at the end of the world -- aka the Empire Polo Fields, a well-manicured ocean of lawn caught between the majestic San Jacinto Mountains and the Mojave Desert.

They don't sell shade at Coachella, but they could. Until the sun goes down, of course, when the temperature drops into the low 60s and suddenly sweat-shirt sales are outnumbering concert tees.

Although the end of the world was 20 degrees hotter last year -- a satanic 106 -- the milder microclimate this time in no way diminished the drama. First of all, there are the palm trees, hundreds of the cinematic suckers, like God's green darts perfectly framing the grounds; at night, the desert wind blows through the trees (many of which are illuminated by red, yellow, and blue spotlights), and you can hear a collective life-affirming sigh from the half-naked masses.

Everyone is beautiful: the men, the women, the folks selling the roasted ears of corn, the dudes running the 10-foot-tall Tesla coil that shoots out bolts of electricity and freaks out the stoners. Even the people trying so hard to be twisted -- the pierced, the tattooed, the curiously hirsute -- are foxy underneath all that posturing. Check yourself out in the mirror: You're not looking too shabby either, my friend.

Plus there are all those reminders of mortality spread across the grounds. Signs and announcements and tsk-tsking security: If you don't slather sunblock and guzzle water throughout the day, there's a very good chance YOU COULD DIE. Death in the desert: How rock-and-roll is that!

"I don't even like festivals. I hate 'em," Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy said during his band's Saturday set. "But I'm happy to be here. Really. This is so cool. So awesome ." Tweedy is not a man known to gush, but who could blame him: Wilco's abstract musical musings have left a lot of people bored of late, but darned if the band's odd jazz-country breakdowns didn't make beautiful sense as the sun was setting behind the mountains.

Rock stars love Coachella: for the scenery, for the exposure, for the chance to see other bands without having to worry about getting mauled by fans. This is laid-back Southern California, after all. Drooling over, say, Keane's cherubic frontman Tom Chaplin while he gets a beer is a serious party foul.

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