644 miles, 110 degrees, 80 acts

The Coachella Valley Music Festival, in its sixth year, hasn’t gotten as formulaic as a lot of other festivals.

Coldplay and Nine Inch Nails are two mega-acts scheduled to perform at the Coachella Valley Music Festival, but one of the festival’s most appreciated features is a lineup of lesser-known but well-acclaimed bands playing on four smaller stages.

Coldplay and Nine Inch Nails are two mega-acts scheduled to perform at the Coachella Valley Music Festival, but one of the festival’s most appreciated features is a lineup of lesser-known but well-acclaimed bands playing on four smaller stages.

Photo Illustration by David Jayne

David Bowie once remarked that the hardest thing for bands or artists to do is to stay relevant over long stretches of time. Sooner or later, Bowie argued, most people become slower to follow new trends, and eventually their risk-taking is replaced by repetition.

The same could be said of music festivals. Lollapalooza, which began as something vivid and vital, quickly descended into the formulaic and tried. To a lesser extent, the same is true of the Warped Tour.

But the Coachella Valley Music Festival, entering its sixth year, has bucked the trend, staying aspirational, friendly, vibrant and creative. Taking its cue from something other than ruthless demographic surveys and niche marketing, Coachella has managed to straddle the line between adventurous and trendy by paying attention to its fans’ subtle shifts in style and taste. This year’s 80-band lineup is a perfect example.

On the main stage will be groups like Coldplay and Nine Inch Nails, bands whose success is measured by the millions of albums they sell. But the heart and soul of Coachella is its four smaller stages, where lesser known, critically acclaimed performers play to crowds of adoring fans. The bands read like a Who’s Who of cutting-edge music: Arcade Fire, DJ Krush, Doves, Radio 4—groups that take the fragmented, repetitive and inbred idiocies of the music world and turn them into something stubborn, exciting and exotic.

It was the chance to see bands like these that led Sparks resident Sarah Mitchell to spend $150 on a two-day ticket last year and make the 10-hour trip to the Empire Polo Field in Indio, Calif. It’s a trip she plans to make again this year.

“I don’t have time to go down to San Francisco and see all these bands individually,” she said. “So it’s much better if I can just go to one event and see an entire year’s worth of music in two days. I also enjoy that, unlike other big festivals, the crowds at Coachella are relatively peaceful. There just isn’t the testosterone that you get at something like the Warped Tour.”

But the festival can present its challenges, not the least of which is dealing with the heat in one of the hottest areas in the United States. While the average temperature for Indio in late April is in the mid-90s, temperatures last year climbed to over 110 degrees. As a result, there were more than 10 people hospitalized for heat-related symptoms, and on-site medics dealt with a constant barrage of overheated fans.

“When it’s that hot, the tents feel like a big oven,” said Incline Village resident Jon Kramer, who was treated for heat stroke during last year’s festival. “But sometimes it’s hard to decide where to go, inside the crowded tents and out of the sun, or outside in the open where the sun beats down on you. Some people I know missed hours of the show because they wouldn’t leave the air-conditioned Playstation tent.”

Heat isn’t the only complaint. Other festival attendees have complained about the cost of water (it’s easy to spend over $100 in two days staying hydrated), the nightmarish parking (leaving the parking lot can take upwards of two hours), and the fact that the whole Polo Fields are a cell-phone dead zone. (Arrange where you’re going to meet beforehand.)

The biggest challenge seems to be trying to see all the bands you want to see. At any given time, there are five different musical performers on stage, and with the distance between the stages being up to a half mile, getting to the next act can prove both difficult and exhausting. Recently, on the Coachella message boards, someone asked whether it was even possible to see every act. The answer was a resounding no.

Because of this, some fans have called the format “choose and lose,” since staying to see one performer means missing four others. But others say thinking like that is missing the point.

“When you go to Coachella, the idea isn’t to see every little thing that’s going on there. It’s to choose the experiences you want to have,” said Reno resident Desiree Levy. “When people go to Burning Man, they don’t necessarily spend time in every camp. When they go the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they don’t necessarily see every exhibit. And actually, who would want to? Not everything is going to appeal to everybody.”

Coachella is also proving to be a place for bands to reunite. While past years have seen everyone from the Prodigy (who are part of this year’s lineup as well) to the Pixies, this year features a reunion by legendary British punk group Gang of Four, ‘80s synth pop band New Order, and the godfathers of goth, Bauhaus. The Cocteau Twins, the band most closely associated with the pioneering ‘80s indie label 4AD, were scheduled to reunite and perform, but cancelled when lead singer Elizabeth Fraser said she couldn’t participate due to personal reasons.

With a major music festival playing so close to Los Angeles, it’s inevitable that Hollywood stars are among the audience, and star sightings have ranged from Alicia Silverstone to Winona Ryder. Though it’s hard to predict which stars will attend, many expect Gwyneth Paltrow at this year’s event due to her marriage to Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin.

But the more exciting sightings are not of Hollywood stars, but of the musicians themselves. British music magazine New Musical Express reported that Anthony Kiedis and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers were among the first fans through the gates for last year’s show. Also sighted was B-52’s lead singer Fred Schneider, performing with the Danish group Junior Senior, a band that was also paid a visit by a shirtless Har Mar Superstar. The biggest sightings were at Kraftwerk’s performance, where everyone from Beck to Perry Ferrell to the Pixies’ Kim Deal showed up.

Though the festival has evolved over the years and increased its attendance (last year boasted the first sold-out performances), what has kept fans coming back is the idea that, despite the various problems, they are part of something they can’t experience anywhere else.

“They were giving out free copies of Spin at Coachella, and the magazine included a list of the ‘Ten Greatest Shows You Never Saw,'” said one fan, in Massive magazine. “But as I was reading the list, I kept thinking that the amazing thing was that four of the shows were less impressive that the one we were seeing.”