It should take 150 minutes to get from Burbank to the Empire Polo Club in Indio. But when the Coachella Music and Arts festival is on, time stretches. Traffic gums up randomly on the I-10, slowing the drive through the windmill forests that dot the desert hills. But the biggest bottleneck comes at the exit ramp. The five-mile trip from the Monroe St. to the Polo Club took me two-and-a-half hours. Girls in flipflops were passing me (not that I would want to walk five miles in flip flops). I had it light – a friend who came later needed four hours to get from the highway to festival parking. That’s what happens when you take a town of 84,000 and nearly double its population for a long weekend, without adding traffic control.
Once inside, Coachella feels oddly like a music buffet, or maybe a radio where you dial with your feet. I spent my first few hours flitting between bands, the DoLab outdoor dance club and the Sahara dj fest-in-a-canopy. I’d listen to a couple songs by The Specials, they’d hit one I didn’t much like, so I’d wander off to hear Gil Scott-Heron. When he veered in a direction that didn’t interest me, I was off to the DJ tent, where a guy named Wolfgang Gartner had a thousand or more people totally riled. I kept flitting until I found myself at the front of the crowd for Echo and the Bunnymen. “Echo,” or Ian McCullough, smokes on stage, and the practice has been unkind to his voice. While he retains some of the haunted quality that made him a great rock and roll singer, his range is shot and he goes flat a lot. I stayed for nostalgia, and because I’d made a couple of friends who insisted I had to stay to hear Vampire Weekend (they were a great show). Then it was off to Jay-Z. Coachella might be an indie fest, but Mr. Hip-hop drew the biggest crowd of any artist for the two days I was at the festival. It took more than 30 minutes to worm my way from the right side of the crowd to the left, before the show started. Jay-Z professed to being overwhelmed by the crowd and the atmosphere. He went for nearly two hours, even bringing out Beyonce for “Young Forever.” (He also stayed for the rest of the festival to check out other artists. You could see from his show how different his music is now from a decade ago. I wonder if we’ll start hearing strains of MGMT show up in his songs).
We were collectively booted from the venue at 1 a.m. Then there was the 90+minute wait to get out of the parking lot. It was almost 4 a.m. before I made it to bed. I got close to spending more time sitting in traffic than listening to music that first day. That 75,000 people doled out a minimum of $269 to sit in traffic and then stand (or dance) for 12 hours a day shows that music still moves us.