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Coachella Provided an Antidote to Woodstock 99's Hangover

Mellow vibes prevailed at first annual Coachella festival

October 11, 1999 12:00 AM ET

The last time California debuted a major music festival in a Woodstock year, the result was Altamont, and we all know how that turned out. This year, Woodstock is the event associated with violence and Coachella, if not exactly about peace and love, was at least peaceful and lovable. So, what went right?

For starters, Goldenvoice (the festival's promoters) chose an excellent site. The Empire Polo Club -- in Indio, a low desert community 150 miles southeast of Los Angeles -- possesses a lush beauty, from the date palms ringing the site, the dun hills in the distance and the incongruously green fields that made the desert seem very far away. (The hot Santa Ana winds, on the other hand, reminded everyone that they were in steamy Southern California, as temperature both days topped 100 degrees.) The peaked, white canvas tents arrayed throughout the site looked like a caravan that had set up camp on an oasis. The names of the rave tents reinforced this theme: famous deserts on three continents -- the Mojave, Gobi and Sahara. The promoters studied successful European festivals such as Glastonbury and Redding and took note of the tragic mistakes of Woodstock earlier this year.

And Goldenvoice made sure the experience was positive from beginning to end. Parking was free and traffic flowed easily into the lots. In addition, each person, as they arrived at the site, was handed a free bottle of water; water was available throughout the site for two dollars a bottle (half the price charged at Woodstock). With ticket sales capped at 35,000 each day (they never reached that threshold, with approximately 17,000 tickets sold on Saturday, and sales estimated at 20,000 for Sunday), you never experienced the claustrophobic conditions that afflicted even one-day events such as Lollapalooza. The Polo Club was spacious enough that there was room to wander, but the performance stages and tents were close enough together that it was possible to walk between all five performance areas in around twenty minutes. As promised, there was ample shade, but many concert-goers sprawled out on the grass between sets, prostate from the heat.

Tickets cost fifty dollars each day, and while some fans complained it was too high, they were a bargain when compared to prices for arena-sized concerts and the $150 charged at Woodstock. Prices were not much different from what you would expect at an arena or stadium show -- freshly made burgers were priced at an affordable three bucks, burritos at $3.50 and Budweiser was five dollars a cup. The beer could only be bought and consumed at three fenced-off areas.

The wildly diverse line-up might also have contributed to the weekend's refreshingly mellow mood. Except for Sunday's closing tandem of Rage Against the Machine and Tool, the kind of testosterone-fueled, aggressive rock that became the soundtrack for disaster at Woodstock, those in attendance at Coachella could choose among the manic pop of Bis, the moody trip-hop of Gus Gus and turntable mastery of LTJ Bukem. Set times were staggered among the stages, so it was possible to construct a day's music like a Family Dinner at an old-school Chinese restaurant, choosing one from column A, another from Column B.

One thing just about everyone chose was to respond to this level of respect in kind. Polite behavior is not something associated with large-scale rock festivals, but it was very much in effect at Coachella. People would say "excuse me" after they bumped into you, and the knots of aggressive teenagers demanding that women take off their tops were thankfully absent. In fact the only bared chests seen on Saturday were Perry Farrell and Morrissey, both of whom took off their shirts on-stage.

Even during Rage and Tool, the crowd kept its collective cool, and actually policed itself. When someone tossed a burning object onto the stage just prior to Rage's set, instead of cheering the crowd started scolding "asshole, asshole." Officer J. Garadena of the Indio Police Department called the crowd "very well-behaved." There were only a few injuries over the two days, he said, and they were limited to some cuts and scratches and one woman who broke her arm. But she tripped and fell, and Garadena commented, "you can't blame that on the concert." A self-described "big music fan," he said he would have bought a ticket for the show if he didn't have to work. His favorite bands on the bill? Rage and Tool. Rage especially, because "they can really put the crowd into a frenzy." While this is great for the band and its fans, it "poses problems for law enforcement." But those problems, he said, were not apparent at Coachella.

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