Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival's formula: Dare to be different

Bruce Fessier • The Desert Sun • April 15, 2010

Programming may not be solely responsible for the record crowds at this weekend's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, but it's one reason the festival has been named the nation's best for seven of its first 10 years.

Festival founder Paul Tollett says he tried to be more adventurous with his Pollstar Award-winning event at the Empire Polo Club in Indio because he thinks U.S. festivals need to be more daring.

He booked hip-hop star Jay-Z's first American festival appearance last July at the All Points West in New Jersey after the rap mogul performed at the rock-oriented Glastonbury festival in England in 2008.

Tollett said at the time, “It is a little sad that it takes Europe to discover some of the American artists for these festivals. Europe is just more adventuresome in putting bands to headline.”

Tollett has Jay-Z headlining again at Friday's opening of the three-day festival amid rumors that fellow rap superstar Dr. Dre could join him. But Jay-Z alone has stirred media attention.

The Los Angeles Times claimed it was “a measure of his post-Glastonbury clout” that Jay-Z is becoming the first “straight-up rapper” (not counting the Beastie Boys) to headline Coachella.

Tollett is proud to have made Jay-Z a festival headliner in America before Bonnaroo in Tennessee and Summer Sonic Festival in Japan.

“I like when we get to headline things that haven't headlined yet,” he said. “Gorillaz (topping Sunday's bill) and Jay-Z at All Points West, which was on a week's notice. Muse (headlining Saturday).”

But one can also measure how adventurous a lineup is by looking at its mid-level and opening acts.

Mark Redfern, a publisher and senior editor of Under the Radar magazine in Los Angeles and an attendee of all 10 Coachellas, says the festival always offers surprise artists and “even a handful I've strangely never heard of, despite editing a music magazine.

“The thing about Coachella is that their lineups are generally more impressive than most other American music festivals,” he said. “Even though there are plenty of artists I'm not excited to see, there are always more than enough who I can't wait to see (so) that I have trouble finding time to eat in between watching bands.”

Redfern says Coachella's reputation has grown because, after 10 years, it “still has the most consistent lineup.”

But, compared to past Coachellas, he doesn't see this one as pushing the envelope.

“I can't say that my first thought when seeing the lineup this year was that it was more adventuresome,” he said. “This lineup seems like every previous Coachella lineup, bar 2001's — a mixture of established and well-respected indie bands, genuinely exciting newer artists, overhyped new bands, reformed old schoolers, and a few DJs to appease the former glow stick crowd. It's a formula that's worked well for over a decade.”

Redfern considers Jay-Z critically respectable, but mainstream. He doesn't consider making him a headliner a risk.

“Jay-Z gets plenty of love of from such indie rock Web sites as Pitchfork and Coachella has sold out, so I guess it's not a big deal,” he said. “Personally, I couldn't care less about Jay-Z... I'll probably be watching Fever Ray and maybe catching a couple of songs by PiL (Public Image Limited).”

Casey Dolan, a rock disc jockey for KCLB Palm Springs who previously worked for local urban and alternative rock stations, said Jay-Z's headlining bill isn't really unexpected after Kanye West's acclaimed Coachella set in 2006.

“Jay-Z is not that big of a departure,” he said. “People of my generation grew up listening to rock, alt and hip-hop. My iPod has all of these genres — and I do not think of them not ‘mixing well' together. I go from listening ‘99 Problems' to Muse and do not think twice.”

Dolan doesn't see this weekend's lineup as more adventurous than past festivals because “Where is there left to go? Polka?”

But Redfern sees several Coachella bands who could emerge from under the radar to become significant acts.

“I love Yeasayer's second album,” he said. “It was a huge step above their debut in every way and I think they have potential to reach an Animal Collective-type level of success.

“I'm quite fond of the new British electro-rock band Delphic. They have some dance anthems that have gone down well in the U.K. Local Natives have been a buzz band at the last two SXSW's and put on a great show. I think they are only going to get bigger.”