I can see it already, several hours away from showtime: The line of traffic on California’s Route 111 as tens of thousands make their way from Palm Springs to Indio. Cigarette butts littered on pristine golf courses, tour buses lined up on the Empire Polo Field, rock stars buzzing by in golf carts, sunburned women and wasted men… it’s the quintessential Coachella experience.
Every year as April winds down, the normally quiet retirement communities of the greater Palm Springs area are invaded by packs of music-loving hipsters looking for the ultimate multigenre lineup. And barring a trip to Europe, this as close as America gets to legendary festivals like Glastonbury or Roskilde, where you can see everyone from Radiohead and Coldplay to Franz Ferdinand and Imogen Heap in one weekend. In fact, Coachella has a history of booking and nurturing U.K. bands as they make that trans-Atlantic attempt to “break” in the U.S. And this year is no different: Amy Winehouse and Arctic Monkeys lead the Brit buzz pack, along with newcomers like Lily Allen, the Kooks, and the Feeling. (Other events of note: Crowded House making their U.S. return after 10 years, and Happy Mondays taking the American stage for the first time in 15 years — albeit sans Bez, who was not able to secure a work visa).
The full list of all the acts at Coachella is way too long to list, so here’s just an idea of how wide-ranging it really is: You can bathe in the fabulousness of Rufus Wainwright one minute, and a half hour later be yelping like a banshee along to Peaches. Or go from psychedelic on Saturday morning (Pop Levi) to gyspy that night (Gogol Bordello). Or from the Latin strums of Rodrigo y Gabriela to the hip-hop beats of the Roots. And, of course, there are the marquee names to check out — a reunited Rage Against the Machine; the multiplatinum-selling regulars Red Hot Chili Peppers; the endlessly entertaining Björk.
UPDATE: And apparently, if you’re there on Friday, you may even be able to check out Scarlett Johansson’s singing skills — rumor has it she’s going to perform with Jesus and Mary Chain.
In trying to provide a little something for everyone, there’s so much to Coachella that navigating it all can be daunting, especially for the first-timer. So I’ve come up with 10 quick tips to a smoother festival experience based on five years of attending the massive music fest…
1. Do an idiot check before you leave your hotel room. Tickets or printed confirmation, wallet and ID, car keys, sunglasses, hotel or house key, phone, sunscreen, head covering, camera, and enough water to get you through the mile-long hike from the parking lot to the gate (you can’t bring any outside food or beverages into the festival).
2. Bring a jacket or sweater. Though it’s expected to be in the 90s during the day, the temperature drops dramatically at night. Stash something warm in your bag — you won’t regret it.
3. Wear comfortable shoes. You’re going to be doing a lot of walking, so be prepared for it. And girls, it’s a polo field with lots of grass, so heels may not be a great idea.
4. Plot out your show schedule. Coachella.com provides festivalgoers with the very handy Coachooser, which allows you to personalize your own lineup online. Simply check off the acts that you’re interested in, and it will generate an easy-to-read chart plotting out your choices with locations and set times.
5. Stop at an ATM before you get there. All vendors on site take cash only. That includes food, drinks, clothing, psychedelic tapestries, and a host of other festival-appropriate merchandise. Though there are cash machines inside the gates, the lines are almost always long.
6. Once inside, drink plenty of water. Festival organizers have managed to keep the price of water at $2 per bottle since 1999. New this year: a recycling center where you can get a free bottle of water when you turn in 10 empty ones.
7. Stave off Internet withdrawal by running to the AT&T R & R (refresh and recharge) tent, where you can relax, charge your cell phone, and check your e-mail. It’s open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
8. Eat at off-peak times. Though there’s a variety of decent food at Coachella, including vegetarian fare, the lines can get excruciatingly long during your typical lunch and dinner hours. Plan ahead by eating a late breakfast and subsequently a late lunch and dinner.
9. Pace yourself. Running between stages in the scorching hot sun can wear you out quickly. Try to find a portion of the day where you can hang in one area and see two to three artists in a row. A suggestion: Spend some of Saturday in the Mojave tent.
10. Don’t drink and drive. For the obvious reason that it’s dangerous, of course. If that’s not enough incentive for you, consider this: Exiting the festival, you’ll find local police at practically every intersection from Indio to Palm Springs. Make sure there’s a designated driver; if everybody in your group is toasted, taxis are available from the festival site.