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04.14.11

What's Hot at Coachella Music Fest

With Kanye West and Arcade Fire headlining, the California indie event becomes the opening act for metal and country fests with stars like Metallica and Carrie Underwood. Chris Lee on the musical three-ring circus.

Over the past decade, the event has become a beacon for hot times in the low Southern Californian desert—the mellifluous syllables of its name synonymous with washes of electric guitar and wave upon wave of resplendent hipsterdom. The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which kicks off on April 15, stands as America's preeminent indie music festival, a sprawling three-day extravaganza of alt-rock, hip-hop and electronica that has hosted as many as 180,000 revelers in a single weekend. It's a world-class stage for groundbreaking acts—Rage Against the Machine, Bjork and Daft Punk among them—as well as a showcase for such top-tier performers as Madonna, Radiohead, Jay-Z and Paul McCartney to pull off career-defining gigs.

Gallery: Coachella 2011 Preview

But in an unprecedented move this year, Coachella will serve as the opening act for a three-part Ring Cycle of back-to-back-to-back pop musical offerings set to hit Indio, California, the city that plays home to the event this month.

Since 2007, Coachella has been bookended by Stagecoach, its lucrative two-day country music counterpart that takes place at the same venue, the Empire Polo Club, a week after Coachella (and is similarly operated by the concert promoter Goldenvoice). On April 30 and May 1, country luminaries Kenny Chesney, Carrie Underwood and Rascal Flatts are set to headline a roster of 30 acts to an expected sell-out crowd of over 100,000. As a fastball change-up for 2011, however, Goldenvoice also plans to stage what promises to be one of the loudest concerts of the year at the polo grounds slotted in between Coachella and Stagecoach: "The Big 4."

Call it an unholy massing of heavy metal thunder. The April 23 concert will feature the genre's most mosh-tacular, high-decibel standard-bearers: Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth. On their own, each of those beloved thrash groups has had people worldwide banging their heads since the early '80s. But the Big 4 only toured together for the first time last year on a sold-out swing through Europe. And with their American touchdown in Indio on April 23, "the first and only time in the U.S" according to promo literature, anticipation for the concert has remained at fever pitch.

"Flying in from Florida," fan Andy Giraldo posted on the concert's Facebook page, articulating a common refrain, usually involving numerous exclamation points and caps lock: "CAN'T FUCKING WAIT!!!"

But to hear it from Paul Tollett, the laid-back Stagecoach and Coachella co-founder who, as head of Goldenvoice, is the chief organizer of both events, this triple bill might never have gotten off the ground were it not for Mother's Day.

With Easter falling late in April this year and Mother's Day arriving the following Sunday, Tollett knew he'd have to space the festivals an additional week apart lest they overlap with the holidays. And that left the Polo Field dormant for a week in between. Which is when fate intervened by way of a casual conversation Tollett happened to have with Metallica's manager, Peter Mensch.

Coachella provides a hodge-podge of modern pop and hipsterism, Stagecoach functions as a family-friendly countrified jam, and Big 4 serves as an unmitigated headbanger's ball.

"He said, 'I'm looking for a place for the Big 4.' I said, 'When are you thinking?' He goes, 'I don't know. Sometime in spring,'" Tollett recalled. "That's when the light bulb went on. 'Well, actually, I've got a place just sitting there waiting to go.'"

And that makes both dollars and sense, according to Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert trade publication Pollstar. "It makes sense to slot a third program that can amortize the overhead of setting up the basic amenities of the festivals," he said, adding: "I wouldn't be surprised if they added a fourth weekend. Maybe something Christian rock-themed."

Tollett recently said the Big 4 show is on track to do "Stagecoach numbers" a particularly robust return in an era when sluggish ticket sales prompted major acts such as Rihanna, the Eagles and Christina Aguilera to cancel dates and postpone concerts. But the promoter brushed aside discussion of expanding the Coachella footprint, insisting the Big 4 is a "one-off."

As well, there's a kind of a separate but equal synergy in this year's Indio arrangement. With Coachella providing a hodge-podge of modern pop and hipsterism, Stagecoach functioning as a family-friendly countrified jam filled with barbecue, kids and camping, and the Big 4 concert serving as an unmitigated headbanger's ball—each event by design is meant to appeal to separate and distinct constituencies. Then factor in the Empire Polo grounds' lush, bougainvillea- and oleander-filled oasis environs, which Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich recently praised as having a "fantastic vibe." It all adds up to a musical massing that, in terms of quality and scope, is unprecedented in the history of giant outdoor festivals.

"The events won't cannibalize each other and that's the only reason I would do this," Tollett said. "That and [the Empire Polo Club] is just a great place to see a big event."

Meanwhile, tickets for Coachella sold out a mere six days after the announcement of its lineup, which runs the gamut from the underground hip-hop of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All to the agit-prop rock quartet One Day as a Lion to British folk rockers Mumford & Sons. Not to mention the headliners: the Strokes, Kanye West, Arcade Fire and Kings of Leon.

Tollett takes pride in the event's quality controls, noting that Coachella isn't even in the top five biggest festivals in the country. He seemed genuinely shocked that ticket inventory had vanished so quickly this year, prompting the promoter to muse about changes he could make to provide wider access in the future.

"I do get sad that most of my friends didn't get a ticket this year," Tollett said. "There were a lot of people who wanted a ticket who don't get to go. So what do you do? Double the capacity? That's not comfortable. Raise the ticket? That's not going to go over too well. Or just say, 'Tough luck. That's how many people are going.'"

None of the options sat well.

"I feel bad for all the people who can't go to Coachella," Tollett continued. "Too bad I can't add a show. 'Midnight to noon: Just added!'"

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Chris Lee is a senior entertainment writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast. He previously worked as an entertainment and culture reporter for the Los Angeles Times. His work has also appeared in Vibe, Premiere and Details magazines and has been plagiarized in The Sunday Tribune of Ireland and The Trinidad Guardian.