Is Coachella losing its luster?

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Jan. 31: The Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, in Indigo, Calif., arguably the nation’s finest festival and one of the most influential showcases of new and veteran cutting-edge artists, announces its hotly anticipated seventh lineup.

“Hotly” is an understatement, actually. Speculation had been rampant all month, partly fueled by a fake poster, widely circulated on the Internet, indicating a much-rumored Smashing Pumpkins reunion would top one of the weekend’s two bills.

Would that indeed occur? Would, say, the Red Hot Chili Peppers make another stop at the two-stages-three-tents gathering to promote a coming double album? Or what about those fearless freaks the Flaming Lips – might they return and concoct something even crazier than Wayne Coyne’s famous walk-atop-the- crowd-inside-a-bubble-ball stunt?

No, no and no.

And no to the Strokes, the Arcade Fire, the White Stripes and Jack White’s new Raconteurs project.

Instead, prog-metal giant Tool, the first repeat headliner, having preceded Rage Against the Machine at the end of the first Coachella in October 1999, would now close out the 2006 edition, scheduled for next weekend at the Empire Polo Field in Indio. Topping Day 1: Depeche Mode, the beloved electro-pop outfit which had very recently sold out several shows at various SoCal venues.

Thus, many Coachella regulars exhaled a sigh of slight disappointment.

Where, some wondered, was the big reunion act – a Pixies or Stooges or Gang of Four? Where was the major headliner to match Coldplay and Nine Inch Nails in 2005 or – the quadruple threat many contend cannot be beat – Radiohead (“the Pink Floyd of this generation,” says Coachella organizer Paul Tollett), the Pixies, the Flaming Lips and the Cure in 2004?

But then it got worse.

Feb. 1: Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival announces its hotly anticipated lineup. Since 2002, the larger, arguably more eclectic three-day festival has been staged annually before 80,000 people (almost twice as many as attend Coachella) on 700 acres of farmland in Manchester, Tenn., just outside of Nashville.

Some acts were expected: Grateful Dead mainstay Phil Lesh; Oysterhead, featuring former Phish-er Trey Anastasio, Police drummer Stewart Copeland and Primus bassist Les Claypool; and improvisational bands like moe. and Rusted Root. The sort of acts, in other words, that established Bonnaroo’s reputation as a void-filler in the jam-band scene.

Yet in recent years the event has wildly expanded its roster to include both rootsier rock legends – the coming incarnation, June 16-18, spotlights Elvis Costello, Tom Petty and Bonnie Raitt – and edgier fare from outside the mainstream.

This year, for instance, Coachella scored rapper Common, Hasidic reggae star Matisyahu, breakout acts Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and the Magic Numbers and late-blooming critics’ favorites like My Morning Jacket and Cat Power.

Bonnaroo has all of them as well. Plus Bright Eyes. And Death Cab for Cutie, Sonic Youth and the Streets. And Ben Folds and the Dresden Dolls.

And Beck – who hasn’t properly played Coachella since “99.

And Radiohead, in its only stateside date announced so far this year.

“That Bonnaroo lineup is just creepy, it’s so good,” says surfer-turned-songwriter Donavon Frankenreiter, who last year played Coachella and this year appears at Bonnaroo. “It’s like Woodstock, but, like, times a million.”

Thus, a whole lot of Coachella regulars have had to ask themselves: “Well, if I can only go to one festival this year …?”

Tollett, the Goldenvoice concert promoter who hatched Coachella as an American response to similar long-running English festivals like Glastonbury and Reading, is well aware that some people think Bonnaroo has Coachella beat this time out.

“That fake poster really hurt us,” he admits. “That made it harder to announce our lineup when people were expecting that one. And you hate to be in the position of trying to explain why the bands you picked are better than what people were hoping.

“But, then, you gotta look at those expectations and realize that people trust this show a lot and think they deserve to have a good lineup. I’d rather have people be invested in the concept and be critical than not care at all.”

It could be said that some Coachellans care too much, however, something that became especially noticeable when Tollett announced a late addition: Madonna, who will unveil (in slightly downscaled form) her latest production inside the expanded and renovated Sahara dance tent a month before she plays high-ticket dates at the Forum.

Some gripes have been mild: “(She’s) a pretty mainstream artist,” Chris Ross of Australia’s new hard- rock outfit Wolfmother (appearing Saturday) has said. “I’d expect a bigger alternative kind of artist.” Other complaints have been harsher: “I hope (she) chokes on a crumpet,” wished one anonymous message-board post at www.coachella.com.

Yet though the indie kids grumble – something Tollett says he hears “anytime I get a big act,” regardless of genre – he thinks Madonna’s inclusion is one of the better things to happen to Coachella this year.

“It’s a gift to the dance crowd. There are lots of people who go to Coachella and stay in the Sahara tent all day. This is for them.”

What’s more, “the entire process with her and her management has been smooth. They have gotten into the spirit of it. Right away they asked us what the guidelines of the show are, not “Here’s our demands.’ It was more like “We don’t want to disrupt anything.”‘

Madonna’s appearance, though, is only one such new twist Tollett wanted to add – or subtract, as the case is regarding what he calls “reunitements.”

“I’m not looking to do that every year,” he says, despite several reports that the Smiths were presented with a $5 million offer to perform. “Some years it works out. The Stooges reunite – you grab it. Pixies, too, of course. But we’re not going to go after that just to fill a token slot.”

Instead, Coachella, like Bonnaroo, has diversified. There is more world-beat than before, courtesy of Malian duo Amadou & Mariam, Portuguese performer Seu Jorge and Venezuela’s Los Amigos Invisibles. There are buzzed-about acts about to break out or just garnering notice: Gnarls Barkley (a collaboration between rapper Cee-Lo and DJ Danger Mouse), She Wants Revenge, James Blunt, Nine Black Alps, the Zutons.

There are more subdued singer-songwriter types, including psychedelic folkie Devendra Banhart and Matt Costa, only the fourth act from O.C. (if you count Rage alongside Frankenreiter and Thrice) to appear at the festival. And then there are plenty of exclusives: English newcomer Bloc Party, the outrageous Scissor Sisters, Sigur Ros, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the first appearances from Massive Attack and Daft Punk in nearly a decade.

“This one has more different types of music than we’ve ever had before,” Tollett contends. “And it needs to get that way. It needs to change and grow. If we stuck with the same exact show every year, then the criticism would be, “Oh, they’ve got a formula and they’re done.’ I’d rather take a chance that we book something people don’t like than to do the same thing again and again.”

Turns out that’s the same philosophy behind Bonnaroo. “The jam band has been the core of our event and will continue to be,” explains Jonathan Mayers, who via his Superfly Productions stages Bonnaroo and the Las Vegas festival Vegoose each year. “But we’ve consciously opened up our programming just for the health of the event. We want to keep challenging our audiences. What keeps a festival fresh is that it keeps evolving.”

So Bonnaroo going after Radiohead and other Coachella-type acts isn’t a competitive response, he says. “Coachella is a great festival, I’ve been out there before, but we don’t really take it into consideration. We’re not trying to emulate them any more than I think they’re trying to emulate us when they have acts like Ben Harper or Jack Johnson.”

They are radically different events, of course. “At Bonnaroo I imagine I’ll be dodging a lot more Hacky Sacks,” jokes Banhart. “And I guess there might be more methamphetamines at Coachella, more opiates at Bonnaroo.”

But seriously, the two fests don’t match up. Coachella is about a hip two-day oasis in the California desert, the heat of which attendees escape by retreating to hotel rooms. Bonnaroo is a long-weekend, round-the-clock, camping-community experience whose patrons begin to feel as though they live there permanently.

“When people come from all over America to camp at that, and it feels like a weeklong pilgrimage to get there, it’s a totally different vibe,” notes Frankenreiter. “You create a little nest, a little home, and the experience is constant. Coachella is completely different – every bit as great, but with its own approach.”

And as that approach undergoes revision this year more than ever, all the festival’s visionary can do is gauge reaction. If only people would wait and see how it all goes down.

“You know, report cards shouldn’t be given out until after the semester, not Day 1 going into school,” he says. “You can’t judge Coachella by the lineup announcement. You really can’t even judge it until after April 29. Wait till it’s over. And then judge it based on what really happens.”

(c) 2006, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.).

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