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California: Coachella cool

I make my way through the thick cloud of dust, eyes barely open, mouth tightly closed to stop myself swallowing any of the brown grit. Around me, others are huddling under canvas or running for cover. It’s all a bit post-apocalyptic.

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Several metres away I can just about make out the shape of the giant snail, more than twice my height, and a huge mechanical insect (it might be an ant, maybe a cricket — it’s hard to tell), although the palm trees and ferris wheel in the next field seem to have disappeared behind the thickening cloud.

The dust storm and accompanying chill are a bit of a spanner in the works for the carefully styled, denim hot pants-clad crowd at Coachella. We are, after all, in Southern California, and the temperature yesterday reached over 30C. But the nearby desert seems intent on sneaking into the festival.

Since it started more than a decade ago, Coachella has become a magnet not only for big-name bands — Blur and The Stone Roses headlined this year — but with celebrities. My own star-spotting extended only to glimpses of an off-duty Nick Cave, but within hours of the festival starting, photos of Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and Twilight stars Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart appeared online. Held every April at the posh Empire Polo Club, just outside Palm Springs, the three-day festival is the place to be seen.

My arrival here was slightly less salubrious, having caught a musty Greyhound bus from Downtown Los Angeles. As LA slipped into the distance, the desert took over; reddish mountains resembling giant piles of rubble. Huge wind farms punctuated the landscape, the mills’ white arms remaining defiantly static on this still, sweaty morning. It was hard to imagine that just a few miles away, the green oasis of the polo club was slowly filling up with tens of thousands of people; the site decked out with a surreal collection of props — oversized bugs, fairground rides, huge, colourful cones and climbable art installations.

My first two days at the festival were spent dancing to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Hot Chip, The Postal Service and more — aching limbs fuelled by a diet of crisps, beer and sunshine. When I wake up on Sunday, though, feeling slightly worse for wear, I’m ready for a more relaxed day. Perfect, then, that Rodriguez is on.

Until last year, I’d never heard of him, but having watched the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man, I’m desperate to see the mysterious folk singer. Initially hailed as the new Bob Dylan, Sixto Rodriguez never really achieved fame in his native US but developed a cult following in South Africa — despite rumours that the reclusive performer was dead.

Clearly he’s not, though, and as the frail-looking 70-year-old is led on stage by his daughter and an assistant, the crowd lets out a deafening roar. Like me, they all appear to be relative newcomers to Rodriguez’s music, but thanks to the documentary his songs have become comfortably familiar, and the whole audience is charmed by this painfully shy, but smiling, man.

As Rodriguez closes the set with his most memorable track, Sugar Man, everyone’s singing along. We may be watching a still little-known singer in one of Coachella’s smaller tents — not out in the VIP area with the A-listers — but as the wind picks up, bringing the desert with it, I know where I’d rather be.

www.coachella.com
www.visitcalifornia.co.uk
www.airnewzealand.co.uk