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Madonna shakes up Coachella festival lineup

Booking mainstream artist at alternative music event gets mixed reactions
/ Source: The Associated Press

Imagine if Elvis had decided to make a pit stop at Woodstock.

It's perhaps the best way to put into perspective the hotly anticipated performance by Madonna — perhaps one of the most famous faces on the planet — at this year's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., on April 29 and 30. The musical extravaganza is best known for its lineup of indie-rock bands and dance-oriented DJs.

Outside of Madonna, the biggest acts on the bill are Depeche Mode and Tool — though successful, hardly on the superstar pop level of Madonna. Others include the punk rockers Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Orthodox Jewish reggae singer Matisyahu and the electronica dance duo Daft Punk.

Certainly Madonna's appeal is universal and organizers are pleased as punch to have there. She brings with her, however, a magnetic megastar effect — some will want to see her simply out of curiosity.

"Coachella this year is going to be known as the Madonna festival," joked Tom Smith, lead singer of Editors, an up-and-coming rock foursome hailing from Birmingham, England. "`Good on her' I say."

Others are mystified she's there at all.

"Madonna's a pretty mainstream artist ... I'd expect a bigger alternative kind of artist," said Chris Ross of the emerging rock group Wolfmother. "It's kind of interesting."

Coachella's Web site message board heated up when Madonna announced she would play the festival, prompting some unseemly posts like "I hope Madonna chokes on a crumpet."

Some fear a logjam of humanity at the smaller stage where she's set to appear — the "Sahara" dance tent, catering to an audience and a feel more in line with the her recent works rooted in the same electronica genre.

How exactly did The Madonna Factor come into play? Paul Tollette, co-founder of Goldenvoice, the company that puts on Coachella, said he was still looking for a big name for the popular dance tent and they started considering one of the biggest names of them all.

"We didn't have anyone for the second night. We got to talking and we said, 'What do you think about Madonna?'" Tollette recalled. A few phone calls and mutual friends later and Madonna was a go for Coachella (Madonna declined to be interviewed for this article).

Tollette acknowledged that adding Madonna to the bill has presented some logistical challenges — more people craning their neck to see her. To address that, he's put in place some spatial changes at the Sahara tent to accommodate more people — more than the thousands that usually fit inside.

To maintain the integrity of that plan, Tollette chose not to elaborate on those changes, but he's well aware the magnitude of Madonna commands full attention.

"There will be some people here specifically for her," Tollette said, adding the caveat "They'll be overwhelmed by Coachella people."

It's worth noting that he drew a distinction between the two camps.

There are no main stage acts going on at the same time as Madonna, but there are some acts on smaller stages during her set. Tollette predicts that there will be plenty of people taking in those other acts while Madonna does her thing.

Is Madonna the biggest act to ever hit the stage at Coachella?

"That depends on your definition of big," Tollette said. "She's probably sold more records than anyone we've had at Coachella."

Tollette admits many people can't understand why Madonna — whose summer tour this year is perhaps the most anticipated — would play there.

But Tollette added: "She knows a lot of the DJs that have played the Sahara tent, so this isn't anything new for her."

World renown DJ Paul Oakenfold plays on the same night as Madonna in the dance tent. They're friends, have toured together, and Oakenfold has done several well-received remixes of Madonna's songs.

He said Madonna likely could have requested to play on a big stage at Coachella, but wisely choose to stick with the electronica-themed "Sahara" tent.

"That's an incredible boost for the electronic scene," Oakenfold said. "To choose the less is more. It's a smaller situation, but it's going to be unbelievable."

"I think this is extremely cutting edge for an artist of that pedigree," he added. "It's going to draw a lot of attention to that tent."