"It’s the biggest heavy metal party in the world." Metallica, AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Guns N' Roses and Tool, plus insane ticket prices, 40° heat and, er, lobster dinners. Inside the brilliance and the absurdity of Power Trip festival 2023

Power Trip crowd
(Image credit: Future (photo: Stephanie Cabral))

James William Reay, 39, has travelled more than 5,500 miles from his London home to spend three days in the California desert. It’s hot, dusty and the cheapest beer for miles around is $15 a pop. He’s paid over $1,500 for the privilege of being here, but he couldn’t be happier. “There’s nowhere I’d rather be,” he says, beaming. “Where else will you see so many of the top bands of this genre on the same stage? It’s the biggest heavy metal party in the world.”

We’re at Power Trip, a three-day festival at the Empire Polo Club in Indio California, a sedate desert city 130 miles east of Los Angeles. Unlike most British and European festivals – or even Coachella, which has been held on this site since 1999 – the bill isn’t made up of a firehose of bands all fighting for ears and eyes. There are just six bands playing this weekend, but what bands they are: AC/DC, Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Tool.

It’s an elite-level bill, and there are elite-level ticket prices to match. General admission begins at $599 (roughly £490) plus fees, rising to $1,599 (£1,300) for The Pit, a standing area directly in front of the stage. VIP and hotel packages are north of $2,000. But that hasn’t stopped tens of thousands of metal fans weathering temperatures of almost 40 ̊C to see six of the biggest and best bands rock and metal has to offer.

There’s a precedent for this. In 2016, heavyweight US promoters (and Coachella organisers) Goldenvoice staged the Desert Trip festival on this very site. Like this weekend’s event, it brought together six of the biggest names in rock – The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, The Who, Bob Dylan, Roger Waters, Neil Young – in one massive boomer-fest.

While Power Trip follows the same template, it’s a very different gathering of the tribes. Over the festival’s duration, Hammer meets fans from as far afield as Brazil, Chile and Japan, as well as groups from the UK, Switzerland and beyond. With up to 80,000 people attending each day, the gathering represents a massive cross-section of ages, albeit admittedly skewed to older fans who can afford the higher price tag. It answers the question: what if you had a festival made up entirely of headline-sized bands? “It’s a historical event,” says Shinji, the owner of Tokyo’s Metal Justice bar, who has flown in from Japan to be here. “All huge bands playing full sets in the world-famous Coachella site – a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Metal Hammer line break

Day 1

It’s the first day of the fest, but thankfully the traffic chaos that blighted the likes of Download and Slam Dunk in the UK hasn’t affected Indio. The worst fans have to contend with is a drive around site to find a free parking space. Colourful rickshaws offer to ferry fans from the car park to the site for $15, cranking up metal-friendly soundtracks en route, with Deftones, Slipknot and Rammstein filling the air.

Indio might be in the desert, but the Empire Polo Club is an oasis of luxury. Lined by palm trees and with gorgeous mountains looming in the distance, there’s a natural splendour to it, while carefully manicured lawns and scenic views exude a sedate comfort that suggests athletic, beautiful young things might pop out from behind the dunes at any moment to fan us with oversized palm leaves and feed us grapes ahead of some Bacchanalian revelry.

This weekend, the majority of the field is dedicated to seating, folding chairs lined out in their thousands in orderly rows and blocks before the stage, while further back dedicated blanket and pitch areas in general admission offer relaxation for even the lowest-paying attendee. Food stalls provide everything from festival-staple burger and fries to brisket, dumplings and full lobster dinners, with snaking queues conspicuous by their absence. Donington this ain’t.

But no matter how different some things are, others are reassuringly familiar. “Scream for me, Indio!” demands Bruce Dickinson. “Iron Maiden’s gonna get each and every one of ya!” It’s 6.45pm and the sun hasn’t quite gone down when the British metal icons kick off the festival with a set that brings the 2023 leg of their globe-circling The Future Past tour to its conclusion. They may be in the early slot, but they’re not an opening act - every band here has billing, with a 90-plus minute stage time across the board. Not everyone in the crowd is on-message with The Future Past tour’s non-greatest hits approach – “What, no Run To The Hills?” Hammer hears one fan grumbling – but Maiden rule.

After briefly grasping the idea of punctuality, Guns N’ Roses seem to have slipped back into old habits. It’s 10pm when they take the stage, 30 minutes later than scheduled. Some fans are asleep in their seats, others have left entirely. As close to home as they’re ever likely to be in a festival setting, Guns’ 29-song setlist offers big anthems – you know the ones – and a visual extravaganza of IMAX proportions. But the lightning-charged Axl Rose’s blur of energy isn’t matched by the crowd. Maybe it’s down to the still-stifling heat, but they watch politely rather than losing their shit, half-heartedly singing along to Sweet Child O’ Mine.

The set finally comes to an end with the obligatory Paradise City, by which many of those who are staying in the campsite have already made their way back. Actually, ‘campsite’ is a misnomer. There are few tents to be found; this is RV country, the accommodation offering flushable toilets, beds and even air-con. But there’s a great atmosphere. Barbeques are broken out and the smell of sizzling steak fills the air as groups crank up the radio and blast classic rock and metal hits, like a scene straight out of Richard Linklater’s Dazed And Confused. Hammer wanders the site for a while before it’s time to head back to our Airbnb a few miles away. There’s just one question: dude, where’s our car?

Bruce Dickinson on stage at Power Trip

(Image credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images)

Day 2

Across town is High Voltage, a pop-up dive bar packed with memorabilia dedicated to tonight’s closing band, AC/DC. Fans queue around the block to get inside, where they’ll be greeted with cheap drinks (almost $10 cheaper than at the actual festival), stacked TVs showing videos of the band’s glory years and a constant rotation of ’DC tunes on the jukebox. Swiss fan Pirmin Häfliger is in full schoolboy attire, flinging himself around as he duck-walks and spins on the floor playing an air guitar. “AC/DC haven’t played for seven years, so I had to be there,”he explains.“ This might be the last time I see them, so it was always going to be special, but this is incredible!”

Out back, vans sell cheap burgers and tacos, while a huge merch emporium sells everything from shirts and posters to cups and AC/DC Monopoly. Local studio Heatstroke Tattoo have been enlisted to offer free AC/DC logo tatts to any fans that want them. One of the artists, Sadiel Da Vinci, reckons he’s done around 15 a day so far. “I’m hoping to do 30 tomorrow,” he says happily. “It’s been hot as fuck out here, but we’re meeting people from all over the world, which is incredible.”

For their part, Indio’s locals seem positively delighted to have thousands of metalheads descend upon their city. “Everyone’s been so nice, you know?” says Giselle, a local working the bar. “The atmosphere is just so fun.” That atmosphere ratchets up even further when Angus Young himself appears at the bar for a quick photo op (sadly, Hammer’s tucked up in bed at the time – gah!).

Forty years ago, Judas Priest appeared alongside Van Halen, Scorpions, Mötley Crüe and Ozzy Osbourne on the bill of the second US Festival’s fabled ‘Heavy Metal Day’ –the point where metal was rubber-stamped as an unstoppable commercial force in the US. Priest are a direct link between that momentous event and Power Trip, although they’re actually a replacement for Ozzy, who was forced to cancel in July due to health reasons. Rumours abound that Ozzy might turn up on-site regardless, but Hammer already knows the truth of the matter, having spoken to him barely a week before the event.

“If I can’t do the gig, I don’t want to be there,” he admitted. But there’s no resentment from The Prince Of Darkness to the band warming his throne for the night. “It’s brilliant Judas Priest are doing it instead; Rob’s a great singer and they’re a very good band. He’s a very dear friend of mine." It’s a sentiment clearly shared by the many fans wearing Judas Priest shirts dotted around the site. Even Joe, a California native wearing an Ozzfest ’98 tee, isn’t too upset about the substitution. “I love Ozzy, man,” he drawls. “But Judas Priest are legends

Priest deliver an imperious performance. Sticking to their most ebullient songs – no ballads today – the set is all feel-good riffs and chest-beating bravado, heavy on the likes of You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’ and Living After Midnight, while the projection of a gigantic red, white and black Black Country flag instils a bit of home pride.

When AC/DC arrive onstage, the festival becomes another beast entirely. It’s as if half the crowd have been quietly milling on the edges of the field until now as the field suddenly packs out ahead of show time, a sea of blinking light-up Devil horns flickering with excitement. The Australian band don’t let us down, delivering a set that mixes up longtime staples such as Back In Black, Whole Lotta Rosie and You Shook Me All Night Long with some surprises, including unexpected opener If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It), debuts for Power Up tracks Shot In The Dark and Demon Fire, and Bon Scott-era classic Riff Raff, the first time the latter has been played at a gig with Brian Johnson on vocals.

“That was legendary, man,” beams a fan after a cannon- assisted For Those About To Rock closer, dripping sweat as he walks out of The Pit. “No shit!” his friend answers. “I was stood next to James fucking Hetfield!”

This turns out to be true. The Metallica frontman was spotted side-stage during Iron Maiden’s and Guns N’ Roses’ sets on Friday, but he shifted to The Pit for AC/DC, where he air-guitared alongside awestruck fans. "These bands made Metallica,” he’ll say during his own group’s performance the following night. “This is one great big party, hanging out with all our heroes.”

AC/DC on stage at Power Trip

(Image credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images)

Day 3

There’s little sense of festival fatigue as we spot several groups blasting Metallica and pounding beers in the Power Trip car park. “It’s been a blast!” says Heather, a masseuse from Rialto, California. “We’ve been partying in the pool all day and rocking out at night!” “Power Trip has attracted people from over the world; it touches my heart that it goes so far and wide,” adds Zina, a veteran of the Sunset Strip who regales us with tales of debauchery and the time she saw Axl Rose get kicked out of The Roxy. “Everybody wants to be here!”

Hammer finally indulges in one of the $15 rickshaws ferrying people to the main site. Soundtracked by Deftones, it’s a wild and bumpy ride that has us gripping the bars tight. “It’s cool, man,” our driver, Justin – another Indio local – assures us. “I haven’t lost anyone. Yet.”

He has better luck than Tool, who find a schism in the audience between those who love their meditative, cosmic jam sound and those who just want a good ol’ fashioned metal show. Thankfully, Metallica are here to deliver just that. Unless you count Kirk Hammett fumbling the intro to Nothing Else Matters, there are no surprises in their set: Whiplash, Creeping Death, Enter Sandman and Master Of Puppets all get a run out. But there don’t need to be surprises. This is metal’s biggest band giving metal’s biggest weekend a fitting send-off.

As the dust settles – mostly in our lungs – Power Trip emerges as an entirely different kind of festival experience. A counterpoint to the “book-everyone-and-see” approach of events such as When We Were Young and Sick New World, it had brought the biggest and best bands in rock and metal together for one exceptional weekend. That might mean higher prices, but what price can you put on a once-in-a- lifetime experience?

“I don’t feel short-changed,” says James William Reay, the British fan who has coughed up a small fortune getting here. He’s spent the weekend in The Pit and sleeping in a tent. “It was a real experience. The fact Metallica were present all weekend watching the other bands’ sets is a sure sign of how special Power Trip was. My hunch is this was a one-off.”

He may be right. Iron Maiden, Guns N’ Roses, Judas Priest, AC/DC, Tool and Metallica are unlikely to share a bill again, and it’s tough to think of six other bands with the same status and pulling power as them. Maybe there’s a new generation of bands waiting in the wings for a Power Trip II in 20 or 30 years, or maybe the whole point of this is that it’s never to be repeated. Either way, with its rickety rickshaws, lobster lunches and mega-wattage line-up, Power Trip is an event worthy of legend.

Originally published in Metal Hammer #381

Rich Hobson

Staff writer for Metal Hammer, Rich has never met a feature he didn't fancy, which is just as well when it comes to covering everything rock, punk and metal for both print and online, be it legendary events like Rock In Rio or Clash Of The Titans or seeking out exciting new bands like Nine Treasures, Jinjer and Sleep Token.