Reelin' in the Years: AC/DC, Ride, Steely Dan Rock 'Oldchella'

Last year, the big news coming out of Indio, California’s Coachella music festival was that, basically, rock was dead — at least to the flower-crowned, American Appareled spring breakers and “millennials” that flocked to the desert’s dance tents in droves. Heritage acts like the Replacements and Bryan Ferry, and even mid-career rockers like Muse and Queens of the Stone Age, drew disappointingly tiny crowds, while superstar DJs like Calvin Harris, Skrillex, and Disclosure were the main attractions.

One might have thought that this revelation would cause Coachella’s powers-that-be to rethink the festival’s booking policy and favor younger, less guitar-oriented acts. But, no. Instead, Coachella 2015, dubbed “Oldchella” by snarky types, kicked off this Friday with elder statesmen AC/DC and Steely Dan — just about the least EDM, least youthful co-headliners imaginable. And, hearteningly, both bands actually attracted impressively large audiences. They were about to rock, and fans of all ages saluted them.

“I hope you like rock ‘n’ roll… because that’s all we do!” AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson declared, almost defiantly, at the start of AC/DC’s main stage set Friday night making it clear that there would be no techno mashups or Beyoncé cameos this evening. This was AC/DC’s first full concert in six years; first concert since founding guitarist Malcolm Young retired due to his dementia (Malcolm’s nephew Stevie has taken his place); and first full show in more than two decades with returning drummer Chris Slade (stepping in for legally embattled longtime sticksman Phil Rudd). So they were sticking to their Marshall-stacked classics, including “Have a Drink on Me,” which they hadn’t played live for 30 years, and “Sin City,” performed for the first time since 2001.

And the hits kept coming during their 20-song set, from “Back in Black” to “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” from “T.N.T.” to “Highway to Hell” to “You Shook Me All Night Long.” AC/DC didn’t quite shake Coachella all night long — with all of their songs, even the three new ones from their fittingly titled latest album Rock or Bust, sounding pretty much the same (like Johnson said, that’s all they do), many concertgoers became fatigued about an hour into the show, and started streaming towards the exits soon after the final chords of “You Shook Me All Night Long.” But AC/DC still rocked, and their show was definitely was not a bust.

And guitarist Angus Young’s new scarlet schoolboy suit was cooler than any of the trendy, “H&M Loves Coachella” capsule-collection fashions spotted out in the field. This is a man that really knows how to rock a pair of shorts.

Over on the Outdoor Theatre stage, jazz-rock legends Steely Dan — Walter Becker and Donald Fagen introducing themselves as “Uncle Wally and Uncle Don” —were reelin’ in the years. Playing to a shockingly huge crowd (including some “guys sucking on pacifiers”), Uncles Wally and Don proved that their unexpected booking was not quite the Coachella-killer the Washington Post claimed it would be. Steely Dan are hipper than some may realize, after all: Mark Ronson recently namechecked them as a major inspiration for his Uptown Special album, and don’t forget, supercool psych band Super Furry Animals’ “The Man Don’t Give a F—” is built around a sample of Steely’s “Showbiz Kids.”

As was the case with AC/DC, some of Steely Dan’s noodly jamming tried more casual fans’ patience. But when they declared, “We’re still here, we’ve still got it,” it was impossible to deny that statement.

Ride was one heritage act that wasn’t as lucky as the above-mentioned bands when it came to drawing a crowd. The reunited shoegazers’ late-afternoon set (only their third show in 23 years), on the festival’s smallest stage in the Gobi Tent, was at half-capacity at best — triggering flashbacks of similar bands the Stone Roses and Swervedriver’s poorly attended gigs of Coachellas past. But from the reverb-saturated opener “Leave Them All Behind” to the five-minute squall of eardrum- and face-melting glorious noise in the middle of finale “Drive Blind,” Ride’s set was one of Friday’s absolute best.

Soul dynamo Charles Bradley, who at age 66 is right up there with senior-citizen rockers AC/DC, was another Friday-highlight performer who really showed the youngsters how it’s done. Taking the main stage in a blindingly bright Big Bird-yellow suit and rhinestone-bedazzled wingtips that made Angus Young’s red getup look absolutely conservative, the former James Brown impersonator and current Daptone Records darling seemed thrilled to be at Coachella, telling the audience: “Thank you so much. I will take this memory to my grave.” There was little doubt that spectators would fondly remember the fiery, Otis Redding-esque showman’s breakout Coachella moment for a long time as well. His set was packed with JB-style dance moves, dramatic knee-drops, and old-timey church wailing, and he made a hero’s exit, walking through the crowd handing out hugs and long-stemmed roses to delighted fans. Everything was literally and figuratively coming up roses for this amazing performer on Friday.

Even many of the younger bands on Coachella Friday’s bill evoked an old-school rock ‘n’ spirit. On main stage, critically adored, Pazz & Jop poll-topping Philly indie-rockers the War on Drugs channeled Dylan, Springsteen, and Dire Straits, while classic-rock-royalty descendent Sean Lennon (whose band Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger had played earlier in the day) looked on. Later on the same stage, neo-psychedelic Aussies Tame Impala, with their Nuggety nods to Hendrix and Floyd and Laserium-worthy light show, played immaculately time-capsuled retro-rock that somehow also sounded incredibly current.

And over on the Outdoor stage, Best New Artist Grammy nominees Alabama Shakes, who are releasing their long-awaited sophomore album Sound & Color later this month, played a transcendent sundown set that made it easy to understand why the likes of Adele, Robert Plant, David Byrne, the Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner, and Coachella 2015’s Saturday headliner Jack White have all declared themselves big fans of this vintage-style Southern soul combo. Joplin-esque frontgoddess Brittany Howard — just a real, regular girl from (you guessed it) Alabama who used to work for the Post Office — showcased an amazing voice, raw and tender and passionate, especially on the keening new tracks “Don’t Wanna Fight” and “Gimme All Your Love.”

Howard wasn’t the only diva bringing some much-needed girl power to a testosterone-heavy Friday lineup. Controversy-courting femcee Azealia Banks — more known these days for her Twitter feuds with Iggy Azalea, Lily Allen, Rita Ora, Eminem, and many others than for her long-delayed but actually excellent debut album Broke With Expensive Taste — let her music do the talking this time. She spat pure fire on the main stage, sometimes even using a megaphone to ensure that her righteous rhymes could be heard all the way over in the camping grounds. “I’m so happy to be back,” she gushed (three years ago, Banks was THE hyped newcomer of Coachella 2012). Don’t call it a comeback. Azealia’s been here for years.

Other fierce Friday femmes included Gotye associate Kimbra (stunning in a hand-painted caftan and silver platforms); Swedish songstress Lykke Li (making her first Coachella appearance since 2009 and packing the Mojave Tent beyond capacity); and Canadian dance diva Kiesza (assisted by surprise guest rapper Joey Bada$$). And speaking of divas and surprise guests, Jennifer Hudson unexpectedly showed up onstage during U.K. garage duo Gorgon City’s Gobi Tent set, wailing magnificently on their collaboration “Go All Night” while rocking a pair of booty shorts and a custom graffiti-print “JHUD” baseball jersey.

[Related: Coachella Staple: The Surprise Guest]

And so, day one of Coachella 2015 comes to a close. Saturday will offer more analog rock from Jack White, Belle & Sebastian, Royal Blood, Drive Like Jehu, Kasabian, and Alt-J, along with the electro sounds of Clean Bandit, FKA Twigs, Chet Faker, Lights, and dance tent DJs Carl Craig, Cedric Gervais, and Danny Tenaglia. See you in the desert.

All photos courtesy of Associated Press, except Steely Dan photos courtesy of Getty

Follow Lyndsey on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Google+, Amazon, Tumblr, Vine, Spotify