Coachella, the giant three-day music festival that takes place every April in Southern California's (normally scorching) Indio desert, for all intents and purposes kicked off 2012's entire summer music festival season on Friday, April 13. But the weather was so un-summery this year, confused festival-goers might've thought they'd somehow accidentally teleported to Britain's rainy Glastonbury when they boarded the free Coachella shuttle. Rain? At Coachella? A festival famous for dry heat in the near triple-digits? It really almost didn't feel like Coachella at all, as shivering music fans huddled together in scarves and woolly hats instead of their usual sundresses and teeny American Apparel bikinis; the video screens on the two outdoor stages were lowered out of fear that the harsh desert winds might topple them over; and the queues for coffee, tea, and hot chocolate snaked considerably longer than the lines for frozen margaritas (definitely a Coachella first). It was enough that when reggae legend Jimmy Cliff played the main stage and optimistically sang, "It's gonna be a bright, bright, sunshiny day"--well, this writer practically shook a cold, wet fist at his lowered-video-screened likeness and shouted, "Liar! Why must you lie, Jimmy Cliff?" Jimmy's musical weather forecast never did come true.
But despite the lack of face-melting heat in the 90s, there was plenty of hot, eardrum-melting rock 'n' roll to be had on Coachella's chilly first day, much of it from the newly nostalgic '90s--as in the decade. Everyone from hardcore collectives Atari Teenage Riot and Refused, to reunited slowcore duo Mazzy Star, to legendary Britpop bands James and Pulp performed (those latter two artists likely felt right at home in the positively English gray weather), and even many of the newer, younger acts--like the Teenage Fanclub/Sonic Youth-channeling Yuck, Dr. Dre-associated rising rapper Kendrick Lamar, and Pavement-pounding Girls, all pictured below--gave off a distinctively '90s vibe. And many millennial kids in the crowd were rocking some seriously retro Generation X fashions (tights under denim shorts, Body Glove neon, potato-sacky babydoll frocks, Doc Martens) as well, even if they'd really been born into Generations Y or Z.
Spectators of all ages must have been most impressed by the main stage set by the recently reunited, Different Class-ic lineup of Pulp, who really seemed like the day's headliner--they were in fact so absolutely, astoundingly amazing, it's a wonder that the next main stage performers, actual headliners the Black Keys, weren't so intimidated that they just packed up their gear and got right back on their tour bus, knowing that they'd never top what the almighty Sir Jarvis Cocker and company had just achieved. "Do you remember the first time?" one of those half-mast video screens flashed, at the start of the set, and then Jarvis strutted out, resplendent and seemingly untouched by time, with his skinny tie and even skinnier frame. The fans (most of whom were actually seeing Pulp for the first time, since Pulp hadn't toured the U.S. since 1999) responded so explosively, it was as if every single person in the crowd had hit up the nearby Red Bull Speakeasy bar and shotgunned a Red Bull four-pack right before the gig.
"I heard there was an ugly rumor that it was so gray out because there were two Sheffield bands on," Jarvis, one of the best stage-banterers of all time, quipped. (He was referring to Sheffield, England's also-amazing Arctic Monkeys; more on them later.) "Consider yourselves bloody lucky. You don't have sunstroke!" Oh, the audience was lucky, all right. As Pulp appropriately opened with their His N Hers anthem "Do You Remember The First Time," the group played literally one of THE best sets this writer has witnessed in all of Coachella's 14 iterations. In case any of you readers were still wondering who ever won the great Oasis-vs.-Blur Britpop war of the mid-'90s, this show settled that debate once and for all, proving that the real winner was always write-in candidate Pulp.
Jarvis romanced the Coachella crowd in his own brilliantly skewed and slightly delightfully pervy way, as he tossed grapes and candy to the front rows and crooned unmistakably Pulpy unrequited love ditties like "Babies" and "Disco 2000" (the latter is still the saddest happy song, or happiest sad song, in recorded music history). Then the band got all festival-psychedelic for "Sorted For E's & Wizz," accompanied by what Jarvis cheekily described as "special" dry-ice smoke, as he announced: "You'll begin to see the music as colors, and each particle of light represents a human soul in the cosmos, and you'll make contact with that." It's still unclear if that actually happened, and it's also unclear just what was in Pulp's special stage smoke, but one thing was certain: This moment was intoxicating indeed.
Jarvis crawled up on a speaker and flirted with the onstage sign-language interpreter during "F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E." He fearlessly threw his lanky frame into the audience during "The Fear." He dramatically beamed a flashlight directly into his eye during "This Is Hardcore." He seemed to, in his oh-so-British manner, cue up a drizzly rainstorm at just the perfect ironic moment of "Sunrise," a song whose chorus was just as un-prophetic as the aforementioned Jimmy Cliff's. And then Jarv told the thoroughly seduced audience, "We've gotten to know each other a bit, and you seem really nice. We met at the disco, then we kissed a little bit, and now I'm going to have to penetrate you!" He did that musically, of course, ending the set with a stupendous rendition of "Common People" that climaxed, almost literally, with a simulated orgasm that would have impressed even Meg "Sally" Ryan. Jarvis Cocker is, simply put, not a common person. He is a magical man, and Pulp should headline Coachella 2013 and, come to think of it, every Coachella festival after that.
However, Pulp weren't the only Northern Brits getting their gray-weather groove on during Coachella Friday. Earlier on the main stage, Manchester's James performed a joyful set filled with sunny vibes (if not any actual sun) and Britpop classics like "Sometimes" (a song fittingly mentioning "endless rain") and "Say Something." The guys looked older, and balder, but they were still bristling with energy, as frontman Tim Booth, still rocking baggy Mancunian trousers if not his former head of trademark Sideshow Bob curls, did his famous flaily dance not only on the stage but smack-dab in the middle of the crowd. "We haven't played this one in years," he said, before the band tore into "Sit Down" and Tim hopped into the audience and sang the song surrounded by hundreds of adoring mud people. But the real party came during James's signature song "Laid," when Tim returned to the stage and invited concertgoers to dance up there with him. The Coachella field and stage were on fire with passionate love, for sure. "We didn't know how many of you even knew who we were," Tim smiled humbly, before he gave the younger audience members the following festival advice: "Do everything that your parents wouldn't do--or wouldn't tell you that they've done!"
The other big '90s bands of Coachella Friday were Mazzy Star and Sweden's Refused, two polar-opposite acts who proved just how diverse that decade truly was. Mazzy Star were very disappointing--notoriously shy frontwoman Hope Sandoval still seemed as stagefright-stricken as ever, and the group's long silences between songs, especially at a festival filled with so much sensory-overloading noise bleeding over from every neighboring stage, were downright uncomfortable. But there was no denying that when they played their slow-burning ballad "Fade Into You" against a backdrop of illuminated palm trees, they raised a few goosebumps on this writer's flesh--and this time, those goosebumps weren't caused by the 50-degree evening chill.
Emo/punk/hardcore pioneers Refused, on the other hand, were a revelation--or make that a revolution, since frontman Dennis Lyxzén frequently proselytized about overthrowing big government and dismantling capitalism throughout the band's set. "Back in the day, we made this feeble attempt to take over your country in 1996. We were gonna take over your system!" Dennis joked. (Although, actually, he seemed pretty serious.) Despite such rhetoric, and the pure face-blasting NOISE of the band's set, Refused came off as surprisingly friendly, and incredibly grateful for this opportunity. Dennis admitted that when Coachella organizers first approached Refused about a reunion show, they were skeptical and resistant. (The band split 14 years ago, surprisingly only months after releasing their breakthrough album The Shape Of Punk To Come, which came in at number 13 on Kerrang! magazine's list of the 50 Most Influential Albums Of All Time.) But Dennis then said: "Apart from wanting to overthrow capitalism, you want to play music that people like....This is a humbling experience for a bunch of Swedish guys whose last show in America was in 1998 in Harrisburg, Virginia, in a basement in front of 40 people. To see that there's this many people who want to see us, it's f***ing arrogant not to play!" Let's hope this stellar comeback was a preview of the shape of punk to come from these triumphantly returning hardcore heroes.
It wasn't all '90s nostalgia at Coachella, however. Another "heritage" act, Madness, took the fest back to the totally awesome '80s--although, considering the huge ska revival of the mid-'90s, Madness fit right in with the day's 1990s theme. (And '80s/'90s TV star David Hasselhoff was even in attendance, receiving a warm shout-out from the band.) Madness made perhaps THE best entrance of Coachella Friday, starting off by yelling the first line of "One Step Beyond" ("Don't watch that! Watch this!") as some sort of perhaps unintentional way of ordering concertgoers to immediately abandon all other tents and stages and check out their set. It was a tactic that seemed to work like a charm, and soon the whole field was skanking away in earnest to mod hits like "House Of Fun," "Wings Of A Dove," "It Must Be Love," and, of course, "Our House." The skies above were still gray, but it was one of the sunniest moments of the day when frontman Suggs linked arms with his bandmates and they sweetly sang, "I remember way back then, when everything was true and when we would have such a very good time, such a fine time, such a happy time/And I remember how we'd play, simply waste the day away, then we'd say, nothing would come between us/Two dreamers." Aw.
Among Friday's best newer bands were Pulp's above-mentioned Sheffield successors Arctic Monkeys, one of the actual finest live bands working the festival circuit right now--and certainly the band with the best live drummer. Seriously, drummer Matt Helders didn't even seem human, he was such a whirligig-armed machine up on that main stage, and at one time lead singer Alex Turner simply said, "Hey, watch this "s***"; stepped back; and observed in open-mouthed amazement, just like everybody else, as Matt played a warp-speed drum solo. Alex was no slouch himself, of course. Looking like a matinee idol, working the stage like a true rock star, and telling tales in the lyrical tradition of Ray Davies and Paul Weller (or the one-and-only Jarvis Cocker), Alex stormed the rainy stage with "Brianstorm," and the Monkeys' storm never let up.
Headlining the festival were the Black Keys, returning to the main stage a year after stealing the show from 2011's ho-hum headliners, Kings Of Leon. True to their Akron roots, the Keys had diligently worked their way up the Coachella ladder over the past decade--from afternoon gigs in side-stage tents, to mid-afternoon main stage slots, to this year's headlining set--and their 2012 Coachella showing was a workmanlike affair, as they capably tossed off one bluesy hit after another. "Howlin' For You," "Next Girl," "Tighten Up," "Lonely Boy," "Gold On The Ceiling," "I Got Mine"...really, it was surprising just how many instantly recognizable crowd-pleasers these guys actually had in their catalog. This was hardly a wheel-reinventing set (the Keys just do what they do), but it was also impressive how much meaty, sludgy noise guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney created on their own (they were occasionally accompanied by extra musicians, but much of their set remained stripped-down), especially on such a sprawling stage. These guys won't be going back to the side stages any time soon.
And finally, there was the midnight-hour set by another gang of gloomy Brits, the Horrors. The London band's metamorphosis from obnoxious garage-punk noisemongers on their juvenile 2007 debut album to moody, Mercury Prize-nominated melodists on their critically second and third LPs, Primary Colours and Skying, was possibly one of the all-time greatest transformations in rock 'n' roll history, and their newfound maturity was on full display during their gorgeous set of late-night shoegazery in Coachella's darkened Gobi Tent. However, there was still a bit of punk-rockishness saved for their finale, when the black-clad boys finished their set with surly singer Faris Badwan shoving his mic up against a feedback-spewing amp, as wigging-out guitarist Joshua Von Grimm gleefully squealed away.
And thus concluded day one of Coachella. Day two will bring more '80s and '90s favorites (Radiohead, Noel Gallagher, fIREHOSE, Buzzcocks, Squeeze) and current buzz acts (Miike Snow, Bon Iver, St. Vincent)--and, if the weather reports are correct, it'll bring some nicer weather as well. But whether it rains or shines on Saturday, it's sure to be a hot day of music, so come back later for another full report.
(ALL PHOTOS BY DEBI DEL GRANDE)
- Coachella 2012 photo gallery
- Jimmy Cliff finds a new generation of fans at Coachella
- Nine ways to follow Coachella on social media