It's the moment we've been waiting for: Coachella is here! Okay, okay, I know last weekend was the first installment of the recently expanded desert festival, and that this weekend is a repeat of the same lineup. But there's still plenty of action going down that didn't happen last week. First and foremost: The sun! Last Friday was drenched in a rare rainstorm. Not today. Oh no: It's 103 degrees! Wahoo! I hit the ground running the first day -- check out my 10 favorite moments from Friday below!
1. Arctic Monkeys Frontman Alex Turner's Stage Presence: Frontman Alex Turner hit the stage all gussied up like a greaser in tight jeans, black leather boots and a black t-shirt (dude has clearly been hanging with Queens of the Stone Age’s resident badass Josh Homme, who produced the Monkeys’ last album). It was a sure sign of the rowdy show to come. He high kicked, ran the stage, mounted the drum riser and generally played heartthrob to the throng of twenty-something girls with their arms in the air. The quartet really delivered on the chattering dance-punk oldie “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor” and the heavier newbie “Don't Sit Down 'Cause I've Moved Your Chair,” which showed just how far their sound has evolved since they were hailed at Britain's Next Big Thing at just 19 years old. Both sounds, however, showed the Monkeys' key asset -- their ability to weave rhythm changes like a muscle car in the Hollywood Hills.
2. Yuck's Ability to Make the Best of the Situation: The skin-torching hot day opened with one of my favorite songs of 2011, the guitar grinder "Rubber" by London's Yuck. In a white-wash denim cut-off jacket and matching jeans, tall and lanky singer-guitarist Daniel Blumberg just looked awkward in the early-afternoon sun. But he managed by slowly lunging back and forth from the rear of the stage (and the protection of the shade) to the front, where he’d hang his emotionally evocative, '90s-nostalgia-inducing lyrics over guitar drones. It was graceful, even in a setting far from their preferred rocking grounds—small, dark clubs. “Rubber” was the first song I heard from the band’s self-titled release, which is one of the best debuts of last year. Buy it now. Also: Yuck are recording the follow-up now, so heads up.
3. James' Surprisingly Good Catalogue: Let's face it: The only James song anyone really cares about is "Laid," the Manchester, England Britpop band’s cheeky hit about beds on fire with passion and love. But it turns out there are others that are worth seeing/hearing, too—who knew? (I didn’t)—especially “Sound,” from their 1992 fourth album, Seven. "Leave your suffering,” Tim Booth sang over a tornado of psych guitar sounds and unhinged drumming. Surprisingly gorgeous. Now I'm pumped to get their full catalogue.
4: Neon Indian's (Chill) Heat Wave: The lo-fi, experimental electro music of "chillwave" outfit Neon Indian usually doesn't bode well with 100 degree-plus temps (it's more, like, snorkeling music). But Alan Palomo pulled it off by making the band’s muscular surges come off like heat waves. "When I touch my keyboard keys I burn my fingers, which is sort of perfect," Palomo joked. His pal "hijacked" the LED screens to project video of the band distorted in waves of hypercolor, bolstering the effect. Trippy! Palomo's outfit wasn't weather appropriate, though, even for a Texas native; his black pants, buttoned-up shirt (even the top button!) and black jean jacket practically gave me a stroke. Later the set picked up tempo and bumpin’ and grindin’ ensued to songs like "6669 (I Don’t Know If You Know)." The bouncers stood on the makeshift walls and doused the audience with water from canisters. “It must be nice getting sprayed,” Palomo cracked. “But it looks like pesticide!" Hopefully it isn't, considering that I had a few mouthfuls.
5. Jimmy Cliff's Sunny Soundtrack: I can see clearly now the rain has gone, indeed. Last Friday, as I settled in for a late night in New York City, I got reports that it was cold and rainy at the kickoff of Coachella Week 1. Not this Friday, though. The reggae legend celebrated with an apt rendition of the classic “I Can See Clearly Now.” The sentiment was backed up on “The Harder They Come” as his backing girl group sang, "sun shine shine shine!!!!" Reggae music will make you appreciate the sun, not matter how hot it is.
6. Girls' Solos: I simply love San Francisco’s throwback rockers Girls. I’ve seen ‘em live three times in support of their latest album, Father, Son, Holy Ghost (another one of 2011’s best) and they have me skipping and dragging my toes on the ground (I call this dancing) like a love-drunk court jester each time. The glory moments during their mid-afternoon set at the Outdoor Stage were as follows… 1) The solo after the second verse on "My Ma." It slays. It’s explosive but not overdone in the slightest; very tasteful. 2) The solo on "Love Like a River," which is bright and, again, very tasteful, understated and complimentary to their sound. And, most importantly, 3) The wailing vocal take from the backup singer on “Vomit.” Wow. Bonus style points to singer-guitarist Christopher Owens for sporting a shirt supporting his home team, the SF Giants.
7. Mazzy Star's Post-Sunset Chill Session: "I guess I shouldn't be surprised that everyone's sitting, right?" I said to Fuse photographer Shannon Hall as we approached Mazzy Star's set at the Outdoor Stage, just after sunset. As the reunited SoCal shoegaze outfit floated through their biggest (and only) hit "Fade Into You," you’d never seen such a rapt crowd. Some sat still as a statue, while plenty lovers intertwined their legs and made out in the grass. It was intoxicating -- these people were straight high on the song’s let’s-die-together romance. But their nostalgic bliss didn’t last; when the gorgeous ballad ended, the crowd split to look for something a little more... um... upbeat. Good call: the rest of Mazzy's set didn't measure up anyway.
8. Best ‘Oh, Hey. Look—Stars!’ Music: Explosions in the Sky: If Mazzy Star play dreamy, introspective shoegaze music, then Texas' Explosions in the Sky play what we’ll call stargaze music, and Friday night the stars were lighting up the sky. Just look up, Coachella. I laid on my back and watched a subtle lightshow beyond the stage lights, glowing green, purple and blue palm trees and blasting white strobes. The quintet unleashed a soundtrack for propping your neck the other way with big, shimmering, firework-worthy songs like “Your Hand in Mine,” their Friday Night Lights soundtrack. Come to think of it, Explosions' music could be perfect for a documentary about a star’s lifecycle. Picture it: its gases stew as the melody enters and builds. The pressure builds as the band reaches crescendo. Then… BOOM. Clearly I watch too much PBS.
9. Swedish House Mafia Clusterf**ked Dance Party: Not long after the curtain fell on the Black Keys (who jammed with John Fogerty!), the DJs of Swedish House Mafia stepped into their high EDM throne on the main Coachella stage and flipped a switch—it was now officially dance time at Empire Polo Fields. Kids in headbands flooded the field, running from other stages and the campgrounds en masse. I was nearly trampled, twice, in the process. By the time I reached the pit at the Refused show at the nearby Outdoor Stage, I was surprised anyone was left at the fest not watching SHM. And when I finally exited mid-set to return to SHM, it was too late; the squiggling mess of bodies stretched to the (palm) tree line. It took me over 20 minutes to walk 50 yards.
10. Refused's Hilarious (Yet True) Reunion Sloganeering: Dennis Lyxzén, singer for Swedish hardcore punk band Refused, stopped mid-set to justify his band’s recent reunion after more than a decade apart: “When we were young we made music because we hated the world and everything in it. When we did the reunion I asked myself if I could sing these lyrics again as a 40-year-old man. So I looked [at the lyrics] and thought, 'We were right all along.'" He then introduced a song called "Rather Be Dead," a blistering punk assault about not conforming to social values. Rawk.