Apr 25

3 Days, 24 Sets, 1 Unforgettable First Coachella

A week ago Sunday night, I was wrapping up my first ever trip to the Coachella music festival. Not for a lack of wanting, I’d just never been able to make the trip out for the much-beloved and incredibly hyped annual spring event in Indio. After years of hearing stories from friends about the music, the scene, the campers, the house parties … and on and on … I finally made it out for the 2012 edition – the first two feature two full weekends of music.

Coachella Vista

The view from inside the masses near the main stage during Coachella 2012's Weekend 1.

Before discussing all the great music I heard over those three days, one word of advice for anyone who’s never been but who may be considering it: go. It’s a truly gratifying event on many levels – even considering all of the different issues you have to grapple with. “Security,” idiots, Heineken’s near total-ownership of the beer concession – all of these things (and more) pale in comparison to the joy of the music and the excitement of sharing the communal experience when an act is truly connecting with an audience.

Here goes!

Day 1 – Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue

My sets: Kendrick Lamar, James, Gary Clark Jr., Grouplove, Arctic Monkeys, Madness, Pulp, The Black Keys

Friday night at Coachella 2012

Madness' throwback performance drew a great crowd to the Outdoor stage on Friday night.

 Set of the Day, Senior Division: Madness transported me back 30 years. I felt like an 11-year old in 1982 all over again. The legendary Brits pumped through a rollicking set near sundown, hitting all the high spots of their great ska collection. The crowd that joined them at the Outdoor stage was the first I saw all day that had a median age somewhere near mine – and that crowd was throwing itself one hell of a party throughout the set!

Set of the Day, Period: Hands down, the Black Keys were the highlight of a frigid and sometimes wet Friday. This was my first time seeing the band, and from the opening strains of “Howlin’ for You” to the last notes of “I Got Mine,” this dynamic duo left you in awe of the fact that – for the most part – it was possible just two people could make this loud a noise. Joined only intermittently by backing keyboards and bass, their set (here, less a couple of songs not currently available on Spotify and the full set listing here) was literally drawing droves of people in and closer to the stage throughout. The music was simply magnetic.

Main stage, Coachella 2012 night one

It's hard to imagine all that sound coming from two guys, until you see The Black Keys do it live.

The Advertising Generation Wins: Grouplove’s late afternoon set at the Mojave tent was fun. The L.A.-based band drew a young crowd with their eclectic pop sound. But when they ripped into their hit, “Tongue Tied,” which gained momentum from an Apple commercial late last year, it was sociologically mesmerizing. My, how the music business has changed over the years. Bands now USE commercial endorsements to gain notoriety rather than shunning advertisers to maintain cred. And it works. For Grouplove, it’s clear that borrowing the Apple brand’s popularity and credibility has only been a boon.

Wow of the Day: Austin-based guitarist Gary Clark Jr. He’s often given the “blues guitar” tag, but that sells him way short. He’s only got a four-song EP out, but his debut album, rumored to be arriving this fall, is now in my “can’t wait” category. Incredible guitar work, knowing vocals. And the man can hold his own mixing Hendrix into one of his own original bluesy songs.

Friday Night, Weekend 1

Jarvis Cocker owned the Main stage on Friday.

 The Rest: Compton’s Kendrick Lamar, one of Dr. Dre’s newest proteges (he popped up for a performance during the Dre/Snoop set on Sunday), impressed with his MC skills. More importantly, after braving the horror of Friday’s wholly mismanaged security when trying to enter the grounds, his performance of P&P (pertinent Tweet: You know, I’m goin’ thru sumpin in life, but pu$$y and Patron make it feel aight! Indeed, #KendrickLamar, indeed. #coachella) while we were hanging in the beer garden helped turn the day around right at the start.

Main stage, mid-afternoon

Kendrick Lamar's early Friday show helped set the tone for the weekend.

90s-era Brit rockers James were in fine form during an afternoon set, with the highlight being – predictably – a rousing performance of “Laid” with about 50 or so fans joining them on stage. Arctic Monkeys put in a solid late afternoon set, reminding folks why they were among the “next big things” in the middle of the last decade. Last, but certainly far from least, Jarvis Cocker led mid-90s Britpop giants Pulp through a rousing set in the spot just before The Black Keys. While most were waiting for the set-closing (and, honestly, show-stopping) “Common People” for most of an hour, Cocker – now a near doppelganger for former Eurythmic Dave Stewart – reminded those who remember why he was one of that decade’s top front men.

Day 2 – A Dash of America, A Heap of Britain

My sets: The Black Lips, Childish Gambino, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, Kaiser Chiefs, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Squeeze, Kasabian, Radiohead

Saturday night at the Mojave tent

Kasabian repeatedly had the Mojave tent about to burst at the seams.

 Set of the Day: Kasabian absolutely annihilated the Mojave tent in the middle of the evening. Mentally lumped in by me among other solid mid-decade acts from the 2000s (appropriately, two others from that particular lump – Kaiser Chiefs and The Hives – were also part of my initial Coachella experience), I’d heard of their reputation as a stellar live band. Well, to say they brought the 10 songs they played to life on this Saturday night would be a major understatement. The group’s swagger was matched only by the power of its sound, and during songs like “Club Foot,” “LSF” and the closing “Fire,”they repeatedly sent the overflowing crowd bounding through the tent. A truly great live performance.

El Coyote

Sporting my El Coyote hat at Kasabian! The Manson murder tie in = complete!

Song of the Day: Grace Potter & the Nocturnals’ “Medicine” simply overwhelmed a mid-afternoon crowd at the Outdoor stage. The musicianship and Potter’s strutting stage presence were on full display. Fans of pure, old school rock have to be excited about the Vermont-born Potter’s emergence.

Shock of the Day: Childish Gambino, a/k/a Donald Glover (of NBC “Community” fame), may be a better rapper than a TV actor. A favorite as Troy on the NBC sitcom, Glover’s hip-hop name came straight the online Wu-Tang name generator – something you might expect from a comedian (FYI, my Wu-Tang name: Vizual Magician. Find out yours here: Wu-Tang Name Generator). However, his MC skills, and the fusion of music he chooses to back up those skills (when’s the last time you saw a solo violinist on stage at a hip-hop show?), belie anyone’s thoughts that this second career may be a joke. He united a large Saturday afternoon crowd on the main stage with witty lyrics, hard-core rap sensibility and great showmanship – even though he performed in a walking boot with a broken foot.

Sad of the Day: Radiohead. Whether it was bad timing for me, a performance that just didn’t reach the size of this particular crowd or, blasphemously, just that they weren’t all that good, Radiohead’s set was a disappointment. And if I could, I’d grab two or three of the dozens of concert-goers who streamed away from the mainstage in the 45 minutes preceding my departure to back me up. Though I’d felt this since early in the evening on Friday, my reaction to Radiohead’s performance – a band I truly enjoy and “get,” though I believe Thom Yorke maybe getting too deep inside his own brain rather often of late – confirmed it: at a festival like Coachella, you really have to follow your own heart and your own mood to make the most out of it. The night before, I’d been looking forward to seeing Mazzy Star. But when it came time for their set, I just wasn’t in the mode for their brand of music. Not that I don’t still really like Mazzy Star – it just wasn’t right for me at that moment. And, unfortunately, Radiohead – at best – fell into that category on this Saturday night.
Saturday afternoon at the Mojave tent.

Georgia's The Black Lips were thoroughly entertaining and definitely rocking.

 The Rest: The day started with The Black Lips out of Georgia. A truly entertaining quartet of southerners, they impressed with their range away from their punk roots, hitting on some early-60s pop beats and some country twang as well. Kaiser Chiefs were unspectactular in a main-stage appearance. It was great to hear the always entertaining “I Predict A Riot” live, but there wasn’t much else to report.

Sunset show at the Main stage.

Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds took advantage of a twilight set time on Saturday.

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds (the Oasis songwriter’s new act) was also solid with a sunset slot on the main stage. While Gallagher’s new material is as strong as his stage presence is not, it was not surprising that the highlight of his set was the closing sing-along to “Don’t Look Back in Anger,”the mid-90s Oasis classic. It’s a personal favorite and, therefore, was likely more memorable for me than most.

Saturday evening at Mojave tent.

Squeeze was surprisingly strong, harkening back to their 80s heyday.

Finally, Squeeze definitely put in a performance to rival fellow-80s stars Madness from the night before. Sounding incredibly tight, and with impeccable vocals by Glenn Tillbrook that made you wonder how his voice is still so on-point after so many years, the Englishmen ripped through a series of hits, including “Tempted” and “Black Coffee in Bed,” much to the glee of a surprisingly mixed-age crowd.

Day 3 -Better Than You Even Hoped

My Sets: First Aid Kit, Santigold, Fitz & the Tantrums, Wild Flag, The Hives, Girl Talk, Florence & the Machine, Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg

Main stage on Sunday night

Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg did, indeed, rip shit up.

 Set of the Day: “CPT, LBC, yea we hookin’ back up” Unquestionably, there were high hopes for the reunion of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg at Coachella. Personally, “The Chronic” was one of the key soundtracks to my college years, so of course I wanted an amazing show. But to say they lived up to those hopes would fall short. An unbelievable 75 minutes that featured a bevy of SoCal hip-hop greatest hits; cameos by Wiz Khalifa, Warren G., Kendrick Lamar, 50 Cent and Eminem; and the much-discussed Tupac “hologram” – what more could you ask for?

Snoop & Dre on Sunday night

The crowd for the Dre & Snoop show was alive.

The opener, “The Next Episode,” is a personal favorite and threw tens of thousands of fans – from age 15 to 50 – into a tizzy that never stopped throughout the set. (Of course, the classic “Gin & Juice” a couple of songs later had much the same effect.) I think the look on Wiz Khalifa’s face throughout his performance of “Young, Wild & Free” with Snoop probably spoke for all of us there – he was stunned at the size of it all and enjoying the hell out of the moment (with a spliff the size of a Cuban).

Set of the Day, ‘Fuck You’ Division:The Hives’ late afternoon takeover of the main stage was awesome. The garage rockin’ Swedes, led by the indomitable personality of Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist, exploded on stage in top hats and tails and rocked through 10 ripping tunes, including a few debuts from their upcoming album. While the music was great, the expected bombast from Almqvist between (and during) songs may have been even more entertaining. A couple samples:

Main stage on Sunday afternoon

The Hives rocked the faces off the Coachella crowd on Sunday.

In all, The Hives may have put on the most entertaining 50 minutes during the entire weekend.

Speaking of Sweden: The first (and mellowest set of the day) was by Stockholm’s latest import, First Aid Kit. The Soderberg sisters’ folky set included the gorgeous song “Emmylou,”which they basically dedicated to every classic country artist they could think up. On the event’s warmest afternoon, First Aid Kit was the perfect soundtrack to lay on the grass in the sun outside the Mojave tent and just ease your way into the day.

DJ area water blasters!

Sunday was the warmest day of Weekend 1, making the DJ area water soakers popular.

The Uber Mash-Up Artist: I probably can’t put this any better here and now than I did in my Tweet from the moment it was happening: “And now, Girl Talk will play every song you’ve ever loved all at once, and make it awesome. #coachizzle” The DJ led a fantastic Sunday night dance party at the Outdoor stage, mixing and matching everything from the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” to Eminem – and just about everything in between.  The crowd only stopped dancing long enough to celebrate a number of “Oh my god, it’s THAT song!” moments. Between The Hives, this set and Dre & Snoop, the latter part of Sunday was one hell of a fun time.

Outdoor stage on Sunday night

The Girl Talk set on Sunday night was one big dance party.

The Rest: On the main stage, both Santigold and Fitz & the Tantrums provided entertaining diversions on Sunday afternoon. Both were excellent and generally unchallenging soundtracks for hanging out in the Beer Gardens (especially the one between the Main and Outdoor stages since they broke the Heineken stranglehold there by offering Newcastle) and enjoying the sun. Wild Flag rocked as you’d expect a “supergroup” of 90s-era chick-rockers might, while the stage presence of leader Florence Welch was the most mesmerizing thing about the set by her popular Florence & the Machine. To be honest, there was so much BIG about the best parts of Sunday, most of the rest (while good and enjoyable and all that) just kind of fades into the background.

Based on reports, it seemed that weather was just about the only difference between weekends one and two of the new Coachella. Well, that and the report that The Black Keys welcomed John Fogerty on stage to help with a tribute to the recently deceased Levon Helm (that would have been great to see). However, the more I look back, the more I realize that any person’s experience of Coachella is wholly personal. Yes, the communal experience when seeing specific acts is amazing, but the reality is that there’s so much music and so much activity that your enjoyment of the event is wholly on your shoulders. If you don’t pressure yourself too much (“Oh god, I have to see this band because X and X and X said so, but they’re at the same time as one of my favorites!?!”) and follow your own personal mood through the day, you’ll likely find what’s right for you and have an incredible time. I can’t wait for 2013!