After severe traffic issues, the Coachella Festival gets a strong start musically - Reverb

Desert dispatch No. 1: Live review from Coachella

Jay-Z threw down a fearless set of hip-hop -- with his wife, even -- at the first day of the Coachella Music Festival on Friday. Photo by Joe McCabe.

Jay-Z threw down a fearless set of hip-hop -- with his wife, even -- at the first day of the Coachella Music Festival on Friday. Photo by Joe McCabe.

It was announced last week that the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival had sold-out of three-day passes, so let’s start with the obvious. 75,000 festivalgoers is a lot of people. And getting those 75,000 music lovers into a non-central location is a mammoth hulk of a task.

The talk in the parking lots, Twittersphere and the roads that surrounded the Empire Polo Fields roads — which often resembled parking lots — was not the evening’s headliners but the day’s unacceptable traffic for a good portion of Friday, the first of the festival’s three days. It took our car more than four hours to get the few miles from Interstate 10 to the polo fields that have been home to the Southern California music festival since its inception. And we were anything but alone.

View a full photo gallery of Coachella day No. 1.

It was a party on the roads leading to Coachella — one with middle-of-the-road (literally) amateur comedy, makeshift side-of-the-road bathrooms and lots of shiny, freshly sunblocked skin. It didn’t take many passengers long to take to the sidewalks, leaving their drivers/cars behind as they hiked into the festival grounds — sometimes beating their cars to the polo fields by an hour or two.

This is my fifth or sixth year at the festival, and this is the worst traffic I’ve seen. For such a revered festival, it really is silly that a better workaround has yet to be crafted. Is there such a thing as a logical, realistic traffic plan for so many cars in such a location? I don’t know. But given the $300-plus pricetag on music festivals like this, something needs to be done. Some street-side philosophy from Friday insinuated that part of the Friday traffic was caused by late-arriving campers, whose cars won’t be on the roads today or Sunday. And I hope they’re right.

As much of a nightmare as the traffic was on Friday, the festival vibe took over as soon as cars hit the actual parking lots and prepped for a day of music. While we hoped to catch Sleigh Bells at 3:30 p.m., we didn’t arrive until Passion Pit was starting its set at 7 p.m. The Massachusetts band that is built on singer Michael Angelakos’ freaky falsetto played a lively, fun set that peaked early with “The Reeling” and “Moth’s Wings” before closing with the obvious “Sleepyhead.”

The early part of the band’s set was drown out by the nearby Specials reunion — and we were standing at the soundboard — but once the neighboring band finished up, Passion Pit sounded stately and alive. They’ve grown a lot as a live band, and their set on the festival’s secondary main stage was a testament to their evolving live persona and their growing fanbase. “To Kingdom Come” was a defining dance-party, sing-along moment that helped loosen car-weary muscles.

Them Crooked Vultures later rocked the festival’s main stage with a strong and steady, if predictable, set of Queens of the Stone Age-sounding rock. But LCD Soundsystem brought the party with a night-defining, full-band set that highlighted their new jams from “This is Happening,” coming out on May 18th in the U.S. No “Daft Punk is Playing At My House.” No “North American Scum.” But they didn’t need the familiar party anthems. The set rocked regardless.

Vampire Weekend took on the secondary stage with a hits-based set that covered its “oldies” (“A-Punk,” “Oxford Comma”) alongside new tracks, but the crowd growing nextdoor for the Jay-Z set was formidable. For weeks, the blogs have been chatting about a rumored Dr. Dre appearance during Jay-Z’s set, but that never happened — though Hova did bring out his wife, Beyonce, for a duet on “Forever Young.”

We closed day one out with some Fever Ray, the much-hyped Swedish artist Karin Dreijer Andersson (formerly of the Knife). And her set was one of the day’s most memorable, a heavy-handed mixture of sweeping, Gothic-laced electronic music and dramatic, if vague and poorly lit, costume action. A friend compared it to the stage musical “The Lion King,” and he had eerily nailed it. That said, Andersson’s stage show was the day’s best, with lasers, floating lamps and coordinated lighting. It was a special set that was the essence of what Coachella is supposed to be. And here’s to more of that creativity this weekend.

View a full photo gallery of Coachella day No. 1.

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Ricardo Baca is the founder and co-editor of Reverb and an award-winning critic and journalist at The Denver Post. He is also the executive director of the Underground Music Showcase, Colorado’s premier indie music festival. Follow his whimsies at Twitter, his live music habit at Gigbot and his iTunes addictions at Last.fm.

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