As this year’s sold-out Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival kicked off on Friday -– with headliners Kings of Leon, the Chemical Brothers and Crystal Castles – there was more of an emphasis on art than there ever has been before at the California desert event.
Yes, the block rockin’ beats still bring in the masses -– and this year’s festival sold out in a record five days. But ever since Coachella started emerging as North America’s dominant indie music festival, it’s been kind of lacking in the innovation department.
But festival planners AEG Live changed the game this year. In addition to recycling some old art installation favorites, this year’s festival is loaded with new participatory projects, new interactive collaborations, new music-based art pieces done on a mammoth scale.
These experiments in light and technology never outshined the music. They purely complimented the many bands that filled the Empire Polo Fields here in Indio, Calif., throughout the day and night.
Coachella Friday is often a soft day for the festival, allowing for travel cushion. But Friday’s offerings were strong and consistent –- focusing on the roots-rock and electro that has become a major part of the festival’s identity over the last five years.
King of Leon were on-point in their quest to rock the universe –- playing a set that was as potent as it was diverse. The band followed a resplendent set from the Black Keys, who were celebrating drummer Patrick Carney’s birthday with a tight and focused collection of soul-inspired garage rock jams.
Electronic more than represented, too. Crystal Castles threw down “Baptism” and “Crimewave” early on in a set that wasn’t held back by singer Alice Glass’ bum leg. (Crowd surfing with a cane? Only in the Coachella Valley.)
New dub-step hero Skrillex packed an early-day tent with an electrifying collection of songs that made up for its lack of flow with its sharp production. The DJ/producer even brought out metal act Korn – including singer Jonathan Davis –- for a guest spot, and the crunchy guitars worked with the deep beats more than Davis’ scrappy vocals.
Lauryn Hill’s set was easily the day’s best -– a big-band outing with horns, DJ, back-up singers and her catalog songs rearranged into furious, mesmerizing creations that barely resembled their original incarnations. It was the day’s bravest and most soulful set, and the R&B diva’s comeback looks well positioned.
The day had a few glitches and slips. Cee Lo Green’s set was cut short – and his PA was turned off – as he started a set-ending cover of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” Cold Cave’s dissonant set of dark, ’80s revisionism didn’t work in the sweltering, mid-day Mojave Tent as much as it does on record. Odd Future’s much-lauded brand of renegade hip-hop completely failed to connect with the early-evening crowd at the Sahara Tent.
But the day’s transcendent closer came via big beat legends the Chemical Brothers and the Creators Project, an Intel/Vice initiative that is making the festival more artful this summer. The Chemicals are an ideal festival act the world over, and when paired with next-gen stage rigs and complex, communicative lighting systems, they’re one of the most watchable electronic acts on the planet.
As festival-types tend to their sunburns and grass-stained jorts this morning, wondering how they can endure two more days of this, the event has already started for the day. Tonight’s headliners include Arcade Fire, Animal Collective and Mumford & Sons, and it wraps Sunday with Kanye West, the Strokes and P.J. Harvey. –Ricardo Baca
Reverb editor John Hendrickson’s Festival Express
Best musical moment: Seeing the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney command the main stage late Friday night was surreal. The Keys are a band I fell in love with years ago after hearing their record “The Big Come Up,” though the duo would not start to actually leap forward until their landmark 2008 release “Attack and Release.”
I saw the Keys on that tour, then a year later at the Mile High Music Festival on a much larger stage, then again last summer on the even larger Central Park SummerStage. Expectedly, last night’s set was comprised almost entirely of selections from their latest release, “Brothers,” with songs like “Next Girl,” “Tighten Up” and “Howlin’ For You” turning into sing-a-longs among thousands.
But the rousing opener of “Girl Is On My Mind” and the equally badass closer “I’ll Be Your Man” made it feel like nothing had changed since seeing the duo in a sweaty rock club years ago. Though instead of Auerbach’s reverberated vocals coming from effect pedals, the echo was natural and raw as sound waves filled the valley.
Best non-musical moment: Festival food is inherently greasy, expensive and rarely filling. Early in the day I found a Mexican stand selling lean carnitas tacos with cilantro, onions and jack cheese for $3 bucks a pop. I ate four before the night was over, and will certainly be back for more today.
That’s not a mirage: Near the end of his band’s rousing afternoon set, Patrick Stickles of Titus Andronicus asked fans to tweet at rising rapper and YouTube phenom, Lil’ B, and find a way for the two of them to meet. Yes, even bearded indie-rockers from New Jersey want to find a way to get near the king of “SWAG” at this year’s festival. Also, Debbie Harry of Blondie was watching Titus from the wings, looking pretty royal, herself.
Joe McCabe is a Denver photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb. Check out his website.