Best & Worst Moments of Coachella: Day One

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Them Crooked Vultures' Josh Homme / Photo by Erik Voake
WRITTEN BY
SPIN Staff

BEST USE OF A ROCK GOD: THEM CROOKED VULTURES
The lone survivor of Led Zeppelin's legendary rhythm section needs no introduction but got a nice one nevertheless from Them Crooked Vultures' bandmate Josh Homme two songs into the supergroup's set on the main stage: "And on every instrument known to man, that is John Paul fucking Jones!" Impressive as Jones was rocking the bass (four-string or twelve-), lap-steel guitar, and piano, Homme was no slouch himself. Leading the band from the salacious funk-rock of "No One Loves Me & Neither Do I" to the demonic psychedelia of "Gunman," both off the band's solid, self-titled debut, he more than kept up with Jones, and Dave Grohl's double-bass-pedal-powered percussion showed that he's still indisputably one of the best rock drummers in the world. LIAM GOWING

BEST RESPONSE TO BACKLASH: VAMPIRE WEEKEND
Alongside the deserved praise heaped upon this quartet of Columbia University-educated New Yorkers, some critics seem to believe Vampire Weekend are just privileged white kids who ripped off Fela Kuti by way of Graceland-era Paul Simon for instant fame and, who knows, some kind of deal with the devil. But Vampire Weekend's pitch-perfect set at the Outdoor Theatre, Coachella's second-largest stage, proved a confident, fuck-you moment to the haters. From the sunny, calypso-tinged opener, Contra's "White Sky," to the closer -- their self-titled debut's own exodus story, "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" -- the band not only paid tribute to their Afropop forefathers' formula. At times, they may have even (horror of horrors) improved on it. And damn if singer-guitarist Ezra Koenig didn't sound exactly like Paul Simon. How awesome is that? L.G.

BEST UNEXPECTED COVER: STREET SWEEPER SOCIAL CLUB DOES M.I.A.
Though M.I.A. wasn't billed for this year's festival, her presence was clearly felt. Both Jay-Z and Vampire Weekend sampled Maya in their sets -- for a retooled version of "Jockin' Jay-Z," and "Diplomat's Son," respectively -- but Street Sweeper Social Club did them one better by performing a hard rock version of "Paper Planes." Revered Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello aimed his guitar at the crowd and mock-blasted in time with original's faux gunfire, while oft-incendiary Oakland rapper Boots Riley (also of the Coup) strutted and chanted in time. It was a welcome break from the band's otherwise heavy-handed agitprop rap-rock, as was the late-set appearance by RATM drummer Brad Wilk. CHRIS MARTINS

BEST ACTRESS-SINGER CROSSOVER: SHE & HIM
Appearing at Coachella's Outdoor Theatre with her She & Him partner, countryfied rocker M. Ward and a five-piece backing band, Zooey Deschanel instantly proved herself to be part of that lonely minority of actors making a successful crossover into pop music. Time-warping back to the age of eyeliner-loving girl groups with lush, melodic originals culled from 2008's Volume One and the new, slightly more formulaic Volume Two, the (500) Days of Summer cutie led a retro-pop revival. And though M. Ward was the instrumental star of the band, gently urging his guitar chords through a haze of vibrato, Deschanel held her own as an instrumentalist, taking to the keyboards on the inanely catchy "Don't Look Back" and "Over It Over Again."L.G.

BEST FRESH-AIR RAVE: PASSION PIT
Yeasayer may have dominated the first half of the day, but their polyglot-pop cousins from Cambridge, Mass., packed the few hundred yards of field surrounding the Outdoor Theatre. Taking a moment's respite from his own furious dancing, singer Michael Angelakos polled the audience: "How many of you are seeing us for the first time?" From within the crowd, the response was deafening, and the ensuing mood was an oddly thrilling mix of MTV Spring Break meets European beach disco. Glow sticks were cracked prematurely (even with the sun still high in the sky) and a gaggle of girls-as-mermaids positively raved to the Pit's synth-loving New Wave soul. C.M.

BEST SET DECORATION: FEVER RAY
Swedish art rocker Karen Dreijer took some questionable approaches to her set with Fever Ray late-night set in the Mojave Tent: Starting the ten minutes late was one; shrouding her phantasmagorically costumed band in so much fog that they were practically invisible was a second; playing a dirge-like set of monotonous trance-inspired synth-rock with exactly zero interaction with the audience was a third. But the stage decoration selected by this bad-trip Bjork (who also records with the Knife) was pure genius: Antique floor lamps. Sometimes they turned on. And sometimes they turned off. L.G.

BEST ANTI-WAR DEMONSTRATION: GIL SCOTT-HERON
"We love our soldiers and we're proud of them, but we hate war and hate the things that happen during war," said Gil Scott-Heron halfway through his Fender Rhodes-fueled set of jazzy spoken word. Famous for his politically charged lyrics, Scott-Heron has long been known as the "Godfather of Rap," but if his early work inspired some of hip-hop's most confrontational artists, his live show at the Gobi Tent was hypnotic, but mellow, and all about building bridges. "We've got to work for peace," he crooned throatily on the aptly named 1994 song, "Work for Peace." Amen. L.G.Read More From Coachella Day One On Page 2 >>

BEST POTENTIAL MENTOR: PUBLIC IMAGE LTD.
MGMT's Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser skipped the bulk of Jay-Z's set to shake a leg or two watching John Lydon and his other reunited band, Public Image, Ltd., give a clinic on '80s-vintage punk-dance crossover. (If the new MGMT album proves anything, it's that these guys are the easily impressionable type when it comes to adopting heroes. Right, Brian Eno and Dan Treacy?) Classics like "(This Not A) Love Song," "Rise," and "The Flowers of Romance" had to fight to be heard over Jay-Z's rumble, but certainly the ever-irritable Lydon wouldn't have had it any other way. STEVE KANDELL

BEST ANGER MANAGEMENT: BARONESS
After waiting three hours in gridlock traffic, another 45 minutes to enter the grounds on foot, and then being searched twice, our bags emptied so a bouncer could drill us on the contents of a bottle of eye drops ("No, seriously, it's not LSD! We have laptops to stare at!"), it was high time for some angsty release. Baroness made that simple. The Savannah, GA, metal quartet bashed out heavy riffs with psychedelic guitar and rhythmic interludes at the Gobi Tent, and bearded guitarist/vocalist John Baizley growled like a teenage wolf who was just grounded by his parents. And -- wooowwww -- was it loud. Rip-roaring through the epic, jammy tunes off their latest album, 2009's Blue Record, bassist Summer Welch and guitarist Peter Adams -- both badass fellows in black jeans, black t-shirts with cutoff sleeves, and long hair -- marched in circles onstage, trading deep pulses for doomy riffs. Baizley, meanwhile, was mostly indecipherable. But, luckily, the riff-to-lyric ratio was heavily tilted to the tuneage. Just one complaint: With their pulverizing sound, Baroness seemed to make the air feel even hotter, which under any other circumstance would be a total compliment. WILLIAM GOODMAN

BEST GRADUATION PARTY: LCD SOUNDSYSTEM
We're spoiled living in New York, having had two chances just last week to see LCD Soundsystem, but seeing them again on the main stage, tucked between Them Crooked Vultures and Jay-Z, was another beast altogether. This wasn't lost on white-clad ringleader James Murphy, who was marveling at his veteran band's significant slot upgrade, before their new album has even (officially, anyway) come out, humbly calling himself the "vegan side" in Coachella's smorgasbord. Well, hope you were comfortable with the bigger, more diverse non-hometown crowd, James -- you're about to see a lot more of this sort of thing.S.K.

BEST WASTE OF TIME: WALE
Hi Wale, thanks for joining us. After 45 minutes of waiting (esh, more waiting!) and plenty of unhappy hollers from the anxious crowd -- "Fuck you, Wale. You're wasting my life!" -- the D.C. rapper appeared at the Coachella mainstage with just minutes left in his allotted set. He used the time wisely. Born Olubowale Victor Akintimehin, the 25-year-old newbie delivered "Chillin'," then leapt in the photo pit and ran toward the soundboard, hugging and high-fiving fans along the way, and providing the trailing photographers with a little exercise. "I don't know any rappers that can run around this place and give y'all hugs and shit," he said once backstage, catching his breath. "Shit, only two more minutes? Speed this one up," he instructed DJ Omega. Wale then capped his set with the sing-along party anthem "90210" and disappeared. "Well, the wait sucked, but that 10 minutes was tight," said one concertgoer. W.G.

WORST CLUSTERFUCK: LA ROUX
Coachella's general problem seems to be traffic, both inside the Polo Fields and on the highways leading to them. The people management system needs an overhaul. Case in point: The fact that I couldn't get within 80 yards of English electro pop singer La Roux's set at the Gobi Tent. By 8:30 P.M. the festival grounds were inundated -- there wasn't a patch of grass to stand on away from the constant jostling and pushing. Even at 6'4" I couldn't catch a glimpse of La Roux or hear anything more than a low din. But, judging by the turnout, it must've been good, right? W.G.

BEST STAGE EFFECTS: DEADMAU5
Like a Lite-Brite with a short fuse, this electronic music performer's onstage visuals pulsed, glowed, and had a giant crowd exploding in ecstasy with each ebb and flow of his music. It was a sight to see: a 15-foot tall cubic structure stood on its corner, as its sides projected a tangle of multi-colored dots, lines, and other form-shifting shapes. Huge screens in the background blasted even more visuals, and the man born Joel Thomas Zimmerman stood atop the structure in a mouse outfit that was equipped with lights. Nominated for a Grammy and the winner of multiple Canadian Juno Awards, Zimmerman's dance anthems are, as one glowstick-wielding dancer put it, "Hella catchy." You could say that again. Thousands of fans were certainly hooked Friday night at the Sahara Tent. W.G.

BEST NEW SONG: HOCKEY
Benjamin Grubin, singer for this up-and-coming Portland, OR, New Wave and indie funk quartet, has wedding bells on the mind. He introduced a new track, "To Marry Young," explaining that is was "about waiting or, like, getting married young. People used to get married young, you know, but now everyone waits." True. And the anthem he wrote about matrimony might find its way to the wedding reception's dance floor. It jittered on a funky rhythm guitar and a lead riff that sounded a bit Vampire Weekend-esque, with its clear Caribbean lineage. Then a soaring synth chorus enters with Grubin crooning like a hipster Rod Stewart. And then there's songs like "Too Fake," off their debut album Mind Chaos, which beg the question: How are Hockey not a much more popular band? W.G.

WORST SOUND: RA RA RIOT
"Clacckckckckckckckkkkkkkkkkkkkk." The sound of blown speakers interrupted the Syracuse, NY, six-piece's set at the Mojave Tent, as violinist Rebecca Geller and cellist Alexandra Lawn delicately strummed their bows. And it wasn't the first time. The first three songs of their set -- including the chipper "Dying Is Fine" -- were rudely interrupted by the same ear-stabbing, jaw-clenching cackle. But the indie pop outfit triumphed anyways. Uninterrupted, they played an upbeat, brand new song off their "upcoming new album" with Fleetwood Mac vocal harmonies, back-and-forth keyboard melodies, and plenty of tambourine -- it was the set's highlight. But on the next song, the sound problems returned. W.G.

WORST CONCEPT THAT WAS ACTUALLY AWESOME: SLEIGH BELLS
A nu-metal guitar shredder with a taste for hardcore punk. A pop singer with a girl-group resume a Spice Girl would be proud of. The combination sounds like a risky combo, Sleigh Bells' afternoon appearance in the Gobi Tent showed it's actually quite good in practice. Yes, guitarist Derek Miller takes a Neanderthal approach to the six-string, while singer Alexis Krauss gets her vocal approach straight out of the high-school-cheerleader-who-loves-hip-hop playbook. But with a nice amount of "Detachable Penis"-style slapback echo on the guitar and a little distortion on the vocal, the duo's M.I.A.-esque booty slammer "Crown on the Ground" was straight-up dancefloor magic. L.G.

WORST ATTITUDE: ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN
Was Ian McCulloch high? Depressed? Just insufferably Goth? It was well after dark when the singer of legendary post-punk band Echo and the Bunnymen took the stage, and yet perched on his oft-furrowed brow was a pair of black-on-black sunglasses complemented by a black pea coat -- remember, we're in the desert. A quarter of the way through a sufficiently raucous take on their 1981 hit "Broke My Neck," he mumbled, "There's some keyboards," in response to a bandmate's solo, then sang a lyric that found new context here: "I forget just what I meant." For the majority of the set, McCulloch clutched a lit cigarette with the same hand that held the mic. That said, his detached stance was par for the course for the band who penned "Killing Moon." C.M.

IN BRIEF
Uncommonly brutal lines at the festival gates left the evening arrivals cranky, but the Specials cured all that by skanking harder and rocking more steady than most bands half their age. Grizzled old punk Roddy Radiation clanged his guitar and spat out of the side of his mouth as his bandmates ran circles around the main stage. C.M.

Resplendent in a baby-doll dress, Deer Tick frontman John McCauley impressed with both his band's gravel-road rock and his summery cross-dressing. L.G.

With songs that sound like musical safaris and sing-along choruses that make one's hairs stand up on end -- mainly from this year's standout Odd Blood -- Yeasayer may be on their way to becoming the next Arcade Fire -- albeit a funkier, dancier version. L.G.

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