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Coachella 2015 Day One: Steely Dan’s 13-Piece Band, Tame Impala’s Fuzz Bombs, and More

Plus: Azealia Banks, Flying Lotus, and the ossobuco riblets better than any band

Thirteen-year Coachella veteran Chris Martins and trusty photographer Wilson Lee hit the Southern California desert to document Coachella 2015. Day One begins…

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1:54 p.m. “Nigga we made it!” These are the first musical words that greet me as I step out of the shelter of our air-recycling rental, into the particle storm of sand and spray sunscreen that is Lot 1B (or any festival lot). Some bros in a minivan are pre-gaming to Drake and Soulja Boy’s 2013 rags-to-riches trap jam and who can blame them? I was cranking AC/DC in the sedan. We begin the half-hour hike to the main gate, past a tattooed loadie selling psychedelic kitten paintings on the hood of his car, following shirtless board-shorters and their bikini’d counterparts. One of them shouts, “Who’s going to Coachellaaah?” Doesn’t she know? We already made it.

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3:21 p.m. Lil B is Tom-Cruise manic. (Us not so much; the chips in our wristbands were worthless for 50 wasted minutes, until they suddenly worked.) He’s yelling like a motivational speaker: What a wonderful day to be alive! Yeeeaaasssss! He also looks a lil homeless, in raggy jeans and an Indian tunic that doesn’t fit, as he raps along to his own song “Murder Rate.” There’s no DJ, no hype man (unless you count Odd Future sidestage), and soon no rapper — the Based God stops using his mic and starts lighting invisible joints, throwing them into the crowd where fans fake-puff them. Either the Internet emperor is buck nekkid or mimes can smoke for free.

3:38 p.m. Neither too wispy nor cartoonishly thick, Ab-Soul’s mustache looks great on a Jumbotron. Best facial hair of the day, no question. Best head hair too.

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3:51 p.m. An ungodly scream cuts through the desert air. A man being tortured by demons from the inside out: Uuuaaaaaaggghhhhh! It’s soul belter Charles Bradley, who, despite being draped in the color of happiness (an incredible goldenrod suit), looks as if he’s spent his entire life crying. How long must I keep going on? To see all the pain in this world… And you believe he’s known every last drop of it firsthand, especially when he picks up the mic stand, swings it like a sledge, then bears the weight of it over his shoulder like a chain gang worker who’s cracked his last rock. So when he does the funky robot in rhinestone loafers, it’s pure blissful relief.

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4:11 p.m. Man in thong buying water.

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4:18 p.m. Waiting for Kimbra, I witness Zeno’s Vanity Paradox: A camera comes from behind the crowd, slowly panning left. One by one, people see the back of their heads on screen and turn to grin into the lens. Then they spin back around to view their faces on the Jumbotron, which, duh, is impossible. But they keep trying, every single one of them, some multiple times, like Golden Retrievers after their tails. It’s incredible. Also fascinating to watch: Kimbra, who arrives dressed like a moth and performs her manic full-band jazz-pop with all the manic intensity of Laura Fraser doing Breaking Bad’s Lydia. She is Lady Banjo Eyes, with melisma and a cape.

Azealia Banks

4:50 p.m. Speaking of crazy, Azealia Banks totally has her shit together. She’s rapping her ass off under a giant billowing American flag (projection), sporting a white crop top with flamenco sleeves and denim cutoffs, flanked by two dancers dressed in kind, absolutely in sync with each aggressive step and every pulsating beat. Her band, 1500 or Nothin’, is exceedingly tight, and the way the wind whips her hair makes me think she’s even got the elements on lock. Banks’ singing voice is unpalatable — both whiny and husky — but the way she owns it, who cares?

5:28 p.m. The return of Ride. Is anyone else bored? The tent is half full and even the 40-somethings appear unmoved. The shoegazing greats sound excellent — thick bass, warm guitars, breathy ahs and oohs — but they don’t feel like anything, really. Of course, an opportunity to cool one’s boots is welcome at the hectic fest, so while Mark Gardener coos about stopped clocks and states of mind, I work on dreaming up the perfect Instagram caption for Thong Man’s water quest: “Way too thirsty.”

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5:56 p.m. Are hip-hop hands not a thing anymore? This crowd knows how to throw their Wu dubs, but the bobbing palms of my backpack-rap salad days are barely a thing today. It’s cool though, because Raekwon and Ghostface are holding it down for the springtime of rap’s youth, trading Cuban Linx verses over Scarface samples and peak RZA beats. It’s that album’s 20th anniversary and rather than get lost in thought over how strange it is to tour one beloved work of art over and over (did Da Vinci do that?), I marvel at the way their well-fed bodies move with absolute swagger, giving life to those voices that haven’t changed a lick over the years.

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6:28 p.m. The languid rock of War on Drugs — let’s call it “Dylan in Repose” — is totally the stuff of sunsets, and as the desert sky darkens ever so softly above Adam Granduciel’s shag-framed and stubble-stippled face, the notes melt like Dalí clocks across our own sweaty heads. There’s a cool breeze and I’m certain it’s coming from Jon Natchez’ saxophone. Everything feels great. Man, fuck Mark Kozelek.

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7:07 p.m. Would you believe me if I told you the $11 7-oz. plastic cup of craft beer is worth it? Well, it is (shout out The Bruery’s delectable Belgian pale, the Jardinier; please send a sample case to SPIN’s L.A. office). Seriously, skip the Heinekens — the Beer Barn is stocked with high-alcohol brews and crazy delicious food. I shove a fig marmalade-topped burger into my face hole, followed by fries smothered in truffle sauce, and a few of Wilson’s ossobuco riblets (for research, I argue). They are spicy and sweet and succulent and have crispy edges and are better than all of the bands.

Steely Dan

8:43 p.m. Donald Fagen is ripping a melodica solo in the middle of “Aja” and I’m dead. Man, fuck riblets. Steely Dan is the truth. The maestro’s got a 13-piece band up there — 14 if you include the sign-language interpreter, and you should because she’s killing it — and their soft yet angular dad-jazz feels exactly as ostentatious and effortless as it should. Is someone smoking hash? Yes, someone is definitely smoking hash, and I’m standing in front of Mac DeMarco while Walter Becker scat-talks to us about sipping on Cuervo Gold. I regret missing the ASL worker translate, “I was the dandy of Gamma Chi,” but when a stranger hands me a cup of actual tequila my concern disappears. Hey Nineteen, it turns out we can dance together — when “Reelin’ in the Years” hits, the place goes up like DJ Snake just dropped “Turn Down for What.”

9:32 p.m. Tame Impala come out to a chopped and screwed version of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” then blare the fuzz-bomb that is “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards.” But what’s with the Winamp visualization? Green lines on the screen swirl and jiggle to the sound of the music, and it’s undercutting their purported trippiness, not to mention my buzz. They play that new disco song with the Daft Punk vocals (“Let It Happen”), and the FX do get more eye-boggling, but the Aussies lost me. “Why is nobody dancing?” shouts one guy. As I wade out of the crowd, another dude answers his question, with a question: Are you guys waiting for AC/DC too?

9:45 p.m. I eat my feelings: Blackbean’s Coffee Toffee Crunch ice cream.

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10:00 p.m. Y’all motherfuckers are dead! Flying Lotus informs us, and maybe he’s right. There’s a ten-foot grim reaper with a massive sickle staking the stage while he reinvents selections from his latest astral-jazz raptronica opus, You’re Dead! He also flips edits of Drake’s “Know Yourself” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Wesley’s Theory” with help from Thundercat (they co-produced the To Pimp a Butterfly opener), plus plays an unreleased Chance the Rapper collab. But the presentation of it all is more far-out than anything psych-rock offered up on Day One: With glowing bug eyes on his head, FlyLo does his thing inside a giant fabric tesseract upon which all manner of wild hallucinations are projected. Sometimes he’s in the hot seat of a mech suit; in other moments he appears to be in a mercury pool. Four dimensions, minimum.

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10:56 p.m. Angus Young’s knees are in better shape than mine. This realization hits me as he duckwalks across the stage in his red schoolboy shorts, punching at the air and making infinite O-faces in the shadow of a towering wall of Marshall stacks. I’d planned on making a joke about the reaper showing up at the wrong stage, but holy hell this band of sexagenarians slays. Also, during “Hell’s Bells,” lead yowler Brian Johnson rides the rope of a massive prop bell with aplomb that’d make Miley raise an eyebrow. He’s still got it too — an ear-splitting, throat-shredding holler that likely cut through Alesso’s EDM bluster in the Sahara tent at the other end of the grounds. (Ryan Tedder who?) They also roll out cannons, a gigantic blowup “Rosie” doll, a lift within the crowd upon which Young solos mightily, and enough hits to play for two hours with sing-alongs throughout. Air guitar duels abound on the field.

12:55 a.m. Bandanas up, we’re back in the sedan, making a beeline for the one car-wide hole in the entire chain link fence, dust everywhere, when the vehicles in front of us stop dead. The lead car has sunk too far into the ruts in the sand and is stuck. While sunburnt kids in swimwear work to dig the driver free, Wilson throws it into reverse, swerves right, cuts through a vacant spot, swerves left, and we’re free! For those about to rock a Civic back and forth for 20 minutes until it’s moving again, we salute you, but there’s a shitty motel with our name on it and Day One is done.

Coachella

All photos by Wilson Lee for SPIN.