True to tradition, the 12th annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival offered a grabbag of reunions, song debuts, surprises, unforgiving weather and memorable outfits. The Indio, California festival -- which expanded last year to two weekends and identical lineups -- kicked off with Phoenix, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Vampire Weekend, the xx, How to destroy angels. Here are the highlights from the first weekend.
Most memorable DIY codpiece: Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Taking the stage in a shimmering suit with gold fringe, a lamé cape, and a popish headpiece, Karen O had the boldest clothes, moves and set list of Coachella’s first day. Starting with “Sacrilege” -- the anthemic single from their upcoming full-length Mosquito, which they performed with the Hollywood Gospel Choir -- Yeah Yeah Yeahs debuted a handful of songs throughout their performance. They risked turning off their fans: “Under the Earth,” a new song with Karen’s vocals dubbed into smithereens, was a daring choice to perform outdoors. But there were plenty of hits to keep Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ momentum alive: “Heads Will Roll,” “Zero” and “Gold Lion” came across like daggers with Karen’s all-caps vocals and Nick Zinner’s crunchy guitar work. During “Rich,” Karen O stuffed her mic into her pants and gyrated her hips in a nod to her current style inspiration, Elvis. Much like their look, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ sound hasn’t mollified at all throughout the years.
Hardest working sign language interpreter: Blur
During "Parklife," Blur's interpreter was tasked to decipher actor Phil Daniels' impenetrable Cockney accent and slang as he delivered lyrics such as "It's got nothing to do with vorsprung durch Technik you know / And it's not about you joggers who go round and round and round" during his guest appearance. At one point, Damon Albarn gave her a hug as thanks. While most of the Gen X reunions like Friday night headliners the Stone Roses, Spiritualized and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds were sparsely attended, Blur drew a solid enthusiastic crowd.
Light show best watched sober: How to destroy angels_
Cloaked by a beaded curtain with geometric patterns projected onto it, How to destroy angels_ had the most eye-catching set of the weekend. The group emerged with white light outlining each of their frames -- Nine Inch Nails’ frontman Trent Reznor, his wife, singer Mariqueen Maandig, frequent collaborator Atticus Ross, and Reznor’s creative director Rob Sheridan -- but soon became canvases for the visuals which morphed with the tempo and lyrics into static, red rainfall and a Tron-like grid. During Welcome Oblivion's “And the Sky Began to Scream,” an icy duet from their debut, the curtain parted as Reznor sang, “I want to tear it down / To the ground / And build another one.” Reznor mostly stayed in the shadows while Maandig (striking in an ethereal white gown) and the light stage were the focal points of the show.
Ear plugs required: Savages
They were sandwiched between 2 Chainz and Wild Nothing’s sets on the Mojave side stage, but London punk band Savages delivered a brutally hard-charging show that won over the strays, curious and committed fans in the crowd. Dressed in black under the desert sun, singer Jehhny Beth was a stark contrast to the bikini and board shorts-clad teens in the tent. But her band kept them interested with their untouchable cool.
Slinkiest interpretive dance moves: Bat for Lashes
Acts that demand an audience’s patience are few and far between at Coachella, but Natasha Khan pulled it off as she performed ballads from last year’s chamber pop record The Haunted Man. Khan, the singer-songwriter behind Bat for Lashes, was a compelling presence on-stage when she filled up the sun-struck Mojave tent on Saturday evening. Some credit is due to her outfit: a mesmerizing technicolor three-piece consisting of a bikini top, skirt, and a metallic cape which she shed at the beginning of her set. The rest of the credit goes to Khan’s gorgeous vocals and her quirky-smooth choreography, which ranged from backwards shimmies to mic twirls and diva arms.
Farthest-reaching set: The xx
Here's a Coachella surprise: the xx, a band who whispers their lyrics, had no problem penetrating the desert air with their stripped-down songs. Highlights from their self-titled debut and follow-up Coexist couldn’t even be contained by their massive crowd -- the sound snaked throughout the tents of Franz Ferdinand and Janelle Monáe. The bigger surprise, however, was Solange Knowles popping up during their set to lend vocals to their a cover of Aaliyah’s “Hot Like Fire.”
Best throwback: Janelle Monáe’s soul review set
Pardon Janelle Monáe's 20-minute soundcheck delay -- it paid off. There were a lot of moving parts to put in place: the tuxedo-dressed man who urged the crowd’s applause before the show started, a James Bond-stylized introduction video with Monáe’s silhouette strutting in colored spotlights, her backup singers, a horn section, and two cloaked dancers. Sticking to a black-and-white palette, Monáe’s set was an ode to classic soul revues. She went back in time in song as well, covering the Jackson 5’s “I Want You back” before soaring through “Cold War.”
Not a desert mirage: R. Kelly’s appearance during Phoenix’s set
No one saw R. Kelly coming. There were plenty of rumors that Daft Punk would be joining Phoenix for their Saturday night headlining set. And Daft Punk teased the audience by unveiling of “Get Lucky" (their new song with Pharrell Williams) and the guest list for their upcoming LP Random Access Memories, in a commercial just before the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' set. But, sure enough, in the middle of “1901,” the lights went dark and R. Kelly emerged belting out the refrain to “Bump n’ Grind.” He stuck around for impeccable slivers of “Ignition (Remix)” and "I'm a Flirt (Remix)" over Phoenix’s "Chloroform." Then he left as abruptly as he arrived.
A festival within the festival: Sahara Tent
With an eclectic lineup that ranges from heavy metal to R&B, live art installations, and pop-up stores, Coachella is a festival full of micro-scenes. For those only interested in its EDM scene, the festival gave bass heads plenty of play pens to choose from: the Do Lab, the Dome, the Yuma tent, and the Sahara tent -- which looks like it was modeled after the Chemical Brothers’ art for Surrender with its dome DJ shrine and wall of stacked screens on the stage. This tent was the biggest draw. Dwarfing nearly every other side stage, it housed its own universe within the festival, including a separate beer garden, selection of food vendors, VIP section, ravers donning Teletubby costumes, and a police squad -- where many of the cops at the festival remained.
Most naked set: James Blake
At Coachella, walking around barefoot in a crocheted bikini is not only tolerated, it’s encouraged. (Blame it on SoCal’s year-round beach culture, or the festival’s remote location.) Most of these half-naked girls migrated from the EDM-filled Sahara tent to see James Blake work up a sweat over his synthesizer. Unfortunately, the weather took a turn as Blake began baring his soul with “I Never Learnt To Share” and fast winds competed with his vocals. Much to the delight of the crowd, Blake came out of his shell a few songs in, interspersing dancier tracks with his ballads.
Token festival jam band: Tame Impala
To be fair, Tame Impala’s set started as a sandstorm brewed: the wind exaggerated their already-heavy-handed distortion and they covered up technical problems when their keyboard glitched with spacy reworkings “Elephant” and “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards.” The crowd hardly noticed either because they were singing along from chief circles, waving pinwheels above their heads or hula hooping.
Longest round of applause: Rodriguez
Rodriguez, the subject of last year’s incredible, Oscar-winning documentary Searching For Sugar Man, persevered through his set on Sunday evening as the winds kicked up dust into the air and carried Tame Impala’s sound into his tent. Wearing his trademark black vest, fedora and sunglasses, Rodriguez performed favorites “Sugar Man” and “Crucify Your Mind” while backed by a full band, and the crowd sang along and danced even when it was difficult to hear. Unlike any other set at the festival, Rodriguez’s didn’t draw many passersby -- nearly everyone who wanted to see him was there from the first note until the last. These true fans rewarded him with rapturous applause as he walked off the stage.
Best response for unreleased songs: Vampire Weekend
Vampire Weekend had better luck than others fighting off the wind during their Sunday set. They also found a receptive audience for new tracks from their upcoming album Modern Vampires of the City. Singer Ezra Koenig gave the festival its second Elvis impersonation of the weekend, capping off the rockabilly "Diane Young" with a snarling "Thank you, Coachella. Thank you very much."