Friday, April 13, 2012

Coachella 2012 Week One Day One - Friday April 13

Friday the 13th.  I've never been a particularly superstitious person, but if there ever was a date for the festival to contend with its first bout of rain, this was it.

The first few hours of the day were cool and clear, but by about 1:30 clouds had rolled in, and by 3pm the wind and the rain had fully arrived, reaching a fevered peak around 5:00 pm just before the start of Jimmy Cliff. At this point the winds became so strong, bending the trees in the background sharply and flinging whole garbage containers across the field, that I feared for a few moments that they may have to start delaying shows for artist and fan safety, but as soon as Jimmy took the stage at 5:10, things started to calm, and though the rest of the day saw continued minor sprinkles and got very cold, the worst had definitely passed.

But there was nothing unlucky at all on Friday of Week One as far as music is concerned.  I preferred Saturday overall, but I think that was in large part to hitting a higher percentage of the days top sets.  For many, Friday was one of the finest start to finish days in Coachella's history...highlighted by excellent evening sets from Pulp, The Rapture, M83(or so I hear on this one), and Refused, and a wonderful if painfully overlapped stretch in the late afternoon from EMA to James to Gary Clark Jr. to Jimmy Cliff to Death Grips.

Anyway, here's how I'd break down the Friday sets.


1. Refused - 11:20 pm - The Outdoor Theatre: I'm not much of a hardcore punk guy...whether hardcore punk or contemporary metal, screamo vocals and thrash guitar have always ranked among my least favorite elements of the rock and pop spectrum.  But this set with dynamite.  Insanely tight after a 14 year layoff, this was a show both ferocious (with regards to the music) and touchingly humble (with regards to lead singer Dennis Lyxzen's affecting banter between songs).  For sheer passion, assertion, and a clear desire to be there, no one topped these Swedish rockers.

Here's a fan captured video of one of the band's mellowest songs - Summerholiday Vs. Punkroutine.


2. The Rapture - 8:55 to 9:45 - The Mojave Tent: The Rapture were definitely on my "want to see" list this year, though not necessarily a top priority. After making a huge mark in the last decade with their sophomore 2003 release Echoes, their recording has been sporadic, releasing only two additional albums to date, each less well received than the prior.  But boy, whatever oomph they've failed to put into their recent recording efforts has clearly been transferred to their live show, because these guys were as "on" on this night as a band can be.  Just a phenomenal dance-oriented there a touch late, had wanted to catch a few minutes of Mazzy Star first, and had to watch from outside the packed tent...but a poor vantage point could do nothing to diminish the sheer electric propulsion of this show.  Folks, this is an experienced band, like Elbow last year, that is presently at the zenith of its performance potential...don't miss them if you've got a chance to see them in the upcoming months.

Here's a snippet from Get Myself Into It.

3. Death Grips - 5:45 to 6:30 - The Gobi Tent: A number of emerging artists made a strong impression during Coachella's first weekend...EMA, WU LYF, First Aid Kit, Gary Clark Jr., Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Tune-yards...but none delivered a breakout set on bar with this over-the-top, forward-looking, intensely aggressive rap/industrial/noise act out of Sacramento.  This was, without question, the breakout set of the entire festival.  I only caught about 10 minutes between Jimmy Cliff and Arctic Monkey, as it was a bit too much for my adventurous but slightly more mainstream-leaning college buddy Rod who I was hanging with, but all I wanted to do when I entered the tent was move forward and get closer to the firestorm.  Frontman/rapper Stefan Burnett raged shirtless in 50 degree weather at the audience, all menacing tattooed sinew, while former Hella drummer Zach Hill and hoodie-sporting keyboardist Andy Morin pounded their instruments senseless.  Another good friend who was also in attendence later called it "an aggro thing of beauty," and that's as good a description as any.  The band cleared almost as many from the tent as they drew in, but no other set on the weekend felt more like "the next thing."  Their new album, The Money Store, is earning major reviews also, so expect to be hearing tons about this edgy, edgy act in the months to come, and don't be surprised if their referenced decades from now as an important transitional act in the evolution of rap.

Here's a snippet of the carnage.


4. Jimmy Cliff & Tim Armstrong - 5:10 to 6:00 - The Coachella Stage: A lifelong fan who had never seen Jimmy perform before, I left Rod at Gary Clark Jr.'s blistering set a few minutes early to make sure I didn't miss a second of Mr. Cliff.  But as soon as I stepped out of the Gobi, the worst weather of the weekend hit.  The rain wasn't so bad, but the wind was suddenly so strong it hurdled full waste receptacles across the field, and I worried they would have to postpone some of the sets.  Luckily, though still unpleasant, the winds calmed just as Jimmy took the stage with You Can Get It If You Really Want.  Now in his late sixties, age was no impediment to his energy, which is much more than you can say for the cold, uncomfortable crowd.  High kicking like a man of thirty, he did his all to pull the crowd in and take their mind of the cold, and while I can't say he 100% succeeded, this was a wonderful set nonetheless.  Sticking with the political angle that has sustained him over the decades, Vietnam was lyrically contemporized into "Afghanistan", Too Many Rivers To Cross hit with great impact, and The Harder They Come served as a fitting closer...but for me, irony of ironies at this wet, windy moment, the highlight of the show was I Can See Clearly Now (The Rain Is Gone).  True sentiment or not, Jimmy was is amazing voice, and after witnessing this set, I don't see him slowing down anytime soon.

Here's I Can See Clearly Now.

5. Gary Clark Jr. - 4:30 to 5:15 - The Gobi Tent: As with many of the younger artists to grace the Coachella stages this year, this Austin-based blues guitarists doesn't quite have the songs yet...but man, does he have blistering potential:  A fine voice, keen sense of the range and traditions of the genre, and most significantly, axe-man chops in line with those of Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Again, just because his songs aren't quite there yet, didn't enjoy this set as much as fellow Austinites Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybear's barn-burner from 2011, but there was still plenty of excitement to be had as Clark ripped from one pyrotechnic display to the next, including a mellow reworking of Hendrix's Third Stone To The Sun.

My buddy Rod felt this was the best set of the day, and here's one reason why.

6. WU/LYF - 7:00 to 7:45 - The Gobi Tent: The tent was packed, the crowd full of conflicted souls like me who had chosen to witness the mysterious potential of this odd, young Manchester, England quartet instead of indulging in the surefire revelry going on one stage over with 80s veterans Madness...and then the howling began.  High, eerie and disembodied, it rose softly from the nether. And then again, and again, until finally the band emerged, singing the ghostly opening moments to debut starter LYF.  They took their instruments, slowly worked up a lather, and in the next five minutes knocked out the most impressive set opener of the entire festival.  After that, the set, dropped a little as the band was forced to dig into some of the lesser tracks of it's limited pool, but all was righted by set's end, when they brought out their other heavy hitters Heavy Pop and We Bros. Lead singer Ellery Roberts, who comes off as the bastard offspring of James Dean and Froggy from the Little Rascals, sang facing sideways, an unusual and surprising charismatic tactic, while the rest of the act power through the tunes with tortured artist aplomb.  Oozing promise, this set reminded me much of Foal's monster performance from the year prior, if Foal's had been asked to play Coachella before developing their second album's superior songs. If these guys can generate some better out.

Here's the opener, minus the walk in.

7. EMA - 3:15 to 4;00 - The Gobi Tent: Rod and I only caught the final two songs of EMA's set, Red Star and California, but both gave us a great sense of this emerging North Dakotan talent and her PJ Harveyish potential. Standing near as tall as Game Of Throne's Brienne Of Tarth, and stalking the stage with significant charisma, the band did an excellent job of bringing her debut album's eerie, moody sonics to a live setting. California's the better know track of the two, and was an edgy closer, with EMA mock strangling herself with her microphone cable as she concluded the song, but it was the extended crescendo of Red Star, with that awesome Fripper-esque violin whine, that impressed us most on this day.

Here's California.

8. James - 3:50 to 4:40 - The Coachella Stage: Truth be told, had Rod and I had a better vantage point, or had better prioritized this show ahead of time, I might be ranking this as one of the top three sets of the day.  But we didn't, squeezing in just twenty-five minutes or so between EMA and Gary Clark Jr. from inside the North Beer Garden, which while still giving one a clear shot of the stage and audio, severally diminishes the impact from that enjoyed by those watching from a more centered viewpoint.  But even with that, it was clear this set was approaching a magical level, one of those good vibe shows like Broken Social Scene's last year that just makes everything feel right with the world. Wish I had more to say than that, but that's my loss.  Damn those schedule conflicts.

Anyway, here's a sample of the positive energy.

9. The Black Keys - 9:45 to 11:00 - The Coachella Stage: Had the Black Keys been sub-headlining instead of headlining, and only played a fifty minute set with no other changes, I think I would rank this performance a few spots higher. They were excellent throughout, and I really loved how the El Camino tracks played in person.  They may not be the band's grittiest numbers, but they are naturals for the live stage.  And the band sounded great with Dan in good voice, though his voice did sound higher and more youthful live than it does on record.  But the Motown-like cookie cutter same-iness of so many of their three minute blues-rock singles stack back to back to back really prevented the show from gaining any sort of momentum or flow.  Typically, I remember the sets I see in full the best, because the artists bring some sort of emotional arc to the show, but I have to be honest...I don't think people who missed half this set got any less than people who caught it in full.  The one exception, not surprisingly, was the track I consider the band's greatest song to date, the Tarantino-ish Ten Cent Pistol, which for five glorious minutes brought a sense of textural variation the rest of the set desperately lacked. Still, despite my complaints, this was a seriously entertaining show, one many attendees would rate much higher than I.

Here's one of my favorites from El Camino, Money Maker.

10. Pulp - 7:50 to 8:50 - The Coachella Stage: Okay, another full disclosure moment here, I am far from the biggest of Pulp fans. I've got all their records, as well as Jarvis Cocker's most recent solo release, and I admire Jarvis's wit and lyrics, but on a purely musical level, I've never found this band all that interesting...and I far prefer some of their less celebrated albums (This Is Hardcore) to their most critically recognized (Different Class, which outside of Common People, Disco 2000, and one or two other tracks bores me senseless).  So I wasn't going into this set with big expectations, and thank god for that.  I don't want to diminish the shows highlights...Disco 2000, Common People, and opener Mis-Shapes were as good as any songs to grace this year's festival.  And Jarvis was amusing throughout, though I personally felt some of his ramblings went on too long, lending the show a very fitful flow (the preamble to This Is Hardcore where Jarvis turned a pen camera on the audience was confusing and insufferable). As for the rest of the band...they played well enough, but I definitely can't give them high marks for enthusiasm.  Outside of maybe some of the members of At The Drive, no other act seemed less interested in being there.  As I told Rod, it was a bit like watching an aging front man who can't let go and five other middle-aged louts who are doing it for him, but have otherwise completely moved on with their lives and would just as rather be tucking their kids into bed for the night and then curling up with a good book beside their spouse.
But again, as with the Black Keys above, I feel like I'm emphasizing the negative of what was overall another very entertaining show.  Here's the whole show, I'll let you form your own impressions.

11. The Sheepdogs - 1:00 to 1:30 - The Outdoor Theatre: Friday's best pre-3:00 set came courtesy of last year's Rolling Stone Magazine cover contest winners.  This was the second time I'd seen The Sheepdogs, having previously caught their warm-up set for Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears at the Los Angeles Echoplex last November, and while they had been good on that night, they sounded about ten times better here. Delivering a modern Canadian spin on classic early 70s Southern Fried rock, they band played like road-hardened veterans, unleashing sharp chops and some very impressive group harmonies. After having just taken in Mea, Abe Vigoda, and Wallpaper, three acts with weak-piped lead singers, it was nice to finally hear some major league voices at work.

Here's the Allman Brothers-esqu Southern Dreaming.

12. Madness - 7:00 to 8:00 - The Outdoor Theatre: I only saw their last fifteen minutes, catching Our House and two others.  All three numbers were lively and well delivered, but not quite great enough moments to make me feel any guilt for opting for the impressive up-and-comers WU / LYF over the first two-thirds of this set.

Here's a bit of Our House.

13.Honey Honey - 1:20 to 2:05 - The Mojave Tent: Another fine alt-country set. Lead singer Suzanne Santo's voice was definitely the main attraction, but far from the only positive to take away from the varied and at times badass performance of this promising and accessible roots-rock duo.

Unfortunately, it doesn't look like any fan posted videos of this set have made it to Youtube.

14. Girls - 5:40 to 6:30 - The Outdoor Theatre: Only caught the last song of Girls' set this year, having caught most of their 2010 set,  but that one number was one of the best single song performances of the weekend - Vomit.

Here it is!


15. The Black Angels - 10:50 to 11:35 - The Gobi Tent: The festival's best representative of the burgeoning West Coast pysch-pop movement, The Black Angels benefited from favorable scheduling luck that had them as one of only two acts, and the only non-electronic act going for a good twenty minute stretch of their show.  Rod and I jumped in for this interval from 11:05 to about 11:25 before hitting Refused. Laying down a murky, trippy collection of fit to soundtrack Apocalypse Now, LSD-inspired brooders more than a little reminiscent of what it might have felt like to catch The Doors back in their prime when doing one of their long, creepy numbers like The End, this set was initially fascinating, but had begun to wear thin by the time we left do to the repetitive feel of their consistently slow-paced material.

Here's a fan video, that while not from the best angle, really captures the trippy, Doors-like quality of the show.

16. The Horrors - Midnight to Festival End - The Gobi Tent: Every year, there's at least one, a late night set you are so keyed up for going in, but by the time the show finally arrives, you are so exhausted, you just can't stick it out.  Unfortunately, in 2012, this was that show for me.  Rod and I hustled over as soon as Refused ended, and did manage to make it through the first half of the show, lasting until an excellent Still Life had almost wrapped, but we couldn't go another minute, so we ended up skipping out before seeing one of the songs I had most hoped to hear over the weekend...Moving Further Away.  Of what we did catch, the band sounded good, not quite as good as I had hoped, but good given the soupy Psychedelic Furs/Joy Division/My Bloody Valentine-styled density of their music. Lead singer Faris Badwan's voice wasn't particularly strong, but just as on record, it blends well with the rest of the band's sound.

So don't put this low ranking for this day on the band.  While their performance definitely wasn't one of the day's genuine peaks, I'm sure I would have this set some notches higher had my advancing age not prevented me from going the distance.

Here's Still Life.

17. The Arctic Monkeys - 6:30 to 7:20 - The Coachella Stage: Rod and I saw the first half of this set from the south beer garden as we regrouped for the evenings big shows.  Might have just been the superior Coachella Stage, but I actually felt the Monkeys were in much sharper form than in their decent Hollywood Bowl set I had seen back last September, and their sound was exceptionally clean...but as with that show, no amount of rehearsal can completely rescue the so-average material that's plagued their last few releases, and from which the bulk of this show's set list was drawn.  Teddy Picker was a decent opener, and I really enjoyed this night's sharp version of Still Take You Home, but otherwise, a spirited performance of nothing special songs.

Here's the Coachella broadcast of Florescent Adolescent.

18. Wolf Gang - 1:00 to 1:40 - The Gobi Tent: This set from the young London-based symphonic electro-poppers could have rated much higher, as what I caught was absolutely ripping, but unfortunately, Rod and I only managed to catch the final three or four minutes following the conclusion of The Sheepdogs set, so just didn't see enough to form a conclusive impression, but I did see enough to know I'll seek this act out live again.

Here's the band's publicity video for the show.

19. Mazzy Star - 8:50 to 9:40 - The Outdoor Theatre: As with Wolf Gang, didn't see near enough of this set to garner a full impression, watching only a few minutes from a distance in transit from Pulp to The Rapture, but what I did hear from these super moody 90s psych-rockers sounded excellent, and while I didn't hear it, word was their closing performance of hit single Fade Into You completely delivered on fans expectations.

Here it is.

20. Abe Vigoda - 12:00 to 12:30 - The Gobi Tent: Oft considered one of the junior resident no-fi punk band of Los Angeles' all ages Smell club (senior no-fi residency claimed by fellow punkers No Age), this stage opening set found this young band favoring their more recent, more new wave textured material to good effect.  Lead singer Mike Vidal's vocals remains a limitation, but is better suited to the more Joy Division-y direction than band now seems to be pursuing than their earlier, rawer straight punk material.

Here's one of just two fan videos I found on Youtube.  Have to admit not sure if weekend one or two.


21.Givers - 2:35 to 3:20 - The Mojave Tent: As will become abundantly clear to those who read all three days of this Coachella review, it was a particularly poor year for Pitchfork-favored twee indie-pop...nearly every band this year with a Vampire Weekend/Beirut/Grizzly Bear/Unicorns-styled slant to their music failed to impress.

In a way, I'm not surprised. We're talking about a subgenre that clearly peaked in 2009 with Merriweather Post Pavillion, Veckatimest and Bitte Ocre, and has been on a slow downhill descent ever since.

In Louisiana-based Givers particular case, I'll give them this...they've got pep.  This was one of the most energetic sets of their entire weekend.  What they lack, unfortunately, is any consistent coherence to their music...the whole show just felt like one poorly thought through contemporary indie-pop cliche pile on top of another...a touch of Caribbean here, an-over-arranged passage there, and strings and xylophones all over the place, all delivered with cluelessly enthusiastic smiles.

Then again, maybe I'm just an old curmudgeon...a lot of people liked this show, but neither Rod nor I were impressed in the slightest.

Here's Ceiling Of Plankton.

22. Mea - 11;20 to 12:05 - The Sahara Tent: While there have been some day-opening set knockouts in recent years (Kate Miller-Heidke in '10, The Love Language and Good Old War in '11), it's usually unfair to ask too much from opening acts, who are as often as not local acts paying to get on the bill rather than invited artists, but Club girl Mea actually got off to a decent start.  She's not much of a singer, but she's also not without some hot/tough girl charisma, and at the start, the music had a cool shoegaze element blended into to it that I found rather compelling.  But technical problems, and Mea's clear concern over them (this was one of those Dirty Projectors-type shows where the band members never stop with hand signalling towards the mixing both) ended up derailing any momentum.

Saw an interview with her later where she copped to this and felt the second weekend set went much better. So, since there are no weekend one videos available, here's a clip from weekend two.

23. Yuck - 3:15 to 4:00 - The Outdoor Theatre: Destroyer's Dan Bejar may have won the individual award for most disengaged performer of the festival, but the full band award, without question, goes to these English 90s revivalists.  Granted, they were fighting some of the worst of the Friday afternoon weather, and suffered from some of the most serious sound issues of any set I heard all weekend (felt like stages front speakers were completely out of phase), but even had all circumstance been perfect, this still would have been one of the dullest and least emotionally involving sets of the weekend...A shame, because some of their songs are flat out great.  Lead singer Daniel Blumberg was the poster child for the stereotypical unhealthy Brit, thin as rail in a Bob Dylanesque way and way strung out, and the rest of the band displayed zero personality.

Still, despite all this, the music didn't sound bad...but for me, given how much I enjoyed their debut album, this was the most disappointing set of the entire weekend.

Here's Get Away.

24. Other Lives - 2:05 to 2:50 - The Gobi Tent: Since the festival, with repeated listens, I've come to appreciate this Oklahoma outfit's somber, lethargic, but often gorgeous mix of orchestral and Americana influences, but going into the festival, having only given latest release Tamer Animals a couple spins, I wasn't much in the mood for the bands slow, slow tempos and the slightly creepy, Manson Family vibe given off by lead singer Jesse Tabish (a hair cut or a shave would do this man wonders).  Basically, this was one of those sets where you needed to be already well-versed in the band's music for it to be enjoyed, and neither Rod nor I were there yet.  We stayed for about ten minutes, and then moved on to Givers.

But again, for those who like orchestral rock with a rooted, almost Spaghetti Western feel, their albums are worth checking out.

Here's my favorite song of theirs, For 12.

25. The Dear Hunter - 2:00 to 2:45 - The Outdoor Theatre: Another band I wasn't too familiar with going into the festival, but I had scanned their discography quickly before coming, and was intrigued by the band's ambitiously thematic nature of their numerous EP releases.  Another chamber pop act with a strong Americana lean, Rod and I caught a few tracks early in the set, the first one was a solid ballad, the next two did nothing for us, and the band has very little live charisma...though I must admit, I am still interested in going back and checking out some of those EPs.

Unfortunately, there are no week one videos available on Youtube, so here's a clip from the second, much sunnier week two.

26. Wallpaper - 12:10 to 12:50 - The Mojave Tent: Uggh.  Just a type of low-brow, meat-head-targeted club music I have never, ever liked.  Rod and I lasted all of ninety seconds at this one before realizing even that paltry time allotment had been too long. Shades of Miquel cheese-fest from last year, but much, much worse.

Hands down winner of lamest act on the 2012 bill.  Here's a touch of their inspired mediocrity.


Dawes - Heard nice things about their set.
Atari Teenage Riot - Supposedly had a very small crowd, but were great.
M83 - For many who attended, one of the highlights of the day.
Explosions In The Sky - Supposedly another excellent set during that Black Keys/M83/EITS logjam.
Amon Tobin - The festivals best DJ light show.

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