COACHELLA DAY 1: MAZZY STAR, EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY, ATARI TEENAGE RIOT, REFUSED, JAMES, JIMMY CLIFF, GIRLS, ARCTIC MONKEYS, AMON TOBIN, WOLF GANG, HONEYHONEY, OTHER LIVES, YUCK, DATSIK

April 14th, 2012 | Live reviews

Note: Due to technical difficulties, photos of ALL these bands will come later.

Is Indio becoming Seattle, and Coachella becoming Bumbershoot? Except, you know, without the umbrellas, because Coachella has a policy of not letting people bring umbrellas? Yesterday was a cold, rainy, miserable day, which after the hot temperatures of years past was actually one of the nicest ways I’ve experienced a day of Coachella.

After wrangling with the surprisingly nice people at the Media Check-in, I showed up just shy of 1 p.m., where I discovered I had missed Abe Vigoda due to a typo on the official schedule! Instead, the Gobi tent was ripe with the sounds of Wolf Gang, a Brit who still plays the kind of softly driving indie rock that finally, thankfully seems to be on its way out. He certainly was earnest, standing their stoic with his Ewan MacGregor good looks, but considering that James formed in 1980 and they are actually PLAYING today, there’s not much role for Wolf Gang here, or in the world.

I had a much better time at the Safari tent watching honeyhoney. Though their first song scared me—“strong” white girl vocals with standard four-piece rock lineup—it was just the eye before the storm blew the barn door off. honeyhoney is a country-style rock band that occasionally plays country-style country, and if singer Suzanne Santo is a little modern-country sounding in the pipes, those pipes are pretty damn expansive, giving her some serious dignity at this otherwise sanitized and somewhat ridiculous concert series (dignity despite her patchy, I-missed-a-couple-spots sunburn). “Last time I was at Coachella, I was serving barbecue in the VIP section” she told us, before they launched into “Angel of Death,” the song that apparently has a video coming out soon. It’s the kind of music that would lend itself well to visual imagery—sure, country, but not old-timey or traditional despite the banjo. But it was certainly evocative and, at times, beautiful.

Back at the Mojave tent, Other Lives was setting up, and boy do they look like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. But this bunch of Okies is not a band that celebrates joy and names songs after their band members. Jesse Tabish, the singer and bearded longhaired genius, never smiles. No one in the band smiles, though Jenny Hsu on cello seemed like she was having fun as she switched from cello to vocals to keys and back again. This afternoon, their songs were anthemic, and mysterious, maybe even tragic, and each one introduced a new instrument, be it a violin (played by Jon Mooney, a damn look-alike for Jona Bechtolt from YACHT) or a xylophone or a squeezebox harmonium, or…. is that a cornet?

It was so chaotic that even the weather changed, from an “oh hey yeah no we’re gonna still have sun this year” to “what? Huh? Okay, yeah, it’s gonna rain, but just a sprinkle… a long sprinkle…” Taking a quick shot of Yuck was hell, because it would start sprinkling each time I’d try to bust the camera out. It was fun to hear singer Daniel Blumberg talk, because while his singing voice is very Stephen Malkmus-esque, his speaking voice is pure Brit: “This song is dedicated to Explosions in the Sky, because one of my pedals exploded.” I would have liked a few more explosive moments in his set, but that’s the problem of playing a big festival in the desert: everyone sounds tired.

Except the professionals! Now, James didn’t dress professional; there was a time when the band members would wear complementary outfits of shimmery lame, but this time they just dressed in their street clothes. Boy, has Tim Booth turned into an Anton LeVay look-alike. But he hasn’t lost a lick of his ability to rile a crowd, and when they kicked into “Sit Down,” their most full-of-laud love anthem and Brit Rock template, Booth jumped down from the stage and up onto the divider between himself and the band, singing into their faces with glee! He got so close, a strange Asian man popped out of the crowd, his head covered in strange black writing, and seemingly tried to pull Tim Booth into the crowd, like Barbara’s brother at the end of Night of the Living Dead.

But Booth was unfazed, and in fact, a tad sarcastic: “So this is Coachella! On a Friday afternoon. I hope you enjoy the festival, and all the great bands that are playing later. Do everything your parents wouldn’t do!” Yeah right—our parents were hippies and disco queens! We’re only now catching up with the kinds of orgies their generation had, which is why they didn’t need songs called “Laid.” But I’m glad James was here to play it.

At this point the rain was light but the wind was heavy, and I saw Liam Philpot of Jimmy Cliff’s band nearly run for cover as the giant dangly trusses of lights and cables above him wiggled violently in the wind. Whoever the DJ was, he had a smirky sense of humor, as he played “Riders on the Storm” throughout setup.

And god bless Jimmy Cliff, even if he is an atheist! I’d seen him perform a few months ago at a private event, and the man had more energy and charisma than most performers 1/3 his age. This time he came out regally, in a shimmering yellow outfit (the kind James should have worn!) and just rocked it out right from the get-go with “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” with Tim Armstrong and a cast of cool mod-looking dudes behind him jamming out sixties style.

Aside from one major “whoopsie!” on his very first spin, Cliff is a man who is in full control of his body and mind, and uses that power to duck walk. And with that fine-tuned voice, and a lifetime’s worth of amazing songs in his arsenal, it was painful thinking I might have to leave his set to go be a journalist elsewhere: he did “Treat the Youth Right,” and a mournful “Many Rivers to Cross,” and even a not-bad cover of Rancid’s “Ruby Soho”—which Tim Armstrong looked very satisfied playing.

Cliff did his amazing version of “Vietnam,” which he updated to being “Afghanistan” (including a poor soldier’s mother getting an ‘email’) but his best song was the soulful “Save Our Planet Earth,” a screaming, crying, secular prayer pleading for solutions to our environmental crises. It could have been hokey, but when he screamed “Yaaaahhhh!!!” in a voice that was both strong yet worn, jagged, it removed all irony potential, even when he started leading the right side of the crowd, then the left side, in chanting “Save our planet earth” louder and louder and louder.

But unfortunately with a festival like this, there are always several bands playing at once. So I took off to see Death Grips, which did not disappoint—except, well, in the fact that we couldn’t discern Stephan Burnett’s lyrics, my favorite part of the album. Burnett was lean and muscular and full frontal when it came to his crowd work, all the while Zach Hill hit hard and firm on the drums behind him. I hadn’t realized their act was totally live drums, and maybe in the studio, it’s not. But live, Hill was hitting with no headphones, so either there was no sound sync, or he’s just that fucking good. For some reason, there were two giant inflatable pharmaceuticals in the tent, which Burnett kept swatting into the crowd.

I skipped off to see GIRLS at the Outdoor stage, where Christopher Owens was as gloomy and depressed as the grey skies behind him. When he sang songs like “Honey Bunny,” with those beautiful loser lyrics about being loved for all the reasons everyone hates him, he sounded like he fucking meant it! Though for my money, GIRLS is all about their big hit “Lust for Life,” and that song sounded a little watered down today. You know, I bet Owens can afford that beach house he’s after? And I bet they have pizza and a bottle of wine in the green room.

Arctic Monkeys on the main stage were surprisingly good, though normally I don’t go in for that kind of high-class garage. Give me Russell Quan and give me trash rock! But these slicked-back dudes (seriously, they dressed like early Depeche Mode) knew how to keep my attention, with rapid-fire, almost surfy guitar licks. Despite their singer sounding like, well, Tim Booth, they brought the rock, not an easy feat on a giant festival stage in the late afternoon. I may have been a little skeptical about their sound, but David Hasselhoff was there next to me to let me know it was all okay.

I figured Pulp would be covered in detail elsewhere, including by L.A. RECORD photographer Lindsey Best, so let me just skip ahead from the DJ playing Milli Vanilli’s “Blame It on the Rain,” omit Pulp, and go right to Mazzy Star. You know how women-folk will sometimes refer to male celebrities like Jon Hamm or Michael C. Hall as their “boyfriend?” Well, Hope Sandoval is my “girlfriend,” a lovely young chanteuse with an amazing voice that I have loved since my teens, and I am so happy that Mazzy Star is doing more shows. This band has never been too original with their vintage sound, but they do it so well, and their powers have not diminished over the years. I hope the Ecstatic children candy-flipping on acid tonight appreciated their psychedelic tones. I sure appreciated “Fade Into You,” which sounded exactly like the CD from 20 years ago, but all the better for it.

At that point, I had a crew, and some of that crew was high as a kite. And so we walked to see Afrojack, which the high people loved but the sober-er people found a little uninspiring. I don’t think it’s because Afrojack doesn’t “bring it,” but the sound systems here are so… respectable, and by that I mean not quite loud enough. You could tell this was complex, interesting stuff, but without feeling that complication twisting the marrow in your bones through sheer volume, it had a lack of oomph.

Not so with Atari Teenage Riot, who were screaming and jumping around. “They don’t get it, they just don’t GET IT!” Indeed they DON’T!!!!! It was politically charged and harsh and, aside from a foray or two into sampled distorted guitar, the worst cheat of industrial music, it was pure digital hardcore. It’s weird when the music of hate is the most fun you’ve had all night.

It was quite the contrast with what was happening at the Outdoor stage. Explosions in the Sky somehow took the premise of shoegaze—that feverish fast-paced distortion  and echo can sound lush and dreamlike—and one-upped that by being even MORE frenetic and yet somehow more gentle. Honestly, I feel their songs, at least the meat of them before the slightly punkier crescendoes, could easily fit in a set with Enya or Carly Simon. Yet on paper, this should be violent punk: hell, the drummer is playing sixteenth notes, basically drum soloing for the whole song. But out of sheer precious guitar tone (and maybe a bit of rim tapping) they pull off not the ethereality of shoegaze, but the tenderness of a good deed for a new friend.

Refused were the last rock band on my list, and honestly, it was a bit of a disappointment, one that singer Dennis Lyxzén acknowledged, in a better American accent than my own. “I’m always super skeptical about reunions. If you have been skeptical, it was only a fraction about how skeptical these guys were!” He sounded so sweet, yet songs like “I’d Rather Be Dead!” and “Coup d’Ètat” had a harshness that just felt flavorless and flat (well, kinda) after Atari Teenage Riot. The general sentiment seemed to be what Devon Williams later tweeted, that “REFUSED are a shit band. Always were.”

There was so much more I would have liked to see—and I caught snippets of them, both the driving hip hop inspired beats of Datsik, and even the beginnings of Amon Tobin and his amazing moving wall, which might have topped Daedelus’s Archimedes mirrors from last year. But my impromptu travel roommates wanted an early night, so I’ll have to experience that at another date. There’d be plenty more to see the next day.

-D. M. Collins