The Black Keys Unleash a Blues Riot at Coachella

Explosive sets from a reunited Refused, Swedish House Mafia round out Day One of the fest

black keys coachella
Joseph Llanes
Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys performs at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California.
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"This is Swedish summer at its best," Refused singer Dennis Lyxzen joked last night from the stage at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, during a momentary pause in an explosive set by the reunited hardcore act from subarctic Umea, Sweden. It was midnight and near the end of a day like no other in the history of the 12-year-old festival in a usually bone-dry California desert: mildy chilly and wet.

Some of the longest lines on Friday were for hot coffee. Wind, clouds and a light rain came and went through the day, but fans could still draw some warmth from another Coachella lineup of fiery sounds and emotion, from the torrid blues and soul of the Black Keys and Gary Clark Jr. to the thundering beats of Swedish House Mafia and Atari Teenage Riot.

The Black Keys returned to Coachella with a neighborly hello and operated essentially as they have many times before at the festival, having worked their way up from an obscure Akron, Ohio duo on the smallest stages to a headliner in 2012. The production was bigger, with colorful graphics flashing on the huge screens around them, but the music remained rooted in the band's commitment to jagged rock and blues. "Let's get moving," said singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach, wearing a studded black motorcycle jacket and drilling right into the tortured echo and stutter of "Howlin' for You," fleshed out with extra players on bass and heaving organ. But the core duo of Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney frequently stripped things back down to just the two of them, ready to bash through the rawest, hungriest riffs and beats of "Your Touch" and other tributes to swampy blues.

Following the Keys' set, a swat team of roadies overhauled the main stage to make way for DJ trio Swedish House Mafia, the EDM supergroup consisting of Axwell, Steve Agnello and Sebastian Ingrosso. It wasn't just the stage setup that changed – pyrotechnics and elaborate, outsized visuals ruled the set – but the entire vibe. Out went the Keys blues riot and in came the blistering beats, courtesy of the group's synth-driven smashes like "In My Mind" and "Save The World." Their panoramic visual display, the product of our pristine LCD screens stacked four stories high, was the undoubted highlight. 

Pulp arrived with a dynamic, hour-long set fit for a headliner, beginning with provocative messages scrolling across an empty stage to roars from the crowd: "Are you ready?" "Got your thermals on?" The band thrived in the epic outdoor setting, showing a special flair for the playful and dramatic. Opening with "Do You Remember the First Time," the band collided jagged guitar with a nervous, wild-eyed vocal from Jarvis Cocker, arguably the most compelling frontman from the Britpop Nineties. The singer was in constant motion, bearded and dressed in a jacket and tie and anxiously pacing the big stage like a college professor teetering over the edge. He tossed candy and grapes into the crowd and shouted along with fans on "Disco 2000."

The light rain and mist was an appropriate setting for Mazzy Star, who were reconvening after a long absence to perform a rare live set of brooding, romantic songs in subtle shades of rock and honky-tonk. The band blended Velvets-style riffs with aching slices of bottleneck guitar from David Roback. As ever, Hope Sandoval preferred to sing from the shadows of a darkened stage as her bandmates rippled through "Blue Flower" and other tunes, though fans got a much clearer view from two video screens. On bass was multi-instrumentalist (and My Bloody Valentine drummer) Colm O Ciosoig, adding to the core duo's sound of mood and accents.

Dressed head-to-toe in gold and black like a true Trench Town pimp, Jimmy Cliff presided over a mid-afternoon main stage set of his greatest hits – "You Can Get It If You Really Want", "The Harder They Come", "Many Rivers To Cross" – with scattered selections from last year's Sacred Fire LP. The reggae great flailed his legs sky-high and was backed by a 10-piece band that included a top-notch horn section, a trio of backup singers and Rancid guitarist (and Sacred Fire producer) Tim Armstrong, who was armed with his usual Gretsch cutaway hollowbody but dressed more like a member of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

On the main stage, Arctic Monkeys singer-guitarist Alex Turner shared his weakness for eccentric guitar riffs played with whacked, bashing intensity, from the taunting radio hit "I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor" to "Don't Sit Down Because I've Moved Your Chair." Songs from the British band unwound with anxious force as pockets of fans danced and stomped on the grass. The Monkeys got one of the first truly big crowds of the day.

Atari Teenage Riot erupted onstage with anarchist fury amid electronic beats and samples sped up to an intense crashing and buzzing on "Activate," with battle cries from Nic Endo and karate kicks from Alec Empire, who wore a black T-shirt with a message demanding Internet freedom. There were also waves of evocative sound during dreamy instrumental songs from Explosions in the Sky, and hyperkinetic beats and samples from Death Grips, a Sacramento, California hip-hop trio fronted by MC Ride, shirtless and shaking it at the very edge of the Gobi tent stage.

At the end of the night, influential hardcore band Refused credited Coachella with nudging the band toward an unexpected reconvening, which the quintet has taken as an opportunity to perform its Nineties material. Beginning with "The Shape of Punk to Come," the title song from from their final album in 1998, the radical punks pushed beyond the usual hardcore formulas while preaching revolution. "Liberation Frequency" demanded permanent control of the airwaves, and later Lyxzen encouraged their American fans to "change the fucked up system." After Friday's cold and wet festival opener, fans have already weathered some time in the trenches.

Additional reporting by Dan Hyman

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