The biggest rumor preceding this year’s edition of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival was that Daft Punk would be making a secret appearance – which in fact turned out to be (sort of) true. This very rumor has dogged Coachella ever since the superstar French dance-music duo debuted their kinetic pyramid stage show and robot stage personas here in 2006 after nearly a decade’s absence from the stage – igniting a global sensation in the process. Despite constant denials from the band itself, chatter that Daft Punk was hatching a Coachella stunt has ratcheted up in recent weeks, largely because the group will be releasing a new album, Random Access Memories, come May 21st.
And while the first official day of Coachella 2013 – which kicked off its two-weekend stand yesterday afternoon at its longtime location at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California – didn’t feature an actual Daft Punk performance, attendees were startled when, a few minutes before Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ 8:40 p.m. set on the Main Stage, a blast of color bars and white noise appeared from the stage’s video screens. It was, in fact, the beginning of an extended teaser video for the song “Get Lucky,” featuring Daft Punk members Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo in their android mufti performing alongside Pharrell and disco legend Nile Rodgers. The minute it was clear what was happening, the crowd rushed the stage: Without even being physically present onstage, Daft Punk managed to upstage the actual musicians playing the festival. This incident, of course, solidifies Coachella’s status as the U.S.’s preeminent annual music gathering – a tastemaker institution where trends are born as pop culture’s past and future collide unpredictably and thrillingly.
Now in its 12th year of existence, Coachella maintains a tension between its underground roots in Southern California punk rock/rave culture and its increasingly dominant status among North American popular music live events. It’s proven to be a complex and evolving ecosystem as it grows in scale and renown; as a result, some years are more user-friendly than others – and from initial observations, 2013 tends towards the latter. The decision to place will call on an offsite location meant that attendees had to endure not just one but two traffic and parking crushes and endless lines to get in, often resulting in waits of over an hour in 90-degree heat; it’s like a little taste of the old Soviet Union, but with warmer weather and a beat you can dance to. In addition, by afternoon, sanitary conditions in the press tent’s bathrooms began to make the infamous loo in the late CBGB seem positively respectable. And where easy access once ruled, this year there are immense lines everywhere – outside the charging stations dotting the venue, to get into the VIP section, extending nearly a block in front of the Yuma Tent during electronic producer Four Tet’s bass-heavy dancefloor set. (The Yuma Tent is a new development: Coachella has largely segregated the EDM scene to the outdoor Sahara Tent, while relegating more hipster/avant-garde club sounds to the smaller – but air-conditioned – Yuma.)
As the day wore on and the attendance grew, the scrum moving between stages felt claustrophobic and a little dangerous – especially when, say, a dudebro wearing a glowstick necklace decides to hurl a water bottle into the already keyed-up crowd. Despite these hindrances, the Coachella party started almost as soon as the gates were opened. Ioanna Gika, singer of buzz band IO echo, didn’t expect the reception her band’s Coachella debut set at the Gobi Tent received at a little past noon on Friday, just an hour after the festival began. “I was really surprised,” Gika says. “To see the tent packed at that time was amazing: I was so grateful. But then again, real music fans always show up early.” By 3:40 p.m., the party was in full swing as if it were 3:40 a.m. at the dancefloor in the Sahara Tent. Rammed all the way to the tent’s perimeter for the dubstep/pop-flavored progressive house of DJ Thomas Gold, ravers were so excited, they actually raised their hands in the air enthusiastically to a song with the lyric “surrender to the rhythm.”
If any trend for Coachella’s 2013 edition could be discerned from its launch day, it’s that the festival is undergoing a full-on British invasion. From Oasis to Radiohead to My Bloody Valentine and beyond, the U.K. has always been deeply represented at Coachella, but this year seemed to span nearly every era of recent English pop history. At Jake Bugg’s rapturously received afternoon set in the Mojave Tent, the young Brit troubadour evoked in both his mod personal style and hooky musical choices the young Noel Gallagher (although his signature hit and final song, “Lightning Bolt,” suggests the incongruous influence of They Might Be Giants). Bugg was immediately followed by Johnny Marr – who, in addition to tracks off his acclaimed recent solo album The Messenger, stunned the crowd with renditions of “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” and “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” from his legendary former band the Smiths.
While Marr is no Morrissey, seeing him tackle Smiths classics on his own provided a certain frisson. Marr is a six-string god renowned for his innovative and tasteful playing, but the status for Coachella 2013’s current guitar hero has to go to another Mancunian, John Squire, axeman for proto-Britpop legends the Stone Roses, who played Friday’s final set on the Main Stage. The Stone Roses are absolute icons in their homeland: When they reunited for a tour in 2012 for the first time in over 15 years, they broke records in the U.K. by selling more than 220,000 tickets in little over an hour. On Friday night, however, they had one of the smaller Main Stage headliner crowds in recent memory – perhaps the only tinier one of late was Pavement’s 2010 appearance. Still, despite their relative obscurity to many in attendance, they won over the crowd with expansively psychedelic, jammed-out versions of songs like “I Wanna Be Adored” off the group’s immortal 1989 debut. “This one’s for the shoulder shakers,” Stone Roses’ frontman Ian Brown stated before the band launched into its grooved-out dancefloor classic “Fool’s Gold,” which John Squire turned into a thrilling Hendrixian guitar manifesto, filling its syncopated beats with kaleidoscopic solos. Throughout the Stone Roses’ performance, Squire took the songs to unexpected frontiers with unhinged, dimensional lead playing that felt both retro and futuristic, moving from full-on boogie to spectral echoes within the same passage.
The night’s best performance, however, came from the band that preceded Stone Roses on the Main Stage, Blur. The U.K. foursome’s Coachella set proved its first Stateside appearance since reuniting for a series of acclaimed shows in 2009. The Britpop pioneers entered the stage dripping attitude, getting the crowd dancing immediately with its signature hit “Girls & Boys.” Frontman Damon Albarn was a dynamic presence, and the crowd seemed to double with each classic the band wheeled out: “There’s No Other Way,” “Tracy Jacks,” “Parklife” (complete with its spoken-word monologue essayed by the man who originated it on record, actor Phil Daniels, best known in America as the lead in Quadrophenia). Here, Blur felt intimate yet epic, lurching with a ragged glory that felt fully rock and roll; there were no click tracks. And when Albarn started playing the signature riff to Blur’s biggest American hit, “Song 2,” the moment of recognition in the crowd was thrilling. Soon the entire audience was chanting “Woo hoo!” along with Albarn and bouncing up and down, making for one of the day’s absolute standouts. Delays, lines, dudebros – all is forgiven, Coachella, for making this magical Blur performance in the desert possible.
The bleak industrial pop of Trent Reznor’s How to Destroy Angels took on unexpected warmth under the Gobi tent – this, despite the fact that the band played much of its midnight set hidden in plain sight, encased between transparent sheets that sprayed out light in cubic patterns and blood-red streaks. “And the Sky Began to Scream,” off the band’s new LP, Welcome Oblivion, showed off rich vocal interplay between Reznor and his wife, lead singer Maariqueen Maandig, while “Fur-lined” was downright funky in parts, as Reznor and bandmates Atticus Ross and Rob Sheridan dug deep into the song’s fractured disco-rock groove. The crowd lit up most, of course, whenever Reznor let out his menacing screams, bringing the band’s Nine Inch Nails DNA into full relief. But HTDA are a fully-realized unit at this point, and their set was one of the most transportive of the day, something to match up to all the trippy art installations dotting the festival grounds, from a giant slithering snail and a sky-high mechanical praying mantis to the dinosaur called “Recyclasauras Rex.”
Mostly, however, day one of Coachella 2013 simply confirmed what we already knew about many of the artists, for better and worse. The icy synths and cutting of Divine Fits provided a cool breeze of artfully cynical indie rock to the desert heat in their afternoon Outdoor Stage set; Passion Pit ushered in the early evening on the Main Stage with a set of muscular dance rock, full of pounding disco drums and hooky synth riffs that galvanized the crowd into movement. Frontman Michael Angelakos proved a commanding presence, effortlessly nailing seemingly impossible high notes on Passion Pit anthems of angst like “Sleepyhead” and “Take a Walk.” Beach House emphasized the atmospheric impact of their lush dream pop and the reverbed-out vocals of singer Victoria with a starkly modernist stage set and stroboscopic, mesmerizing light show. Yeah Yeah Yeahs came on strong, meanwhile, opening their evening Main Stage set with “Sacrilege” – the best track off new album Mosquito, which they augmented onstage with a purple-robed, church-style choir, revving up the irony of the title. As always, Karen O proved the most dynamic of frontpersons, entering the stage in a gold cape, sparkly green headpiece, and silver trousers, a combination that was half Papal uniform, half James Brown stage gear. Her intense commitment to the moment and dramatic charisma compelled fully, as did Nick Zinner’s Technicolor post-punk guitar dazzle. The challenging, discordant art-goth of tracks showcased from Mosquito perplexed much of the audience, but a one-two punch of hits “Gold Lion” and the eternal “Maps” brought them back at the end.
Lethal on their own, EDM titans Skrillex and Boys Noize tore up a packed Sahara Tent as the duo Dog Blood, their self-proclaimed “techno bromance” that was first unveiled last month at Ultra Music Festival. It turns out Skrillex’s guttural brand of bass melds seamlessly with Boys Noize’s dynamic techno and acid house; their pairing was one of the most rhythmically complex dance sets at Sahara, where methodically spaced-out drops were otherwise in long supply. Another dance duo, TNGHT, sounded small in comparison during their overlapping set at the Gobi tent, their trap beats never quite lifting off despite a throng of enthusiastic fans.
“We are two sunburnt bodies from Vancouver,” said Japandroids’ Brian King midway through the punk duo’s riotous set – though they gamely got into the Coachella spirit. “This is the most California song we know,” King shouted before launching into their Celebration Rock cover of Gun Club’s “For the Love of Ivy,” sneering and shredding from atop bandmate David Prowse’s drum kit. Later in the afternoon, rising U.K. rockers Palma Violets – wearing billowy shirts that rivaled Kanye’s 2011 Coachella blouse – steamrolled through a no less rough-edged but exhilarating set, conjuring up the Doors, or a more romantic Clash, with exalted riffs and full-throated hooks, “Best of Friends” being the stickiest.
Of course, the most compelling music heard all day proved the most unexpected. During a laborious trip to the bathroom, recently reunited rap revivalists Jurassic 5 were discovered to be electrifying those in attendance with a fiery, funky performance of old-school-styled hip-hop on the Outdoor Stage. Stumbling upon Local Natives’ twilight set at the same location, it was impossible not to be sucked in by the Southern California indie band’s lovely group vocals and off-kilter, complex arrangements; weirdly yet intriguingly, the combination suggested the Eagles being devoured by Radiohead. On Local Natives’ final song, “Sun Hands,” a scratchy Afrobeat guitar battled with a clicky electronic groove that recalled Caribou or Four Tet, evoking the best of Talking Heads’ similar experiments. These elements built into an ecstatic, rhythmic rave-up that climaxed with gorgeous harmonies, utterly winning over the crowd. It was the kind of gem-like revelation that’s now considered an expected occurrence here. Its only challenger for the day’s most perfect Coachella moment came from Ian Brown’s final words to the crowd at the end of the Stone Roses’ set: “Thank you, stay cool.”