As the afternoon of Coachella Day One wore on, the sounds of electric guitars getting jacked into high gear called everyone’s attention back to the main stage, where the Raconteurs were settling in. “I haven’t seen the sun in weeks,” goes the first line of “The Saboteurs” (though nobody in the heat-baked crowd could truly make that claim), and Jack White, decked out in all black, moseyed over to Brendan Benson as the two guitarists faced off and worked at their instruments. “How are you doing, you desert people?” White later asked before launching into the country-blues groove of “Top Yourself” from the band’s new LP Consolers of the Lonely. While the bedraggled Benson was an able frontman, the crowd was arrested by the natural leader White, whose guitar playing took center stage on “Blue Veins.” The track began with a lengthy, squealing solo that demanded he pause and catch his breath. White ended the song scratching a pad that made his axe stutter as the song built into a giant jam. The set demonstrated how White has taken the band to a new level, stretching out songs and turning up the volume. White and Benson cranked up the distortion even on pop hit Steady As She Goes,” giving a desperate edge to White’s refrain, “Are you steady now? Are you steady now?”
The sun fully set during the Raconteurs set, leaving the Verve to soundtrack the magical part of the Coachella day when the temperatures drop, stars dot the sky and the Port-a-Potties start to ripen. The band didn’t disappoint, breaking out epic Britpop anthems that set shimmers of sound across the desert night. Singer Richard Ashcroft looked the part of the perfect frontman, tapping his chest or pointing skyward, crooning with his eyes closed in bare feet and sounding every bit as sharp as he did ten years ago when the band broke in the States. When Ashcroft strapped on an acoustic guitar and strummed the opening chords of the aching “The Drugs Don’t Work,” a canopy of lights covered the field, and his plaintive “I’m never coming down” echoed across the night like a broody threat. “I’m off to Vegas after this,” he announced, dedicating “Bittersweet Symphony” to Hunter S. Thompson. After playing a mix of older songs and a new track (“Sit and Wonder”), the familiar strains of the orchestrated track had fans sprinting from other parts of the field to watch the band achieve a sort of sonic ecstasy, Ashcroft grabbing as his unbuttoned shirt as bassist Simon Jones screamed along without a microphone.
At the Outdoor Theatre, the music of Serj Tankian was dependably crazed and outraged, colliding political messages with stream-of-consciousness sounds and lyrics (at one point he chanted, “We need to resist! We need to resist!”) Tankian provocatively calls his band the Flying Cunts of Chaos (not coincidently abbreviated as the FCC), and the crew fueled, Tankian’s hard rock carnival with brutal elegance as the band leader held forth in white top-hat and coat. He fell to one knee during “Empty Walls” on a stage engulfed by fog, wailing, “Don’t you see the bodies burning? Desolate and full of yearning?” Tankian, still best known as the singer for System of a Down, then picked up an acoustic guitar to pluck the delicate intro to “Saving Us,” which he described as “romantic music for the end of civilization.”
As the crowd at the main stage readjusted to accommodate for the influx of Jack Johnson fans, the Black Lips played a raucous garage set to a half-full Mojave tent, featuring the bopping “Katrina” (guitarist Cole Alexander also showed off his talent for spitting into the air and catching it in his mouth). The band’s dirty brand of raw southern rock was a great counterpoint to the mellow tunes skillfully performed by headliner Johnson, who stepped on the Main Stage as casual and unpretentious as ever, paying no attention to the fan in the front row screaming, “You’re my hero!” Johnson picked up an acoustic guitar and began strumming “Hope,” a subversively simple but questioning ballad from his new album Sleep Through the Static, on which warns: “The shadow is on the move/And maybe you should be moving too/Before it takes away all that you learned to love.”
There were love songs and love lost songs too, carried by the warmth of Johnson’s voice and the quiet force of his personality, as couple swayed on the grass, even when he dropped in a few lines from Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” Fans cheered when he picked up an electric guitar, which only added another layer of energy and feeling without shifting Johnson’s easygoing but thoughtful surfer vibe. As a songwriter, his mind is usually less on the ocean than in the troubled world outside his idyllic life in Oahu. Johnson strummed gently at Coachella through songs of trouble and contemplation, gently challenging the society around him. “Where have all the good people gone,” he asked (from 2005’s Between Dreams), before he got to the query posed by his new album’s title track: “Who needs please when we’ve got guns?”