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Coachella Day One: The Verdict

When it’s nearly midnight at a festival that started nine hours earlier in 100-degree heat, some artists might think twice about hitting the exhausted crowd with a hushed ballad sung entirely in Icelandic. But on Friday night at Coachella, Bjork didn’t hesitate: As she moved into the second half of her set, she sang the lullaby-like tune backed only by a soft harpsichord. Half the audience seemed to sit down in the grass and wait for it to be over, only to leap to their feet when she and her band — led by an insanely speedy percussionist who was apparently playing the electronic beats live from a sample-triggering digital drum kit — jumped into an apocalyptic version of “Army of Me.”

Bjork’s band relied heavily on a large, all-female brass section (who doubled as backing singers), as well as a synth player who was manipulating sound using a wild touchscreen interface that looked like the tractor-beam controls on the Death Star. And in her encore, the angry, frenetic “Declare Independence” from her new album Volta, Bjork howled, “make your own flag/ raise your flag” while the horn players complied by frantically waving red and green flags. She began the set by coming out in a puffy, Strawberry Shortcake-like headdress, singing her new, Timbaland-produced single “Earth Invaders.” The rest was a mix of Volta tracks and old tunes rearranged with lush, orchestral horns. “It’s good to be here in the desert with you,” said Bjork, who was wearing a dress that looked like it was made out of multi-colored strands of straw or yarn, and red and green facepaint that matched her flags.

Also on the main stage, Jesus and Mary Chain played a greatest-hits set (plus one solid new song) that was impressively tight for a band that has hardly played together since their 1999 break-up. Weirdly, a straw-hat-wearing Scarlett Johannson came out and sang harmonies on “Just Like Honey,” the haunting tune that played over the credits of Lost in Translation. Frontman Jim Reid never introduced or identified her, and some crowd members seemed either oblivious to the movie star’s presence or just way too indie to acknowledge it.

Arctic Monkeys kicked some ass: Whether it’s the addition of a new bass player or just road-hardening experience, on old songs such as “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor” and tracks from their new album, they sounded tighter and more muscular than in their small-club days. They still look like they’re twelve years old, though. Interpol previewed some songs from their upcoming major-label debut, which sounded a lot like their old songs, except maybe a little more peppy and less gloomy, while bassist Carlos D. showed off his new vest-and-bolo-tie look.

One act who should have made one of the two main stages was Amy Winehouse, who drew a massively overflowing crowd to her afternoon set in one of the side tents. Though her thick Cockney accent made her stage banter comically unintelligible, she seemed relatively sober and in good voice underneath her Marge Simpson beehive — and her band was super-hot, with an ace horn section that nails her retro-R&B/girl group vibe. You could even almost forgive her for a cheesy cover of a piece of Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing).”

Another tent act, Canadian buzz band Tokyo Police Club, showed promise, even if their post-punk, post-Franz guitar riffs were sometimes too familiar. They sparked a mass clap-a-long with the weirdly exuberant “Citizens of Tomorrow,” which suggests that we’ll all become slaves of “robot masters” by 2009. “Citizens of tomorrow, be forewarned,” says frontman/bassist Dave Monk, who sounds something like Ben Gibbard, at least when he’s not screaming.

Meanwhile, anticipation for Sunday night’s festival-closing Rage Against the Machine reunion set is running super-high: Every other guy in the crowd seemed to be a wearing a t-shirt that featured the Rage logo of a silhouetted revolutionary dude raising his fist in the air, and the words “Rage Against the Machine: The Battle of Coachella.” See you in the pit, bros.

Don’t miss our constant Coachella coverage! Get the scoop from Brian Hiatt, Rob Sheffield and indie-rock star correspondent, Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear.


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