“Things could be much worse,” sang Cold War Kids frontman Nathan Willett as a sizable hometown California crowd assembled in front of the main stage in the height of the Saturday heat, and he meant it. The band finished up “We Used to Vacation” with guitarist Jonnie Russell slapping a cymbal with a yellow maraca, tested out some new material and performed their stellar cover of “Hang Me Up to Dry,” with Willett breaking away from the mike to pound away at his keyboard.
Meanwhile at the Gobi tent, Bonde de Role was stirring up a Brazilian dance party, dropping rhymes over the music from Grease‘s “Summer Nights” and filling in for any language gaps with “bah bah bah”s and “chi chi cha”s. An hour later and a tent away, Kate Nash and a tight four-piece band wowed a massive crowd that ranged from teenage girls to muscle-bound men. Perched a keyboard decorated with a drape of red fabric, Nash gently tipped out of her chair with excitement, crooning witty tracks like her single “Foundations” in her endearing British accent and ending nearly every song with mini rave-ups that transformed her neat little tunes into something refreshing and wild.
An even bigger (and more aggressive) crowd was busy cramming itself into the Sahara tent for British electro outfit Hot Chip. Despite the 100-degree temperatures, singer Alexis Taylor emerged in a shirt, tie and light-colored jacket to the sounds of “Shake a Fist,” as the group gave the song a clubby overhaul, packing the track with loopy keyboards. Crazed fans climbing the sides of the tent gyrated madly as the band delivered nearly an hour of melodic, smart dance music.
At the exact same time, just a day after singer Serj Tankian performed a solo Coachella set, his System of a Down bandmates Daron Malakian (singer-guitarist) and John Dolmayan (drums) debuted their new band, Scars on Broadway. Few outside the obsessive SOAD fan community have heard much about the new act, which has just finished recording its first album, but the brooding, melodic hard-rock quintet was determined to make a forceful entrance. “It’s hot as a motherfucker here at Coachella,” declared Malakian, grinning in a black hat and mirror aviator shades. “But we want you to dance with us.” More song-based than System’s often chaotic prog-metal, Scars still shook with psychotic guitar flourishes between the melodies. And many songs introduced at Coachella suggested a powerful obsession with recreational chemicals and the environment. “We are the enemy of the Earth,” Malakian warned as a mosh pit erupted in front of him. In another song, he lamented in tones sad and haunted, “You never saw a sky like this/you never want to die like this . . . Is this the end of rebirth?”
Later in the evening, there was mad violin-playing happening in the Mojave tent, where Canadian outfit Islands squeezed out songs that sounded like more straight-ahead rock tunes than their earlier work (singer Nick Thornburn was in especially great voice). Next door Tampa, Florida-based female hip-hop group Yo Majesty spat aggressive rhymes and stared down members of the audience while two lady breakdancers faced off behind them and a referee kept order.
Over at the Outdoor Theatre, Mark Ronson, best known in the States as producer and key collaborator on Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, stepped onstage with an electric guitar and led his band through several stirring minutes of excited, jazzy soul before inviting a series of U.K. vocalists to join him. On the same stage an hour later, Flogging Molly erupted with fire and celebration, singing mostly of freedom as fans danced and clapped right up until the final moments before Prince’s headline set across the field. “What’s Left of the Flag” was yet another rousing Irish folk-punk anthem from the 7-piece band, who also fired up “Devil’s Dance Floor” on fiddle and tin whistle. “Nothing like a good song about Satan, aye?” declared singer Dave King. “We’re all devils in here.”