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Coachella: Day One 04/16/10

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Beyond the far reaches of LA, where its last subsets of cities have finally dwindled down, lies a strange place: a desolate and scattered collection of cities where any passing bystander is unsure where civilization ends and the desert starts. Indian casinos, gentlemen’s clubs, and outlet malls are a common theme along the freeway, and you kind of get the feeling that this is where Hollywood’s lost dreams end up. The inhabitants seem to know this, too, for their freeway literally says, “10 E - Indio, Other Desert Cities”, directly acknowledging this stark existence on both the literal and metaphorical front. But amidst this barren landscape, something, once a year for the past 11 years, very special happens.

That is the Coachella Music and Arts Festival, known simply as Coachella, which has a record 85,000 people arriving this year to partake in the three days of festivities. Some 140 bands are performing, most notably Jay-Z, Muse, and Gorillaz, who are headlining Coachella’s main stage. However, for Jay-Z, he is faced with the challenge of legitimizing himself as a respectable talent among the youthful crowd of Coachella. Many have seemed to question the hip-hop star’s merit in regards to playing in the same festival, in the same slot, on the same day, as Sir Paul McCartney did a year before. That is not to mention the other headliners that night: LCD Soundsystem and Them Crooked Vultures.

Being the first day, Coachella-goers were eager to get their freak on as soon as possible, but had to deal with the standard procedure first: lines. Lines of cars were backed up for miles all the way from Coachella to the freeway, and lines stretched seemingly as far as the eye could see to gain admission. There were even lines to make sure you were properly admitted in the previous line. But that didn’t hinder the mood; talks of who was playing where or whether or not to see so-and-so filled the air with enthusiasm.

Among Coachella’s five stages, was a ferris wheel, air conditioned tents, a giant piece of origami, and DOLAB, a small stage in which a DJ performs and the audience members are relieved of the relentless desert sun with water misters and spray.

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Notable performances during the daytime were southern rockers the Avett Brothers, the feel-good indie group She & Him (starring Zooey Deschanel), and Yeasayer.

But the main attractions, of course, were on the front stage. Longtime ska group the Specials lifted the crowd to forget about the energy-zapping UV rays of the sun with its catchy ska grooves. “Dear Love” had people, not quite dancing, but more of a loose boogieing, which coupled with fist pumping, hand clapping, and singing along. They energized the crowd with syncopated rhythms as the day began to fade--during that strange in between time of day when you’re not quite sure if its still daytime or beginning to become night.

As the sunset faded and the night rolled in, the crowd began to grow in massive numbers around the main stage for Them Crooked Vultures. The supergroup, composed of Joshua Homme, Dave Grohl, John Paul Jones, and sideman Alain Johannes, drew a predominantly rougher crowd, not just because it was mostly comprised of males, but tougher, meaner looking ones, perhaps best suited to handle the mean amount of riffage that awaited them. They kicked off the set with “Nobody Loves Me & Neither Do I”, which started with a mid-tempo groove during the verse and chorus and transformed into one monstrous riff in the second half of the song.

One of the finer moments of the set was “Scumbag Blues,” a song, with a normally strophic structure, that has since become an epic jam between the four, taking many twists and turns until finally returning back to its basic form. “Gunman” mixed a Zeppelin-esque groove a la “The Wanton Song” with a 70’s disco beat, and they closed their 50 minute with their first single, “New Fang.”

LCD Soundsystem was next, and they opened with one of their more well known tunes, “Us v Them,” complete with a throbbing bassline, steady dance beat, atonal talking/rapping/occasional singing of founder James Murphy, and giant disco ball looming overhead. Their second song, “Drunk Girls,” followed a similar style with that certain sustained intensity maintained by the hypnotic groove of the rhythm section. They seem to have perfected the art of teetering on musical climax. On “Pow Pow,” Murphy joined in with the rhythm section on cowbell duties, once again grooving to his brand of disco revival. It may have seemed like they played the same song over and over, but at least it was a good one.

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Finally, it was Jay-Z’s turn. The jumbotron screens counted down from 10 minutes to zero until he arrived onstage, at first playing Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep ‘Till Brooklyn.” As the clock reached :30, the chorus from “Live and Let Die” blasted, as if it were a ceremonial passing of the torch from McCartney to Jay-Z. “Run This Town” began first as he rose from below the stage on a platform. His all-black backing band was just as rock as anything else earlier in the day, best illustrated in “DOA”.

His defining moment was when he played Oasis’ “Wonderwall,” a tongue-in-cheek response to the flak he got for headlining Glastonbury in 2008, and now, for any skepticism regarding his ability to headline Coachella. Afterwards, he let out a smirk and shook his head, scoffing at his naysayers, and goes on to perform a short rendition of “Dream On.” Soon later, Beyonce appeared from backstage and she performed “Forever Young”, complete with a fireworks show mid-way through the song. After closing with “Encore,” his voice hoarse, graciously thanks the audience and the other bands, specifically Passion Pit, Grizzly Bear, and Yeasayer.

He seems to understand that in a setting like Coachella, where there are so many bands and so many people, the bands, despite being different genres, ultimately have the same goal of sharing something with other humans. Because despite what some may say how Jay-Z has no place in a rock show, when it comes down to it, Jay-Z isn’t a rapper. He is a rocker.

Words by James Thomer for LAist
Photos by Simon Cardoza for LAist