The smell of horse shit hung in the air like a nauseating fog as my festival date Kerry and I walked toward the main entrance of the Empire Polo Club grounds for the first day of Coachella’s second weekend. There were only a half-dozen horses in sight, but their collective output plus the day’s triple-digit heat choked the air.
The temperature gauge inside the rental car I drove to Indio read 106. I felt every last degree as I walked to the first porta-potty in sight. I might as well have taken a piss on the sun’s surface.
The week prior to Coachella I vowed to dance my ginger ass off, in spite of the heat. I underestimated its oppressiveness. Fortunately, rivers of bottled water, globs of sunscreen, and an overpriced straw hat saved me from the worst the sun had to offer. And, in no time, I was dancing my ginger ass off, albeit under the festival’s three tents.
GIVERS (2:35, Mojave)
The Louisiana sun-pop quintet served as my introduction to Coachella, which was exciting for two reasons: A) because I am a bayou boy and B) because GIVERS are infectious live. Everything I’ve written in the past about their live show held true Friday afternoon. It was energetic, heartfelt, and fun. Plus, pogoing with hundreds, if not thousands, of others to set closer “Up, Up, Up” warmed my Cajun heart.
Gary Clark Jr. (4:30 p.m., Gobi)
I intended to see chillwave act Neon Indian in this slot. However, their presence on an outside stage prompted me to check out Clark, a virtuoso guitarist who I had read raves about but never actually heard. Jackpot! Clark made his guitar sing, playing with a sense of purpose and control that belied his fingers’ frenzied east to west and north to south movements. He sang too, flashing a smooth falsetto, but his guitar work captured my imagination. “You’re gonna know my name,” he declared on “Bright Lights.” Yes, indeed. Mr. Clark made a name for himself at Coachella.
GIRLS (5:45 p.m., Outdoor Theatre)
My first foray into one of the two outdoor stages was to see San Francisco-based mope pop revivalists GIRLS. My expectations were relatively low — I caught a GIRLS show in New Orleans a few years back and came away thinking they were a better studio band. Their Coachella set improved on the previous time I saw them for three reasons. First, their material from Father, Son, Holy Ghost stood out, particularly “Honey Bunny”, “Vomit”, and “Myma”. Second, their trio of backup singers provided some much needed showmanship. Third, Christopher Owens wore a shirt with a picture of San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum on it. And while GIRLS are still not a Cy Young equivalent live band, their fastball ain’t exactly Jamie Moyer’s either.
WU LYF (7 p.m., Gobi)
Brit heavy poppers WU LYF were exhilarating, primal, mesmerizing, bloody brilliant. They surpassed my lofty expectations and then just pummeled them into oblivion. Ellery Roberts took the stage in blue Adidas soccer shorts and a denim jacket with WU LYF printed across the back, hardly classic frontman attire. Yet, the way he growled and yelped his nearly indecipherable gibberish, all the while beating his chest to punctuate his nonsense, transformed me into a grunting, jumping, head-banging ginger caveman mess. Bassist Tom McClung threw his slight body around the stage, as if willing to fight his instrument to the death. Drummer Joe Manning, a dead ringer for actor Paul Dano, walked off the stage at one point without alerting his mates. It was an odd, yet very WU LYF thing to do. The set’s big revelation came midway through “Dirt” when Roberts enunciated a line I had mistaken for nonsense. “No matter what they say, a dollar is not your friend,” he barked. I had no clue he was saying dollar on the record. It felt like I had found buried treasure. There was plenty more where that came from. Set finale “We Bros” sent the devotees, including myself, into conniptions, and ensured WU LYF’s place among the best of the weekend.
Frank Ocean (8:15 p.m., Gobi)
I witnessed WU LYF around five rows from the stage. As soon as it was over, the stampede to get to the front of the stage for Ocean’s set began. Kerry and I dipped out, and eventually caught a few songs from his set toward the back of the Gobi tent. A twentysomething guy in front of me made exaggerated facial expressions and hand gestures as he sung along with Ocean on “Thinking About You.” He was not alone. Ocean’s mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra and subsequent appearances on the Jay Z/Kanye collaboration, Watch the Throne, have provided him with a major league fanbase. But what it has not provided Ocean is any semblance of stage presence. He looked lost Friday night, unsure whether to stand in place, groove with the music, or jump around. One day, I’m sure, he’ll figure it out, but for now I’d rather listen to his mixtape than watch him perform.
The Rapture (8:55 p.m., Mojave)
Watching The Rapture on Coachella’s YouTube webcast during the first weekend convinced me I needed to dance my ass off in the desert. That video did not do the NYC dance punks justice though. The band seduced me within its first minute on stage with the slinky intro of “In The Grace of Your Love” and never let me go. When frontman Luke Jenner opined “People don’t dance no more” later in the set, I set out to prove him wrong. I twisted, I hopped, I beat the beat, as they’d say in Jersey. When the band fired into its neo-disco classic “House of Jealous Lovers”, I lost my shit, as did everyone else within at least 100 yards. The same thing happened on “Whoo, Yeah, Alright”. I lost myself deep in the throbbing groove and gyrated in the cool night air. Jenner and Co. finished with “How Deep Is Your Love?” It would not be hyperbole to say this was the song I most wanted to hear played live at Coachella. They absolutely killed it, down to the sax solo leading into the final chorus. My calves felt the burn after it was all done. I needed that.
M83 (10:15 p.m., Mojave)
By the time M83 took the stage, I felt like a human fireball with jelly for legs. But there’s an old Yoda adage that goes “Dance too much, you can’t.” M83′s electronic hymns sounded sublime. The stage lighting backdrop of stars only added to the atmosphere. Their songs recalled children’s fairy tales being read in a planetarium. “Reunion” off their latest album, Hurry Up, I’m Dreaming, was a set highlight with its chorus of “oh-oh”‘s. Also, “Teen Angst” off Before The Dawn Heals Us sounded like a ghostly freight train sweeping through the Mojave tent. And of course “Midnight City” ruled. The crowd erupted at the first sound of spazzing synths. I didn’t even try to fight the urge to dance. Hearing “Midnight City” Friday night was like the audio equivalent of reading the line “And they lived happily ever after” in a children’s book.
Refused (11:20, Outdoor Theatre)
After soaking in joyous sets from The Rapture and M83, I lacked the anger in my heart to fully appreciate Refused. I have never understood the fuss about the Swedes’ hardcore music. Friday did not make me understand. But it was fun to watch Dennis Lyxzen toss his mic stand around and seize/dance across the stage. Alas, Kerry and I headed for the exits as the band launched into “Rather Be Dead.” Soon enough, the sounds of Refused were replaced by Swedish House Mafia, a development I wondered what Lyxzen would have thought about.