Coachella--and, for all intents and purposes, the entire summer concert season--kicked off Friday in California's Indio desert, and the three-day mega musical festival was a sold-out affair despite the current recession and ongoing whiny complaints about this year's "weak" lineup. (Um, hello: Kanye West, Duran Duran, the Strokes, the comeback of Britpoppers Suede, recent Album of the Year Grammy champs Arcade Fire, and many more? How is that "weak"?) Really, the festival offered everything any self-respecting fan of music (or just fun) could want: carnival rides, art installations, abundant (some might say over-abundant) sunshine, cute girls in gold lamé American Apparel bikinis, bacon-wrapped hot dogs, and of course, more hipster bands than you could shake a disco-stick at.
But it wasn't all good vibes on Coachella's first day, unfortunately. Surprisingly, a dark cloud fell over the festival in the form of the usually jolly Cee Lo Green, whose set gave his hit "F*** You" a whole new, quite literal meaning. He hit the stage a full half-hour past his advertised set time, and when he finally showed up, he was shockingly unapologetic, mumbling something about how he'd "just landed" and quipping, "It ain't my fault; they should have given me another set time!" Cee Lo had a point--a star of his caliber probably should have gone on later than 4:30pm--but his incessant bitter griping about his set being trimmed to four songs in 20 minutes (due to his tardiness), and constant swearing, won him few fans.
An angry Cee Lo demanded that the audience flip Coachella the bird, and a few spectators obliged, although most disgruntled punters didn't seem to be on Cee's side. Cee Lo and his foxy all-girl backing band managed to get through an instrumental of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man," Gnarls Barkley's "Smiley Faces" and "Crazy," and his aforementioned profanity-laden smash hit, before the plug was sadly pulled on him right before he was about to belt out Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'." Yes, it was a shame that no one got to witness that, but Cee Lo's reaction--brattily pouting and storming offstage in a huff--was unprofessional. Sure, he only had 20 minutes, but he could have used those minutes more productively.
Meanwhile, across the field, rising L.A. freak-folker Ariel Pink was suffering an even more major meltdown in the Gobi Tent, spending most of his set with his back to the audience while chain-smoking and refusing to sing, then leaving the stage 15 minutes into his show, saying, "I'm sorry, I know you hate me now." Were Coachella's artists just going crazy from the heat? Coachella was beginning to seem more like Altamont or Woodstock '99, with all this negative energy wafting around.
Luckily, things quickly improved when comeback queen Lauryn Hill--or Ms. Lauryn Hill, if you're nasty, since that's how she's billing herself nowadays--took the main stage. Yes, Ms. Hill was late by 15 minutes, but after the Cee Lo incident, that didn't seem so egregious. If there were any artist who would have been expected to undergo a breakdown at Coachella it was Lauryn, since she seemed to unravel personally and professionally after her 1998 Grammy breakthrough The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill and critically derided MTV Unplugged follow-up. But Lauryn was, astoundingly, very much on her game this fine afternoon.
Looking like R&B royalty as she emerged in a Boy George bowler hat and gold rope chain the thickness of a garden hose, flanked by a sprawling horn section and an in-the-pocket backing band, her experience and professionalism was apparent when she conducted her soundcheck during her first number (due to Cee Lo running overtime before her). Her voice sounded stunning on old-school Fugees hits "Fu-Gee-La" and "Ready Or Not" and her solo signature song "That Thing," and while some fans complained about the liberties she took with the tunes (she performed them with drastically different musical arrangements), there was no denying that she commanded the stage like a star. It was nice to have Ms. Hill back.
Back on the R&B/hip-hop scene, one of Coachella's most hotly tipped bands was Odd Future--or OFWGKTA (Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All), as they are sometimes tongue-twistingly known--who were still riding the crazy wave of hype stemming from their recent star-making "Jimmy Fallon" performance. The L.A. alternative hip-hop collective wreaked havoc in the chaotic Sahara (dance) tent, the likes of which probably had not been seen since Madonna's appearance generated total dance-tent madness at Coachella 2006. Also going on late, Odd Future stirred up a huge amount of salivating anticipation among the many lookie-looks crammed into the tent, but they never quite delivered on their promise, since they basically just shouted various curse words over canned beats for 35 minutes. (Hey, at least Cee Lo's curse-word song was catchy!) "I got too hyped and I busted this," OFWGKTA leader Tyler told the crowd, referring to his laptop, but his statement took on double meaning after such an overhyped, disappointing performance.
But despite Tyler's laptop bust-up and his rap posse's overall letdown of a set, or Cee Lo's big F-you, in the end it was still dance-party music that ruled Coachella on day one. The party got started with a rather odd double-booking: Northern Cali dance-punks !!! (Chk Chk Chk) on the second stage, and extremely similar (as in similarly Gang Of Four-ish) Southern Cali dance-punks Moving Units on the adjacent main stage. (Who planned this? Probably the same geniuses who booked Wire and Big Audio Dynamite to play at the same time on Saturday.) Anyway, Chk Chk Chk won this battle of the bands with their sunny attitude, copious amounts of cowbell, and chanty monkey/jungle noises, but lamentably, their sound bled over the Moving Units' many times, creating an unintentional and at times unlistenable mashup. Worst. Dance-Punk. Remix. Ever.
Luckily, amazing New York new-wavers Cold Cave didn't have to compete for the attention of Coachella's dance-punk scenesters. Their gig in the Mojave Tent was packed, and rightfully so: They were one of Friday's best bands, and their new album Cherish The Light Years is in fact one of 2011's best releases. Cold Cave seemed a little out of place, almost like vampires exposed to the sun, playing an afternoon set in the California desert; with their dark-disco sound, head-to-toe black leathers, and colorless complexions, these moody synth stylists would've been more at home playing on a gray, rainy day at Britain's Glastonbury Festival. But they still made a massive impression, with keyboardist/bassist Jennifer Clavin coming across as the coolest, sultriest rock blonde this side of the Raveonettes' Sharin Foo, and the band ending their set with an eardrum-liquefying cacophony of metal-machine-music noise not heard at Coachella since My Bloody Valentine played in 2009. It was a testament to Cold Cave's appeal that this white noise test didn't scare very many concertgoers away.
Another dance-rock act impressing at Coachella was Brooklyn's the Drums, whose sharp, snappy, Smiths-y jangle-pop made for sweet sunny-afternoon entertainment. Blonde-bowlcutted frontboy Jonathan Pierce, a fantastic rising song-Smith (heh), completely rocked the Mojave stage as he crooned "one sad pop song to another" yet managed to sound effervescent throughout. There's little doubt that the Drums will be considered one of the big breakouts of Coachella '11.
M.I.A.-associated Brooklyn pop experimentalists Sleigh Bells (former Poison The Well member Derek Miller and former teen singer Alexis Krauss) were also nothing less than stunning, their metallic set bursting with shouty cheerleaders-on-PCP choruses, lo-fi distortion, tape hiss, punchy and crunchy guitars, cheapo sound effects, pummeling hard-rock drumbeats, and plenty of noize, noize, noise. And Alexis, with her wild-eyed stage demeanor and blood-curdling horror-queen scream, proved her teen-pop days were far, far behind her. Sleigh Bells slayed, basically, and their set was one of the most fun, ferocious party-rawk gigs of the day. They truly played the Mojave Tent like it was a stadium, especially when they--like Cee Lo earlier in the day--cranked out a bit of "Iron Man."
Later, Kele Okereke, frontman for Bloc Party and now a solo artist, strutted onto the Gobi stage to Gary Numan theme music, which was a total statement of intent. Eschewing the guitar-posturing of his old on-hiatus, indier-than-thou band, Kele totally cut loose onstage in a welcome way that he never had before, and his galvanizing single "Tenderoni" turned the entire Gobi Tent into a rave. For once, a show by the Bloc Party singer felt like an actual block party, as Kele boogied with joyful abandon and the audience gleefully followed suit.
Australian synth act Cut Copy, whose shiny new disc Zonoscope is another one of this year's best albums, also delivered. Coachella revelers had a dance fever, and there was only one cure: MORE COWBELL! And Cut Copy banged so much cowbell, even Christopher Walken would have approved. And if Cut Copy's new single "Take Me Over" doesn't become THE anthem of summer 2011, then I'll personally put on a pair of gold-plated diapers. They were that good.
Crystal Castles drew one of the biggest dance-music crowds of the day, their second-stage set providing the ideal perfect antidote to Kings Of Leon's hoary, hairy dude-rock over on the main stage. There's a reason that Alice Glass, lead singer for the face-meltingly freaky Toronto techno terrorists, came in at #1 on NME magazine's "Cool List" in 2008, and during her Coachella set she proved she deserves to win that title every year. The fearsome frontwoman gave a totally unhinged performance, her mental-patient eyes bugging out like Marty Feldman's and her mic cord coiled noose-like around her pale porcelain neck. It seemed like every awestruck girl in the crowd wanted to be Alice--this writer included. Alice managed to out-cool even Sleigh Bells' Alexis.
However, the ultimate dance party was thrown by the hostess with the mostess, Swedish teen-star-turned-electro-goddess Robyn, who hit the stage sheathed in Lycra like an '80s aerobic instructor and exhibited the energy to match. To quote one of her songs, her style was the bomb diddy bomb de deng de deng diggy diggy, and her sweaty Mojave Tent set truly brought the platinum-white desert heat.
But Coachella doesn't attract just indie types or disco dollies; it's a huge event now. Therefore, a good majority of the festival-goers were naturally drawn to the big outdoor stages--to see the acts that at one time were just little indie baby bands, but have now oddly become arena-level mainstream rockers. (Indie rock is the new stadium rock, apparently.) Of such acts playing Friday, Killers frontman Brandon Flowers--who, like Bloc Party's Kele, is currently pursuing a side solo career--was one of the most impressive, indicating that he needn't go back to his day job any time soon. (His debut solo album, Flamingo, is better than anything the Killers have put out since Hot Fuss.) His unexpectedly delightful yet unironic cover of Kim Carnes' "Bette Davis Eyes" was a real treat, even if many youngsters in the crowd probably had no idea that it was a remake.
Meanwhile, Interpol, with their sublime brand of subtle menace, also intrigued, as they played in silhouette with their artsy black-and-white films screening behind them, casting long shadows onto the field.
And finally, Friday's main stage lineup wrapped up with recent Best Alternative Album Grammy-winners the Black Keys (who celebrated drummer Patrick Carney's birthday onstage), and beardy festival veterans Kings Of Leon. Neither were exactly mind-blowing or headline-making, but they were nothing if not consistent, delivering their usual blustery big-stage fare for the masses. And sometimes at a massive music festival, when you've got a beer in one hand and bacon-wrapped hot dog in the other, that's all you really need.
Coming up Saturday: the return of B.A.D. and Suede, the boy-girl ferocity of the Kills, the sublime mope-rock majesty of Manchester's Elbow, and the sure-to-be-triumphant headlining set of Eminem-trumping Grammy champs Arcade Fire.
All photos except Brandon Flowers by Debi Del Grande
Brandon Flowers photos by Torey Mundkowsky
Additional reporting by Don Andrews Jr.
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