Held each year in Indio, California, the Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival has become a mandatory desert pilgrimage for any heat-tolerant indie-rock fan. This year, with headliners like New Order, Blur, and The Stone Roses, the fest’s demographics—around the main stages, at least—skewed a little older than in previous years, but with up-and-coming undercard acts like Savages, Alt-J, and new Skrillex project Dog Blood drawing big numbers at the side stages, the fest maintained its usual commitment to diversity in both genre and crowd.
As is its norm now, Coachella was also full of surprises. Phoenix brought out R. Kelly for a couple of songs, and a new Daft Punk trailer played between bands on the video screens next to the side stages. Plus, on Sunday night, high winds sparked a dust storm, sending everyone home with itchy eyes, black snot, and dirty everything. Dusty appendages notwithstanding, the whole thing was a blast, and the fest will be doing it again this Friday as weekend two of Coachella kicks off once again with DJ P’s 11 a.m. set at the Sahara tent.
The A.V. Club was there this past weekend, though, and saw a number of interesting and surprising things, from Gordon Gano’s mom-style Capri pants to The Postal Service’s biggest comeback show yet. Here are 10 of the most interesting sights and trends we caught.
1. Even the most organized festival is susceptible to some punk high jinks: After a fun but fairly serene weekend, Coachella got turned on its ear—for a half an hour, at least—during Sunday’s set by Thee Oh Sees. The prolific San Francisco punk act somehow managed to turn the rather massive Gobi tent into a seething little basement club, complete with dozens of crowd surfers and plenty of thrown shoes, water bottles, and elbows. Ripping through high-energy burners like “Lupine Dominus” and “Block Of Ice,” John Dwyer and company drove the young crowd into a head-bopping frenzy. At one point, Dwyer called out to fellow artist Ty Segall in the crowd, saying he should jump the security fence, race past the guards, and jump on stage to join the band. While security probably would have let him by anyway, he tumbled over the fence and faux-dodged the guards with gusto, ending up playing sleigh bells and tambourine behind the band for the rest of the set.
2. The Postal Service still delivers: With its recent reunion sparked (in part, at least) by the offer to play Coachella, The Postal Service was one of the weekend’s big stories. The band played third to last on the main stage Saturday, and drew some of the fest’s biggest and most enthusiastic crowds. Given that the band only has one record, the 50-minute set wasn’t hard to fill, and the group—Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello, joined on tour by Jenny Lewis and The Mynabirds’ Laura Burhenn—floated through songs like “Such Great Heights” and “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight.” The interplay between Lewis and Gibbard was especially adorable on tracks like “Clark Gable,” which the two performed while dancing around each other as if they were Grease’s Danny and Sandy doing an electro-pop version of “You’re The One That I Want.”
3. Blur are excellent, tired: Two years into its reunion tour, Blur finally got around to playing the States Friday night. While the group was clearly a little over the whole “being a band” thing—Damon Albarn looked especially rough, smiling maybe once—musically, the Brits were as tight as ever. While the crowd was a little thin, especially for a headliner, the fans that were there were ecstatic, singing along to “There’s No Other Way,” “Coffee And TV,” and, of course, “Song 2.” The group even pulled a little Coachella surprise, bringing out British comedian Phil Daniels to perform his spoken-word bits from “Parklife.”
4. Violent Femmes sound great, look horrible: Aging is a bitch, and while the Violent Femmes’ sound and chops have survived the years with aplomb, the group’s actual appearance is a little alarming. Bassist Brian Ritchie was always a little scary-looking, with his long hair and cat-eyed sunglasses, but age hasn’t really dulled the visage’s creepy edges, especially when coupled with the pair of ill-advised thin cotton palazzo pants he was sporting during the group’s set on Saturday. Frontman Gordon Gano, clad in capris, a safari hat, and a Hawaiian shirt/tank top combo, didn’t look much better, his once-cute looks having taken a hard turn toward “weird uncle” territory. Still, listening to the band was more than satisfying, and tracks like “Kiss Off” and “Blister In The Sun” sounded great, despite being surprisingly frontloaded into the set.
5. Celebrities love Coachella: One of the best reasons to go to Coachella—besides the music, of course—is for the celebrity-spotting. For those into that sort of thing, it’s a veritable “Hey, that guy” candyland, with everyone from Paris Hilton to Danny DeVito appearing in the crowd. The A.V. Club alone spotted Hilton, DeVito, Katy Perry, Celebrity Rehab’s Bob Forrest, Skrillex, Sasha Baron Cohen, Bob Mould, Alexa Chung, Alexander Skarsgård, Stephen Dorff, Pharrell, Aziz Ansari, a guy from CSI:NY, Robert Pattinson, and an enthusiastically dancing Kristen Stewart, who is apparently not the hateful bitch most of the world thinks she is. The best sighting of the weekend, though, was Ray Wise, best known for playing Twin Peaks’ Leland Palmer and Dr. Doone Struts, the shrim-preaching evangelist from Tim And Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie. He stars in Beach House’s latest video, filmed by T&E’s Eric Wareheim, and he was side-stage for the band’s Saturday night show.
6. Female-fronted rock bands are the future: With their new record, Mosquito, out this week, Yeah Yeah Yeahs snatched a coveted sunset slot on Friday. The trio made its 50-minute set count, bringing a gospel choir in for some tracks and absolutely scorching the already pretty arid earth with songs like “Gold Lion,” “Maps,” and “Heads Will Roll.” New single “Sacrilege” is a total banger, and anyone with the chance to see YYYs live should absolutely jump on it.
In that same vein, Savages were absolutely the best baby band at the fest, tearing up the Mojave stage Saturday afternoon. The all-female post-punk quartet from London drew a ton of buzz at SXSW for its excellent live set, and all of it is well-deserved. The group’s debut LP, Silence Yourself, isn’t out until May, but it’s excellent, and live, well, the songs sound even better. Go see them this summer. Seriously.
7. Old punks have fun too: Ian Svenonius has long been making stages his bitch, whether as frontman from Nation Of Ulysses, Chain And The Gang, Weird War, or recently reunited act The Make-Up, who performed Saturday evening to a skimpy crowd. Sparse attendance or not, Svenonius and The Make-Up brought the full power of their garage rock/“liberation theology” sound to the Gobi Stage. Svenonius spent much of the show standing on audience members’ shoulders, precariously stepping through the crowd. Always outspoken, the anti-authoritarian icon even told the crowd he was glad everyone “betrayed all your ethical tenets to be here with us,” saying that while The Make-Up might not have “as many BPMs as you’re used to,” the group has a valuable message all the same.
8. Real rock stars wear skinny, skinny jeans: Divine Fits and Japandroids put on excellent, feverish shows back to back on Friday afternoon, and despite the 90-plus degree heat, both acts were clad in insanely tight, almost legging-like jeans. While what the bands were wearing might seem inconsequential, it somehow added to their shows, enhancing both acts’ bow-legged rock ’n’ roll stances and general bad-assery. Message received, bands: Skinny jeans are for rock stars.
9. Body-covering tattoos are for roadies: Some of the best body art at Coachella came courtesy of the friendly stage managers and roadies, some of whom were absolutely covered head to toe in dubious ink. One guy we saw had what appeared to be a sketchy portrait of Timothy McVeigh on his calf, while another was covered neck to toes in a fiery, satanic body suit.
10. Speaking of Satan, Ghost B.C. was great: Thankfully, not a lot of Coachella acts—at least ones we saw—really bombed. Kurt Vile was kind of boring, and Café Tacuba is insufferable, but we knew that. With its 1:30 p.m. slot on the cavernous main stage Sunday, theatrical Swedish metal band Ghost B.C. could have tanked, pawning it off on the bright sunlight and unreceptive audiences. Instead, it delivered, its anonymous members clad in hooded, Sith-like robes. Masked frontman Papa Emeritus II barely spoke, but when he did, the crowd paid attention, perhaps due in part to his priestly robes. Even short-shorted California girls thrashed around after he asked the masses to join the group “in a last ritual,” and launched into epic jam “Ritual.”