The first day of this year’s installment of the Coachella Music & Arts Festival was blessed from the beginning, with weather a full 20 degrees cooler than the 100-degree-plus oven that made Indio a West Coast Sahara for last year’s fest. But that great weather was only the beginning. Like almost every lineup for the past six years, this first day of the Coachella fest proved to be a diverse day of challenging music, with a distinctive new guard vs. old hat vibe. This time, the new guard won. Bands like Keane and Snow Patrol, whom most in the audience had never heard a year ago, proved easy favorites, while goth progenitor Bauhaus, together for the first time in seven years, fell flat with a set that did nothing to prove its relevance.
Three acts everyone seemed to agree with, however, were Wilco, Weezer and Coldplay. The latter two have new albums out this month, and both were unsurprisingly keen on making sure the Coachella audience — notorious for seeking out new music — knew which songs they should be downloading when they got home. “This will be your favorite song in three months’ time,” claimed Coldplay leader Chris Martin before launching into “Love,” a tempestuous, anthemic ballad.
When Coldplay first emerged, they often were compared to early-period Radiohead, but as they play these massive venues that comparison is no longer apt. Where Radiohead is insular, Coldplay is populist. Like his other hero, U2 singer Bono, Martin uses his charisma to express universal truths rather than solitary confessions. This makes Coldplay a perfect contender for headlining a huge festival like Coachella, and they know it — Martin changed the lyrics to the band’s biggest hit, “Yellow,” to fit the fest’s motifs, and ran into the audience in a giant show of solidarity during “In My Place.”
Bauhaus, on the other hand, had no desire to gain new fans; the band seemed perfectly happy being a nostalgia act for their loyal, decked-out legion. It wasn’t a strong force, though. The crew at the mainstage that pushed to the front, as Peter Murphy was lowered to the stage and began the set with “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” stretched only back to the sound board, suggesting most other attendees had opted for neo-New Wave band Bloc Party, simultaneously scheduled in a small tent. The crowd was even smaller by the end for the Ian Curtis-dedicated “Dark Entries.” They didn’t miss much.
Wilco’s noise-folk worked well placed against the desert sunset, though their set — a typically inspired run-through of material taken mostly from their latest Nonesuch release, “A Ghost Is Born” — could have used a bit of unusual flavor, especially since unplayed songs such as “A Magazine Called Sunset” or “California Stars” would have made sense, given the locale.
Weezer, too, would have benefited from variety, despite the sing-along nature of their entire setlist. Though the new song “We Are All on Drugs” — from the forthcoming “Make Believe” (Interscope) — is an instant stoner-rock anthem, the band leaned too much on past singles, forgoing their classic emo-inspiring “Pinkerton” album and their last record, the loud, hard-rocking “Maladroit,” entirely.
Keane replicated Coldplay’s piano-centered arrangements while Snow Patrol aped the same band’s all-is-one message and melody, but both succeeded in winning over an audience only familiar with their radio hits with frontmen obviously comfortable on Coachella’s huge mainstage. The same can’t be said for either eclectic New York band Ambulance LTD or one-note British group Nic Armstrong & the Thieves (who might as well be named “we sound like the year 1965”); both have recently released rowdy records that, at least in this setting, didn’t translate live.
Early in the day, two performers did fulfill their promise: young, jazzy crooner Jamie Cullum (who closed his set with a complete reworking of Radiohead’s “High and Dry,” inserting a bit of “Paranoid Android” for good measure), and the rafter-climbing heavy punch of Brit band Razorlight. Cullum has an earnest voice and serious chops; paired with his penchant for dancing-on-the-piano performance, he could easily become a crossover star a la Norah Jones. Razorlight’s “London Calling”-minus-the-politics roar, while not wholly original, proved ripe for groupie-grabbing, as the band closed their set with an invitation to their svelte, thrift-shirt-wearing female companions to come onstage to shake like ’73.