The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival was founded with England’s Glastonbury and Reading festivals as templates, and for the opening day of the 2012 installment, the desert shindig finally got a taste of its predecessors’ native weather. Record-low temperatures, high winds and sporadic spitting showers changed the fest’s vibe entirely, with ponchos and hoodies replacing bikinis and body paint as the predominant fashion accessories. Fortunately, there were plenty of nostalgic standouts to keep the elements from putting a damper on proceedings.
While there was nothing fest promoters Goldenvoice could do to prevent such surreal snafus as cardboard trashbins taking flight in the gusty winds, Friday’s opener (the first in which Coachella will present identical lineups on two consecutive weekends) was nonetheless as smartly run as any in the fest’s recent history. Gone were the massive lines and cattle-herding crowd-control that caused near-riot scenarios in 2010, and such small but vital additions as electronic wristbands, sensible security and clearly marked parking lots made the fan experience as frictionless as could ever be expected.
The day’s bill was heavy on reunions and invocations of bygone genres, and the reformed Pulp proved by far the most felicitous of the returns. Frontman Jarvis Cocker — having successfully restyled himself from a modish ’90s sex-symbol into something resembling the world’s most debauched semiotics professor — lead the Sheffield sextet through an hourlong Britpop masterclass, climbing the speakers, stringing a charming narrative from “Babies” to “Disco 2000,” and offering a graphic stage-humping demonstration of “This is Hardcore’s” titular subject. A campfire-style rendition of “Sorted for E’s & Wizz” even gave Friday’s bill its most wonderfully meta moment, as thousands of attendees at an outdoor music festival giddily sang along to lyrics detailing the existential emptiness of attending outdoor music festivals.
Pulp were preceded by fellow Yorkies the Arctic Monkeys, who put in a similarly wry yet harder rocking set to the early evening’s biggest crowd. Since emerging in 2006, the band have evolved from snotty Buzzcocks imitators into possible inheritors of the Queens of the Stone Age’s stoner-rock mantle, and thrashers like “Brianstorm” and “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair” surged with great brio and swagger.
Nominal headliners the Black Keys hardly put a foot wrong during their late-evening set, running through tight versions of hooky blooze-rawk (not to be confused with “blues-rock”) jams. Yet it was difficult to get as excited about the group’s retro workouts as it was for those of rising guitar virtuoso Gary Clark Jr., who provided some welcome heat in the mid-afternoon, softening up the crowd with Curtis Mayfield-esque slow-jams before burning down the stage with fiery blues pyrotechnics.
As midnight approached, the two outdoor stages unintentionally demonstrated the stylistic schizophrenia of Swedish music, as two diametrically-opposed Nordic acts performed side-by-side. On the main stage, EDM supergroup Swedish House Mafia unleashed deafeningly loud, high-tech dance beats to a glowstick-waving mob; on the second stage, reunited prog-punkers Refused preached radical leftist politics to a frenzied mosh pit. Both acts were brilliantly on-form, though passing from “Liberation Frequency” to a mash-up of some of the year’s biggest pop radio hits provoked a sort of philosophical whiplash.
Inclement weather aside, there is simply no wrong context in which to hear Jimmy Cliff perform “Many Rivers to Cross,” and the reggae legend offered an ebullient set during the first of the day’s drizzles. Backed by Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong, the gold-suited veteran even covered his bandleader’s “Ruby Soho,” improving on it in every way.
Hipster dance act Neon Indian was textured and nuanced, if perhaps a bit too obtuse; while Sahara tent headliner Afrojack was direct and crowdpleasing, if perhaps a bit too bombastic. Atari Teenage Riot were the only head-scratching inclusion on the day’s bill, offering bursts of unlistenable noise that were all sound, no fury. Austin instrumental act Explosions in the Sky was lovely, though its hypnotic soundscapes may have been a bit too sleepy to properly ignite the fest crowd.