Coachella 2012: Black Keys Ascend to Headliner Status, Sharing Spotlight With Cold Weather

Black Keys' Dan Auerbach
Black Keys' Dan Auerbach
 

The most important thing to know about the first day of this year's Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival? It was rainy and cold. Real cold. Bone-chill cold.

That's not to say there wasn't great music spread among the fest's five main stages. But when this day is looked back on, it won't be for the relentless rock assault of The Black Keys, or the majestic return of Brit-poppers Pulp, or any of the myriad other bands that played the Empire Polo Field in Indio yesterday. No, the first day of the first weekend (the show repeats next week, with the same lineup) will forever go down as: the really cold, rainy day.

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That's mostly notable because Coachella has always been the opposite, with oppressive heat the norm, which explains why many attendees still opted to be scantily clad -- and it also may explain why the field felt surprisingly empty, especially given the weekend's near-instant sell-out when tickets went on sale in January. That said, if you were dressed appropriately, it made navigating overlapping sets a breeze, allowing for even more music than usual.

Whether that was a good or bad thing depended on where you were. The Black Keys -- the amazingly ascendant Akron, OH duo-turned-five-piece that's become one of rock's most unlikely success stories -- fully embraced their headliner status, blowing away their main stage set last year with a tight, managed set of blues-based, raw rock 'n' roll that was a reminder of the breadth of their often one-note material. Unlike last year's tentative turn, this was a set imbued with confidence, with singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach nailing distorted turnarounds on the opener, “Howlin' For You,” and continuing through a set that, though focused on the recent hit-making albums Brother and El Camino, ran through their career, with a mid-set trio of tracks from earlier disks that showcased the chemistry between Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney. The penultimate “Everlasting Light” burned via a monster-sized mirror-ball, a performance tact the Keys would have eschewed years ago -- and, on this freezing night, one that felt communal, rather than pompously over the top.

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For that, you'd have to turn to Pulp. Jarvis Cocker's reunited Brit rockers, who haven't put out a record in more than a decade, traversed the main stage like gracious veterans, offering up their most notable hits -- all while the dapper frontman strutted in Jagger-esque fashion across the stage, pointing into the audience with a flashlight, making playfully sexual comments, and drummer Nick Banks drilled the tempo despite a broken hand. The massive neon reminder of who was performing felt a little forced, but through all the obligatory ego, Pulp delivered what was asked of them. They ended their set with beloved and eternally relevant "Common People," playing to one of the most socio-economically sound crowds they've likely ever seen.

Other notable acts were hit and miss: recently reunited '90s mood-champions Mazzy Star were mostly boring, their folksy reprises disappearing into the ether rather than connecting, anywhere. Girls' brand of '60s-influenced psychedelia was bolstered by a trio of background singers, though it likely would have played better in the shining sun. Austin blues-man Gary Clark Jr. and reggae legend Jimmy Cliff both enraptured their audiences, the first with death-defying licks and a tease of Jimi Hendrix's “Third Stone From the Sun,” and the latter with an infectious energy from the very first notes of “You Can Get It If You Really Want.” Dawes and M. Ward both explored various sides of folk rock, with both majestic harmonies and wild-eyed guitar runs, and soul singer Frank Ocean made Gobi girls swoon, thanks to his throaty hustle and a guest spot from sometimes-collaborator Tyler, The Creator. M83 focused almost exclusively on the recent Hurry Up, We're Dreaming, though minor sound issues at Mojave made the band sound more tentative than usual.

But despite the Keys' topline status, the headliner this day was the rain and the cold, proving that sometimes, no matter the effort, there's nothing even the best bands can do to prevent being upstaged.

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