Simon Vozick-Levinson
April 17, 2010 AT 12:31 PM EDT

Image Credit: Jeff Kravitz/ In the end it was just a rumor. The whispers going around Indio, Calif.’s Empire Polo Club Friday held that Dr. Dre would debut the first single from his extremely delayed Detox during Jay-Z’s headlining set on the opening night of Coachella 2010. This sounded plausible enough: We know that this single exists, features Jay-Z, and is called “Under Pressure.” Even so, Dre didn’t show. In retrospect, perhaps we should have known the story was too good to be true.

But who’s complaining? Not me. What Jay-Z did give us was an absolutely stellar evening with an entertainer like no other. Nor did his performance lack surprises. There were fireworks. There was an unannounced cameo from Beyoncé. There were shout-outs to indie bands who had played earlier like “Passion Pit, Grizzly Bear, and Yeasayers.” (Yes, Jay-Z randomly pluralized Yeasayer, but let’s not hold that against him.) And of course there was an entire day full of said indie bands before Jay took the stage. Read all about it after the jump.

I had hoped to arrive at Coachella in time to see Yeasayer’s set at 4:20, but sundry delays on the road from L.A. prevented that. (Free Coachella advice: No matter how much extra traffic time you think you’re leaving yourself, it’s probably not enough.) By the time I strode onto the festival field, it was nearly 6:20, and She & Him appeared to have finished their second-stage set. I began to suspect the universe just doesn’t want me to see this band in concert. But wait! “They told us we have more time,” Zooey Deschanel announced to widespread cheers. That turned out to be enough time for only one more number, “a very special song,” as Deschanel informed us. It was a cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.” Deschanel broke out a raw wail with shades of Janis Joplin as M. Ward picked out spare blues riffs. Not bad. The lively toots coming from the nearby main stage as the Specials started playing distracted only somewhat.

I opted to skip the ska and find a good spot to see Gil Scott-Heron in one of three smaller side tents. A few minutes later the great poet arrived on stage, a slim figure with gray hair spilling from beneath a newsboy cap. “For those of you who bet I would not be here,” he said, “you lose.” The crowd, itself skewing a bit grayer than the festival as a whole, laughed. He sat at a keyboard and launched into “Blue Collar.” “Ain’t no place I ain’t been down,” he sang in a voice full of hard-won wisdom. Scott-Heron has been called a father of hip-hop, a connection made explicit a few songs into his set: “For those of you who did not know, I have been sampled. It’s not as painful as it sounds like… For the most part, we have appreciated it.” In particular he cited Common, whose 2007 “The People” used a sample of Scott-Heron’s next song, the searing “We Almost Lost Detroit.” A three-piece jazz band joined him here, adding subtle flourishes — saxophone, harmonica, flute, bongos — beneath his damning words. Later, he repeated the sentence “I believe in peace” like a prophet’s incantation. That sentiment was more complex than it initially appeared: “Peace ain’t gonna be free,” he went on. “Gotta work for peace.”

Image Credit: Jeff Kravitz/ After wolfing down a quick dinner, I made my way to another side tent for Grizzly Bear. Their Veckatimest remains my favorite album of 2009, a year in which I saw them play four times, often enough to notice the little ways their live act has evolved since last summer. A fresh swing to their step was evident from the opening chords of “Southern Point.” They seemed lighter on their feet during the set’s delicate passages, as when Ed Droste’s spectral vocals reached up to heaven on the sublime “Cheerleader,” or on “Ready, Able,” a song whose second half still gives me chills each time I see it performed. And yet they also hit with heavier force when they chose. At first muddy beats leaked in from the dance tent next door, but the climactic rhythm-section smackdown of “Lullabye” muscled those right out of the way. Grizzly Bear thus confirmed its status as a band that I’d go see anywhere, anyplace that’s at all feasible. Now all I need is some new music from these guys.

Image Credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic.comOver on the main stage, LCD Soundsystem was just getting started. An enormous disco ball, weighing 350 lbs. according to the notation scrawled on one of its facets, spun high above the stage. The uncommonly tight band ratcheted up the tension on a series of post-punk grooves, including several from the upcoming This Is Happening. Frontman James Murphy, a white-suited master of the revels, spent most of his energy reeling off endearingly sloshed-seeming patter between tunes. “Not only this song but a lot of this band is dedicated to Gil Scott-Heron,” he gushed before “Losing My Edge,” the hilarious rant that started it all for them. “Thank you, Jay-Z, for f—ing ruling,” he offered sincerely at another point. Murphy voiced his gratitude for such a plum festival slot at every turn, most memorably in an extended dinnertime analogy: LCD Soundsystem, he attempted to explain, were once “the mixed nuts in the Coachella meal,” meaning (I think) a band that was relegated to a smaller stage. Now they found themselves — well, “not steak, that’s Jay-Z.” So “fish,” then? Murphy settled on “a vegan side.” Whatever the dish, it was tasty.

If anyone was hoping for a respite from the hands-in-the-air abandon of LCD Soundsystem, Vampire Weekend‘s second-stage set was not the place to find it. Giddy shrieks erupted at nearly every song’s first notes, and the manic riffs of “Cousins” inspired mass pogoing. I’ll confess that the first couple of times I saw VW in concert, back in 2007 and 2008, I left unimpressed. They’ve improved considerably since then. Ezra Koenig has become a much more expressive live singer; he and his bandmates command a wide range of tones from thoughtful to flippant with ease. I didn’t expect to enjoy Vampire Weekend’s set nearly as much as I did. That may be a backhanded compliment, but it’s honest.

In any case, I could now see Jay-Z‘s red Blueprint 3 insignia looming from the main stage’s huge video screens, so I headed that way. Soon a 10-minute countdown replaced the BP3 logos, soundtracked by Jay-Z’s warm-up music: Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” two verses of Drake’s “Forever,” the instrumental James Bond theme, and a snippet of Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Live and Let Die.” Was Jay trying to send a message with those choices? If so, it would have to be that he’s a timeless classic who’s still in touch with contemporary rap trends, a stylish international badass, and, of course, a proud son of Brooklyn. He proved himself all these things and more with the superlative-defying set that followed his entrance on a platform from beneath the stage. For well over an hour, Jay-Z took us on a tour through his catalog of undeniable hits. Roc-A-Fella diamond hand signs filled the air. He threw in a few treats for those who had seen him perform similar set lists in the past — giving sidekick Memphis Bleek a moment to shine on “Is That Your Chick,” reviving his ironic cover of Oasis’ “Wonderwall” from Glastonbury 2008. How foolish Noel Gallagher now seems to have questioned Jay-Z’s place as headlining act at a traditionally rock-oriented festival. Massive gatherings like Coachella and Glastonbury, tens of thousands of music fans jamming out in a field somewhere, have become as much Jay-Z’s home turf as Bed Stuy.

Beyoncé made her surprise appearance toward the end of Jay’s set, subbing in for Mr. Hudson on “Young Forever.” Let it be known that that song is so much less annoying with Beyoncé on the hook. Actually, B’s voice makes it pretty great. The battalion’s worth of brightly colored explosives bursting across the night sky didn’t hurt, either. Muse is going to have its work cut out trying to top that grand finale at their headlining set Saturday night.

Were any of you at Coachella day one this year? What were your favorite performances?

(Follow the Music Mix on Twitter @EWMusicMix.)

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