Bands who perform at giant outdoor festivals (like Lollapalooza) have some unique challenges—the wind can bat sound around (especially at stages that aren’t equipped with towering speaker columns), and they’re often dwarfed by the massive sets. Which means your band has to be: a) really good at making music both noisy and catchy and b) interesting enough to watch that they don’t look weird/bored under a 100-foot awning.

Unfortunately, the band Wye Oak, which sounds pretty good coming out of headphones, ran into some trouble that made these qualifications impossible to live up to. Vocalist and guitarist Jenn Wasner battled a dying amp, and the sheer fact that shoegaze-y slow rock music doesn’t usually translate well (My Bloody Valentine excepted) to a live setting meant the kickoff to the festival was a little rough.

Fortunately, everything was working well for The Vaccines, an impressively tight group of Britons playing distorted ’60s-rock. Combining a wry-grin style of songwriting with tales of oh-so-sad heartache, the band was as tight as you’d want any group of British rockers to be.

Even though they were on the same stage as Wye Oak, The Naked and Famous (fortunately) didn’t have any of the same sound problems. Though The Naked and Famous tend toward a Passion Pit-type sound on album, they came across as much heavier on stage, with monumental guitars. In other words, there was no risk of their sound being destroyed by the wind.

Foster the People played soon after, and the band proved why it’s become an overnight sensation. Combining the dance moves of Thom Yorke with soaring electro-pop stylings, they played before an enraptured crowd of tens of thousands. When a band can pull out every single album cut and it plays like a huge hit with a gigantic crowd, you know they’re on the cusp of something big. And that’s what Foster the People ensured on the first day of Lollapalooza.

One of the great things about a big festival like Lollapalooza is the opportunity to discover new music simply by walking around. That’s what happened when I was walking by a stage and heard what sounded like vintage Lauryn Hill coming. As I walked in, it turned out to be diminutive Latin American rapper Ana Tijoux. Performing with a DJ and a live band, Tijoux belted out fierce raps over jazz-infused beats—all in Spanish. A good portion of the audience (myself included) probably didn’t understand the lyrics, but the message was clear: Tijoux is a singular talent with a knack for stringing sounds together and weaving in and out of beats.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the day was current buzz-band Cults. Maybe they were nervous at playing before such a huge audience (the guitarist frequently noted how “surreal” the whole thing was) or maybe it was that their music didn’t translate well to a festival setting. Either way, the band came off as aloof and a little boring. What might sound great via speakers or headphones didn’t do so well on a steamy Chicago afternoon.

Fortunately, The Kills were on stage close by and their swagger was an instant reminder of how valuable stage presence can be. Alison Mosshart stalked the stage like some kind of feral cat, yowling out lyrics over the screeching guitars and yelps of bandmate Jamie Hince. As always, their performance belied the fact that only two people were playing instruments on stage.

Possibly the biggest surprise of the day (at least for me) was Bright Eyes. I’ve never particularly liked them—the hyper-earnestness and squeaky voice of frontman Conor Oberst can be a lot to take. But the band was in great form at Lollapalooza, blazing through a career of tight rockers that ranged from dark electronica to full-blown classic rock. Oberst proved to be quite the showman, and, above all, a great musician. And his band (particularly Mike Mogis on guitars) was never anything other than completely tight and rollicking.

The headliners of the day were Coldplay, and the band didn’t disappoint the legion of fans gathered to sing along to every word. Combining a killer laser-and-light show with fireworks (!), the band soared through massive hit after massive hit. At this point, trying to critique Coldplay is sort of like trying to critique U2—they might not be the best band in the world, and they write some pretty terrible lyrics and simplistic melodies, but it doesn’t matter when you can sing every word along with 50,000 other people. Plus, Chris Martin is so genuinely self-effacing that you can’t help but like them.

All in all, it was a great start to Lollapalooza 2011. Check back tomorrow for the highlights of Day 2, which probably won’t include anything about The Pretty Reckless.

Story graphic photo of Coldplay and crowd by Steve Wruble.