Some indie purists balked when they first heard that Sir Paul McCartney was headlining this year's hot Coachella Festival out in the hot California desert this weekend. Some old classic rock guy playing the same hipster rockfest as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and M.I.A.? Perish the thought! But I never doubted that Paul would some real Macca magic at Coachella '09.
First of all, Coachella has always been home to reunion and heritage acts, and this year the lineup skewed especially older (possibly because more "mature" music fans have the disposable income to attend Coachella during these recessionistic times), featuring veterans like Morrissey, the Cure, My Bloody Valentine, Public Enemy, Throbbing Gristle, X, Bob Mould, Paul Weller, the Orb, Henry Rollins, and Superchunk. So I figured Paul would fit right in. In fact, with 75-year-old Leonard Cohen playing Coachella this year, Paul wouldn't even be the eldest elder statesman on the bill!
Second, EVERYONE loves the Beatles. They're sort of the default band to like, you know? It's a given that the Beatles are the best band ever, and pretty much every artist that's ever played during Coachella's decade-long run owes some sort of debt to the Fab Four. (Yes, even Throbbing Gristle, I'm sure.) So who better to play the all-important 10th Coachella anniversary than a real live Beatle?
And finally, since everyone does love the Beatles, and everyone knows the Beatles' catalog backwards and forwards, I knew if Paul crafted his setlist wisely, by the end of his concert he'd have the entire Empire Polo Field--indie purists included--holding their cellphones aloft and singing "Let It Be" or the na-na-na's of "Hey Jude" in unison.
And that's precisely what happened Friday at Coachella. But there were plenty of other chillbumpy, throat-lumpy moments during Macca's two-and-a-half-hour, midnight-curfew-breaking set. When he first came out and saw the massive audience, I dare say he seemed overwhelmed and even a little nervous--this despite the fact that he's a guy who's played stadiums, been knighted by the Queen, was a BEATLE, etc. Paul's onstage banter was so odd and loopy, in fact, I wondered if he was suffering from heatstroke, had imbibed one too many pints of Guinness backstage, or was just having too much fun to keep a straight face.
But then I soon understood why he might've been such a jumble of nerves: It turned out that Coachella Friday, April 17, was the anniversary of his first wife Linda McCartney's death.
"Today is very emotional for me and my family," a visibly choked-up Paul told the crowd. "But Linda loved the desert, she loved music, she loved rock 'n' roll." And with that, he performed "My Love" at the piano in her memory. There wasn't a dry eye on the field, and that includes both of my eyes.
Another wet-eyed moment came when Paul announced, "This next song's written for my dead friend John. Let's hear it for John!" Whoops and cheers from myself and about 20,000 other people followed, of course. Paul then performed the ode he penned for the slain John Lennon, "Here Today." And later in the set, he even picked up a ukulele once owned by his other late bandmate, George Harrison, to play an acoustic cover of George's "Something," and he gave a sweet shout-out to George's widow, Olivia, who was in the audience. (Incidentally, George's son Dhani plays Coachella Saturday with his own band, thenewno2.)
Other emotional highs came when Paul played "Eleanor Rigby," "The Long And Winding Road," a "Day In The Life/"Give Peace A Chance" medley, and the James Bond theme "Live And Let Die" accompanied by a July 4th-worthy pyro/fireworks display. And the set kept going, and going, and going, Energizer-bunny-style, well past Coachella's midnight cutoff time (even after his pricey Heather Mills divorce, Paul can easily afford to pay the curfew fine, after all).
Paul did not one but two curfew-flouting encores: one with "Birthday," "Can't Buy Me Love," and "Lady Madonna"; and a second, even longer and even more thrilling one that consisted of "Yesterday" acoustic, then a very electric "Helter Skelter" and "Get Back," and then finally the reprise version of "Sgt. Pepper," which with its "we hope you have enjoyed the show" and "it's getting very near the end" lines was the perfect concert-closer.
All I can say is, it was wonderfully heartening to see that even as 66-year-old Paul remembered people close to him that had sadly passed away, he was still so full of life and vigor and vitality himself.
Of course, Coachella Friday wasn't all about McCartney mania. Other aforementioned keepers of the old guard also put on memorable performances that gave Coachella 2009's baby bands some serious competition. For instance, 75-years-young Leonard Cohen, who just started played U.S. gigs again for the first time in 15 years, pretty much delivered the best performance of the day. A huge crowd of music fans--many of whom were young enough to be Leonard's grandchildren--turned up, possibly because the adjacent Coachella Stage remained dark and vacant during Leonard's performance (out of respect for the elderly, possibly?), or maybe because Leonard's recent comeback shows have been so hyped. Well, Leonard definitely lived up to the hype, I must say.
Whether it was the genteel way he removed his chapeau every time he bowed or every time one of his band members soloed, or the off-the-charts chemistry between him and his backup singers as they locked eyes and serenaded each other, or just how his better-with-age husk of a voice was ideally suited to the dusky desert environment as the sun set behind the Outdoor Stage, Leonard's show was a revelation. When he crooned "Hallelujah" against a backdrop of gently breeze-bent palm trees, while everyone in the audience sang along and some spectators even slow-danced, it was possibly THE "moment" of the day. And one of THE big moments in Coachella's entire 10-year history.
However, like Paul McCartney, Leonard ran over his set time, so eventually the Coachella Stage started up again and Morrissey began singing while Leonard was still onstage nearby, creating a sort of unintentional but not entirely unpleasant Morrissey/Cohen mashup. Morrissey was warming up the stage for headliner Paul (that's the beauty of Coachella: Where else would Moz open for Macca?), and he pleased his many diehard followers with a Smiths-heavy setlist that included "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others" "Girlfriend In A Coma," and "How Soon Is Now." Unfortunately Moz, who turns 50 next month and seemingly isn't too happy about that, changed the latter song's "all my hope is gone" line to the even glummer "most of my life is gone," and various disconcerting references to "burning flesh," and in general just appeared to be out of sorts. (He even later cancelled his Oakland concert the next day, it turns out.) But he needn't have fretted: First of all, when he stripped off his shirt and stood onstage naked to the waist, he appeared pretty fit for a half-centenarian; and second, he only had to look to Paul McCartney and Leonard Cohen for inspiration on how to age gracefully in rock 'n' roll.
Of course, there were plenty of promising youngster acts on Friday's bill; it wasn't ALL about sweating to the oldies. Manchester four-piece the Courteeners, playing their first-ever Coachella (pasty frontman Liam Fray pointed out his utter lack of California-cultivated suntan as proof of this), kicked off the festival with a rousing set of indie-pub rock on the Coachella Stage. Then later on the same stage, NYC acerbic alt-pop trio We Are Scientists peppered their set of short, sharp songs with witty/helpful banter about proper festival footwear and heatstroke risks:
Boy/girl electro-pop duo the Ting Tings went on 15 minutes late in the Sahara Tent due to technical difficulties, but they made up for lost time when blonde-bombshell frontgirl Katie White finally hit the stage oozing Deborah Harry-esque charisma and jumping about the stage like a spastic jazzercise instructor in her American Apparel leggings. Meanwhile, over in the Gobi Tent, the girls and boys in the seven-piece Cardiff coed collective Los Campesinos! (imagine a Welsh Arcade Fire or Broken Social Scene) drew an impressive afternoon crowd with their friendly, feelgood, festival-ready spectacle:
Over in the Mojave Tent, brooding, moody Britrockers White Lies managed to look cool despite wearing weather-inappropriate long-sleeved, all-black ensembles in the desert heat, while rifftastic everyman rockers the Hold Steady (this decade's answer to Guided by Voices) turned their ferociously hard-charging "Stay Positive" into a sort of unofficial Coachella anthem, as evidenced by their positively pumped-up audience:
And returning Coachella performers Franz Ferdinand totally galvanized the Coachella Stage audience yet again with the perennial crowd favorite "Take Me Out," possibly THE biggest indie-rock anthem in Coachella history:
And thus concludes my wrap-up of Coachella day one. Saturday will feature a few other veteran acts (Henry Rollins, Superchunk, Bob Mould), a whole lot of sweatin' to the newies (promising young buzz artists like Ida Maria, Fleet Foxes, and Glasvegas), and established hipsters hitmakers like M.I.A, the Killers, TV On The Radio, and Joss Stone. Will any of them live up to high standard set Friday by McCartney and Cohen? We shall see.
All photos by Mike Orlosky. For more of Mike's Friday Coachella pics, click HERE.
- Leonard Cohen