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Coachella '09 Friday: Paul McCartney burns slow, Morrissey smells burning flesh

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After reports that ticket sales hadn’t been affected by the recession — and given tonight’s massive headliner, one Mister Sir Paul Former Beatle McCartney — I anticipated crowds well beyond what I saw in the fields of Coachella as it kicked off this afternoon. Instead, there was space to do multiple cartwheels just about anywhere throughout the festival’s first day, and as late as Morrissey’s undercard set, it took little to no time to traverse the massive fields of the Empire Polo Grounds. The small but merry trickle of shambolic twentysomethings seemed a far cry from the throbbing seas of humanity seen in recent years for acts like Prince, Rage Against the Machine, or Tool — if the sun goes down and it looks like there are more people in VIP than outside of it, I’d say that’s a problem — but then again, it was a bigger throng than they had for Jack Johnson, though one hopes he’s not become the official barometer for Friday fun.

Let me be clear, however: Anyone who elected not to (or couldn’t afford to) make the trip to see Macca in person officially missed out, as did all those who wandered to their cars when his set — which doubled as a memorial service for John Lennon, George Harrison, and Linda McCartney — drifted into a sluggish and directionless middle section. It was the very cheesy rendition of “Mrs Vanderbilt” that finally broke my spirit and sent my brain scrambling to figure out a delicate way to call the legend a disappointment, but it turned out he was just being coy. Once Paul rounded the midnight corner, there were fireworks both literal and metaphorical, and I’m gonna have “Get Back” stuck in my head for days.

Friday’s full action after the jump, including Morrissey (pictured, because only a select few were allowed to shoot the Beatle and I wasn’t even close to being one), Franz Ferdinand, Leonard Cohen, The Black Keys, Los Campesinos!, Cage the Elephant, Ryan Bingham, and Dear and the Headlights…

Opened the day at Dear and the Headlights, some clangy, shouty, bearded-boy music with a lead singer who studied at the Okkervil River school of plaintive yelping and a downbeat that gets into your knees. I’m fairly certain it was producer Bob Hoag standing at the back line, smashing a crash cymbal with a tambourine, and when frontman Ian Metzger said, “This is a really great time right now,” I had to agree. Oh, to be the first band of anyone’s Coachella, when the brain is still fresh and clean, the air still fragrant with things other than marijuana smoke, the legs strong enough to dance like a dork without falling into your neighbor! This Phoenix band’s no-frills set fit the bill to perfection. “Hi Paul, if you’re out there,” said Metzger at the end, right before starting the day’s first rumor: That Ringo Starr would be joining McCartney on drums later. Yes please!, I thought. How grand and appropriate that would be for such a noble setting!

Quick buffet of snacktime options next: El Gran Silencio‘s absolutely not-silent horn section; the stoic alt-country of Ryan Bingham, who’d abandoned his giant hat for Ray-Bans and rolled some slow, easy blues over the Gobi tent (situated, perhaps not coincidentally, immediately adjacent to massive stacks of haybales lying in wait for next weekend’s Stagecoach fest); the Aggrolites, a very L.A. ska collective; and quiet British indie flock Noah and the Whale, who battled technical difficulties and started late (photo pit’s guesses on the problem ranged from “pedals are messed up” to “somebody lost a contact”), then patiently swept the field with Charlie Fink’s sonorous vocals. Laura Marling is rather missed there.

I wanted to catch Cage the Elephant thanks to a long-standing recommendation from my colleague Leah Greenblatt, and I gotta say, from a spectacle standpoint, they arrived as advertised. Not sure what the whole Kid Rock-meets-basement punk groove does for me (though their Kid Rockiest song, “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” is by far their best), but watching Matt Schulz stalk the stage with his bright yellow mic cord was good clean spastic fun. “COACHELLA!” he yelled. Wooo! the crowd responded. “See, I just say the name of the festival, and everybody goes crazy,” he said. “COACHELLA!” Wooo! “I luuuuuuuuuv you!” Eventually he went right out into the people that he loved, at one point bringing with him a honey bear and pouring its contents into open mouths. Meanwhile, the band behind him clattered their way through increasingly less melodic songs like “Free Love” and “Sabre-Toothed Tiger,” the latter being, naturally, about sabre-toothed tigers, yet somehow still not very good. They’ll grow into it, I suspect.

Los Campesinos! have the distinction of being the only band I can recall ever falling in love with instantly upon hearing the first seconds of the first song off their first album. Those opening strums of “Death to Los Campesinos!” still sound as good as they did in my stereo that fateful afternoon, and the group’s fascinating stage presence only adds to the glee. They’ve all taken Campesinos! as their last name, so firsties only, please: Love the epic frustration of frontboy Gareth, whose face sometimes scrunches up like a baby before a bawl, and the placid calm of second vocalist Aleksandra, whose red hair blows delicately in the breeze above her keyboards. Love the way the entire pack of Welsh youngsters hollers out lines like “We kid ourselves there’s future in the f—ing, but there is no f—ing future!” before setting back about their violins and glockenspiels and whatnot. “We started this band three years ago,” said Gareth. “We didn’t expect to be here. So to celebrate that, here is a song about how each and every one of us is going to die alone.” Then he paused, and asked, “Can somebody turn the Hold Steady down, please?” I don’t know why he thought that was necessary. Not even your Aunt Whittlz — perhaps the most rehab-needing Hold Steady fan alive — could hear the neighboring Brooklynites over the perfect clatter of the subsequent “Miserabilia.” “You! Me! Dancing!” gave me the day’s biggest emotional swell; set closer “Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks” wiped my tears away. Gareth ended it on top of the speaker tower, shouting “One blink for yes! Two blinks for no!” and by this point, I’d entirely forgotten my alleged favorite current band was 100 yards away, and that I was missing them. Los Campesinos! = THS methadone!

Once I know I’ve had my Set of the Day™, it’s best for me to rest, so I’d like to thank the Black Keys — those nice Akron boys who make such amazingly loud noises — for being familiar and comforting. They were at nearly every festival last summer, it seemed, and so I’ve been treated to the crunchy riffs of “10 A.M. Automatic” and “Stack Shot Billy” and so forth way more than any one girl should of late. That doesn’t make what Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney do any less kickass. (PS: Glad to see them functioning superbly as a unit after some solo dalliance.) Highlight of their set for me was a sprawling “Strange Times,” and Auerbach’s brief tuning break in which he explained that he could get someone to do that for him, but he’s from the Midwest, and “we’re cheap.”

NOTE: Somewhere in here I missed M. Ward, and somewhere in the next bit — when I was eating dinner and trying to figure out if Franz Ferdinand really has always been the poor man’s Interpol, or if I’m just a jerk — I missed Conor Oberst. But I did find out from a very reliable source that the long rumored Ward/Oberst/Jim James “Monsters of Folk” collaboration is IMMINENT. Not just “in the works.” IMMINENT.

Right, so, Franz Ferdinand. They were certainly enjoyable live — the miniscule crowd clustered around the foot of the mainstage would probably use a stronger word than “enjoyable” — and I give guitarist Nick McCarthy credit for playing on what I guess was a broken foot or something. (Alex Kapranos kept referring to it as a “big club foot.”) There was a strong block of “Matinee,” “No You Girls,” and “Do You Want To” that had my toes tapping in the grass, and man do people still love them some “Take Me Out.” But as I glanced to my right, I noticed the beginnings of that VIP crowd > field crowd phenomenon. Being rich of sound is one thing, but holding the attention of the masses — nay, summoning the masses in the first place — is another entirely. Let’s not forget this is a band that played Coachella 2006 as a second-tier headliner, in the after-sunset hours. FF fans, where’d you go? Did you leave because they just keep writing the same song over and over? Please explain, if you would.

Biggest and in fact probably only mob scene of the day: The Leonard Cohen photo pit, in which every camera-holding body in the state of California and parts of Mexico seemed to be vying for a spot. I gave up early and hung back for my first experience in the presence of this legendary poet, this gravel-voiced songwriting god, this man among men. Put down my backpack. Closed my eyes as darkness fell and the searchlights met above my head, slicing the stars apart. “Dance Me to the Edge of Love.” “Bird on a Wire.” “Everybody Knows.” “Who By Fire.” Slow, methodical, the depths of his lungs scraping against the sky of his backing singers’ sweetness. Glowing in the spotlight at the edge of the stage like such an esteemed elder should, a fedora-topped phantom wrapped in the mystery of The Dark Crystal… Okay, now I’m just nattering. It was really good, the Leonard Cohen set. I’m pissed I had to leave before he was done to go get in the photo pit for Morrissey. I hope I don’t have to wait 15 years to see him again. “Thanks a lot, friends,” he said at one point. No, sir. Thank you.

Morrissey. He played “Girlfriend in a Coma” near the beginning, “Ask” in the middle, and “How Soon Is Now” at the end. The fans in the front — many of them Hispanic, as per Moz’s massive Mexican fanbase, but just as many of them white forty-somethings remembering their pain the way it used to be — were hysterically excited by it all. Me, being someone who went angry over sad and who enjoys the hell out of a good pork chop whenever possible… well, I was less enthralled by the man’s musical performance than I was by his attitude problem. To be sure, his voice is fairly unchanged by time, and his band was crackerjack good. But it is really really hard to focus on that when the guy with the microphone is sort of meandering around the stage, doing his petulant little mic-cord flick thing (less befitting a man of a certain age, I’d say), and inserting blahs and tongue flutters here and there wherever he doesn’t feel like singing something. The lyrics were visceral as ever, natch — “everybody look, see pain, turn away” and so forth — but the facial expressions didn’t jive. And then it just got WEIRD. “I can smell burning flesh,” Morrissey said, but the crowd wasn’t quiet enough, so he repeated it. “I can smell burning flesh, and I hope to god it’s human.” Uh, come again? He made a series of gagging noises, sung a bit more. Then: “The smell of burning animals is making me sick,” he said, gagging again. “I can’t bear it!” A friend sitting near me in the ground leaned over and snarked, “Yes, Morrissey, they’re human burgers. It’s a baby-cue.” I snickered, and broke out the beef jerky.

But really. Dear Morrissey. I know you believe that meat is murder. (I think I read that somewhere.) But maybe don’t agree to come play the nice outdoor music festival where we eat things like sausage and hamburgers and chicken on a stick and pepperoni pizza and tri-tip and so forth if you don’t think you can let us eat those things in peace. Unless you’re really that hard up for money, and you needed this gig to keep your house. Did you need this gig to keep your house? I didn’t think so. Love, Whitney.

Finally, we’d reached the holy land, and McCartney was to come. The rumor mill had been swirling apace since the morning, and was now up to the following: Not only was Ringo going to sit in on drums, but Michael Jackson, the Foo Fighters, and at least one member of Michael Franti and Spearhead were all scheduled to make guest appearances. There was no way any human being could meet those expectations. And so for the first hour and a half of his set, Macca kind of didn’t try. He opened with “Jet” — his still impish form projected huge on two long video screens that flanked the stage — and you could feel the hopes of everyone who doesn’t know/get Wings die a little. Then he launched into a spirited “Drive My Car,” and the energy picked up. (“Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?”: Quick, name the movie.) Yet people were not going “off” as I expected they might when in the presence of an actual living Beatle, and McCartney’s mood seemed weird, too — he kept talking in a strange reggae sort of voice, and not really saying anything real, just stuff like “COACHELLA!” (Wooo!) By the time “Got To Get You Into My Life” used synth horns instead of real ones (dude, someone call El Gran Silencio), I’d started to get testy. And when “The Long and Winding Road” came complete with high-def video footage of inspirational mountains and sunsets, I started to roll my eyes like a bratty kid.

That behavior came to a dead screeching halt the minute McCartney confessed that today was the 11th anniversary of Linda’s death, and dedicated “My Love” to his late wife. Then he played “Blackbird,” which he explained he wrote during the civil rights era (insert Obama shout-out here), his voice straining to find his higher register. Then he played “Here Today” and, of course, dedicated it to the late John Lennon. Everybody was dead here for a while, including the crowd. My festival buddy Josh and I bailed at the end of the world’s most somber rendition of “Eleanor Rigby” and checked out some of the Crystal Method in the dance tent. (We got there for “Don’t Stop.” We will never again underestimate the power of Daft Punk’s robot suits.) Then we felt bad for leaving the memorial service — walking away from a Beatle — so we went back. McCartney was playing “Something,” which he dedicated to the wife of the late George Harrison. The crowd seemed thinner than ever before. I thought about going fetal on the ground.

But you don’t get knighted for nuthin’, kids, and the ability to build a set list ain’t nuthin’. Macca tossed off a fun “Paperback Writer,” then spoke a bit more about how today was an “emotional day” for him, and I braced for the worst — but instead he did a sort of “Day in the Life/Give Peace a Chance” medley and moved to the piano for what I secretly hoped would be a set-closing singalong of “Hey Jude.” Instead, he started into “Let It Be,” and I don’t know if it was the song or the man or my memories or all three, but I started to melt. And then the last chips of ice were completely obliterated by “Live and Let Die,” which was totally Bondlicious and accompanied by fireworks that put Roger Waters and his pig to shame. “Hey Jude” was inevitably next, and I belted every last na-na-na naaaaaaa (much to Josh’s chagrin, but come on, I’d been looking forward to that for months) and readied myself for the walk to the car…

… Except the man was nowhere near done. Two-encore set list: Birthday / Can’t Buy Me Love / Lady Godiva (and/or Madonna; I guess the latter makes more sense) // Yesterday* (*synthed strings forgiven in light of loveliness) / Helter Skelter / Get Back / Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

And just like that, a set that started as the most unendurable of eulogies had transformed into a celebration of being alive, and I found myself grinning like a fool at the teenaged girl in the hippie headband boogie-ing her butt off next to me, and felt my heart soar to realize that these songs I fell in love with when I was a teenager are still a vital and celebratory part of the human condition, not just for my parents’ generation, or mine, but even for the (occasionally horribly misguided) generation that’s finding them right now, and probably all the generations to come. As a good friend of mine always puts it, the Beatles were the original indie rock. They led us here. Paul McCartney does have a place at this festival, and I was glad I got the chance to partake in his emotional night, and I thank him for unexpectedly and beautifully giving me one of my own even when I was hellbent against allowing that to happen, and as it turns out I don’t have to be so crabby about everything all the damn time.

Anyway. It’s 5 a.m. Me and my personal life journey are going to bed now. What about you, Mixers? Anyone out in the field? Anyone watching via webcast/twitpics/some technology I don’t know about yet at home? Thoughts? Rants? Suggestions for what I should do tomorrow besides maybe sleep in and not get there until 6 p.m.? No? That would be bad? Dang it.

Photo Credit: Whitney Pastorek/EW.com