Prince, Sheila E.
Credit: Barry Brecheisen/

What a difference a day makes. Friday, Coachella had probably the weakest-drawing headliner in its nine-year history, in the form of Jack Johnson. Given the sparse turnout, you started to fear for the future of the festival. Saturday, they had, in Prince, the most potent show-closer the festival has had or likely ever will have. And suddenly, he didn’t look like the only genius around; so, too, did the person who booked him.

Prince and Johnson were both calculated risks, artists with huge fan bases who nonetheless wouldn’t seem to immediately fit in with Coachella’s indie-rock ethos. The big difference: One of them is indisputably one of the great performers of our shared lifetimes, a galvanizing presence with a deep catalog and history of leaving awe in his wake, and arguably even—if you look at the full scope of 20th and 21st century musicianship—the Last of the Great Entertainers. And the other, um, isn’t. (After the jump, get the full scoop on Prince’s performance — and his “no requests” policy.)

addCredit(“Prince; Barry Brecheisen/”)

Not that there wasn’t a lot ofenthusiasm right at the front of the stage for Johnson’s climacticperformance, where there were a few thousand extremely enthusiasticfans packed tight and, when the overhead screens caught sight of them,cheering wildly; it was just behind them that you saw the kind of wideopen spaces that once made the American West so inviting to Europeanimmigrants.

Now, it’s altogether likely that these few thousand diehardJohnson fans were people who wouldn’t have otherwise bought a three-daypass to Coachella, given the lack of any other similar band among the100-plus scheduled acts, so maybe his booking wasn’t a total bust. Andyou really can’t blame organizers for putting him on the bill…well,you can, given what an utterly lackluster performer he is, but I meancommercially speaking. The guy has sold more albums than anybody this year,and to the extent that he’s seen as kind of a poor man’s Dave Matthews,it’d be easy to assume that Johnson would be the one reliable stadium-filler to comealong in rock in the last 20 years. But it’s not clear what Johnson’sultimate business legacy will be, beyond having given SNL alegitimate reason to keep Andy Samberg employed. He’s an amiablepresence who doesn’t deserve a lot of hate, but who’s destined to seemunderwhelming in anything bigger or less chemically fueled than asmoke-filled 2,500-seat venue. Well, now we all know, right?

Lesson No. 2: If you bill Prince, they will come. But until about6:30 p.m. on Saturday, even this seemingly self-evident lesson wasin doubt. Because up through the late-afternoon set by Death Cab forCutie, who had the last sunlit mainstage performance of the day, thingswere still looking a little spooky out there. And after sitting throughthe okay but ultimately enervating Death Cab set in 100-degree-plusheat (what did anybody ever see in these guys, again? I’m still waitingto have it explained to me), I couldn’t blame anybody who’d bought athree-day pass but decided to just show up around sundown on Saturday.

Once Kraftwerktook the stage at dusk, however, the mainstage crowd instantly swelled to atleast three times what it’d been for any other act in the preceding dayand a half of music, and any fears that there wouldn’t be a Coachella2009 immediately subsided. Even Rilo Kiley and Mark Ronson, on thesecondary outdoor stage, and Hot Chip and M.I.A. in one of the tents,were suddenly maxing out their limited viewing areas with crowds thatlooked bigger than the previous mainstage audiences. Portishead,following Kraftwerk, brought still more attendees who sucked in all theangst that Prince would soon wash away. And then, at last, it was timefor…the Time!

Yes, Prince’s show actually began with a “Prince’s protégés”mini-set, with two songs by the semi-reunited the Time and one more bySheila E. Then, with Sheila still on percussion, Prince launched into a cover of Santana’s instrumental “Soul Sacrifice.” Atabout this point, attendees may have been considering the implicationsof Prince’s opening remarks, when he promised that he would get a partyunderway “under one condition: that you let me pick the music.” (Youwould think that the millions of dollars he’s rumored to have gottenfor the gig would be condition enough for a party, without anyadditional concessions demanded of the audience.) Other than literallyletting the kids in the front row know that he wouldn’t be takingrequests, did he mean to establish that he’d be doingone of his jam-oriented shows, light on the oldies, as opposed to oneof his greatest-hits shows? Because Lord knows, and fans do too, thatyou don’t always know which you’re going to get.

But, happily, this ended up being a pretty crowd-pleasingcombination of both kinds of Prince-concert prototypes, with a set list that managed tosate both first-timers and TAFKAP-aholics, if not send them home delirious.After that aforementioned instrumental, Prince launched into “1999” andfollowed it up with partial or full versions of “I Feel for U,”“Controversy,” “U Got the Look,” “Cream,” the great“Anotherloverholenyohead” (along with “Shhh,” one of only a couplehalfway-obscure album tracks), and “Musicology” (the only selectionfrom one of this decade’s Prince albums).

“Little Red Corvette” was aparticular highlight, in an extended rendition that had the versesslowed down nearly to an R&B crawl before picking up with theexpected tempo for the choruses. Weirdly, he covered Radiohead’s“Creep” but changed the words in ways that weren’t always audible. Formuch of the song, Prince altered the lyrics to shift them away from thefirst-person, singing them as “You wish you were special…” instead of“I wish…” And this made a certain amount of sense: Could as renowned anegotist as Prince really sing about feeling insecure or having feelingsof self-loathing, right after he interrupted “Cream” to give us anamusingly self-aggrandizing aside about how “I wrote this song while Iwas looking in the mirror”? But toward the end of “Creep,” hegenerously changed the pronoun usage again, to make it “we” instead of“you.” Ah, Prince, you shouldn’t have. Then came another extendedcover: Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel,” done up as a gospelnumber, sung entirely by a backup singer that we later learned was Ledisi, the fairly obscure R&B stylist who roseto greater fame when she was nominated for a best new artist Grammythis year. Like the song or not, she killed on it.

Then it was back toPrince—back in canary yellow after a costume change—for a “Seven” thatled right into the Beatles’ “Come Together,” followed by the only predictable part of the night: encores of “Purple Rain” and “Let’s GoCrazy.”

One complaint I have at festivals is how little evidence there isamong some of the performers that they know they’re at a festival; thebigger the headliner, the more they’re apt to just plow through theirusual touring show, without any concessions for the uniqueness of thenight. But Prince took advantage of the fact that he was at a “rockfestival” to show off his rock & roll guitar prowess at the kind oflength I’ve never seen him do before, at least outside of anall-instrumental club set. (The last time I saw Prince, I was standingeight feet away from him at Hollywood’s Hotel Roosevelt as he finishedup a jazz-fusion set at about 6 in the morning for the 30 or so of uswho remained. This time, there were about 50,000 people between me andhim, but I wouldn’t trade either experience.) If the guy had donenothing in his life but aspire to be the lead guitarist in a band, he’dbe a Hall of Famer, but there are so many other aspects to his geniusthat that’s not always the one he favors. But on Saturday night, hedidn’t bogart the Stratocaster, interrupting nearly every song—exceptfor the most truncated or medley-ized ones—for an impressive workout,even showing off a couple of times by soloing just with his left handon the neck while he waved the right around in the air freely,mock-conducting his own virtuosity.

Was it the perfect Prince set? There may be no such thing, since hiscatalog and capabilities are so vast that diehard fans arelikely to come away just a little disappointed by some song or strainhe doesn’t get to. If I were to nitpick, I’d say the “Come Together”cover, which sounds ideal on paper, went on a bit too long in itscrowd-participatory elements, and was a wan closer for the main part ofthe set. Also, unlike perhaps 99.9% of the crowd (I’m guessing), I’d rather hearsomething less rote than “The Best of Purple Rain” for the encore segment.

In the end, though, the only serious drawback was the sound—or lack of it. Just afew hours earlier, we’d marveled at the magnificence of the audio setupduring Kraftwerk’s performance, a true showcase of how good the soundcan be in this large a setup, and a teaser for how spectacular RogerWaters was likely to sound in his Sunday-night slot. But when Princecame on, the volume seemed diminished by half, and I had to go plantmyself right in front of a bank of speakers to feel like I was at arock show. I doubt that Coachella’s producers meant to deliberatelypunish us. Prince was scheduled to go on at 10:45, and didn’tactually take the stage till 11:10—which, I can tell you fromexperience, is awfully punctual by his royal standards. But, supposedly,there’s a midnight curfew for the mainstage. Since some of the acts inthe dance tents go on till 2 or 2:30 in the morning, it’s reasonable tosurmise that any such curfew has more to do with not tormenting the sleeping residents of Indio rather than following union regulations.

My guess is that, rather than cut thevolume at the stroke of 12 and have tens of thousands of people go“What the…,” the festival preemptively turned Prince down from the verybeginning. For anyone up close, it ultimately didn’t matter, but thefolks who usually watch headlining sets from a distance needed toovercome their claustrophobia and get into the thick of it to have anyhope of enjoying the show.

And then it was onto Sunday, and some of us felt just a littleruined, for the moment, for more indie-rock, because it’s tough towatch Prince and then see just about anybody else and feel like themusical bar hasn’t been set awfully low. But then again, as we said,what a difference a day makes, or the forgetfulness that comes with anight of sleep…

All right, Prince completists. Here’s the full set list (and no, hedidn’t perform the dirty new song he’d premiered on Leno just the nightbefore):

The Bird (sung by Morris Day)
Jungle Love (sung by Day)
The Glamorous Life (sung by Sheila E.)
Soul Sacrifice (Santana cover)
I Feel For U
Housequake (brief excerpt)
Little Red Corvette
U Got the Look
Shh (from The Gold Experience—yes, I had to look it up)
Creep (Radiohead cover)
Angel (Sarah McLachlan cover, sung by Ledisi)
Come Together (Beatles cover)
Purple Rain
Let’s Go Crazy