On the Scene at Coachella: Fans on What's Hot, Who Fizzled and Surviving the Campgrounds

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Attend enough festivals, and eventually you will experience strange occurrences you never would have imagined — like being elbowed and shoved aside by sweaty, half-naked 20-year-olds rudely rushing the stage for a better look at Leonard Cohen. Or the sight of horny young indie-rock couples indulging in deep soul-kissing to the unlikely live accompaniment of "My Love," Paul McCartney's 1973 mush-rock smash. These were just some of the intergenerational incongruities in Indio, California, over the weekend, where a bill packed with both heritage acts and baby bands prompted a dilemma for some regular festival-goers: What are you gonna do when Dad insists on tagging along to Coachella?

(Check out photos of McCartney, the Killers, the Cure and much more in our Coachella '09 gallery.)

Thanks to all the veterans on the bill, the 10th annual Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival found a surprising number of forty-, fifty-, and sixtysomethings working up their courage to attend for the first time. They, too, discovered the dirty little secret about the three-day desert gathering that their kids already know: that it's not, in fact, actually all that grueling. Yes, the April dates always seem to coincide with the first heat wave of the spring in the Palm Springs area, and yes, temperatures hovered near the 100-degree mark on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. So TV on the Radio singer Tunde Adebimpe was barely exaggerating when he inquired of the crowd, pre-twilight: "Everyone all right? Medium well... The object of the next hour is to send the sun down!" But the heat is dry (take that, humid Bonnaroo), the grass suspiciously luscious, the shady tents and frozen lemonade stands abundant, and, most tolerably, the A-hole quotient almost non-existent. Because, somehow, Coachella always manages to draw the exact 50,000 mellow, discriminating souls who revere Record Store Day as the holiest day on the calendar, and who aren't about to let a little sunburn transform them into an angry mob.

Sabes Martinez of Montebello, California, managed to make it to the festival without parents (or grandparents) in tow. But "I feel like I lived my parents' fantasy," he gushed, hanging out in the parking lot with some of the 17 friends packed into a nearby condo. "We got to see a Beatle in our lifetime!"

When we asked dozens of fans for the weekend's highlight, almost to a person, it was McCartney's generous two-and-a-half hour Friday night set that came up first... even though the median audience member was probably born a few years after Wings broke up. "He may be from so many generations ago, but he kicked everyone's ass," said Anabel Vera of Long Beach. It didn't hurt that Macca pulled out 19 songs associated with the Beatles, including a ukelele-fed version of George Harrison's "Something" and a cover of John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance," not to mention his own proto-metal classic "Helter Skelter." Even "My Love" seemed to carry some extra heft after McCartney noted that he'd written it for Linda… and that she'd died 11 years ago that night, which made the occasion emotional for him. "I've seen him a lot," said Hollywood screenwriter Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood), attending with his wife and teenaged children, "and there was something a little bit odd and unusually affecting about this performance."

When we polled people about the most disappointing performance, a certain Sri Lanka hip-hop favorite was frequently cited as failing to live up to sky-high expectations. "M.I.A. didn't even do 'Paper Planes,' " bemoaned Gustabo Argomaniz (who was incorrect: see our report). "We could hear her hit songs being played in the DJ tent, and we were thinking maybe we should have just stayed over there instead." There were extenuating circumstances: Having had a baby just last month, and having been called in as a late substitute for the visa-deficient Amy Winehouse, M.I.A. had good excuses for being a little rusty with her stage presence — which she tried to make up for by inviting dozens of fans on stage, to the horror of security. At show's end, she offered a sort of apology, while mostly pinning it on the choice of venue: "See? The main stage. Next time, I'm back in the tent. I prefer to see the sweat." And one main stage artist associated with the '80s provoked some grumbling, as fans of Morrissey said they'd seen him in much finer form.

Lupe Fiasco and Somalian hip-hop artist K'naan drew far more kudos from crowd members. Other youngish artists frequently singled out for random raves included Blitzen Trapper, Los Campesinos, Beirut, Dr. Dog, and Peter, Bjorn and John (getting in the second whistling solo on the main stage, after McCartney's "Blackbird"). The greatest universal acclamation for a sub-McCartney-era act seemed to go to TV on the Radio, who "ripped up the crowd," as Karaszewski noted. They got to play the magic-hour slot on Saturday on the main stage, and, with a horn section turned way up in the mix, took what seems cerebral on record and transformed it into the stuff of party bands. On the quiet end of the scale, Fleet Foxes drew the largest crowd of any band on the second stage, but their acoustic guitars and harmonies were eventually drowned out by the thick, adjacent beats of Thievery Corporation. "We're having a little trouble hearing stuff up here," admitted the band's Robin Pecknold, in what was probably the polite understatement of the festival. The most polarizing headliner was the Killers, though, to their credit, they did draw as big a crowd to the massive field on Saturday as an ex-Beatle had on Friday.

Most attendees waxed mellow about how exceptionally well-run the festival was. Campers in the massive tent city proved especially evangelistic about the whole experience. "If you want to experience Coachella, you have to do the camping," said Cameron Natividad, wearing a "Free Hugs" T-shirt (which, from a certain angle, was sometimes mistaken for a "Free Drugs" shirt). "Everyone is so excited to be there, there are waves of screams that start at one end of the campsite and then roll all the way to the other. Everyone is so nice. There hasn't been a single asshole." Raziel Cortes of Fresno, a first-time camper, took advantage of the face (and hair) painting and crafts in the camping area and gave the ultimate campers' thumbs-up: "They said they'd have clean bathrooms — and they did."

For those with thousands of dollars to blow on on-site lodging, there were the Sahara tents, which sleep 2-4 "campers" and come equipped with double beds, among other high-end amenities. "I only landed here three nights ago, and I've been pretty drunk the whole time," admitted Elizabeth Greenaway of Sydney, Australia, who found that VIP-level Sahara lodging almost too inviting to ever leave. "We start drinking at 1, and then at 7, we're like, shit, we haven't seen anybody yet!"

If the typical Coachella-goer was startled to see more music fans in their 40s, 50s and 60s than usual at the fest, the surprise worked both ways. "We were surprised to see so many young people," said Rima Cameron, a devotee of a certain age, speaking specifically of Leonard Cohen's poet-laureate set. "I thought it would be mostly our generation. We thought, these people can't be here for him. But they knew the lyrics." Cohen did alter just one verse for the occasion, wryly rhyming the title of his signature song, "Hallelujah," with "I did not come to Coachella to fool ya." None taken.

Don't miss our reports from each of Coachella's three days:

Paul McCartney Pays Tribute to Lost Beatles, Plus Cohen and Morrissey Impress at Coachella
The Killers, M.I.A. and Mastodon Deliver Big Sounds on a Big Scale at Coachella
Coachella '09 Shows Off Its Eclectic Roots With My Bloody Valentine, The Cure, Public Enemy