Franz Ferdinand frontman Alex Kapranos was the first to point them out, as he overlooked the many thousands gathered Friday for the opening of this year’s Coachella Music and Arts Festival. There in the crush was a young Morrissey fan with “a perfect quiff” pompadour. And front row and center were three older ladies holding up a Beatles banner. Kapranos wondered: “Are they playing tonight?”
Call it the Paul McCartney Effect, as Beatlemania invaded the 10-year-old Southern California modern rock and dance music festival in celebration of the pop icon’s headlining set. Young fans wore T-shirts and carried signs expressing endless love for the former Beatle, but the trio up front set a high standard in endurance and commitment, as they had since they were teenagers, seeing the Beatles in ’64, ’65 and ’66. “We’re twice the age of anyone here, but we have more stamina and experience,” said Dale Tevere, 59, of Surprise, Arizona. They got in front of the stage at 11 a.m. and remained through nearly a dozen hours of acts they’d never heard of, but said they did like Franz Ferdinand and Airborne Toxic Event.
It’s unlikely McCartney’s 10:15 p.m. show disappointed fans young or old , with a two-and-a-half-hour performance of solo hits from the ’70s, new songs released by his alter-ego the Fireman, plus 20 Beatles classics, including “Drive My Car,” “Eleanor Rigby” and “A Day in the Life” (which he melded into John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance”). He spent his time mainly behind an acoustic guitar, a piano or his old Hofner bass.
McCartney reserved the pyrotechnics and fireworks for an explosive “Live and Let Die,” leaning mostly on his good humor to charm the massive crowd spread out before him. There were many silly comments between songs, and also moments of genuine emotional connection. He noted that the night fell on April 17th, the anniversary of his wife Linda McCartney’s death from cancer in 1998. He also performed the late George Harrison’s “Something” on a ukelele his brother Beatle had given him, and sang a raw, understated “Here Today,” his tribute to Lennon. “It’s an emotional day for me, and that’s good,” McCartney said. “It’s a lot of heart.”
McCartney’s four-piece band handled the broad range of his music seamlessly, with fiery guitar work from Rusty Anderson, though McCartney unleashed some stirring sparks of electric guitar-heroism of his own with a bit of Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” and the set-closing mini-epic “The End.” Mac can play.
Back in 1999, Morrissey delivered a powerful and memorable set at the very first Coachella, with fans and performer in equal states of ecstasy and sorrow, peaking with an emotional reading of the Smiths’ “Meat is Murder.” The singer didn’t perform that song at this year’s festival, but its message was very much on his mind, as he practically gagged onstage from the surrounding food merchants. “I smell burning flesh,” he said dramatically, “and I hope to God it’s human.”
The rest of his set was typically heartbroken, petulant and gracious as Morrissey paced the stage, snapping his microphone cord like a whip during 1987’s “Girlfriend in a Coma” and the brooding “When I Last Spoke to Carol,” from his new album, Years of Refusal.
Leonard Cohen’s early evening set was one of Friday’s most anticipated events, with a huge crowd spread across the field and chants of “Leonard! Leonard!”for the esteemed 74-year-old singer-songwriter, currently performing his first U.S. concerts in 15 years. He jogged to the stage and tipped his fedora with a smile before kneeling beside acoustic guitarist Javier Mas to sing “Dance Me to the End of Love” in a deep, romantic growl. The sound of Cohen’s band was elegant and rich, with unrushed soloing and cascading melody within “Ain’t No Cure for Love” and the bleak “Everybody Knows.”
The Scottish quartet Franz Ferdinand erupted with flamboyant, danceable guitar rock on the anxious breakthrough hit “Take Me Out” and a sneering “Matinee,” just as the sun slipped behind the mountains. Conor Oberst brought along his five-man Mystic Valley Band, at times echoing the late-’60s sound of wild Americana that Dylan once created with the Band. Wearing a wide-brim hat to battle the desert sun, Oberst belted out the whimsical “Souled Out!!!” and “Moab,” breathlessly spreading his gospel that “there’s nothing that the road cannot heal.”
Earlier highlights included the supercharged, bouncing riff-rock of the Hold Steady in the Gobi tent and the quirky forceful pop of Airborne Toxic Event, including a wistful cover of Terrence Trent D’Arby’s “Wishing Well” on the main stage. There was also some frazzled gutbucket blues from the Black Keys.
The Silversun Pickups had yet another challenging gig (they opened for Metallica at SXSW), headlining the second stage in a set that would overlap with McCartney’s across the lawn. The Los Angeles four-piece obliterated any doubts with blazing, melodic sounds drawn from 2006’s Carnavas and the just-released Swoon. As it turned out, McCartney’s set didn’t begin until after the Silversun Pickups were done, but singer-guitarist Brian Aubert dedicated a song to the headliner, adding, “I want him to succeed so bad. He’s got a tough slot in the show,” and turned up the volume until his band disappeared in a churning cloud of fog.
Don’t miss our reports on Coachella’s Day Two and Day Three here:
Plus: find out who fans loved and loathed in our report from the ground: