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Recent years have seen a substantial increase in the number of music festivals in the United States and a shift in kind from the traveling festivals of the 1990s (like Lollapalooza and Warped Tour) to multi-day European-style festivals set in one place. The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival has been at the forefront of this shift.

 
Now ten years old, the festival has developed into one of the most respected and revered musical events in the world.  Coachella has transformed over the years from a two-day festival in 1999, to single-day occurrence in 2000, to its current incarnation: a three-day festival in the middle of the Southern California desert.  Over the years, the Coachella lineup has boasted some pretty impressive names – Prince, Radiohead, Madonna, Jane’s Addiction, Rage Against the Machine, Coldplay, Bjork, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tool, Beastie Boys, the White Stripes, and Beck, to name just a few – and some of the hottest lesser-known groups on their way up. 

 
This year, for its tenth anniversary, Coachella welcomed its biggest name yet: Sir Paul McCartney headlining Friday night.  With the Killers and the Cure headlining on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, and with nearly 100 other acts ranging from hip-hop to heavy metal to electronic mash-up, Coachella’s 2009 lineup showcased the variety and wide appeal that is characteristic of the festival.  And the music isn’t the only attraction: the grassy fields of the Empire Polo Field are converted into a wonder land of both audible and visual spectacle.  Numerous art installations add to the other-worldly effect.  One notable interactive feature this year was the Hand of Man, an enormous robotic arm (think a huge version of the robot arm from Terminator) that allows its operator to pick up and crush a car. 

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Of course, a killer lineup and awesome location are all well and good, but the third element in any great music festival is the crowd.  Coachella’s reputation and credibility among music fans, as well as its proximity to the counter-cultural bastion of Los Angeles (an enjoyable two-hour drive without traffic), insure a healthy mix of the super-devoted and the ultra-fashionable.  The high temperature allows festival-goers to get creative with their apparel, and multi-colored Ray-Bans, short-shorts, and body glitter abound.  It’s difficult to define the culture of Coachella, given that the tone of the festival is one of diversity and stylish free-spiritedness, like Woodstock-chic.  Any attempt to narrowly describe the crowd couldn’t do it justice, but suffice it to say that the enthusiasm of festival attendees supplements that of even the most avid performers.

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Despite unseasonable heat, crowded parking lots, and lines for restrooms and water, it’s rare to hear a complaint.  That’s not too surprising: good music and good people, who could complain?
FRIDAY

Friday kicked off the festival with amazingly mild weather (highs in the 80’s) and a relaxed crowd that included a noticeable number of older fans who turned out to see McCartney.  As is typical of Coachella Friday, the crowd filled-in gradually, with many arriving in the evening.  We Are Scientists was the first act to draw a sizeable crowd, grabbing the attention of many festival-goers the minute they stepped through the front gate.  The Hold Steady rocked in the shade of the Mojave Tent in the mid-afternoon, with singer Greg Finn leading what was essentially one big sing-along.  The Hold Steady wrapped up just in time to allow the crowd to catch its breath and rush to see the final few minutes of the Black Keys, who performed on the main stage late Friday afternoon.  The duo ended their set with a blistering, guitar-driven medley.

The Hold Steady at Coachella 2009

The Hold Steady at Coachella 2009

By the time Franz Ferdinand took to the main stage to begin a rousing performance, the sun was low in the sky and the giddy enthusiasm of Coachella Day 1 was in full-swing.  It was a worthy challenge to leave the main stage in the middle of the Scottish pop-rock band’s set to stake out a position for Leonard Cohen at the Outdoor Theater, but with so much going on at Coachella, it’s not possible to see everything and some choices must be made.  Cohen, who waited for the sun to set before beginning a surreal, understated set, would certainly not disappoint.  The seventy-four-year-old singer-poet greeted an eager crowd with a broad smile and a tip of the hat before nailing a pitch-perfect rendition of “Dance Me to the End of Love.”

 
Of course, in spite of so much else going on, Friday belonged to Paul McCartney.  It seemed that McCartney was on everyone’s list of must-see performances, and he certainly lived up to expectations.  After a characteristically angst-ridden set from former-Smiths front man Morrissey, Sir Paul’s sizeable road team hit the main stage to begin an elaborate sound and light set-up, and the dessert air filled with a sense of anticipation.  A DJ took the stage and began mixing Beatles classics with modern techno beats while a crowd of thousands sang along.  When the lights went down and the Man Himself bolted onto the stage, he was met with applause that would be unmatched for the rest of the weekend.  McCartney opened with the energetic Wings hit “Jet” before getting the crowd going with “Drive My Car.”  A fatigued audience remained on its feet for the whole of a marathon three-hour set, which culminated with two encores comprised primarily of Beatles classics.  The crowds began flowing out of the festival grounds just after 1 a.m., with a high bar set for the rest of the weekend.

Paul McCartney at Coachella 2009

Paul McCartney at Coachella 2009

SATURDAY


If Friday set the tone for Coachella, Saturday kicked things up a notch.  With a more youthful crowd drawn by the likes of the Killers and M.I.A. and temperatures breaking the 90-degree mark, the festival’s second day pulsated with excitement.  Many arrived in the late-afternoon, intent on avoiding the heat and preserving energy for a night of high-intensity acts. 

 
TV on the Radio entered the main stage to greet the crowd just before 6:30 and delivered a fast-paced set that was just what the restless audience was looking for.  If TVotR brought the crowd up, Fleet Foxes eloquently settled it down with a mellow evening set on the Outdoor Theater stage.  Band of Horses followed and got off to an outstanding start, rocking an eager crowd with a scorching rendition of “Is There a Ghost.”  But the band was no match for M.I.A., who drew tens-of-thousands to the main stage for her 8:55 start-time.  Her non-stop, beat-driven set left no one standing still and may have been the greatest spectacle that Coachella 2009 had to offer. 

Turbonegro at Coachella 2009

Turbonegro at Coachella 2009

Jenny Lewis drew a substantial portion of the post-M.I.A. crowd, but a few headed to the Mojave Tent to witness the power-house that is Turbonegro.  The influential punk band pushed through one song after another with few pauses.  Saturday’s headliner, the Killers, took to the main stage just before 10:30.  Despite the undeniable energy and enthusiasm of lead singer Brandon Flowers, it was just unfair to ask anyone to follow M.I.A.’s interactive dance-a-thon.  Though the Killers began their set with an overflowing audience, by the end of the first half-hour, festival-goers began trickling off to catch performances by Atmosphere, Mastodon, or the much-hyped Gang Gang Dance. 

 
For all their talent, Mastodon’s fierce brand of technical heavy metal did not translate well to the live stage.  The intricacies of their complex sound were muddled together to create a massive and forceful sound, which ultimately could not do justice to their compelling recorded work.  Gang Gang Dance drew a smaller crowd than they deserved to the stage of the Gobi Tent, but that was all the better for those who were there.  The noisy dance band pulled no punches in a raucous and wild set.  It was the perfect way to burn the last remaining drops of energy in a day at Coachella that required some well-spent endurance.
SUNDAY


Coachella attendees went to bed exhausted on Saturday night and awoke to the weekend’s highest temperatures on Sunday morning.  By noon, temperatures were in the mid-90’s, and were expected to inch closer to the 100-degree mark by the middle of the afternoon.  This made for a low-energy afternoon. 

 
The Mojave Tent filled with the smell of sweat and sunscreen as bodies clamored for a shady spot to hear Brian Jonestown Massacre.  The Los Angeles-based psychedelic garage rockers have a reputation for arguments and self-destruction which can sometimes overshadow their musical abilities, but at Coachella, the band displayed its talents without incident or aggression.  The set was well-suited for the lazy crowd: light, well-executed, and easy to enjoy.  The Murder City Devils took the stage next, and brought an energetic show that was off-putting for some, but just what others were looking for.  The Seattle noise-rock band’s instrumentals were tight, and lead singer Spencer Moody worked the audience with force and attitude that any punk front man would appreciate.

 
Perry Farrell (of Jane’s Addiction fame) brought an animated gathering into the Sahara Tent for his DJ set (Farrell has appeared at Coachella every year in one form or another: with Jane’s Addiction or other musical projects, and often as a DJ).  For any who were interested in something mellower, Antony and the Johnsons began a slow-paced, melancholy set on the stage of the Outdoor Theater.  The performance seemed to enchant some members of the audience, but may have been a bit too lethargic for others as a cool wind picked up and the temperatures began going down. 

 
Despite the two biggest names on Coachella’s Sunday bill – The Cure and My Bloody Valentine – the draw for most seemed to be Yeah Yeah Yeahs, whose most recent album finds the band embracing the role of dance floor rockers.  The area in front of the main stage packed in well in advance of the scheduled 6:15 start-time, and by 6 o’clock it was difficult to get in or – as if anyone wanted to – out of the crowd.  With a set that left no feet unmoved, Yeah Yeah Yeahs lived up to every expectation, and singer Karen O. proved that she is a true Rock Star.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs at Coachella 2009

Yeah Yeah Yeahs at Coachella 2009

Much like those who followed M.I.A. on the previous evening, every act on Sunday night was cursed to be compared to YYY’s.  My Bloody Valentine moved quickly through a thunderous set.  Reunited after over a decade of inactivity, the grunge icons sounded technically great, but couldn’t maintain the crowd energy of their opening act.  The only act to rival Karen O. and her band was the Kills, who blew the roof off of the Mojave Tent with a ferocious set that attracted an over-flow crowd.

 

Public Enemy, who appeared as the final act in the Outdoor Theater, kept many fans away from the beginning of Sunday night’s headliner, the Cure, with an expectedly powerful hip-hop performance.  Robert Smith and the rest of the Cure certainly drew their share of the crowd, but by the end of three long days it was hard to hold the attention of those who hadn’t come to Coachella specifically to see the 1980s icons.  Their nostalgic rendition of “Just Like Heaven” solicited massive applause, but apparently also marked the end of the weekend for those who decided to beat the traffic. 

 

Just as the crowds had arrived in the desert gradually on Friday afternoon, they trickled out in a constant stream on Sunday night, reluctantly headed back to the real world.

The Highlights:


Leonard Cohen
Back on tour after nearly fifteen years without performing live, Leonard Cohen performed on Friday just after sunset.  Any fear that Cohen’s voice has deteriorated over the years was quickly dispelled.  His deep, velvet voice sounds as wonderful as ever.  Cohen controlled the stage with a quiet confidence, often standing motionless before slowly lowering his head and raising the microphone to his mouth like a mannequin come to life.  When a member of Cohen’s band took center-stage for a solo, the singer stood to the side and observed with a gentle attentiveness, a member of the audience for just a moment. 

Leonard Cohen at Coachella 2009

Leonard Cohen at Coachella 2009

Cohen’s set was a mix of his most popular and most emotional songs, nailing “First We Take Manhattan” and “Bird on a Wire” to the crowd’s delight.  A background of palm trees and the last shred of daylight over desert mountains, mixed with Cohen’s deep, melodic voice, made this the most awe-inspiring performance of the day, if not the best.

 
Morrissey
As Leonard Cohen’s performance drew to a close, a substantial portion of his audience rushed across the festival grounds to get in position for Morrissey.  The former Smiths front-man would not disappoint.  He rushed on stage like a ball of energy, ahead of his band and clearly in full control.  Morrissey’s abilities as a singer and band leader, as well as his formidable stage presence, are to be reckoned with.  By the time he began his second song, the fan-favorite “First of the Gang to Die,” the audience was eating out of his hand.  Even when the Moz, a noted vegan, grumbled about the festival’s choice of food options (“I can smell burning flesh.  I hope it’s human.”), and complained aloud about problems with the sound, the audience only adored and applauded him more.  That’s no surprise, since Morrissey’s appeal has always been in his unapologetic, shameless humanity.

 
Given Morrissey’s control of the stage, it’s no surprise that, when he tore off his shirt in the middle of “Let Me Kiss You,” while belting the line “you see someone you physically despise,” a throng of cheers rose from the sizeable audience, assuring him that any who may have despised him were not welcome in this crowd.

Paul McCartney
The biggest name in a music festival lineup always has a lot to prove, but everyone knows you should never bet against a Beatle.  Sir Paul took the stage just after 10 pm on Friday night and played well past the schedule end-time of midnight, performing a full concert set of over thirty songs.  With a set list that spanned a legendary career—from the Beatles to Wings to the recent Firemen – it’s hard to image that McCartney left anyone unsatisfied. 

 
The big complaint about McCartney’s live show is that it lacks a sense of spontaneity, but that’s easy to understand given that the band is well-rehearsed, and he’s been performing some of these songs for over forty years.  Besides, McCartney’s energy and enthusiasm are undeniably genuine, and at Coachella he clearly had as much fun as anyone in the audience. 

About half-way through his set, Paul sat at his piano and informed the audience that this date – April 17 – was a very significant one for him: it’s the anniversary of Linda McCartney’s death.  As he began an emotional rendition of “My Love,” dedicated to Linda, the performance became something even more special, because McCartney was now sharing such an intimate part of his life with his audience.

 
McCartney’s performance highlighted the fact that The Beatles’ songs have become a part of the collective conscience.  Paul was the one performing, but who didn’t sing along during “Let It Be” and “Hey Jude”?  Who didn’t remain dead-silent during “Blackbird” and “Yesterday”?  Who could stand still during “Helter Skelter” and “Can’t Buy Me Love”?

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M.I.A.
It’s no secret that a great musical performance is made even better by a great audience.  In that regard, M.I.A. may have been the best performer at Coachella this year.  After a lead-in by a group of day-glo covered break-dancers, M.I.A. entered stage center and began her performance at a podium, preaching to a wildly amped-up crowd.  She quickly reminded the audience that the last time she performed at Coachella, she only got through six songs before the end of her allotted time, then remarked, “This year I’m taking seven,” to wild applause.  The show culminated with a high-energy rendition of “Paper Planes,” but the real highlight of this performance came when the hip-hop diva invited dozens of lucky audience members on stage, much to the chagrin of the security staff.  By bringing these lucky few into her realm, M.I.A. implied that this was less a performance than a dance party.

 
Of course, the entire set was marked by M.I.A.’s signature tribal beats and bright fluorescent colors.  Kanye West has described his musical style as “Vegas on acid.”  Given her Coachella performance, that description might be more fitting to M.I.A.

TV on the Radio
Sunset is a very important time at Coachella.  It’s the transition from the scorching hot day to the surreal desert night.  Whichever band takes the main stage at sunset bridges that divide and sets the tone for the night as they usher in the cool darkness.  On Saturday of this year’s festival, that band was TV on the Radio.  The jazz-dance-pop group began its set at around 6:30, as many festival-goers had had their fill of sun-exposure and were prepared to hunker down in the shade to wait-out the remaining daylight.  In response to the infectious beats of TVotR, a crowd of thousands rose to its feet, and for nearly an hour danced and clapped along.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Never underestimate a band with a great lead singer.  Yeah Yeah Yeahs were one of the most anticipated acts at Coachella this year, and came through with an unforgettable performance, thanks in large part to lead woman Karen O.  Despite the infectious instrumentals provided by the band, it was virtually impossible to pay attention to anything but O’s movements from one end of the stage to the other, and everywhere in between. 

 

Even on a Sunday afternoon, after most spent the afternoon baking in early-100-degree heat, YYY’s brought the crowd up and kept it there for the entirety of an hour-long set.  Near the end of the performance, during “Heads Will Roll,” Karen O. belted the line “Dance ‘til you’re dead!”: a direction to an audience that seemed content to follow.

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The Kills
That the Kills were able to pull a sizeable crowd away from grunge icons My Bloody Valentine on Sunday night speaks volumes about their abilities as performers and their status as the new representatives of loud, aggressive indie rock. 

 

The duo has an on-stage chemistry that is matched by very few musical combos.  Using nothing but vocals accompanied by guitar and recorded beats, the Kills hammered out one song after another.  The end result was irresistible in its simplicity and kept the audience expanding for the entirety of the band’s set, even as the Cure took the main stage.

Public Enemy 
Nothing against the Cure or the Killers, but Public Enemy should have headlined Saturday or Sunday at Coachella.  In the world of hip-hop, Chuck D and Flavor Flav are legendary.  The duo’s influence on hip-hop in particular and popular culture in general is irrefutable. 

 

With their performance at Coachella on Sunday night, PE proved that, along with their skilled backing group, the Bomb Squad, they still have the ability to keep a substantial crowd on its feet, following along with every beat and every rhyme.  Performing their classic album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, in its entirety, the duo proved that their music and message remain relevant over twenty years later.  With the closing rendition of the political rap hit “Fight the Power,” Public Enemy had its audience in a trance, and gave them a type of performance unavailable elsewhere at the festival.

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