Most people shouldn’t concern themselves with having too much lead-time getting to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. The roads of the desert city of Indio aren’t prepared for the massive influx of the concertgoers, which this year topped 160,000 over the three days, the second highest in the event’s 10-year run. Obtaining a parking spot a long walk away is just half of the battle because many attendees need to pick up their tickets, and the lines for the ticket windows were a mess this year. On Friday, lowly hung signs that couldn’t be seen from the back of the lines told who was supposed to be where, yet after waiting a half hour in line, some discovered they were in the wrong place and had to start over. Even the Coachella staff wasn’t much help as I was sent to the wrong line to pick up my tickets. Luckily, my +1 for the day, my tall, high school chum Al, who came along to see Paul McCartney, spotted the sign and got me in the right spot.
After securing our entrance, I ran across one of the few people who should have been concerned about having too much lead-time: a young man passed out and carted away by the EMTs. Who knows what was wrong with the man, but the weather was only about 90 degrees, and in this setting he likely succumbed to the amount of partying he was doing, but damn, it was only four o’clock. Too early in the day to pass out cold and not even make it in the gates. He either partied very hard or had a limited tolerance. Either way, he perhaps learned the valuable lesson of pacing.
The first band we caught was Airborne Toxic Event in the middle of their set on the Main Stage. They had this dark, moody vibe that was odd in the daylight, but still appealing. They brought out a string quartet and played their hit “Sometime Around Midnight,” which the small crowd enjoyed. Because of our delayed entry, we only gave ATE about 15 minutes and headed over to see The Hold Steady, another of the many bands this weekend I only knew by name but wanted to check out.
As we approached the Gobi Tent, I was digging the melodic indie pop that pulled me in. The music flowed in waves that would build big, recede, and then take off again. The crowd was clapping and dancing along. Then I looked at the stage line-up sign and discovered I was actually enjoying Los Campesinos! I was torn about what to do next: should I gamble or stay where I was already happy? Because I find festivals best used to discover bands rather enjoy ones you already know you like, we rolled the dice.
The Hold Steady are no frills rock ‘n’ roll band, who appear to just want to play music and have a good time. Their gravely voiced singer has a tone reminiscent of a young Randy Newman, and they have this great “working man’s band” vibe that the only thing separating them from the audience is the stage. With the right songs striking the right amount of people, I could see them go big time like early Springsteen and the E Street Band, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they maintained a level of activity that keeps them from getting real jobs, yet not always on people’s radar except for the most devoted fan like the Bodeans or the Smithereens.
The hot weather naturally caused some ladies to wear very little, and throughout the afternoon Al and I exchanged pertinent information where to direct our gaze (“Quick! Over there in the blue.” “The blond over your left shoulder.”), but some caused consternation for a 41-year-old when you see their young faces and realize your friend has a daughter that age and what you're thinking is illegal in some states. Although if I had a jury of my actual peers, I’d be in the clear.
We headed over to the Main Stage where the blues-rock duo The Black Keys was going to play. We cracked out our chairs on the grass and took in most of the head-bob inducing set, during which the occasional aroma marijuana wafted by. The drummer Patrick pounded the skins so hard it’s a surprise he didn’t bust them. Before the set was over we headed over to the Outdoor Stage to grab a spot for Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band. A lot of ladies were excited he was going to play, shouting out their love for him before he even hit the stage. The organ is the main instrument that fills out the arrangements. It’s interesting that Oberst is top-billed because other band members alternate as lead singers, so they appear to be one group rather than a backing band. Dylan comparisons are too easily thrown around a lot when discussing musicians, but it has properly been applied with Oberst as this band reminds me of Dylan backed by The Band. Some songs also reminded me of Jackson Browne.
In preparation for the night ahead, Al and I had a few Heineken Lights and a slice of pizza in the beer garden while Franz Ferdinand performed an enthusiastic set with glee and abandon on the Main Stage. When the guitar started up on their breakout hit “Take Me Out” midway through their set, it was greeted by loud cheers and had many singing along. Towards the end of the set, they created a drum circle.
When the sun set, it got cooler, and not just in temperature as Leonard Cohen and his band took the Outdoor Stage. They wore matching suits and hats and started the set with “Dance Me to the End of Love.” The set might have better suited for a small, smoky cabaret, but it worked under a moonless sky as Cohen crooned his deep bass voice. The crowd was unfortunately obnoxious as people couldn’t stop talking around us, making me wonder if they were just grabbing a spot for the next act as people filled in the empty gaps in the audience throughout Cohen’s set. One idiot kept yelling at a guy a few spots in front of him to take off his hat.
Morrissey played the Main Stage and opened with “This Charming Man” and played a few other Smiths songs throughout his set, creating a one-man reunion of the classic ‘80s band that is likely the most fans are ever going to get. His voice sounded in fine form. Before “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others,” Morrissey, the well-known vegetarian, stated, “I can smell burning flesh and I hope to God it's human,” generating a number of “What the?”s from the crowd. He then walked off stage before the song ended, and his band looked perplexed. He returned and informed the audience, “The smell of burning animals is making me sick. I just couldn't bear it.” I was able to smell what he was referring to, but he soldiered on. He took his shirt off to the delight of some men and women, and threw it to the crowd, although he couldn’t make past the security area. The only problem during the set was the bass coming from the Do Lab stages were distractingly loud.
Before Sir Paul McCartney took the stage, at about 9:50 a DJ began spinning remixes of Beatles tunes. McCartney was scheduled for 10pm but came out 20 minutes late. He opened with “Jet” and “Drive My Car.” He then played a couple of songs from his recent albums and then returned to known territory with “Got to Get You Into My Life,” during which very odd-looking CG of The Beatles appeared on the video screens. It didn’t match the pacing of the song, but I believe it was later revealed they were part of the upcoming Beatles Rock Band.
During “Let Me Roll It,” McCartney played guitar and concluded with a bit of Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” They also covered Big Joe Turner’s “Honey Hush,” which McCartney said was a song from his youth. He moved to piano and after “The Long and Winding Road,” he announced the day was rather emotional for him because it was the anniversary of Linda’s death, which tugged at the heartstrings. He dedicated “My Love” to her.
During a solo performance of “Blackbird,” security had to carry a fellow out who eyes were rolled back in his head. McCartney admitted to missing some notes and chords because he was reading audience signs. It was impressive that he confessed because he didn’t have to. One sign asked for his pick, but he said he needed it. He then dedicated “Here Today” to John.
He then performed some obscure solo songs to the casual fan. When the video showed shots of the audience at this time, they looked lackadaisical. The technical director cut away quickly. Much of the video presentation was surprisingly poor. The video displays on the side of the stage throughout the performance while extremely large were quite narrow, so they revealed very little at one time, and when they cut in for a close-up of the hands playing the cameraman couldn’t keep them in the shot, although he likely wasn’t trying. During the Wings’ song “Band of the Run,” the video screens behind the band featured Beatles footage, which seemed an odd choice.
McCartney strummed a ukulele unaccompanied during the opening of George’s “Something” and then offered the deep album cut “I’ve Got A Feeling.” “A Day in the Life” segued into “Give Peace a Chance.” McCartney then finished off the set on the piano with “Let It Be” and the James Bond theme “Live and Let Die” that was augmented into a magnificent spectacle with flames and fireworks. Would have been made for great ending, as McCartney with a deserved grin of satisfaction. He then went into “Hey, Jude” and turned it into a big group sing-along. It was so joyous it was surprising we all didn’t join hands.
With the clock after curfew at around 12:15, and reports promoters had to pay the city $1,000 each minute over, the band took their bows. As some people started to make their way out, it was curious that the stage lights never came up and roadies were scurrying around, but not packing up. Then they came out to encore with “Birthday,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and “Lady Madonna.” They left again and surely that was it, but McCartney came out alone at 12:33 and played “Yesterday” on guitar, an obvious emotional end point. Then the entire band returned yet again for “Helter Skelter,” driving away any exhaustion a member of the crowd might have. It got to the point where as much fun as I was having I wanted him to stop because of the two-hour drive I had ahead of me. McCartney didn’t care and fired off “Get Back.” To my amazement people were still getting high at this late hour. Ah, youth. The band finally concluded with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)” and “The End,” taking their final bow at almost 1am (and strangely made no mention of Ringo throughout the night).
It took about an hour to get back to our car and drive the five miles to the freeway because the roads were a mess. Unfortunately, the traffic cops sat around collecting their overtime and talking to each other, rather than stopping people from driving all over the road and cutting each other off. We arrived home after four in the morning. I already knew Day Two could be brutal.