McCartney show is pop Olympus on Coachella’s indie plain

Paul McCartney was the headlining act on the first night of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
The souvenir booth at the 2009 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival said it all.

At one end, a T-shirt was proudly exclaimed: “I’m here for the opening bands.” At the other end, a collection of merchandise was printed with a single name, “Macca.” Most of the 43 acts in Friday night’s lineup were buzzworthy indie artists. But topping it off was one of the most commercially successful musicians of all time: Macca. Paul McCartney. While booking the former Beatle was certainly a coup for promoter Paul Tollett, there were some underground grumblings that his presence as the opening night headliner of the three-day music fest flew in the face of the Coachella spirit. But when all was said and done, the 66-year-old singer-songwriter gave the up-and-coming artists something to strive for — a long career and a body of work that makes a lasting impression on popular music. The two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee took the stage under the stars in the California desert looking tan and fit, wearing a black suit and white button-down shirt. He immediately launched into “Jet,” his 1974 hit with Wings. Two enormous vertical screens on either side of the stage beamed his high-def image to the crowd of about 40,000 people. “Eh, Co-a-chella, whoo hoo!,” McCartney exclaimed between songs. “We come from many miles away to rock your world tonight!” He played for 2½ hours — Beatles songs, Wings hits, solo material, a couple of covers, and two encores. “It was life-changing,” said Henry Schiff of Venice, California. “To see my dad’s idol perform while I was with my dad, I thought that was pretty cool. My brother’s here, too. He’s 22.” Steven Chen with of the band Airborne Toxic Event, who shares a birthday with McCartney, said he never dreamed he’d be playing on the same stage as with him.

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McCartney played lead guitar on a searing rendition of Jimi Hendrix’ “Foxy Lady.” But during the course of his set “Macca” was just as comfortable on bass, piano, mandolin — or ukelele, which he played in tribute to his late bandmate, George Harrison, in a rendition of “Something.” He also performed a touching acoustic guitar version of “Here Today” in memory of “my dear friend, John.” But the most poignant moment came when McCartney was seated at the piano. “It’s very emotional for me tonight, and my family, because April 17th is the anniversary of Linda’s passing. … Eleven years ago,” he confided, struggling to keep his composure when talking about his wife of 29 years.

A hush fell over the crowd as he performed “My Love.” Though emotional at times, the show also was playful and jubilant. Exuding his signature boyish charm, McCartney clearly relished the opportunity to reach out to Coachella’s mostly young, hipster crowd. After experiencing the timeless simplicity of “Let it Be,” or the still-relevant commentary on race relations in “Blackbird,” or the haunting excitement of “Live and Let Die,” it’s not hard to wonder whether any of those buzzworthy festival acts will still be making this much buzz when their careers are approaching a sixth decade.