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Paul McCartney at Coachella: The former Beatle doesn't quite fit the demographic

January 30, 2009 |  1:04 am
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The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival got famous by presenting the sounds of today and tomorrow. But this year California's most celebrated live-music event is gambling on Paul McCartney and the music of "Yesterday."

Booking the former Beatle, who is listed in the record books as the most successful musician in pop history, would be the safest choice imaginable for most music festivals.

But the internationally respected Coachella festival, which is set for April 17-19, has been pulling in crowds of more than 140,000 fans by taking an edgier path with alt-rock heroes you would hear on a college town's pirate radio station.

Presented with a chance to tap into music history and veteran star power, the promoters have signed the 66-year-old icon, who personifies the mature pop mainstream. The move could help the festival compete amid a grim economy and a host of imitators that have sprung up across the country; the news of McCartney's presence -- for better or worse -- instantly will make Coachella a hot topic with music fans nationwide who have been anxiously awaiting the list of this year's headliners.

What remains to be seen is whether the choice will cost the festival credibility with its core clientele: young fans who are more likely to listen to the White Stripes than the "White Album" and who are far more familiar with Rage Against the Machine than "Band on the Run."

From Paris, McCartney sent word Thursday that he was thrilled with the idea of playing to a new crowd. "I have heard that Coachella is one of the greatest festivals in the world," he said in a statement sent to The Times. "I'm really excited to get out there and rock!"

McCartney is just one of 120 acts at the festival. Most of them, including the Killers, Franz Ferdinand and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, perfectly fit the event's tradition of connoisseur alt-rock.

There also will be sets by the Cure, Morrissey and My Bloody Valentine, three revered acts from the 1980s and 1990s British scene, as well as a performance from neo-soul singer Amy Winehouse, whose train-wreck tabloid life has made her a digital age version of Janis Joplin.

Still, despite those compelling bookings, Paul Tollett, the festival's chief architect, knows that his decision to bring in a living legend from the 1960s will dominate discussion between now and Sir Paul's main-stage set on the festival's first night.

One-fourth of the Fab Four is big news no matter the year.

"This is a Beatle. That's huge," said Tollett, who has shown a flair for surprises in recent years. He and his partners at concert promotion company AEG booked Madonna in 2006, but the setting -- a dance-tent instead of the main stage -- made it an isolated, intriguing experiment.

The Coachella team also has brought in Willie Nelson, Pink Floyd alum Roger Waters and Prince, and this year has elegiac folk songwriter Leonard Cohen, who has not performed in the U.S. since 1993.

But each of those curveball performers has a maverick sensibility that connects with Coachella's indie-rock streak. McCartney is still the man who sang "Silly Love Songs."

There are plenty of people in the music industry who say it's foolish to doubt the Coachella leadership -- or that Beatles songbook.

"If they can pull off Madonna at Coachella, they can do anything," said Gary Bongiovanni, the editor in chief of Pollstar, the concert-industry trade publication. "Coachella is the king. I can see McCartney wanting to play Coachella because it gives him the chance to reach a different audience."

"I'm not sure what Coachella gets from him, though," Bongiovanni said. "It may pull in some older fans, but for the usual Coachella audience, I don't know that they will really get excited about seeing him -- although they might enjoy the show once they are there."

The legacy of the Beatles echoes throughout every corner of modern music, and Coachella fans have heard it firsthand in past performances by Oasis, Coldplay, the Verve and plenty of other stars who draw on the Fab Four. To win over the crowd, McCartney will probably steer clear of "Say Say Say" and lean into edgier material such as "Helter Skelter" and "Live and Let Die."

McCartney, whose romantic life has been a topic of intense interest in the British press, has been a rejuvenated music figure in recent years. Critics praised last year's "Electric Arguments," the third album released under the name the Fireman, McCartney's electronic-minded collaboration with producer Youth.

His more traditional solo work in the last few years has included "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard," the 2005 release that was nominated for three Grammy Awards, including album of the year.

It's safe to say that many Coachella fans will shrug when they see McCartney's name on the list of performers. Tollett said there was a significant percentage of return customers who ignore the main stage altogether.

"A lot of people come to see bands that they don't know much about yet," Tollett said.

This year some of the up-and-coming acts include TV on the Radio, Band of Horses, Fleet Foxes, Glasvegas, White Lies, the Knux, the Ting Tings and Beirut. Veterans such as X, Paul Weller and Public Enemy also will draw many fans.

Still, despite pent-up interest, the festival at the Empire Polo Club is up against dismal economic realities.

Tickets go on sale today at 9 a.m., with a three-day pass going for $281 and single-day admission for $103. That's a lot for young fans and European visitors, who also might consider rival summer festivals such as Bonnaroo in Tennessee (which reportedly will be headlined by Bruce Springsteen and Phish) and Lollapalooza in Chicago.

Coachella promoters have announced a layaway payment plan for the first time and will be heavily promoting the $55-per-person on-site camping option.

Tollett also organizes the Stagecoach Festival, a late April country music version of Coachella in Indio, and 24% of the tickets sold to date have been through a similar layaway program.

"These are tough times for people," he said, "and we'll do what it takes to get them to come to the show."

-Geoff Boucher

Photo credit: CBS

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