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Coachella: A chronological convergence in the desert

April 20, 2009 |  9:56 am

The rumbling has been growing in recent years among longtime supporters of the weekend-long Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival that organizers are losing their indie credibility. The grousing began in earnest with Madonna's appearance three years ago: She's too commercial. Last year's inclusion of headliners Prince and Pink Floyd veteran Roger Waters amplified the chorus, and this year's booking of Paul McCartney, the man whose music largely defined mainstream rock in the 1960s and '70s, kicked the skepticism up another notch.

These were not the kinds of alternative music icons that helped launch the event a decade ago Coachella 2009 (though one such band, the Cure, returned to the desert to close out the mainstage Sunday). McCartney, in particular, was too old, many said, and possessed even less hip factor than Waters, who performed Pink Floyd's rock masterpiece "Dark Side of the Moon" in its entirety.

Well, pigs didn't fly this year -- as they did last time around when Waters’ giant inflatable animal prop took to the skies -- but a Beatle did, delivering an unusually emotion-drenched 2 1/2 -hour performance Friday on the 11th anniversary of the death of his wife Linda.

"It's an emotional day for us," McCartney, 66, told the sea of fans that stretched out before him. "But that's good; that's OK."

Perhaps aiming to ratchet up that hip quotient, McCartney started with "Jet" from "Band on the Run" and moved on to a good number of edgier pieces he doesn't typically play in concert, including a couple from "Electric Arguments," his latest album under the moniker of his experimental side project, the Fireman. At one point he even started riffing on Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady," in homage to that other great left-handed rocker from the '60s.

For those who worried that bringing in more Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members might taint the Coachella experience, this year's other '60s legend, Leonard Cohen, had attendees swaying arm in arm just after sundown Friday, loudly singing his signature anthem, "Hallelujah."

His show was considerably abbreviated from the remarkable 3 1/2 -hour marathon sets he turned in a week earlier at the Nokia Theatre, but it gained intimacy in the Outdoor Theatre, where the setup allowed fans to press close to the stage and to one another, magnifying the communal spirit within Cohen's trek deep into the human soul.

Instead of experiencing a loss of indie authenticity, the mostly young Coachella audience discovered a few things to begrudgingly admire from the culture of their parents and grandparents, beyond just the tie-dyed fashions and headbands that seemed to be the fashion statement of choice this year.

Not that the modern rocker generation wasn't willing to salute a godfather of its own in Morrissey's muscular set, which preceded McCartney's. The erstwhile Smiths singer tapped his new “Years of Refusal” album and reached back to the '80s, showing that even approaching 50, he can still brood with the best of them.

The Killers' gloriously tuneful, grand-scale rock closed out Saturday's mainstage offerings on an especially celebratory note, coming as it did on the heels of M.I.A.'s musically monochromatic hip-hop assault. But in her second year at Coachella, stepping in after Amy Winehouse canceled because of visa problems, singer Maya Arulpragasam was erratic, unable to focus the power of her best politically charged recordings.

But the Killers, like U2 and Bruce Springsteen, two of their key role models, capitalized on the promise of a truth that can transcend the troubles of temporal life with such songs as "All These Things That I've Done" from the band's 2004 debut, "Hot Fuss," to the no-surrender exhortation at the heart of "A Dustland Fairytale" from last year's "Day & Age."

On Sunday, the Mexican Institute of Sound sizzled despite the lunchtime hour of their set. Group founder Camilo Lara snatched bits and pieces from all corners of the musical world: Mexican polka and norteño, punk and even a well-placed sample from Ennio Morricone's "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" theme.

Gustavo Santoalalla's electrifying ensemble Bajofondo had the bad luck of going on opposite McCartney on Friday, but even a short listen revealed his inspired update of Argentine folk tradition.

As for other standouts, Austin's Okkervil River drew considerable power out of the basic rock band lineup. Singer-songwriter Will Sheff's wistful, elegiac songs take on big questions and elemental emotions in a way that's fresh and without pretension, energized considerably by guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo's ripped sheets of distortion.

Singer-songwriter Conor Oberst brought his new outfit, the Mystic Valley Band, to Coachella. The group takes him straight into heartland rock territory, and while it's not always as inventive as his Bright Eyes material, Oberst seemed thoroughly inspired fronting the power-packed ensemble clearly inspired by the Band, with a bit of Stones bluesiness tossed into the mix.

Antony Hegarty, realizing it would be impossible to replicate the focused intensity of his recent Disney Hall performance, instead locked into hypnotic and sensual R&B-electronic pulses for his late afternoon set Sunday, again establishing an uncommonly empathetic bond between audience and performer.

The performance by My Bloody Valentine reignited the band's stoically rendered barrage of blistering, distortion-infused rock, delivered at an ear-crushing volume that seemed potent enough to be heard back across the Atlantic.

Beyond the individual performances, musical juxtapositions underscored the unique appeal of the large-scale festival. Whether a master stroke of scheduling or happy accident, the side-by-side sets on Saturday from Afro-Arabic pop group Tinariwen in the Gobi tent and Tucson-based Calexico next door at the Outdoor Stage illustrated connections that aren't always obvious.

Tinariwen vamps on melodic motifs mostly based on the Arabic scale, its singers tapping muezzin vocal practice. Calexico plays spaghetti western rock that leans heavily on music from the American Southwest and Mexico. Because of the Moorish influence on Spanish folk and classical music, the space between Tinariwen's polyrhythmic songs and Calexico's heterogeneous Tex-Mex mix wasn't so great.

Coachella 2009 made it clear the distance between generations and musical camps wasn't nearly as wide as some might have thought -- even as recently as last Friday morning.

--Randy Lewis

Photo of a woman crowd-surfing during Public Enemy's Sunday night set by Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times