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Paul McCartney's fab night at Coachella

April 18, 2009 | 10:00 am

Macagain Much ado was made the minute Coachella Music & Arts Festival chief Paul Tollett announced that Paul McCartney would be one of the 2009 headliners. He’s too old, some griped. Coachella’s for Gen X and Y, not the dreaded Boomers, others sniped. He’s too populist...he’ll dull Coachella’s hip factor.

The verdict from his Coachella debut on Friday? Never underestimate the power of a Beatle.

Perhaps some fans stayed away because a member of the world’s most popular rock band showed up, but for the ones who didn’t, the night belonged to Paul.

Pity the poor acts who had to go on opposite him while 95% of those still on hand for the conclusion of Friday’s opening show packed themselves like so many sardines as close to the big Coachella stage as they could. The Crystal Method still drew a few thousand dance-minded fans into the Sahara Tent, but thrash rock band Genghis Tron only landed 100 or so for its evening closing show, while Gustavo Santoalalla’s scintillating group Bajofondo pulled in 700 or 800.

Many on hand for McCartney couldn’t get any nearer than a quarter mile away, and they were grateful for video screens about 40 feet tall on either side of the stage magnifying that still-cherubic smile for all to see.

McCartney in turn delivered a two-hour-plus show in as strong a voice as he’s exhibited in his Southland stops in recent years, and one with a goodly number of surprise choices that took the set well beyond the Beatles/Wings greatest hits run-through he easily could have fallen back on.

He opened with “Jet,” from his 1975 album “Band on the Run,”  rocking hard at the outset as if to counter those who consider him an overly sentimental pop romantic. Which he is, but he used Coachella to exploit the visceral energy of early rock that so strongly influenced him, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, especially in his rendition of Big Joe Turner’s raucous “Honey Hush.”

“Let Me Roll It,” a soul-rock shouter, found him as gritty as one can get who has so powerful an attraction to pop melody and fetching harmonies. He included a couple from his more experimentalist side project "The Fireman," along with individual tributes to his wife Linda, who died 11 years ago to the day on Friday, Lennon and Harrison.

“It’s an emotional day for me,” McCartney, 66, said as though he were chatting with a few friends in his living room rather than tens of thousands of cheering fans. “But that’s OK. That’s good.”

Even when it seemed he couldn’t top himself after a fireworks-laden rendition of his James Bond movie theme “Live and Let Die,” after which he led a monumental singalong on “Hey Jude,” out came three more Beatles barnstomers: “Birthday,” “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “Lady Madonna.”

Hip comes and hip goes, but McCartney proved once again, a great pop song lasts forever.

--Randy Lewis

Photo by Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times