From the day it was announced, the Desert Trip music festival, with its sky-high ticket prices, bourgeois amenities, pastel marketing, and its living legends of rock line-up looked like the ultimate commodification of 1960s counterculture and social rebellion. Immediately dubbed "Oldchella," it was an easy mark for cynics who mocked the idea of plunking down hundreds or thousands of dollars to see six bands decades past their prime -- an exercise in the kind of easy nostalgia once ridiculed by both the bands and their audiences -- as an "oldies but goodies" weekend of nostalgia for people who long ago traded in their bongs for briefcases. Others whined on social media about the price of the tickets or their scarceness, since the first of what would soon be two weekends sold out quickly, generating astronomical prices on the resale market. If that wasn't enough, reports of the festival's anticipated record-breaking gate and huge paydays for the bands, coupled with promotional videos that looked like Viagra commercials, could justifiably cause one to wonder whether Desert Trip was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime event or a grand fleecing of complacent boomers.
The verdict? The old guys delivered, and then some. Oldchella was better than I could have imagined, and while the success of the inaugural outing will undoubtedly turn this classic rock version of Coachella into an annual event, I don't think any of them will be able to match the way this one resonated with the audience.
None of the bands on the bill are capable of bringing the energy, sense of danger, or wonder that marked their creative heydays, but each made a convincing case for the enduring strength of their music, and with surprising conviction, (especially in the case of Dylan, Young, and Waters), proved that experience and perspective can make for an absence of youthful passion. To put a spin on an old adage, old age, chops, and a great setlist can beat youth and exuberance, at least when the deck is stacked this high. I've seen all of these bands before, four of them between 1978 and 1980, and while I've seen better concerts over the years from the Stones, the Who, and Paul McCartney, I've never seen better shows by Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Roger Waters (or any version of Pink Floyd) than what I saw and heard during the first weekend.
Dylan started it off on Friday night just after the sun went down with a surprise, "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," a tease he soon made good on by following it with a handful of songs from the 60s before moving on to his work from later decades. As usual with Dylan at this point in his career, most of the arrangements bore scant resemblance to the originals, but thankfully on this occasion Dylan committed to fully articulating the lyrics, making them easily identifiable, even when snarled instead of sung. Not surprisingly, he didn't say a word to the audience, opting instead to let the music do the talking on a dim, starkly lit stage. With a white hat pulled low over his brow, he allowed the cameras to show him in shadowy profiles for the first few songs and then, after repeatedly looked over his shoulder with an expression on his face landing somewhere between annoyance and expectation, Dylan and his band disappeared from the screens above, leaving the audience with only the music and noirish black and white moving and still images from the past projected on the massive four-panel screens overhead, which spanned the length of a football field. I read Dylan's sticking to his own songs and eschewing the American songbook covers he's been playing lately, as well as the deliberate attempt to enunciate his lyrics clearly, as a tacit willingness to play to the crowd, and acknowledge his place among this gathering of survivors, if only just this once.
But he's Dylan, and he wasn't going to play nice. Halfway through the set (throughout which Dylan was either seated at a piano or standing in front of a microphone), the songs grew angrier, his voice more terse, and the images on the screens began to pile up in a repetitive montage of past eras, unfulfilled dreams, futility, and loneliness. Beginning with an especially biting "Love Sick," followed by "Tangled Up in Blue," Dylan sounded like he had landed in hell and was going to make himself at home, loading up on bitterness and a dash of hope in late tracks like "Make You Feel My Love,""Lonesome Day Blues,""Pay in Blood," and caustic renditions of "Ballad of a Thin Man" and a set-closing "Masters of War." There was no "Blowin' In the Wind," "Subterranean Homesick Blues," or "Like A Rolling Stone," (setting up the vain hope he might join the Stones onstage later in the night), but for once, Dylan seemed willing to accept the role of chronicler of his era, furiously letting us know that after all this time, it's still not alright.
The masterful darkness of Dylan's set gave me a glimmer of hope the Stones might do something special, like play Exile in its entirety, perform an unexpected setlist of songs they rarely play but should, or bring out a bunch of guests like they did on the 50th anniversary tour. There was precious little of that except the 20-song set that included a surprising number of songs from later albums including "Slipping Away" and "Mixed Emotions" from the Steel Wheels album, "Out of Control" from Bridges to Babylon, "You Got Me Rocking'" from Voodoo Lounge, and the rarely played "Little T&A" from Tattoo You. Oddly, there was nothing from 2005's A Bigger Bang, a superior album to anything else the Stones have released since Tattoo You. I think it's great the Stones aren't relying solely on hits from the 60s and 70s, but there are better tracks to choose from they haven't played in States for years like "Sweet Virginia," "Stray Cat Blues," and "Star, Star" to name just a few beginning with the letter "S," not to mention "Slave," which they've probably never played and is the best song on the first side of Tattoo You.
The treats were a bluesy but undercooked cover of the Beatles' "Come Together" and a scorching cover of Jimmy Reed's "Ride 'Em On Down" from the upcoming Blue & Lonesome album. Otherwise it was a predictable set, beginning with "Start Me Up" (ugh -- again?) and ending with the encore of "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and "Satisfaction," with a dozen huge hits in between. Keith and Woody sounded great together, though their guitars were mixed way above the rest of the band, and Jagger continues to defy the sands of time by prancing ceaselessly across the massive stage for two hours. But there was something fundamentally wrong with Jagger slithering up to the end of the catwalk extending into the crowd during an otherwise pleasingly grimy "Midnight Rambler," and offering 75,000 people nothing more threatening than "If you know how to party say 'Oh Yeah'."
Sasha Allen, a former contestant on The Voice television show, has replaced longtime back-up singer Lisa Fischer, and while Allen's talented, she can't quite fill Fischer's boots, which was of course most evident on "Gimme Shelter" (Fischer is performing in the area during the second weekend of Desert Trip, so I wouldn't be surprised if she pops in for a cameo). As far as Stones shows go this one was fair, which is pretty disappointing because without the Stones Desert Trip would have never happened, yet the band that brought it all together turned in the least interesting performance of the weekend. The Stones, who've written some of the most potent and insightful critiques of politics and social mores of the last 50 years, had nothing to offer the crowd beyond jokes, platitudes, and tunes, and the result felt like a missed opportunity for the world's greatest rock and roll band to prove they can still stick a knife right down the audience's throat, which they've still managed to do time and again since the 1990s when the mood strikes.
After the Desert Trip line-up was made public and promoted as a "once-in-a-lifetime" event, Neil Young told the L.A. Times “It’s just another gig. A well-paying gig, but just another gig.” If that's the case, then Young must be one of the hardest working men in show business right now. On Saturday, with the stage decorated with teepees and a backdrop picturing a large burlap seed bag, Young's set began with a couple of women walking around the amps and guitars planting seeds for a few minutes. Watching it, I thought of those weird Ewok-like creatures he had running around the stage at the beginning of the Rust Never Sleeps Tour back in the 70s and wondered if there was supposed to be some kind of connection. Now, like then, it didn't really make much sense but I didn't this mind until afterwards, when I realized this little bit of horticultural theater might have knocked "Cinnamon Girl" off the setlist.
When the women left the stage Young came out on stage alone and began with "After the Goldrush," "Heart of Gold," "Comes a Time" and "Mother Earth." I was impressed by his willingness to face a crowd that large on his own armed with only these gentle, tender songs, just the man and his music. After his tight, young back-up band Promise of the Real came out on stage the acoustic side of the set continued from "Human Highway" through an exquisite rendition of "Harvest Moon" that was about as perfect as one could hope for under a crescent moon against the indigo desert sky.
The seeds of Promise of the Real, which includes two of Willie Nelson's sons, Lukas and Micah, were sown at a Neil Young gig where guitarist Lukas met drummer Anthony LoGerfo. The band doesn't rock as hard as Crazy Horse, but they're more dexterous and have a wider range, bringing an expanded sound to Young's songs without diluting their concision. After donning an electric hollow-body for "Words," and fronting the band with only a harmonica for "Texas Rangers," Young finally broke out the black Gibson for "Powderfinger" about forty minutes into the two-hour set and, predictably, the musicians took off, riding on a wave of three interweaving guitars.
They followed "Powderfinger" with a 20-minute version of "Down By the River" that built slowly but steadily into a loud, furious roar that for me, was the highlight of the entire weekend, With LoGerfo's drums sounding like shotgun blasts between the lyrics "down by the river/I shot my baby down," and Young gently singing "Be on my side" like a dangerous psychopath holding a knife to someone's neck, "Uncle Neil," as the band referred to him, proved that while he may be old and crusty looking at this point, he can still burn down the house unlike anyone else, and Nelson's guitar and the band's harmonies were the perfect compliment. Young's set, with its mix of songs reflecting on the personal and political ("Welfare Mothers," "Rocking in the Free World,""Seeds"), was more overtly aggressive than Dylan's, less interested than McCartney in pleasing the crowd, and drew a better audience response than the Stones (at least where we were sitting). By the end of Saturday night, it was the evening's "opening" acts that fulfilling the promise held by the weekend's line-up. I never would expected Neil Young to blow away the Stones, but he did.
Among all of rock's elder statesman, none is more generous to the audience than Paul McCartney. Among the weekend's bands, only McCartney and Dylan have successfully moved beyond the sounds they created during their initial, remarkable creative periods (let's say 1962 - 1975, to include Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here), and only McCartney fully commits to giving fans what they want as well as a hefty dose of music from across the span of his career. The results are lengthy sets of nearly 40 songs ranging from the early days of the Beatles, the Wings hits, and recent solo material, all delivered with anecdotes, charm, enthusiasm, warmth, and a hard-rocking band.
On Saturday night McCartney's voice was frayed, with a noticeable rasp that was absent when I saw him perform this past August in Washington, DC. He also didn't seem to have as much energy, though his voice cleared toward the end of his set, and even a tired McCartney, at age 74, is still the best advertisement for adopting a vegan lifestyle that will ever exist. Beginning with "A Hard Day's Night" followed by "Jet," McCartney and his band squeezed in nearly three dozen songs before ending after midnight with the Abbey Road medley of "Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End."
The highlight came with Young joining him on the Beatles' "A Day in the Life," the Plastic Ono Band's "Give Peace a Chance,"the Beatles' "Why Don't We Do It In the Road," which McCartney's never played before during a live concert, and McCartney's nod back to the Stones cover the night before with "I Wanna Be Your Man," which he hasn't played in more than 20 years (according to legend, he and John Lennon wrote the tune for the Stones in about 20 minutes while sitting in a corner of a room while Jagger and Richards waited nearby).
"Queenie Eye," the best song from his recent New album, had a newly edited video accompaniment which made no sense at all, with the addition what looked like a Pussycat Dolls video added to the original footage depicting a nostalgic look back at Britain's post WWII social life, but apart from that, and minus his surprising decision to leave out "Yesterday," McCartney delivered an expectedly crowd-pleasing set that, with the exception of Young's appearance, also made no concessions to the uniqueness of the event. When you're a Beatle, why bother? If I hadn't seen him just recently I probably would have been more impressed, but even so, there's no disputing McCartney remains an astonishingly gifted performer, and there's really nothing else like a McCartney show to make one feel simultaneously nostalgic about the past and hopeful for the future, especially when 75,000 are singing along with "Hey Jude."
The logistics of staging over musical legacies must have accounted for The Who going first on Sunday night, which in the end worked out for the best. The last time I saw the band, during their 2013 Quadrophenia and More tour, they were a complete disaster: their longtime road drummer Zak Starkey was terrible, and after that night he disappeared from the tour; Daltrey complained that the weed being smoked near the front of the stage was closing his throat; and with Starkey being unable to drive the songs properly from the kit, the entire band went off the rails. If that weren't bad enough, the frat guys in front of me sang the line "Who is she, I'll rape her!" from "Dr. Jimmy" with an unhinged glee that made me a little sick to my stomach.
So let's just say my expectations weren't all that high, despite knowing that of all the bands on the Desert Trip line-up The Who were the most capable of delivering an explosive set. And they did, led by an invigorated performance from Townshend and Starkey that almost made me forgive them for 2013.
But I was surprised Townshend largely stuck to the example of others by not making much of the collected experience of the bands, or on commenting on the passage of time apart from a crack about the audience coming to "watch old people dance." He certainly was chatty enough, tossing off sharp barbs about the band's dearly departed, but apart from closing the set predictably with "Won't Get Fooled Again," it might as well have been 1982, and he played as if it still was, which is to say Townshend sounded fantastic, engaged, and loud. After all this time it should be an absurd act bordering on parody, but there's still something inspiring (and exciting) about watching Pete Townshend windmill his arm over the strings of his guitar.
Daltrey, aided by backup singers on the most difficult-to-reach notes, still hit them when it mattered over the course of what was a nearly perfect greatest hits set list, but the former rock god is the the one who's looking like an old man up there, getting twisted up in his microphone chord like goofy grandfather who's had a couple too many at the party. He should forego the act at this point -- it doesn't work anymore. Still, the Who kicked ass and my only complaint was that Townshend still thinks way more of Tommy than I do, and more from Quadrophenia would have been welcome.
Of the six bands on the Desert Trip bill, Roger Waters was the only one I was not really excited to see. In fact I probably could have been talked into skipping his set altogether, tired of his battles with his former bandmates, put off by his odious politics, and bored by the whiny voice and self-absorbed, pretentious music that has made 3/4s of The Wall and everything he's done since unlistenable for me for at least thirty years. My girlfriend and I struck a deal -- we would leave once he was done with the Pink Floyd stuff and moved on to his solo material.
Yeah, I know. I was wrong. I couldn't have been more wrong.
Waters' set was the highlight of the weekend, a nearly three-hour long extravaganza centered around Pink Floyd's 70s masterpieces -- Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and the lesser but still potent Animals, plus tracks from Meddle ("San Tropez" One of These Days), and (to me) the very surprising appearance of "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" from A Saucerful of Secrets. By the time he inevitably turned toward The Wall I was ready and willing to go along. Only a few things didn't work: the two back-up singers, while interesting to look at in their sci-fi outfits and blonde-Betty Page wigs didn't really seem to get what Clare Torry did on the original cut of "Great Gig in the Sky," though I've heard other singers take it on quite successfully; Waters has no business singing anything that was originally sung by David Gilmour -- everything originally sung by Gilmour needs to be handed over to the vocalist standing in for Gilmour; and while Rogers' was finally the one to make some unambiguous political statements, his decision to read a statement in support of the misguided, anti-semitic students protesting at UC Berkeley was unfortunate on many levels, not least of which it exposed his ignorance of the real issue at hand on the campus and in doing so revealed his desire to use the show as a platform for his own pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel beliefs.
But apart from that... damn, it was a helluva show, in which he effectively updated every overstuffed, grandiose trick from Floyd's heyday and transformed them into either scathing excoriations of the digital era (especially the take-down of Trump during "Pigs," which drew scattered boos from some well-heeled big wheels in the audience) or beautifully meditative excursions through trippyland. It was the rock equivalent of Gotterdammerung, complete with its own anti-semitic composer. The quadrophonic sound system, the large, precise band, and the most dazzling video projections imaginable (not to mention the flying pigs and turning the entire stage into London's Battersea Power Station, complete with smoke-belching smoke stacks), were all put into service of using the songs to remind the audience just much ground ground Pink Floyd broke. Coming at the end of the weekend, Waters set, more than others but certainly aided by the cumulative experience of seeing and hearing each of these bands after the other, deeply illustrated the profound impact and influence they've made on popular culture that's taken root in uncountable ways. It was only while I was watching this set that I realized all of these bands have long, consistent histories with film that date back to the sixties, long before MTV and long-form videos; that the contemporary spectacles mounted by Beyoncé and Kanye, Muse, and Radiohead, are all outgrowths of what the Stones and Pink Floyd started decades ago. That fashion, taste, advertising, politics, and art all bent under their creative sway. And here was Waters, bless his nasty, bitter, whining heart, up there on the stage at age 73, still willing to take on all comers, calling out the Trumps of the world, reminding us we've been played by them, incredulous and yet somehow hopeful. And like Dylan, Keith, Neil, Paul, and Pete, declining to go gently, incapable of burning out, refusing to fade away.
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