A Trip In The Desert: My Experience At The Inaugural Desert Trip Festival

first_imgIt’s been a week since I returned from the second weekend of Desert Trip, and I’m still not sure if what I witnessed was the real deal or just another sand-swept mirage. Did Goldenvoice really gather six of the most legendary musical acts on Earth—Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, The Who and Roger Waters, to be exact—in one place on one stage for consecutive weekends? Or were those all imposters prancing around like their namesakes enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?The truth, always, was somewhere in between.Yes, the greats on the bill all showed up—and, in most cases, showed out. But like the warm, dusty winds that swept through the Empire Polo Field, time has had a way of wearing on the acts, some more than others. While critiquing all-time greats who are clearly past their respective primes might seem silly in some respects, it’s still relevant insofar as the acts themselves are.And as far as performing is concerned, they are.The Who finished up their protracted 50th anniversary tour in the desert. The Stones figure to hit the road again soon in support of their new album, Blue and Lonesome. Neil Young’s schedule is clear until April 2017 after a summer swing with Promise of the Real. Roger Waters recently announced a new tour of his own, entitled Us and Them, that will run through 2017. Dylan has gigs scheduled until late November.It’s only fair, then, that fans who’ve either bought tickets or are considering doing so know what to expect, for better or worse.—In no Desert Trip case does that hold true than Bob Dylan’s.I knew what I was getting into with Dylan live. I’d seen him at the Forum in Los Angeles back in 2007, and came away far more impressed by the opener, a little band from Alabama called the Kings of Leon.Hearing Dylan in the flesh for the first time was a frustrating experience. I wanted to connect with all the great songs I’d been cramming into my head for months beforehand (the dude’s discography is as dense as they come—37 studio albums deep, not to mention all the live albums, compilations and collaborations). But I had enough trouble figuring which songs he was playing, let alone actually feeling them. Between Dylan’s gravelly tones—garbled from in front of a keyboard, facing away from the crowd the whole time—and the band’s tweaked melodies and rhythms, deciphering the different tunes became a task fit for Dick Tracy’s detective work.So when I saw Dylan at Desert Trip, I wasn’t surprised.He started out recognizable enough. The stoned-out silliness of “Rainy Day Woman” was unmistakable. As were the roadhouse vibes of “Highway 61 Revisited”. For a time, I held out hope that what little rapid cognition I had left after a late night and a long day would be enough to enjoy Dylan.But then…it started. Ten seconds to pick out “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Fifteen for “Simple Twist of Fate.” Thirty for “Love Sick.” We didn’t realize he was playing Tangled Up in Blue until Dylan grumbled out the words “Tangled up in Blue.”At one point, my friend and I played a little game. We called it, “Who can guess which Dylan song this is first.” We gave up a minute into the first song we tried. It might’ve been “Make You Feel My Love.” I wish I knew.There were flits of fun, when a familiar phrase hit my ear. Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row. Inquiries with Mr. Jones in “Ballad of a Thin Man.” When he opened the encore with “Like a Rolling Stone,” I couldn’t help but smile…after sitting and nodding for a bit to confirm my initial suspicions. I even stood for that one, though more out of respect for The Master’s timeless work than for his attempt to bring it back to life.But in between all those came unintelligible tales. At times, I waved the white flag and started writing this instead.“If it weren’t Bob Dylan up there,” my friend said, “I wouldn’t be here right now.”For once, I couldn’t help but agree with his curmudgeonliness, albeit out of disappointment in Bob’s.—If Dylan was a dud as the opener, the Stones held up their end of the bargain as a more-than-worthy main act.They started out with a bang, setting off fireworks to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” They got the crowd crowing “Hey, you, get off of my cloud”, then started everyone up again toward the end of the initial set. The encore closed with a full-on pyrotechnic display after the band broke out a complete choir for “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and ultimately acknowledged their own “Satisfaction”, or former lack thereof.Where Dylan stood on an island, his back to the audience, Jagger engaged the massive field face-first. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, he cracked wise about spectators coming out to see acts “before they croak,” joked about sharing the stage with a Nobel laureate for the first time and compared braving the elements of the Inland Empire to singing into a hair dryer.Keith Richards, potential survivor in a zombie apocalypse, took center stage for a spell to sing “You Got the Silver” and “A Little T&A,” because Keith Richards.Each song hit the ear like a sonic time capsule, recapturing sensations and emotions long strung to Ronnie Wood’s strums and Charlie Watts’ drums. And when the Stones busted out the bluesy “Just Your Fool” from their new album, Jagger clued the audience in from the get-go.By the end of the night, it didn’t quite matter that Dylan muttered his way through his set.After 54 years together, the Stones still have enough brown sugar left in their bag to make all of their songs sound and taste so good, if not a whole lot better.So while the Stones, in their encore, insisted that you can’t always get what you want—least of all satisfaction—their performance suggested otherwise.—So did Saturday’s double header of Neil Young and Paul McCartney.Each songsmith has long since split from the other musical maestros with whom he did his most famous work. Young hasn’t played with David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash at all since 2013, and hasn’t toured with them since 2007. McCartney last performed with the Beatles on a London rooftop in January 1969.Both have long since established themselves as successful, if not sensational, solo artists, as capable of ripping through their own catalogues as reanimating tracks from group acts that will now and forever belong to the past.Young began his sprawling two-hour set alone, but had little trouble commanding the collective attention of the massive crowd before him. He opened with a tender rendition of Buffalo Springfield’s “Campaigner,” one of Young’s many lyrical rants against American presidents, before gliding into a gilded back-to-back of “After the Gold Rush” and “Heart of Gold.”A completely unaccompanied set from Young would’ve sufficed; he spent one of his recent tours playing songs and hopping from instrument to instrument all by his lonesome, to captivating effect.But Young, at his core, is a rocker who’s at his best when he has others to rock out with. His latest backing band, the Promise of the Real, provided him with all the support he needed to shred his way through the rest of his songlist. Together, they electrified the humanity-flooded field with Young staples like “Alabama,” “Cowgirl in the Sand,” and, of course, “Rockin’ In the Free World” to close.All the while, Young provided further proof that septuagenarians can, in fact, rock as hard as anyone. More impressive, though, is that Young’s touch at switching speeds remains so sharp.His humble but forceful wail soaked up the most spotlight when serenading in sync with the sentimentality of “Helpless” and accompanying his pump organ work on “Mother Earth.”Just like that, he could summon the tortured defiance to lash his way through “Powderfinger.”And when that anger found its way outward, it once again landed on Young’s political nerve, in classic fashion. His latest crusade: crushing the California Seed Law. He flipped his middle finger in the form of whole seed bags he passed out to the closest in the crowd.For a man with such a drawl to all his does, Young always seems to surprise with his boundless energy. Nowadays, his age (he’ll be 71 on Nov. 12) acts as a cover for his true capabilities.In truth, Young’s musical game—his deliberate pacing, heavy tones and populist point of view—has aged well. In today’s world, there will always be angst and anxiety—and, as a result, angry anthems rife with rebelliousness.—Among his peers (CSN aside), Young will always be a jam partner du jour. So it was only fitting when he came out during Paul McCartney’s set, which followed his on Saturday, to help the former Beatles frontman describe “A Day in the Life.” Young stuck around for “Give Peace a Chance” and lent his visceral heft to “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” before taking his leave.McCartney’s sets are always packed with Easter eggs like that. The man can’t help it; he’s the most successful singer/songwriter on the planet, maybe ever. His is as close to a Beatles concert as you’ll likely ever get…and that’s just the part of the show that covers the first act of a sprawling sonic career.Because he’s the forever King of the Mountain, he gets top billing and the attendant stage time. During his Desert Trip set, he fit in 38 songs, with all the usual banter in between. He hit all his usual notes: the civil-rights story behind “Blackbird,” the salute to John Lennon before “Here Today” and the ukulele for George Harrison on “Something,” the piano for Linda McCartney on “Maybe I’m Amazed.” The Wings standards. The Abbey Road home stretch of “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight,” and “The End.” The fireworks during “Live and Let Die.”But McCartney had plenty of leeway to play around. There were the newest additions to his live catalogue, “Queenie Eye” and “FourFiveSeconds,” the latter featuring a guest appearance from Rihanna and a long-desired substitution of McCartney’s voice for Kanye West’s part. And there were the prequel callbacks, to one of the Beatles’ biggest influences (Little Richard) on “Rip It Up” and their origins, as the Quarrymen, on “In Spite of All the Danger”—the first song the band ever recorded.McCartney may take the lower melodic roads more often than ever at this point, but he lays the charm as thick as ever. He carries the mantle for his generation ably and joyfully, the two intertwined. The man remains as timeless as the tunes he’s spun to span generations.—Sunday came with a dose of skepticism in some corners. Both acts, the Who and Roger Waters, had shown significant slippage in recent years.The Who, though, seemed re-energized, as they had been over their last two sojourns. The success of the Quadrophenia Tour has clearly breathed new life into their sets. Now, they’re comfortable and confident playing songs from a brilliant album that Pete Townshend described during the 50th Anniversary Tour as his favorite—a point on which he and I are in lockstep.That same revivalist fervor made its way to the Coachella Valley, despite complaints from Roger Daltrey about the effect of the elements on his repaired vocal cords.They once again pulled from that rock opera with a string, from “5:15” and “I’m One” to the instrumental “The Rock” and “Love Reign O’er Me.” That began a set-ending run of songs set to long stories—a chunk of Tommy and the remnants of “Lifehouse” on Who’s Next.But before the Who became Townshend’s narrative playground, it was as strong a force on the edgier end of the British Invasion as any band from across the pond. With help from a top-notch cast that now features Simon Townshend, Pino Palladino and Zak Starkey, Roger and Pete raged furiously through “I Can’t Explain,” “The Kids Are Alright” and “My Generation” before dipping deeper into their post-1960s catalogue.Where once I thought The Who might soon call it quits, I’m now not so sure. They could hang up their touring gear for good, but there’s clearly something left in the tank that’s worth sharing if the remaining original members are willing and able to share it.—The same goes for Roger Waters, though his challenge is different. Half of the Who’s original arrangement has already passed, leaving Townsend and Daltrey as the sole proprietors of the catalogue.Waters, on the other hand, is up against his former counterpart from Pink Floyd, David Gilmour. This past year, Gilmour went on tour, ripping his way through Floyd classics with his psychadelic guitar and sincere vocals and reminding long-time fans of his importance to the band’s most memorable musical moments.Waters, for all his stellar live production, cannot replicate that, be it on his own or with another singer. To that end, he fell somewhat short on the pulls from The Dark Side of the Moon, including “Breathe,” “Time” and “Us and Them.”But by and large, Waters smartly played to his strengths. He harkened back to the Syd Barrett days with “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” brought on a brilliant pair of blonde-haired balladeers to soar through the harmonies on “Great Gig in the Sky” and sing-talked to “Have a Cigar.”The totality of the technology for Waters’ show was top notch, per usual. He employed rows of speaker towers to lend dimensionality to his sound and captivated the crowd with trippy visuals. His song choice was impeccable as well. He hopped whole-cloth from album to album, pulling chunks from Wish You Were Here, Animals and The Wall.Still, with Waters, there’s the sad seduction of knowing that there is and might always be a cap on how close the performance could come to its most optimal level if only relations were better between Waters and Gilmour. It’s the same wishful thinking, the same yearning that makes the thought of a Led Zeppelin reunion so enticing, even if the parties in question have shown no sign of an impending detente.Rumor has it that the powers behind Desert Trip approached Robert Plant about rejoining Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones with a sizeable check at the ready, only to be turned down like so many before. Perhaps the success of this inaugural run will lend the event enough gravitas to play Lazarus with a legendary rock group or two.For now, Desert Trip will go down as a festival that—for all the flaws inherent in an event by, for and of a fading generation—was phenomenal as is and has potential yet to be tapped.last_img

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