Some of history’s greatest bands took over the Californian desert last weekend. Classic tunes, epic productions and moonlight bliss created something special for the history books.
HOW THE FESTIVAL WORKED
Six acts: Bob Dylan + The Rolling Stones (Friday), Neil Young + Paul McCartney (Saturday), The Who + Roger Waters (Sunday), played over three days on one stage with a repeating second weekend the following week due to the enormous demand.
We were at weekend two!
Only one stage with a mammoth video screen was used for the weekend. Twenty-seven speaker stacks were spread between the stage and the back of GA areas. Half of the crowd area was seating, the other half was given to GA tickets. A small pit area for standing was at the front of the stage.
The first act of the night began between 6:15pm and 6:40pm as the sun was setting, and a large full moon would rise from behind the mountains to the right of the stage. This first act would play for two hours roughly until 8:15pm – 8:30pm. Then an hour break would occur, where the stage would be reconfigured and set up for the next act. At 9:15pm, Paul McCartney and Roger Waters had pre-act entertainment that built to the atmosphere. Paul McCartney had a 30 minute DJ set that featured a mix of Beatles and solo tracks, as psychedelic vines entwined between classic photos of the young Beatle on the video screen. Roger Waters used the video screen to show a slow, panning voyage across the moon on the video screens as the speaker stacks played atmospheric flickers with occasional bass-y vibrations.
Microchips in wristbands were necessary for entry into a one mile zone around the festival. Frequent chip scanning occurred once in the festival as a way to prevent the crowd entering the wrong seating areas. The crowd was naturally largely baby-boomers, but there was a considerably noticeable Coachella-youth presence.
Numerous food stalls and culinary dining experiences (for a fee) were available amongst the grounds. Beers started at $10US and ranged up to $18US in the Craft Beer Market location.
Day One – Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones
As you walked into the grounds there was an immediate sense of how special this event was. A gentle desert breeze accompanied our walk into the grandstands to our seats. Soon enough, the stage arose from between the palm trees and market stalls. It was a digital giant that lay between even more palm trees and in front of a silhouetted mountain range nearby.
Bob Dylan walked on stage under golden lights as black and white video footage showed his band take their positions. This signaled a change by Dylan/the festival after backlash from the previous week where no live-footage of Dylan or his band was shown on the video monitors, but just repetitive black and white footage of America from the 1960’s. Dylan’s voice was gravelly and at times pure mumbling, but the history of its raw nature was alluring as he broke into the early hits of “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35”, “Highway 61 Revisited”, “Simple Twist of Fate” and “Tangled Up in Blue”. The 15 songs of his set before the encore were completely unchanged from Weekend One. The crowd at Weekend One were treated to an encore of his 1963 epic “Masters of War”, we were delivered “Like a Rolling Stone” and a cover of Cy Coleman’s “Why Try to Change Me Now”.
A quiet hour break after Dylan left the crowd edgy before The Rolling Stones’ iconic lips and tongue logo glimmered on the video screens. Here. They. Came.
The previous week’s opener of “Start Me Up” was scrapped as they leapt furiously into “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. With Keith and Ronnie in blue, Mick in blue and red and Charlie in yellow – the band was all about vibrancy. Keith joyously smiled as he bent over and his hand effortlessly strummed to the ground as Mick bounced from left to right, strutting elegance wherever he went. “Wild Horses” and their cover of The Beatles “Come Together” from Weekend One were removed in favour of the addition of “Angie” and “Paint It Black”.
Keith took over vocals for two songs in the middle of the set on “You Got the Silver” and “Little T&A”, before the band rioted home with the continuous block of hits of “Midnight Rambler” into “Miss You”, into “Gimme Shelter” into “Start Me Up”; “Sympathy for the Devil” into “Brown Sugar”, into an encore of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” that built to a fireworks crescendo.
Day Two – Neil Young and Paul McCartney
Neil Young walked onto the stage solo almost 10 minutes earlier than the advised time. This was no accident, as he would later announce, “We started early so we can fuck around as much as want.” For the first five songs, we were treated to a Neil Young solo concert. As he sat at his piano, the top of the full-moon was beginning to peak over the mountains to the side of the stage – even the moon needed to see what was about to happen. Young cried out “After the Gold Rush”, which rose into “Heart of Gold”, which wailed into “Old Man”, before serenading into “Long May You Run” and his natural-ode, “Mother Earth”.
Young supplied the best sounding set of the weekend; his voice sliced the desert air and bathed the audience in a golden moonlight romance. 1992’s “Harvest Moon” appeared as Young was now joined by his new backing band The Promise of the Real. The large, yellow moon was cheered by the crowd every time it was shown on screen when Neil mentioned the word “moon”. His backing band, consisting of two of Willie Nelson‘s kids, were a punchingly tight and energetic outfit that added a sense of rising animation to Young’s set. His set closed with “Helpless”, a 17 minute guitar warfare version of “Cowgirl in the Sand”, “Like a Hurricane” and “Rockin’ in the Free World”.
A 30 minute DJ mix of Beatles material and solo records by Paul McCartney teased and enticed the audience before the musical-god came to the stage. A few waves from his band as they made their way to their positions preceded the iconic guitar chord that begins “A Hard Days Night”. This was the final date of McCartney’s One on One tour and may be to blame for his voice sounding unusually weaker than usual. Weekend 1’s appearance of “Can’t Buy Me Love” was changed to feature “Got to Get You into My Life”. A mid-set block of “Love Me Do” and “And I Love Her” into “Blackbird” was delightfully surreal.
“Blackbird” saw McCartney stand solo on stage with an acoustic guitar as he rose high on a platform in front of visuals of a sky and cartoon black birds taking flight. Neil Young joined for a three-song duet of “A Day in the Life”, “Give Peace a Chance” and for the second time live in history, “Why Don’t We Do it in the Road?”.
A masterclass of hits romanced the crowd and ended night two – “Something”, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, “Band on the Run”, “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, “Let It Be”, and “Live and Let Die” into “Hey Jude”, before an encore that featured the raucous “Helter Skelter” and an even more wild light show.
Day Two – The Who and Roger Waters
Here it was, the final night of this classic rock pilgrimage. We had heard frequently from weekend one attendees that this night was best. How could the previous two possibly be topped?
As the orange moon rose dramatically quickly from behind the mountain range beside the stage, The Who shredded a two hour set that was identical to last weekend. Pete Townshend alerted the audience that this was the final date of their current world tour and they energetically strove to finish on a high. “Who Are You” and “My Generation” appeared early as Daltrey displayed the best his voice has been in years. “Pinball Wizard” waltzed into “See Me, Feel Me” which roared into “Baba O’Riley” and the triumphant closer of “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. Daltrey’s final scream in the set closer showed no hesitation or concern for his vocal chords – it was earth-shakingly magnificent. If the San Andreas fault line wasn’t unstable enough already…
Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters also played an identical setlist to weekend one. This was to be expected, however, as his production was tightly entwined with visuals, graphics and light shows as well as his live appearance being a complete rarity. Not to mention the array of audio samples that were spread across individual speakers to create a surround sound experience. A sound effect or particular instrument that was appearing on one speaker was not appearing on the one next to it. Speeding steam-engine trains, space ambiance and clicking clocks immersed the audience in what will hopefully be the future of live music.
Waters’ set was structured primarily in blocks of songs from one album at a time, almost chronologically. It was a showcase of lyrical divinity and aural bliss. “Dark Side of the Moon” melted into “Wish You Were Here”, which eventually resurrected “Animals” as the smoking chimneys of the Battersea Power Station in England rose from behind the stage. The female duo Lucius traded vocal duties on “The Great Gig in the Sky” and they soared in harmony and range. The much talked about anti-Trump propaganda during “Pigs” from Weekend One returned as “CHARADE”, “A LAUGH” and “TRUMP IS A PIG” were emblazoned on the towering video screen beside photos of Trump in KKK attire and holding sex toys (e.g. big black dildos). “Comfortably Numb” closed his set with fireworks synced to the final guitar strums.
And with that, it was all over. Arguably the greatest line-up in music history had come and gone… and left a shockwave of dust in their trail. It was too good to be true – this rock pilgrimage was worth every dollar. Californian desert calm engaged with mouth-watering setlists to become the quintessential presentation of classic rock indulgence. Although these formerly youthful voices have now matured, in this rawness is the reminder of decades-old musical legacies that will never be seen again or matched in today’s musical climate. Not only did Desert Trip showcase history, but it created its own too.