Last weekend, I went to Coachella. The city, not the music festival. Well, not that music festival. No, I was there to attend the first weekend of Desert Trip. You may know it as Oldchella, or another name degrading to our senior citizens, but I know it as the concert event of a lifetime. This was the biggest collection of rock legends since Woodstock. Actually, I would argue that even Woodstock’s lineup doesn’t stack up to Desert Trip’s. Six immortal musicians took the stage two weeks ago: The Rolling Stones, the Who, Bob Dylan, Roger Waters (of Pink Floyd fame), Paul McCartney (the lead singer of Wings), and the Promise of the Real (featuring Neil Young on vocals). Basically, it was an event pulled from the wildest dreams of classic rock fans everywhere, a group in which I surely include myself.
So did I hesitate to blow a small fortune to travel to California to see a bunch of 70-year-olds play songs that I’d heard hundreds of times before? Maybe a little, but I didn’t have long to decide: tickets were going on sale a day or two after I heard about it. In a potentially rash decision, I bought tickets with my brother and cousin, fellow classic rock disciples, and prepared for a cross-country trek of epic proportions.
When we got to LA (my first time going), I quickly assessed that all the Southern Cali stereotypes were largely accurate, for better or worse. After obtaining some much-hyped In-N-Out Burger (verdict: overrated) and staving off the street vendors selling totally legit $40 medicinal marijuana cards, it was time to head to the show for the first act of the weekend, Bob Dylan.
And boy, was Dylan’s set incredible. So I’ve heard. I missed the entire performance while stuck in LA traffic (verdict: not overrated at all). So unfortunately, I’ll have to wait a little longer to hear that hoarse, gravelly voice of 2016 Bobby. But I must confess, I’m really not that much of a Dylan guy. Blasphemy, I know. Please don’t tell the Nobel Prize committee. So with only the slightest feeling of disappointment, I prepared for Friday’s headliner: the mighty Rolling Stones.
The Stones roared through a set of hits, both old and new. The band was great, but nothing matched the incredible showmanship of the apparently ageless Mick Jagger. Constantly running around the stage and belting out classic after classic, Jagger was by far the most animated of the weekend’s elders. The supporting musicians were also superb; backup singer Sasha Allen, a former The Voice finalist, took the audience’s breath away during “Gimme Shelter,” a song on which much more successful singers have failed to dazzle. Jagger even blessed us with the first of many lame “old age” jokes made throughout the festival. The decision to give guitarist Keith Richards two (two??) songs to sing lead vocals on was regrettable, but he did outperform my modest expectations. Other highlights included an unexpected cover of “Come Together” and the pyro-crazy “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” All in all, it was an incredible start to the show.
Saturday presented a challenge. Neil Young had the potential to be my favorite act of the entire festival if he only played his classic tunes. But then again, this was the man who once told Rolling Stone “I don’t care what people want to hear…I play what I feel like playing.” After inexplicably opening the show with a 10-minute skit where fake farmers pretended to plant seeds on the stage, Young came on solo, playing a few very nice acoustic songs, each complete with lengthy harmonica solos. He was then joined by the infamous Promise of the Real, his backup band, and played a few very unfortunate, newer, obscure songs, each complete with far lengthier guitar solos. After exclaiming, “We’ll play ‘Down by the River’ when we want to!”, he proceeded with the obscure catalog for several songs before giving in and playing a 20-minute version of his 1969 classic. The first five minutes of it were incredible; I just wish there was more like it during the show. Overall, Young’s performance was really not bad at all; it just left me wondering what might have been if he played to the crowd more. A surprising highlight was “Powderfinger.” Lowlights included Young’s unfathomably awkward remarks to the audience.
Following Neil wasn’t going to be easy, but if any mortal man could do it, it was Sir Paul himself. McCartney plowed through an incredible 35-song setlist, filled with hits from the Beatles, Wings, and his solo career. The “na-na-na” singalong section of “Hey Jude” was surreal, and the relentless fireworks during “Live and Let Die” were exhilarating. Watching McCartney live is watching a man who was truly born to make and perform music. His whimsical banter with the crowd made the show’s atmosphere just pure fun. He even brought out old Uncle Neil for an unexpected rendition of “A Day in the Life,” with Young looking far more animated than he did during his own set. I’ll conclude with this: see this man live as soon as you can. You won’t be disappointed.
Sunday was perhaps the best overall day of the festival. Opening was the Who, who performed the most raucous set of the weekend. Pete Townshend rocked out like he was 24, and singer Roger Daltrey really brought his A-game. I am filled with joy now that I can cross “See ‘Baba O’Riley’ Live” off my bucket list (seeing Pearl Jam cover it twice apparently doesn’t count). “Who Are You” might have been the best-performed song of the whole Desert Trip. An incredibly positive surprise, I would also recommend seeing the Who to anyone who has two ears and a heart.
In drastic juxtaposition to the Who’s energy was the final act of the whole show, Roger Waters. But a laid-back set was the perfect way to end three long days of rock-n-roll. Waters performed nearly every well-known Pink Floyd tune, without a single track from his overly-political solo career. But don’t worry, he didn’t forget about making statements. The track “Pigs” was accompanied by the most heavy-handed political statement I’ve ever seen in a concert. A 10-minute anti-Trump video played throughout the song, complete with depictions of the size of Trump’s genitalia. Hint: Waters didn’t take Trump’s word for it. He also “blessed” us with a poem he wrote about George W. Bush (why?). Waters may be a bit of a tool, but he sure knows how to perform. “Us and Them,” the rarity “Fearless,” and the perfect closer to a weekend of legendary songs, “Comfortably Numb,” were some of the best songs I’ve ever seen in concert. And just like that, the wall was torn down, the free world stopped rocking, and the festival was finally over. But in the end, the love the artists took was more than equal to the love they made.
Desert Trip overall? Man, what an experience. I can now rest easy knowing I’ve seen most of rock’s royalty perform live. Maybe not in their heyday, but still. I said it before, but guys like McCartney, Jagger, Young, even Dylan, were simply born to play music. No amount of years on this Earth will ever change that.