A full moon illuminated the rocky peaks enveloping the Coachella Valley as Neil Young concluded his set Oct. 15 with the immortal sing-along, “Rockin’ in the Free World.” At the second and final weekend of the Desert Trip music festival — called “Oldchella” by some — it was apparent the stars had aligned over the Colorado Desert in more ways than one.
Desert Trip represented a convergence of the biggest names in classic rock — Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, The Who and Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters. The performances were a celebration of some of the most prolific rock ‘n’ roll acts of all time. Between them, the six artists account for 164 studio albums released over the past six decades.
Announced last spring, the festival — initially a three-day event — added a second weekend, just hours after the first sold out, in response to incredible demand for the initial 75,000 tickets. Many were quick to condemn the festival for its ticket prices, with three-day general admission passes starting at $399, and for the supposedly waning talent of the billed musicians. Yet the criticism was both unfounded and unwarranted.
The show may be categorized as an ode to past glory, a final look at the stars of yesterday before they pass, but this would be a disservice to the continued relevance of the music that shaped a generation and continues to inspire. Mick Jagger quipped during the Stones’ Friday night set about the event being a “Catch ‘em before they croak festival” and Roger Daltry remarked Sunday evening that “this festival is proof there are plenty of old people still out there.” In spite of this, the diversely aged audience was a testament to the profound impact these artists continue to have.
Dylan, for instance, performed his 17-song set Friday night just one day after winning the Nobel Prize in literature, while McCartney introduced Rihanna on Saturday night for a rendition of their 2015 chart-topping hit “FourFiveSeconds.”
Dylan took the stage Friday evening for a journey through some of the lesser-known turns of his extensive folk-rock discography. While he doubtless crooned fan favorites, including “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” his set played less like a greatest hits and more like a concert uniquely attuned to its setting.
Compared to other acts, Dylan’s stage setup was minimalistic. Surrounded by old-fashioned light fixtures, Dylan and his band played beneath a black and white video screen that served more as an aesthetic element than as a way to give the audience a clear view of the Nobel laureate. Even sparser was Dylan’s commentary between songs. Avoiding the banter used by other performers, he remained stoic and stuck to business during his time on stage.
Following a set change, the Rolling Stones emerged beneath a blood-red screen. One of rock’s most notorious and exciting acts, The Stones played with the same energy and flair for the dramatic that set the group atop the genre. Front man Jagger’s stage antics included multiple costume changes and his characteristically animated dances on a runway that extended into the audience.
The group’s artistry has not lost a step, but its set was thought-provoking: With the exception of one song, its newest single “Just Your Fool,” nothing it played was released within the last 35 years. From the opening “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” to “Gimme Shelter” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” the band’s enduring classics proved to wield the same power over a crowd as ever and still get the band itself truly excited to play decades later.
Perhaps the most surprisingly energetic act of the weekend was Canadian rocker Neil Young who, together with Promise of the Real — a band he worked with on his latest album “Monsanto Years” — delivered a blistering 2:30 set. Flanked by tepees, his band flowed seamlessly between acoustic, harmonica-laden songs and roaring rock masterpieces. At one point taking a break to throw packets of seeds to the crowd in protest of California organic produce laws, Neil’s spirit of activism carried on throughout the set.
Young’s overpowering set was followed by perhaps the most revered name in rock, Paul McCartney, who delivered a high-energy musical biography to the adoration of 75,000 star-struck fans. Drawing from his “Beatles,” “Wings” and solo discography, McCartney’s three-hour show was simply stunning. Interspersing anecdotes about a number of the songs, he even played the first song he recorded with John Lennon before the Beatles had been formed — a cover of The Quarrymen’s, “In Spite of All the Danger.”
The third and final night saw The Who play through sections of its most popular albums. From “Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy” to “Who’s Next,” “Quadrophenia” and “Tommy,” The Who demonstrated its incredible sonic versatility. Vocalist Roger Daltry cast a picture of youth as he strutted across the stage in an unbuttoned shirt swinging a microphone, while guitarist Pete Townsend employed his legendary “windmill” strum technique for emphasis throughout the set.
Waters — long known for his opposition to politicians of the right — was the most directly political act, projecting the message “Trump is a Pig” in white letters 100 feet tall behind the band as it played “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” from Pink Floyd’s 1977 album “Animals.” Similar to The Who, Waters played through sections of Pink Floyd’s hallowed discography, falling just short of playing “Dark Side of the Moon,” “Wish You Were Here” and “Animals” in their entirety.
Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour’s absence was noticeable during the more intricate guitar moments of the show — the two officially split in 1985 — but it did not necessarily detract from the festival’s closing set, which was more an experience than a concert. As smokestacks emerged above the stage, sound effects of helicopters buzzed through the stadium and a giant inflatable pig floated amid the crowd, the show became hypnotically dreamlike.
As a one-off festival, Desert Trip was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Before the show, a range of appraisals circulated, none of which with a better idea of what would occur than the next. The fact is this: Six of rock’s most storied acts, together with 150,000 fans, took part in a celebration of music that has been deeply imbedded in our culture. Monetary value aside, Desert Trip was nothing short of breathtaking.
Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.