Dispatches from the Dust – Desert Trip 2016 (Day 1)
Adjusting to the California desert is a process for a swamp-dweller such as myself. It’s a bit like transforming into a vampire. You expel all life-giving moisture and replace it with the primordial dust from Gram Parsons’s funeral pyre that has blown over from Joshua Tree. So many Desert Trip (‘Oldchella’, if you prefer) attendees were sporting bandannas over their faces to combat the dust, it appeared that most of the festival was preparing to rob a stagecoach.
I was here, of course, for Classic Rock’s Irish Wake. The end of an era. A less stabby version of the ’69 Altamont gig.
With Dylan, the Stones, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, The Who and Roger Waters all on the bill, this festival was the ultimate baby boomer utopia – and boy did the boomers come out to party. Your dad is now aware that weed in 2016 is exponentially more potent than it was back in ’72. I saw more day-drunk and stoned-for-the-first-time-in-thirty-years doctors, lawyers and stockbrokers than anyone should ever be subjected to. God bless ‘em.
Truth is, this was a gathering of some of the most important artists in modern history. These people were the architects of rock music – the greatest cultural achievement of the 20th century. Yes, they’re no longer young. Yes, the tickets (and the food and the booze) were insanely expensive. But what struck me immediately upon entering the festival grounds was how palpably positive the vibe was all around. Hell, even the security staff seemed stoked to be there. Rarely have I experienced such a universally happy environment.
And get this – NO CORPORATE BRANDING.
We’re so conditioned to having major festivals exist largely as elaborate billboards for consumer goods that it’s kind of shocking to attend a music event of this magnitude and not have it be officially named something like Super Awesome Toilet Paper presents Desert Trip. These artists made their marks in a time when being a musician was actually a career that could earn a living. Today’s musicians don’t have the luxury of not “selling out” if they want to pay the rent. It’s a damn shame.
Though clearly aimed at the boomer generation, Desert Trip attracted a LOT of younger fans. Thousands of them. It was freaky to see twenty-something festival goers decked out in the bell bottoms, flowers and tie dye that these same artists performed to fifty years earlier, while the people who actually saw these bands in the ‘60s and ‘70s were now sporting khaki cargo shorts and golf shirts. It was actively bizarre, but also kind of nice. Circle of life stuff. My completely unscientific estimate of the average age of an attendee was right around 40.
…but the average age of the principal performers was SEVENTY TWO.
They aren’t baby boomers. They’re war babies. WW2 was raging when they were born. That conflict shaped who they are and unquestionably set the stage for rock music to exist. This is especially true for the English musicians who comprised two-thirds of the Desert Trip lineup. These guys were born with Luftwaffe bombs raining down. “I was born in a crossfire hurricane” ain’t just a cool lyric – it’s literal truth. And there aren’t a lot of them left.
So how was the gig?
I try my best to be just like I am but everybody wants you to be just like them. They say sing while you slave and I just get bored…
As the autumn sun began to set on the first night of Desert Trip, Bob Dylan wanders onto the enormous stage like the freshly-minted Nobel Laureate he is. Dylan is so important, influential and iconic, seeing him standing in front of you is like some sort of fever dream. The guy is easily the most significant songwriter in the history of popular music, but a Dylan gig is famously a hit or miss affair. There were two coworkers with me on this trip – both 20-something women with essentially zero frame of reference on any of this music – so this wasn’t necessarily the most ideal opening act to give them an idea of what the festival was going be all about. Bob Dylan is predominantly for enthusiasts.
And holy moly was he great.
Standing at the piano for a good chunk of the set, Bob was quirky, gruff and a bit like Miles Davis.
His band, which featured the always-amazing Charlie Sexton on guitar, was loose and jammy. Opening with “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” with its hippie-mantra chorus of “everybody must get stoned” got the crowd in the proper frame of mind, but this wasn’t a rote reading of Dylan classics. The songs took their cues from Dylan’s whims and could at times veer into murky waters. To me this was tremendous and very in-the-moment, but folks who weren’t well-versed in the Dylan catalog got restless. There were a lot of Dylan dilettantes coming to the realization that maybe they don’t actually like their rock ‘n’ roll this brainy and patient.
From the first note, what struck me the most was how perfect the sound was. Festival sound is an unforgiving beast, but the mix for Dylan’s set was pristine. This underlined Bob’s incredible voice. Now grizzled and authoritative at age 75, Dylan’s voice commands attention sneakily – the way a whisper is often more powerful than a scream. It brought people to tears.
Less effective was Dylan’s use of the zillion-foot projection screen (each act used this screen quite differently). It seemed very much like an afterthought and largely showed some Americana-style stock footage and camera shots of Dylan that were often poorly-framed. I found this refusal to embrace typical festival tropes endearing and unapologetically oldschool. Others found it lazy.
Highlights: “Ballad of a Thin Man”, “Tangled Up In Blue”
Always took candy from strangers/Didn’t want to get me no trade/Didn’t want to be like papa working for the boss every night and day…
THE ROLLING STONES
I’m a huge Stones fan, but have had mixed emotions (sorry) about them for at least 20 years. They’ve become a sort of more evolved version of Kiss. The recklessness and danger that is such a huge part of their greatness is many decades in the past and they never seemed to be interested in providing something other than a guided tour through the hedonistic era that they helped define. Unfortunately, that tour is complete with safety belts and air bags. There’s very little danger of an actual rock show breaking out during a Rolling Stones performance in 2016, so it becomes a bit too distant and uninspiring for me. The Stones engage you on a superficial level these days. They’re so mega-iconic, you feel like you’re required by law to enjoy their show.
Well, they weren’t great at Desert Trip. I take no joy in writing that sentence, but it’s true. Something just never clicked. They’re still the world’s greatest garage band, but gussying up a garage band with too much showbiz just makes it lame. Jagger, Richards, Watts and Wood are offering The Officially Licensed Rolling Stones Rock ‘n’ Roll Product® and if you’re looking for anything beyond glitzy nostalgia, you’re out of luck.
That said, on an individual basis they’re all still such badasses. Keith is still the embodiment of rock ‘n’ roll. Now that Lemmy is dead, no one is even in his league. Mick Jagger is an insanely compelling presence by any measure. When you factor in his 73 years, it’s somewhat miraculous that Mick can still perform at this level of power and athleticism. He’s decades past the point where a few lines of blow can get him ready for a gig. These days it takes an immense amount of dedication and physical commitment to remaining healthy and strong. One of my twenty-something co-workers said to me during the set, “Is it weird that I’m sexually attracted to Mick Jagger?”
No. It isn’t.
As great as Mick Jagger is, Charlie Watts is the reason the Stones remain worth going to see. He’s always been their secret weapon, but now he’s simply extraordinary to see perform. Stones songs just don’t work without his unique, aloof approach to the drums. Charlie drove the set into its most exciting moments and redeemed what was otherwise a very rote performance.
Highlights: “Midnight Rambler”, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”
Day 1 setlists:
Rainy Day Women #12 & 35
Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright
Highway 61 Revisited
It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
High Water (for Charley Patton)
Simple Twist of Fate
Early Roman Kings
Tangled Up in Blue
Lonesome Day Blues
Make You Feel My Love
Pay in Blood
Soon After Midnight
Ballad of a Thin Man
Like a Rolling Stone
Why Try to Change Me Now
THE ROLLING STONES:
Jumping Jack Flash
Get Off of My Cloud
It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll
Just Your Fool
Live With Me
Paint It Black
Honky Tonk Women
You Got the Silver
Start Me Up
Sympathy for the Devil
You Can’t Always Get What You Want