Dispatches from the Dust – Desert Trip 2016 Day 3
By day three, the Desert Trip crowd were seasoned veterans. Those who overindulged early on in the festival were now pacing themselves a bit better – or switching from alcohol to other inebriants in anticipation of the lysergic immersion of Roger Waters. But first up – The Who.
Let’s Get Together Before We Get Much Older…
With very little fanfare, Townshend, Daltrey and company take the stage and immediately roar into “I Can’t Explain”. Pete’s fuzzed-out wall of distortion let everyone know that the Who came to rock the hell out and cliché hippyisms weren’t on the menu.
The line from punk rock back to the Who is a straight one. They were the first major band to bring destruction – both sonic and physical – to the forefront in rock music and living up to that legacy has got to be daunting for both Townshend and Daltrey. The Who at their best can navigate between macho muscle and poetic lyricism effortlessly. I wouldn’t say they pulled that off effortlessly at Desert Trip, but by about mid-set they found their footing and managed to provide equal measures of punches to the face and poetic depth that resulted in a sort of punk opera.
For a band with two absolutely crucial members dead and gone, the Who have managed (after quite a few years of struggling) to get a rhythm section that can somewhat echo the excitement of Moon and Entwistle. Zakk Starkey is the absolute PERFECT drummer for the Who in 2016. As Ringo Starr’s son he’s got the royal pedigree and was extremely close with Keith Moon as a child, but I think the time he spent as drummer for Oasis was the real training ground for him. Zakk is a powerhouse who understands the bizarre style of Moon on a fundamental level. His presence is the key to making this band sound vital and exciting.
In praising Zakk, Townshend told the crowd, “Our first drummer died of rock ‘n’ roll.”
Roger Daltrey absolutely killed it during the Who’s set. Their songs are the most powerfully sung – the most hard rock – of anyone on the Desert Trip bill, so Daltrey’s performance is particularly notable. Age can ravage a hard rock singer’s voice really quickly, but Daltrey can still find a reservoir of real power when he needs it. Much like Jagger, Roger Daltrey treats himself like an athlete. An immense amount of physical commitment goes into maintaining his ability.
Townshend is simply the most interesting songwriter of the classic rock era. Through him, rock ‘n’ roll became rock music and he was the documentarian of the teenage dream of the ‘60s devolving into the Teenage Wasteland of the ‘70s. Two-thirds of the way through the set, he was bleeding from a head wound. Meet the new boss – same as the old boss.
Highlights: “Bargain”, “Love Reign o’er Me”
And then one day you’ll find ten years have got behind you; no one told you when to run – you missed the starting gun…
Neil Young may have had the single best rock performance of Desert Trip, but Roger Waters was working on an entirely different level. This was a fully-immersive, multimedia experience that beautifully married a live band performance with technology and resulted in the greatest Pink Floyd presentation I’ve ever seen.
David Gilmour owns the name, but Waters has always been the center of the Pink Floyd universe. He’s the principal songwriter and the conceptual mastermind for a band that perfected the immersive rock show. In fact, Pink Floyd in some ways invented the modern EDM festival and it really showed on the last night of Desert Trip. For the first time all weekend, the state-of-the-art sound and visual technology was put to full use. This wasn’t an adjunct to a rock performance – this was an integral component of the experience.
- Side note to Gilmour and Waters: Your feud is boring.
From the opening moments of “Speak to Me”, it was clear that this set would veer into full-blown dark psychosis and cynicism. Hippies be damned – this was rock theater as imagined by Leni Riefenstahl. Stark, political, totalitarian and very 2016; even if the music played was written forty years ago.
Waters dug fully into the Pink Floyd songbook; performing large portions of Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals and The Wall, while also dusting off early psychedelic classics like “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” and “Fearless”.
It was absolutely glorious and it rocked like hell.
His band performed the material flawlessly and note-perfect, almost as if they were tackling a piece of classical music, but Waters made an absolutely brilliant choice in enlisting Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig from contemporary indie rock group Lucius to act as the female voices for the Floyd material.
Decked out in caped outfits sporting arcane insignia and bleach-blonde pageboy hair, Jess and Holly were a riveting physical presence – a sort of Nordic version of Public Enemy’s S1Ws or a seventies-futuristic vision of a totalitarian dictator’s private chanteuses. They were the psychotic Shangri-Las and they definitely didn’t need no education. They provided the thought control.
I half expected them to invite Danny Torrance to come play with them forever… and ever…
And they sang the hell out of the material. When they tackled “The Great Gig in the Sky” as a duet, the result was arguably the most memorable musical moment of the entire festival.
Halfway through the set, the entire festival grounds were transformed into Battersea Power Station and Waters tore into the material from Floyd’s darkest album – 1977’s Animals.
This was when it all came together.
Never shy to express his social viewpoint, age has blunted none of Roger Waters’s biting commentary. In fact, this was the most overt example of his point of view I’ve ever seen. Using the song “Pigs” as a backdrop, Waters attacked U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump as the titular pig and tied the 39-year-old song directly to the current climate of 2016.
It was an extremely gutsy move, but the fearlessness of it was punk as hell. Anyone who said “I don’t want a political message, I just want a rock show” (and there were many), missed the point. This music was always political. To take that out of the equation is to intentionally neuter the art. Political position doesn’t even really matter. It’s taking a stand that’s important. Roger Waters took a stand.
Toward the end of the set, when Waters performed “Vera” and “Bring the Boys Back Home” (featuring another amazing performance by Jess and Holly), the fact that these artists are children of World War II really hit home for me. Both songs speak directly to the culture of the 1940s – not the 1960s – and perfectly capped the entire festival.
Highlights: “Pigs”, “The Great Gig in the Sky”, every single other song
And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make…
In the end, Neil Young and Roger Waters turned in the freshest, most innovative sets. They were both rooted in the present, not just nostalgia. The fact that they both enlisted contemporary musicians to help interpret their songs made a huge difference. The word “relevant” is overused in regard to music these days and is usually is code for “appeals to young consumers”, but Waters and Young put on performances that were relevant in the truest sense of the word.
It’s been somewhat difficult to process the totality of Desert Trip in the days since I left California. It definitely marked the end of an era that defined Western culture for fifty years, but it also showed that in the right hands rock music is as timeless as Renaissance art. There’s no clock or calendar attached to expression. No one says Picasso should have died at 27, so why do we apply a different standard to popular musicians? Are they supposed to pack it in because cynical people think they’re too old? Screw that. This is their art. And it’s one of the crowning creative achievements of the 20th century.
It turns out that Desert Trip was the highest-grossing festival of all time. You can be sure that this “unrepeatable” event will be repeated. I’d bet a paycheck that the promoters are at Jimmy Page’s house at this very moment pounding on the door – and they arrived in a Brinks truck.
— Jeff Nolan 10/25/2016
Day 3 setlists:
I Can’t Explain
Who Are You
The Kids Are Alright
I Can See for Miles
Behind Blue Eyes
You Better You Bet
Love Reign o’er Me
See Me, Feel Me
Won’t Get Fooled Again
Speak to Me
Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun
One of These Days
The Great Gig in the Sky
Us and Them
You’ll Never Walk Alone
Shine On You Crazy Diamond (I-IV)
Welcome to the Machine
Have a Cigar
Wish You Were Here
The Happiest Days of Our Lives
Another Brick in the Wall Part 2
Run Like Hell
Why Cannot the Good Prevail?
Bring the Boys Back Home