Desert Trip: Rock n Roll lived on, but it was its modern messages that stayed with us

Desert Trip was a trip that kept the spirit of Woodstock living on decades later

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As we entered the venue, the Kinks, Bowie, Elton John and Hendrix, were already blaring from the speakers, perhaps as an elegant recognition that they weren’t all there, that some of them are gone. But no one can argue that the selection of six artists who have been called to play in the desert personify the golden age of rock and roll. Or at least what’s left of it, anyway. Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, The Who and Roger Waters on one stage, for six days, over two weekends.

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The excitement from the music industry, with such an unprecedented line-up, was palpable from the day it was announced. On Friday, Desert Trip was dressed to impress with a gigantic enclosure, the Empire Polo Club, in the Coachella Valley, California. Among the public, around 75,000 people of different generations came together. In the last decade, these concerts have become intergenerational events, where there are as many people taking their kids as people bringing their parents.

For those who did not want to stay in one of the expensive resorts in Palm Springs, there was the option of on-site camping. Around the main site and near enough to the accommodation, there was plenty of ‘diner style’ food trucks and tents, including some vegan food trucks. As on may expect, camping wasn’t the most comfortable of options. As soon as the sun came up around 8am, it became unbearable to stay in the tent. We had two options: a visit to the Bloody Mary bar (at $15 each!) or participate in a free yoga lesson.

The camp site was relatively small compared to the venue itself, which open its doors every day at 2pm for those eager to explore. The facilities we found here were very different compared to any other festival we have been: toilets with air-con, an internet cafe with laptops to rent, a spa and free hairdressers were just some of the more unusual features available during the weekend. For most of the day, the desert sun kept us all under the ‘activities tent’, a place where you can play board games, a giant Jenga or simply lie down and have a drink while listening to all the classics.

On Friday evening, Desert Trip was dressed to impress, it’s gigantic enclosure the Empire Polo Club, in the Coachella Valley. Among the public, around 75,000 people of different generations came together. In the last decade, these concerts have become inter-generational events, where there are as many people taking their kids as people bringing their parents.

After seven o’clock, Bob Dylan, 75, took the stage in a black suit and white hat. He was every bit as authentic as his fans had hoped, but he wasn’t as well appreciated by the uninitiated. In a room where people had paid a fortune to enjoy this unique experience, the ‘I don’t give a damn about the crowd’ attitude from music’s first Nobel laureate just seemed cold. In addition, for more than half of the performance, Dylan wasn’t shown on the big screens, meaning that the vast majority of the public could not see him. Dylan though, played on, giving a beautiful rendition of ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’. Sighs were heard in the pit during exciting versions of ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ and ‘Simple Twist Of Fate’. He didn’t say good afternoon, or goodbye, but musically was magnificent.

An hour after Dylan was done, ‘Start Me Up’’s guitar rift announced that the night had started again. The Rolling Stones offered a hugely successful two-hour show, playing hits from every decade. “We’ve been making music for over 50 years and it is amazing that you continue coming to us,” Jagger said, and their set reminded us of why we do continue to come – so many hits across every Stones era. Surprisingly, they played only one song from the new album Ride ’em on Down which was announced just the day before. We heard a person close to the Stones told reporters they had tried to assemble a set with Dylan, but apparently the genius wasn’t in the mood.

“We won’t make jokes about old people”, Jagger promised. “Welcome to the retirement home of Palm Springs for distinguished British musicians.” The magnificent spectacle of the Stones’ set paved the way for rest of the festival, reminding everyone why they had come to the desert, and making even the most recalcitrant jump up from their seats. One of the most unrepeatable moments was when they sang ‘Come Together’, by The Beatles. That was the spirit.

Day two and what a line-up. On one side, an elegant British gentleman; a genius with a natural talent for music. On the other, an angry and rebellious Canadian. But even if they seem very different, Paul McCartney and Neil Young bulldozed Desert Trip’s Saturday together.

The day had begun with a performance by Neil Young, who arranged a series of teepees on stage, with the slogan ‘water is life’. The act was a sign of his support for the struggle of the native community of Standing Rock, North Dakota, against a pipeline that could ruin the waters of the land on which they live.

With a black hat and the looks of a man just passing through town, Neil Young’s solo evening began, alternating between piano and guitar, with ‘After The Gold Rush’ and the beautiful ‘Heart of Gold’. However, in a flash, Young’s high-pitched voice changed. Some of the best bits came when he took to his harmonica which seemed effortlessly to contain all the secrets of American music.

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Later, his backing band Promise of the Real came on stage. During an evening full of country and folk, the romantic ‘Harvest Moon’ did not hint at the fury that was about to break out. From then on, Young turned the amplifiers up and raged thunderstorms that could have caused a blackout.

First, we were treated to ‘Words (Between The Lines of Age)’ and then it was the turn of the burning ‘Powderfinger’, whose tremendous riffs could have been heard on the moon. The tangle of guitars, barbaric and unruly, reached its highest point with an ecstatic ‘Down By The River’, grabbing the audience by the guts and offering no respite for ten whole minutes.

Advocatory environmental messages supporting indigenous communities and farmers had a central role throughout Young’s gig, as did the upcoming presidential elections. “Come tomorrow because Roger [Waters] will build a wall and will make Mexico great again,” Young said, critical of Donald Trump. With this idea in mind, Young’s abrasive set could only ever have ended with ‘Rockin ‘In The Free World.’

There were screams among the audience as McCartney broke the night into pieces with ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. Raring to fly, the first tranche of his set included ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ – impossible to resist – and ‘Day Tripper’, with which McCartney promised to throw a party “Liverpool style”. The former Beatles band accompanied him, opening up a thousand possibilities from the sexy touch of ‘Let Me Roll It’, to his tribute to Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Foxy Lady’.

Flitting between his work with The Beatles, Wings and his solo career, McCartney offered continuing evidence of his admirable versatility. ‘We Can Work It Out’, ‘Love Me Do’ (dedicated to the late producer George Martin), and ‘Blackbird’ shaped a particularly melodic section in which McCartney’s voice, which at that point had already shown its magnitude, turned soft and delicate. In a tribute to John Lennon, ‘Here Today’ continued this vibe and was awarded a standing ovation from much of the crowd.

Neil Young, who’d already played earlier that day, appeared as McCartney’s guest star, and like the two old friends they are, together they sang ‘A Day In The Life’, ‘Give Peace a Chance’ and ‘Why Don’t We Do It On The Road?’, a collaboration that was undoubtedly one of the best moments of Desert Trip.

Fireworks on ‘Live And Let Die’ prepared McCartney’s farewell, and he sang ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘I Wanna be Your Man’ (a single that he and Lennon wrote for The Rolling Stones) to a sea of upraised arms. With ‘Carry That Weight’ and ‘The End’, a tireless McCartney put the finishing touch to a monumental concert of more than two and a half hours.

When Sunday hot afternoon was turning into evening, the intro of The Who’s ‘I Can’t Explain’ reminded everyone that this was the beginning of the end of Desert Trip. This was followed by ‘The Seeker’, an extended version of ‘Who Are You’, ‘The Kids are Alright’ and the anthem that has touched many an era, ‘My Generation’.

The live performances of ‘Two Pearls’, ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ and ‘The Bargain’, reminded us why this band changed it all, Peter Townshend singing to a thousand people dancing. Songs from The Who’s first rock opera, Quadrophenia sent everyone back (again!) to the 70s with ‘I’m One’ and ‘The Rock’, the latter accompanied by images of Richard Nixon, headlines around Elvis’s death, Keith Moon, Bono, Mother Teresa, Thatcher and Gorbachev, the fall of the Wall and the Twin Towers… The history of the last 50 years displayed in three quick minutes.

Their second group rock opera, Tommy, started off the big finale. Townshend, his huge dominance of the guitar intact; Roger Daltrey displaying an enviable vocal flow, and ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ with Zak Starkey showing us that indeed he is Ringo Star’s son, brought the concert to an end.

An hour later, Roger Waters landed on stage with a Pink Floyd repertoire full of political statements and a set of theatrical images and lights, however, not out of tune with the spirit of the festival. ‘Speak to Me’ and ‘Breath’, from the Dark Side of the Moon album, the psychedelia of ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun’ and The Great Gig in the Sky, with its demanding vocals; were sang by Waters and his big band -at least 10 musicians- making us carry on in this trip through the Desert. His brilliant bass marking the pulse during ‘Money, Us and Them’ and the beautiful ‘Shine on you Crazy Diamond’, prepared us all for the coming manifesto: “Black lives matter” and “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.” Like Dylan, he sang ‘Pigs on the Wing’, with all the screens around showing flying pigs and images and quotes belonging to Trump. “Ignorant, liar, racist and sexist. Trump is a pig.”

Another Brick in the Wall Part 2, with the inscription ‘Derrumba el muro’ (Break The Wall) on the children’s t-shirts that had invaded the stage, together with lots of singing teachers, holding hands, smiling, looking at each other. This was followed by touching versions of ‘Mother’ and ‘Brain Damage’, a poem framed in their protest against the occupation of Palestine, a synthetic slow acoustic version of Vera and, during the progressive exodus of those who were leaving their places in the audience to avoid traffic jams at the exit, a new claim ‘Bring the Boys back Home’ and the only possible end, the eternal Comfortable Numb.

My highlights? The Rolling Stone’s energy, Paul McCartney’s full set and collaboration with Neil Young, the ‘Whooo are you? Uh-Uh’ and Water’s portrayal of his ideology; an amazing photographic exhibition, a record shop and all the cosy shaded terraces. All of this led Desert Trip to a galaxy far away from the myths of Woodstock, but one that will be remembered in the same way. This nostalgic trip has shown us all how, 60 years ago, it all started and how, even now, still goes. Long live rock ’n’ roll!

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Images by Kevin Mazur