I sit and mentally savor the list one more time: Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, Roger Waters and The Who. Not long ago, this line-up would have sounded too good to be true. Yet, here I am at the end of Day Three of what has been referred to by many as ‘the greatest concert that was ever staged.’ It has also been dubbed ‘Seniors’ Woodstock.’
Like Woodstock (1969), Desert Trip celebrated the soul-grabbing power of rock culture. Its repertoire brimmed with weighty songs that have become the anthem for many.
Unlike Woodstock, admission to Desert Trip was not cheap. (Free to $18 for a three-day pass to Woodstock vs. $399 to $1599 for a similar pass to Desert Trip.) Most believed that the Desert Trip audience would be boomer-heavy. Participants were actually quite mixed age, with a strong smattering of ‘millennial hippies’ throughout. Although there was on-site camping, Desert Trip was not a muddy, free-love experience. It was extensively planned, precisely executed and inarguably bore more than a touch of commercialism at its core.
I stood (or rather swayed) in awe as some of the most iconic rock stars of the last fifty years took the stage. Never previously have the stars of this lineup all appeared together on the same bill. My entire being pulsed in the understanding that I was witnessing something not quite seen before…and likely never to be seen again.
I was only eleven years old when Woodstock took place. Yet I grew up believing in the ‘free spirit’ and ‘everybody is my brother’ community that Woodstock was touted to embody. Before arriving at Desert Trip, I feared having this idealized notion shattered by cliche. To the contrary, performance after performance Desert Trip rose high above platitude.
Bob Dylan opened the three-night event the day after he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. That touch alone significantly upped the ante of an already highly revered line-up. Dylan gave a memorable performance, despite never speaking to his audience directly, and not allowing his close-up to appear on the screens. Then The Stones took the stage. Jaguar began with a playful nod to the average age of the performers (72), coining it the “Catch ‘Em Before They Croak” tour (getting ahead on the joke of this being the “Rockers with Walkers” Festival). He then continued on to strut, ensnare and encapture until his audience was totally hooked. The Stones stunningly belted out old songs, new songs, and new takes on much-loved classics in a way that was simply heart-stopping. Just when you thought that nothing else could possibly match this, it was Day Two.
Regardless of your view, the ‘colourfulness’ of the Rolling Stones was impossible to miss.
As we attended the second weekend of Desert Trip, I assumed that we would receive the exact same sets that the artists had delivered during their previous performances. Not necessarily, especially with Neil Young. He actually stopped a song that his band had begun because they had played it the weekend earlier. Young made sure that he had a bit of fun with the audience as he did this. And true to character, he had political points to make (with much of his wrath directed at the California Seed Law).
Neil Young performed ‘Harvest Moon’ just as a full Hunters’ moon was rising on the horizon behind him. The timing was magical!
Young was then followed by Sir Paul McCartney. McCartney was so genuinely intimate with the crowd that I almost felt like I was in his studio as opposed to standing in a field with over 75,000 other concert goers. He invited Young back onto the stage for a few songs, while surprise guest Rihanna also joined him for a duet.
McCartney and Young performed “Why Don’t We do it in the Road?”
When the concert-goers became fully seasoned and hungry for more, Day Three shifted its tone and, to some extent its stakes, while continuing to deliver at the same extraordinary level. The Who set the bar for the evening. After witnessing Roger Daltrey’s vocal runs and Peter Townshend’s power chords/guitar windmills, you knew exactly why they have achieved legendary status. Adding to the sheer intensity of their music was Zak Starsky (son of Ringo Starr) on drums. In a word, his performance was exhilarating. Before leaving, Townshend warned the audience that they would need to get their “brains in gear” for Roger Waters’ upcoming set. He was absolutely right.
After Weekend One, Waters had sparked much controversy for his ‘stick it to the man, flying pig’. It would be a mistake to let this controversy overshadow the sheer mastery and brillance of Waters’ surround-sound rock opera that unfolded. Despite your own thoughts on this, Waters was consistent in his message and his beliefs, as were the other performers of Desert Trip. The artists of all six bands proved that they still have much to say, and have not lost their passion or their creativity for expressing their point of view.
Roger Waters (of Pink Floyd) and his Flying Pig made his thoughts about ‘the man and his wall’ very clear.
If you can’t make out the words in the pic, your best guess is likely correct!
And yes, the crowd definitely added to the experience. On Day One we sat behind a group who took the words ‘Desert Trip’ seriously as they passed around a pipe and smelled of strong cigarettes. On Day Two, the pair in front of us did what they could to express free love. On Day Three, it seemed that all of the women surrounding us had received a prior memo stating that pants were optional.
So was it actually ‘the greatest concert ever staged’? This can only be determined by the mind of the beholder. Regardless, on countless levels, Desert Trip would be very, very hard to beat.
I have madly scrambled to get this all down just hours after the final performance ended. Still reveling in the sensations of the weekend, Desert Trip has stirred my very being. If these artists can do all this at 70+, including writing and producing new material, what can I do when I reach that age? It was a bucket-list weekend come true and one that I will never forget.