One stage. Six concerts. Three nights. Desert Trip billed itself as a once in a lifetime event. Big words perhaps but with this line-up, few could argue with it.
Sharing the same location as the annual Coachella festival – leading it to acquire the nickname ‘Oldchella’ due to its contrast to its unbelievably-hip long-established sibling – Desert Trip was held at The Empire Polo Ground, Palm Springs, in the desert (unsurprisingly) of California from 7-9 October, with repeat performances a week later.
And boy did it rock.
Unlike similar events, Desert Trip had only one stage, hosting two full sets from rock royalty each night with proceedings kicking off at 6pm, providing a full concert experience – and home before 12. Unless Paul McCartney is playing.
We visited on the second weekend, staying nearby at the JW Marriott Palm Springs, so had an inkling of what to expect. But only an inkling.
Across the festival site, civilised was the watchword of the weekend, with the Polo Ground featuring a wide variety of entertainment before the night’s events kicked-off. Alongside the vinyl record store and the big wheel, billboard-sized album covers (Some Girls, The Kids are Alright, Highway 61 Revisited etc) provided a great photo opportunity for those with the patience to queue.
And once you’d done all that, you could grab a beer and enjoy the largest exhibition of rock photography ever assembled, in air-conditioned comfort. A perfect amuse-bouche before the feast of music each evening.
“Who was best?” is the question I’ve been asked by everybody since my visit; with the six artists setting themselves up for easy, direct comparison. Music and memories are subjective so all I can give you is my opinion.
Desert Trip night 1: Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones
Day one started with Bob Dylan in enigmatic mode, what else to expect for a – then – soon to be announced Nobel laureate? Kicking-off with “Rainy Day Woman 12 & 35” (its refrain of “everybody must get stoned” being taken quite literally by many of the audience), it seemed we would be in for a classic greatest hits set. Oh how wrong I was…
What we got instead was black and white images of the band mixed with footage of the forging of industrial America and a tour of his deep and – for me – obscure back catalogue. Dylan fans would have been in Bob Heaven. I, as a casual observer, don’t consider myself one of those but will definitely investigate further after this crash course.
But then The Rolling Stones brought the party. In full Technicolour style. And gave the crowd what they were looking for – the hits. Though I could have done without them letting Keith sing! The first night finale, a choir supported version of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, with fireworks, saw us leave Friday on a high.
Desert Trip night 2: Neil Young and Paul McCartney
Day two arrived, and so did Neil Young with an acoustic set, a brave move in front of 85,000 people. Captivating with just guitar and voice, we enjoyed classics such as “Harvest” and “After the gold rush” before he was joined by current backing band “The Promise of the Real”.
After a stunning version of “Harvest Moon”, they turned the dial up to 11, rocked the desert audience and delivered a raucous crescendo of “Rockin’ in the free world”; picking up a raft of new fans and the ire of California lawmakers along the way
The stage was set for Paul McCartney and the rumours were flying thick and fast: especially after the content of his performance the previous weekend. A three hour set was what we’d heard, and Sir Macca delivered in spades.
Covering his catalogue from The Quarrymen, The Beatles, Wings and his solo work, McCartney regaled the audience with tales of hanging with Jimi Hendrix, dedicated songs to his wives (well, two of them anyway) and duetted with Neil Young on a few numbers.
After playing his oldest/first song he then introduced his latest song, with a special guest: FourFiveSeconds with Rhianna! The younger crowd members went wild as the she performed one number then left. You couldn’t fault McCartney for delivering great set. I suspect that was nothing unique but still a fantastic evening of singalong hits.
Closing Desert Trip: The Who and Roger Waters
The final day came around, opened by The Who, delivering their usual high-quality set. Occasionally struggling with the dryness, singer Roger Daltrey joked that singing in the desert was like singing “into a hair dryer… full of pot”. Yes there was certainly a lot of it going around. Still. The Who’s show was great but nothing earth-shattering.
Roger Waters left the best til last; boasting the largest quadraphonic sound system ever used in a concert incredible visuals and a tight band including Lucius. And it sounded like it. Combined with stunning visuals made this possibly the best concert I’ve ever been to.
Covering old tracks from Syd Barrett-era Floyd, through Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, Waters then focused on Animals. And as he did, rising up from the massive stage screen came four chimneys and the ubiquitous flying pig. Battersea Power Station had come to the desert!
Two tracks from Animals took on renewed significance when accompanied by a shopping list of Donald Trump insults. The Republican Presidential candidate was ridiculed on the huge screen, with visuals mocking his speeches, dressed up as a lady, called a charade and generally lambasted verbally and visually. But the piece de resistance was a vast floating pig, rising up from the middle of the crowd. And decorated with anti-Trump slogans not repeatable to a family audience.
This concert from Roger Waters has to be up there as one of my favourite concerts of all time. Check out the full list of concerts I’ve been to for context!
There’s already talk of another “once in a lifetime” event, such was the success of the inaugural Desert Trip. But who could top those performers?
Led Zeppelin perhaps? The band allegedly turned down a huge payday this year. Some form of Clapton/Baker Cream reunion? Maybe U2 (after all the Joshua Tree National Park is not far from here.) At this point these are only delicious rumours but if the event I attended is anything to go by, Desert Trip will become a regular feature of the festival calendar – and a “must visit” for rock fans – before very long.