Desert Trip, the Southern California festival boasting a stellar lineup of classic rock legends, kicked off this Friday with the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan; the rest of the weekend will showcase Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Roger Waters, and the Who. And while Friday didn’t feature any surprise collaborations or cameos (other than The Voice Season 4 finalist Sasha Allen impressively handling the massive Merry Clayton vocals on the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”), Mick Jagger and company did pay homage to one of their co-headliners — when, for the first time ever, they covered “Come Together” by “a beat group you might remember,” the Beatles. And McCartney himself was there, watching from a private VIP box and approvingly pumping his fist in the air.
— Dustin Blitchok (@SincerelyDustin) October 8, 2016
It was a surreal but sweet moment that drove home just how historic, unprecedented, and special the Desert Trip festival truly is, despite some of the flak it has received.
“We’re not going to hear any age jokes, are we?” the 73-year-old Jagger drawled earlier in the evening. “Welcome to the Palm Springs Retirement Home for Genteel Musicians!”
Jagger’s trepidation was understandable. Ever since Desert Trip — which takes place on the same Empire Polo Grounds as Indio’s long-running Coachella fest — was announced, the ageist one-liners have indeed been never-ending. Some naysayers have wisecracked that the only drugs graying concertgoers might smuggle into the festival are Lipitor and Boniva. There have been jokes about pacemakers and hip replacements setting off the festival’s security alarms. And Desert Trip has been dubbed “Oldchella” so often and so effectively, most people don’t even know the event by its official name.
However, Desert Trip launches during an interesting time in the music business. A couple years ago, the big news coming out of the younger-skewing Coachella (which, like, Desert Trip, is a Goldenvoice production) was that big-stage “heritage acts” like the Replacements, Stone Roses, and even Outkast had failed to attract sizable crowds, with millennial-aged festivalgoers flocking to the EDM tents instead. Goldenvoice nonetheless continued to book older acts at Coachella, like AC/DC, Steely Dan, and Guns N’ Roses, with mostly positive results. And now the hype surrounding Desert Trip, which has an average audience age of 51 and average artist age of 72, is at a whole other level — a huge success, expected to draw 75,000 people a day over two consecutive weekends and rake in $160 million (nearly double the previous U.S. festival box office record of $84 million, set by Coachella 2015). Jagger, McCartney, and their fellow genteel musicians are clearly having the last laugh.
Of course, boomers and Gen Xers are less likely than millennials to tolerate typical festival inconveniences — and, unlike millennials, they have the disposable income (160 million dollars’ worth!) to pay for their genteel creature comforts. So Desert Trip is an unusually civilized affair. The grounds feature specially built stadium-style seating and plenty of actual flushing toilets, for starters. There’s also an air-conditioned, indoor exhibit of iconic rock ‘n’ roll photographs, complemented by a wine bar, and a “Culinary Experience” offering an all-inclusive food-and-drink menu by renowned chefs and mixologists. Another foodie-centric attraction, “Outstanding in the Field,” serves four-course prix fixe dinners in a fine-dining setting. And even the campgrounds are more like glampgrounds, boasting deluxe teepee accommodations, an old-school pinball arcade, a casino, yoga classes, and afterhours vinyl DJ sets. All of this is a far cry from the Spicy Pie, Red Bull cocktails, and mud pits of less fancy festivals. Fifty-one-year-olds obviously know to party.
But actually, despite all of these distracting fun-in-the-sun adult activities, Desert Trip is really all about the music, man. On Friday, there wasn’t a flower crown in sight (other than the one Jagger himself jokingly wore for about half a song), nor were there any wannabe fashionistas attempting to dress like Vanessa Hudgens or a Jenner sister. The people at Desert Trip were truly there to just see Dylan and the Stones.
Dylan’s 16-song, 90-minute opening set — and yes, only at a festival like Desert Trip would Bob Dylan be the opening act — was fairly low-key, with the grizzled, 75-year-old troubadour uttering not a single word of banter, forbidding photographers to shoot his performance, and barely even appearing on the giant video screens that flanked the stage, much to many concertgoers’ chagrin. His notorious tendency to radically rework his own songs to the point of near-unrecognizability probably didn’t help him connect with the enormous audience, either. But his also-notorious diction issues were thankfully under control, and his first mood-setting number, “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35” — with its “everybody must get stoned” refrain — was of course a festival-appropriate crowd-pleaser.
Desert Trip really started when the Stones charged out to “Start Me Up,” with Jagger looking wiry, fit, and boyish in a series of garishly colorful jackets and tight tuxedo trousers, and his fellow Glimmer Twin, rock ‘n’ roll pirate Keith Richards, looking as swashbuckling as ever in his signature bandanna and black jeans. Along with the above-mentioned Beatles cover, the Stones played a few other unexpected tunes, like their first live performance since 1962 of Jimmy Reed’s “Ride ‘Em on Down” (to be released on their new blues covers album, Blue & Lonesome, this December), Steel Wheels’ “Mixed Emotions” and “Slipping Away,” Tattoo You’s Keef-sung “Little T&A,” and Bridges to Babylon’s “Out of Control.” But their 20-song setlist also featured plenty of Stones standards to make the masses happy.
“It’s nice to be here. It’s nice to be anywhere,” Richards quipped at one point, making his own little age joke. Jagger also tossed off a snarky remark about the desert’s nearby “dinosaur park,” but more seriously told the crowd, “We’ve all been playing music for you for 50 years or more. We think it’s pretty amazing that you’re still coming out to see us. So thank you.”
Desert Trip continues Saturday with “opener” Neil Young and headliner Paul McCartney. Watch this space to see if McCartney returns the Stones’ favor and covers a classic from the Jagger & Richards catalog.
Bob Dylan’s setlist: “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35” / “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” / “Highway 61 Revisited” / “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” / “High Water (For Charley Patton)” / “Simple Twist of Fate” / “Early Roman Kings” / “Love Sick” / “Tangled Up in Blue” / “Lonesome Day Blues” / “Make You Feel My Love” / “Pay in Blood” / “Desolation Row” / “Soon After Midnight” / “Ballad of a Thin Man” / “Masters of War”
The Rolling Stones’ setlist: “Start Me Up” / “You Got Me Rocking” / “Out of Control” / “Ride ‘Em on Down” / “Mixed Emotions” / “Wild Horses” / “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)” / “Come Together” / “Tumbling Dice” / “Honky Tonk Women” / “Slipping Away” / “Little T&A” / “Midnight Rambler” / “Miss You” / “Gimme Shelter” / “Sympathy for the Devil” / “Brown Sugar” / “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” / “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” / “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”