Indio, Calif. – Forget about Coachella, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza.
Desert Trip is the new model for a huge rock festival:
• A mere six mega-acts in three days.
• Padded seats.
• Air-conditioned portable toilets that flush.
• Private suites.
• A mammoth high-def video wall.
• A museum-quality, historical photo exhibition of all six acts in a football-sized air-conditioned tent.
• A pricey culinary experience featuring rock-star chefs Marcus Samuelsson, Michael Mina, Dominique Ansel and others.
• No mud.
Desert Trip, which took place over the weekend and will be repeated next weekend at the Empire Polo Club, was a baby boomer’s version of rock ‘n’ roll heaven on Earth —a moon-lit, dusty Earth.
Imagine Bob Dylan opening for the Rolling Stones. Neil Young warming up for Paul McCartney and then jamming with him. And the Who setting the stage for Roger Waters of Pink Floyd.
Imagine paying $1,600 to stand in the pit. Or $399 for general admission two football fields away. Or some price in-between for padded, reserved seats.
You don’t need to be Mick Jagger’s accountant to realize that this two-weekend event will be the biggest grossing rock festival ever — $160 million off tickets alone.
Was it worth it?
Yes, said Billy Weisman, 67, of Minneapolis, from his $850 seat. “It’s a high concentration of great talent. It’s a historical musical moment.”
Bob Bliss is the general manager of We Fest, the longtime country-and-camping festival in Detroit Lakes, Minn., but he’s a classic rocker at heart.
“I didn’t make Woodstock,” he said. “This is an event in music history that won’t get repeated in my lifetime.”
With six acts who started in the ’60s but are now in their 70s, pundits have dubbed Desert Trip — which takes place on the site of the eclectic Coachella fest and the country-oriented Stagecoach fest — as Oldchella or Agecoach. However, Geezer Woodstock might be more apt.
No women were seen dancing in the nude, though several guys of varying ages went shirtless. Pot was apparent but more in gray-haired guys’ bellies than in smoke. No one talked about acid unless they were looking for anti-acid because they overindulged on a variety of food — from Cuban sandwiches and mac-and-cheese to $10-a-scoop ice cream — that was well below Minnesota State Fair quality.
You can’t always get what you want. But you can get what you need at Desert Trip. And that was some special musical performances and a few magical moments.
On opening night, Dylan gave what I thought was his best concert performance in this century. For a change, he offered many Dylan classics and nothing from his two recent albums of standards. He was in strong voice considering that he’s been parched and croaky for a couple of decades. He said nothing to the crowd (didn’t even introduce his musicians) and didn’t allow his face on the giant video screens.
But his words and delivery spoke volumes. At least, to some of the 75,000 Desert Trippers. Per usual, though, Dylan was polarizing.
“It’s all well and good for Dylan to accompany his bluesy set with sepia images of New York from the ’50s and ’60s, but he can’t expect travelers from his native Minnesota and West Coast hipsters to pay rapt attention to his gravelly voice while he hides behind a cloak of invisibility for three-quarters of the audience who can’t see the stage here,” said Mike Dorsher, a Dylan fan from Hudson, Wis.
Tammy Flores, 31, of nearby Palm Desert, Calif., came specifically to see Dylan because she’d seen all the other acts at Coachella.
“I loved it,” she said. “I’m a Dylan lover. He filled the entire crowd.”
Weisman offered a more intellectual interpretation.
“Dylan has evolved into performance art,” Weisman said. “He could have been in a museum.”
No one could complain about the Stones’ 130-minute set. They are the masters of the massive concert.
Imagine seeing Jagger’s famous lips on a giant video wall three times the size of the big screen at U.S. Bank Stadium while he was rocking his tiny tush off. But it’s not just about manic Mick. The guitars of Keith Richards and Ron Wood were slashing, and the rest of the band supplied the drive and coloring to create an electrifying set. In a word, the Stones delivered satisfaction.
And the glib Jagger, 73, delivered some apt lines for Desert Trip. “Welcome to the Palm Springs Home for Genteel Musicians,” he joked.
Young, 70, fired off the zinger of the festival. “Come back tomorrow night,” he said on Saturday. “Roger [Waters] is going to build a wall and make Mexico great again.”
There was no need to explain the joke to the D-Trippers, whether they were boomers or millennials, because they know that Waters is the architect of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”
Young was just as spot-on with his music, whether playing solo acoustic on “Heart of Gold” or rocking out on an epic “Down by the River” with his young backup band of the past two years, Promise of the Real, featuring two of Willie Nelson’s sons.
Young later joined McCartney on a medley of “Day in the Life” and “Give Peace a Chance,” followed by “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road,” during which Young’s galvanizing, grungy guitar ignited the ex-Beatle, reminding everyone how exciting McCartney can be when he collaborates with an equal.
Young was prescient in connecting Waters with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. In fact, Waters turned his 2½-hour set into a passionate platform for politics that evoked the anti-war vibe of Woodstock.
Waters tranformed Pink Floyd’s song “Pigs” into an aggressive slam against Trump, projecting the candidate’s face on the big screens with the caption “Charade,” which is one of the key lyrics.
Later in the song, Waters sent a giant inflated pig — long a signature prop at both his solo shows and Pink Floyd’s concerts — flying over the crowd. The pig was plastered with anti-Trump slogans “ignorant,” “lying,” “racist” and “sexist.”
Before his final song, Waters tackled another hot-button issue with an anti-Israel speech. He then delivered “Comfortably Numb” to close a concert that left lots of D-Trippers, well, uncomfortably numb.
Politics aside, Waters had arrestingly artful visuals and possibly the most incredible sound system you’ve heard at an outdoor — or indoor — concert. It made a fest-goer want try this audio system at home.
The potency of Waters’ performance quickly erased the impact of the Who’s crowd-pleasing set, which was very similar to their recent Target Center show though Roger Daltrey’s voice was more consistently reliable on this night.
Parents, kids together
Desert Trip is the rare festival parents and kids can attend together.
Michael Ayub, 30, a Jacksonville, Fla., lawyer, came with his dad, Jorge, 62, a Tampa oncologist, their wives and four relatives from Brazil.
“He introduced me to classic rock,” Michael said of his dad. “We’re having a great time. We smoked cigars together.”
Susan Shuster, 62, of Houston, was partying in the pit with her daughter, Lori, 25, with their $2,800 each hotel-and-pit-pass package. “I raised her on the right music,” Mom said. Who was having more fun? “Both,” said Lori after losing her voice during the Stones set.
Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, both 31, were among the few millennials onstage. Frontwomen of the indie-pop duo Lucius, they’ve been singing background vocals for Waters since the Newport Folk Festival last year.
Laessig knew Pink Floyd from her parents records but Wolfe was a big fan who smoked pot and listened to Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” while watching “The Wizard of Oz.”
Laessig and Wolfe saw Desert Trip from both sides — standing in the pit next to Leonardo DiCaprio during Dylan and onstage with Waters.
“Watching the Stones, I got teary-eyed thinking we’d be a small part of this,” Wolfe said while the Who was rocking.
She said the Desert Trip experience with six members of rock’s 1960s pantheon “grounds us more. It’s all one and the same. The only difference is the money you’re making. At the end of the day, we’re all part of the same community.”
Not every D-Tripper was thrilled. Unless you shelled out for the name-chef culinary experience, the food was mediocre. The service and supplies at the main merchandise stand were inadequate. Even though there were more than 150 items on display, many were sold out — including all the Stones T-shirts before the Who sang “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
By comparison, the curators of the must-see Desert Trip Photography Experience did an outstanding job. There were priceless and iconic images, mostly from the ‘60s and ‘70s, of these D-Trip rock gods onstage and off by Jim Marshall, Henry Diltz and other photographers. As a bonus, the air-conditioned photo museum provided a welcomed respite from the heat and dust.
Minneapolis entertainment impresario Jeffrey Siegel, who runs Renaissance festivals in North Carolina and Arizona, knows the nuances of audiences for big outdoor events.
“This is a demographic that has expectations for audience experience and customer service a younger festival audience often lets slide,” he said.
In other words, maybe festival promoters should have established an on-site concierge service.
In the end, Desert Trip was as much about the music as the experience. The five to six hours of music nightly reminded D-Trippers that despite how wrinkled, gray or bald these music makers are, their music is classic. And given the enthusiasm with which these icons delivered these songs, the music felt more timeless than nostalgic.
Don’t be surprised if D-Trip returns next year. Just dream about your fantasy lineup. Meanwhile, there’s a more pressing question: Which of these Rock Hall of Famers is going to write a song called “Desert Trip”?