“Welcome to the Catch Em’ Before they Croak Festival,” joked Mick Jagger toward the beginning of the Rolling Stones’ Friday night (Oct. 14) Desert Trip set, which kicked off the second and final weekend of the inaugural Coachella-inspired event held at Indio, California’s Empire Polo Club. It was a funny quip, but all too real given 2016’s track record so far. But nobody died between the weekends (thank goodness), so before it even began – given that this would mark the final fest with a lineup of this magnitude – Weekend 2 was destined for superior marks.
OK, OK – there are plenty of counter-arguments to that facetious assertion. But in all seriousness, in the case of every double-weekend same-lineup fest – whether Coachella or Austin City Limits – it’s always manifested historically that Weekend 2 comes out on top. Chiefly for the reason that the bands and producers have done it once already, so all the kinks are worked out. Surely, organizers’ increased familiarity with the flow of people also made it easier to prepare amply in the Culinary Experience (all you can eat and drink from over 100 regional and national restaurants for $500, or $180 per day) and manage lines for the Photography Experience (the next best attraction to the music with more than 200 large-print photos curated by a dozen photographers of the era spread across 35,000 sq. ft.). Yet, logistics aside, the vibe also changes, to something more relaxed, special, significant, stellar … perhaps because all the celebrities have come and gone, leaving the true music fans, those that will risk FOMO if only to have the experience, even if it’s not precisely fresh.
But at Desert Trip, given the astronomical ticket prices (anywhere from $400-$2000, depending on the seat), the level of celebrity — or status-based attendance was similar. So it was due to other reasons – a couple of cosmic coincidences – that made Weekend 2, which drew 75,000 fans per day, into a truly once-in-a-lifetime deal. For starters, Bob Dylan won a Nobel Prize for Literature – the first American to receive it 23 years – the day before his second performance opening for the Rolling Stones. And then there were the guest appearances: Rihanna with Paul McCartney and, even more notable, a full supermoon that rose precisely behind and above the stage for Neil Young’s Saturday set, then (mostly) stuck around for Roger Waters the following night. To boot, it was the final U.S. date of the Who’s farewell tour, and so (perhaps) the end of an era in an awfully real way.
On the flipside, Desert Trip’s second weekend was merely the end of a new beginning for American music festival culture. This event, with its ability to unify generations (despite the “Oldchella” joke-moniker, attendees’s ages ran the gamut) and draw internationally (one could hear all sorts of languages spoken on the field), is essentially an incomparably important time capsule, and should become a fall tradition. Of course, confirmation of that remains up in the air, as does who will play in the future … there are only so many great classic rock artists left.
In any case, it will be impossible to top the caliber of this year’s six artists. Read our reviews of their performances, ranked from worst to best:
6. Bob Dylan:
For many attendees, Bob Dylan’s opening set for the Rolling Stones on Friday was the show most likely to skip (evidently, as quite a few seats remained empty throughout). That may sound preposterous to anyone who hasn’t caught him in the last decade or so, but those with experience know that his voice has diminished mostly to a low growl, he doesn’t pick up the guitar much (he didn’t once this weekend, either singing hands-free or manning the organ) and he won’t allow videographers to display a clear shot of his face on any Jumbotron, effectively distancing himself from a massive audience like Desert Trip’s 75,000 per day.
But those who slept on it should be feeling some deep regret. Not only because it was one of his better performances in recent years – his enunciation felt intentionally clearer and stronger, even managing a couple legitimately pretty croons on “Tangled Up in Blue” – but also because it was his first public appearance since receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature the day before. The latter fact alone made it one of the most important gigs of his 57-year (!) career, and therefore as historically significant on its own as the entire Desert Trip affair.
Yet Dylan never overtly acknowledged the honor throughout his 2-hour greatest hits run, which kicked off with a field full of sweet-smelling smoke signals (with set opener “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”) and saw the 75-year-old slipping in a few rock star moves and jams mid-set (some Robert Plant-esque mic stand lifts on “Love Sick” and Elvis-inspired hip wiggles during outlaw-toned organ-guitar riff duels with axeman Charlie Sexton). Notable, however, was the alternate encore: instead of the epic “Masters of War,” which capped Weekend 1, we got the iconic “Like a Rolling Stone” followed by the Cy Coleman/Jospeh McCarthy-penned Sinatra classic “Why Try to Change Me Now.”
It was the latter ballad that resonated the most poignantly. It’s a slow-burner, and perhaps the antithesis of what most of these diehard classic rock fans might’ve favored for a closer. But as he sang the final chorus echoing the tune’s title – genuinely sweet and clear – it felt like a rebuke to all the naysayers: Sure, Dylan has made some adjustments to his songs’ styles as he and his voice have aged, but his poetry and its impact remain timeless, with or without a Nobel nod.