3. Paul McCartney:
Anyone who’s seen the British knight knows: Sir Paul McCartney and his band are always sharp live, routinely turning in nearly three hours’ worth of live music, abounding with tons of Beatles, Wings and solo faves, touching and comical stories, and impressive pyro (“Live and Let Die” marked the weekend’s ultimate fireworks burst). He didn’t change his set too much from weekend to weekend, but he did swap out “Can’t Buy Me Love” with an invigorating rendition of “Got To Get You into My Life” early in the set, and traded relative rarity “I Wanna Be Your Man” for “Birthday” in the encore, plus a quick take on Little Richard’s “Rip It Up” (“Saturday night … I couldn’t resist,” he said, referencing the relevant lyrics).
Besides, other measures were taken to illuminate the night’s significance: In addition to honoring his former wife Linda before “Maybe I’m Amazed,” he dedicated the song to two of their children, Mary and Stella McCartney, both present at the show; Later, he invited “the queen of Barbados,” Rihanna, out to sing her part on “FourFiveSeconds” (she sang live, and sounded fantastic); in two instances, he asked the audience to howl at the moon, “for the coyotes”; and he brought out Neil Young to handle John Lennon’s parts on “A Day in the Life” and the Plastic Ono Band’s “Give Peace a Chance,” then howl cheek-to-cheek via one mic on “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” and finish with a solo so insane that Young broke all six of his strings.
Yes, the latter special guest run also occurred during weekend one, but those final string-busting notes yielded a profound sense of urgency – perhaps because it was likely the last time an on-stage collaboration between McCartney and Young will ever happen again, barring awards or tribute shows – that blew any other version of that tune out of the water.
2. Roger Waters:
A hairline-close second to Young, Roger Waters proved himself a visionary once again with Sunday night’s fest finale, which both divided and united generations of fans.
During his nearly three hours of spectacle, the 73-year-old multi-talent induced the weekend’s most authentic desert “trip” by playing most of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, featuring disorienting surround sound samples of low-flying helicopters, machine guns and barking dogs, plus panoramic visuals. The massive, curved screen was clearly designed chiefly for his production, at one point transforming into an industrial fortress (it looked authentically 3D from dead-on) complete with smokestacks.
He also added relevance to the messages of albums Animals and The Wall by incorporating a merciless anti-Trump bashing during “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” (a giant inflatable pig, which read “Fuck Trump and his wall,” skirted across the GA section until fans were allowed to rip it to pieces) and by speaking out in support of Cal State students behind the Students for Justice in Palestine groups, driving his sentiments home with an original poem titled “Why Cannot the Good Prevail.” Both moves sparked modest exoduses, but mostly widespread cheers.
Yet the show’s unequivocal crown jewels were singers Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe of the band Lucius, dressed in their typical twin-emulating fashion but this time with prism and scarab Dark Side motifs embroidered on their black dresses/capes. Their presence revealed Waters as an artist with his finger on the pulse of contemporary music – they represented the strongest bridge between Desert Trips’ older and younger generations – and likewise asserted their worth as world-class vocalists. Wolfe’s and Laessig’s respective solos on ‘The Great Gig in the Sky” and “Bring the Boys Back Home” left many in the audience slack-jawed and if Waters’ voice ever wavered, their flawless foundation smoothed things out. Ultimately, the ex-Floydman’s challenging repertoire brought out the gals’ best. His material far exceeds the difficulty level of anything sung in their main band, and they likewise enhanced his show a hundredfold. He needs to enlist them for the entirety of his 2017 Us + Them tour – their absence would constitute an injustice.
Neil Young + the Promise of the Real:
No set felt more crucial this weekend than Neil Young’s on Saturday at sundown, achieved as much by its perfectly timed moments as its political impact (his anti-Monsanto organic seed free-for-all was hilarious) and sheer sonic force. Save for a 6-song solo acoustic intro (which kicked off at Golden Hour with “After the Gold Rush” and “Heart of Gold”), Young was in full-on guitar god mode, playing louder and more furiously than anyone in the Stones or Dylan’s band the previous evening. And his backing outfit, the Promise of the Real (featuring Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah) was no less mind-blowing. During extended jams (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Helpless,” Crazy Horse’s “Powderfinger” and 17-minute epic “Cowgirl in the Sand”), Lukas went head-to-head with the 70-year-old master, channeling a bit of his dad’s erratic picking, some Jimi Hendrix-esque freakouts and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s finesse.
Clearly, the younger fellas keep Young on his toes. And they had a blast in the process, particularly apparent when Young joked “We only have so many songs,” then pulling out a set list the size of a small human, allowing the camera to grab a close-up while his finger teased over more than 100 possible tunes like a Ouija board needle running rampant. It was a badass rock star move that revealed just how impressive this band is – they’ve rehearsed for countless classic cuts.
But Young owed his overall one-up to the moon, which rose – full and almost-orange like a humongous, cratered pumpkin – as the sun set behind the mountains opposite it. Of course, he had a hand in its impact: “Harvest Moon” appeared one song sooner than it did Weekend 1 – while the moon was at its biggest and brightest, like a second blazing sun – so that it hung just above the stage as Young crooned “But there’s a full moon risin’/ Let’s go dancin’ in the light/ We know where the music’s playin’/ Let’s go out and feel the night.” As wizard, astronomer, living legend – effortlessly encompassing a bit of each – Young’s music imbued the desolate desert with magic, vitality and harmony.