“I’m not going to make any age jokes,” Mick Jagger announced during The Rolling Stones‘ Friday (Oct. 7) night set at Desert Trip, before quipping, “Welcome to the Palm Springs Retirement Home for Genteel Musicians.”
And so the 73-year-old rock icon set the tone for day 1 of what punsters and attendees have been calling “Oldchella,” the luxury three-day festival pulling together six of the biggest names in ’60s/’70s rock: Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, The Who and Roger Waters.
Walking around the Desert Trip grounds on Friday night, it’s clear that while the Oldchella moniker fits, the crowd isn’t as retiree-heavy as cynics might assume. Grey hairs are a plurality but not a majority at the festival, although the rows of chairs and stadium seating erected on the Coachella grounds serve as a solid indication that Desert Trippers are definitely older than the crowd a typical fest pulls in. At most music gatherings, people in their thirties are the fest elders; here, you see a couple in their thirties and think, “Oh, young people are here, too.”
In short, the dudes sharing reefers are a bit balder and the women twirling to the music are slightly less limber, but everyone at Desert Trip seems intent on rekindling the flame of the good ole days of rock.
What Desert Trip lacks in uninhibited energy it certainly makes up for in collective wealth. Three-day passes are $399 but three-day passes for the front row pit are a staggering $1599 — a number that didn’t seem to faze most of the people taking in the classic rock pantheon from the standing-room-only area.
A Brazilian couple in their late fifties who flew in expressly for Desert Trip said buying the pit tickets was an “immediate” decision, despite having already seen everyone on the bill. A younger attendee, 25-year-old Kelsey from Memphis, acknowledged the prices were “outrageous” but said the lineup ultimately made it seem like the “festival of a century.” Jeff, a 26-year-old also from Memphis, offered, “These six artists at the same time? I wouldn’t expect any different price range.”
Despite boasting six of the biggest names in rock history, the weekend got off to a less than raucous start. First up to bat, Dylan delivered plenty of recognizable hits, but they were — as is his wont for the last 15-ish years — mainly refracted through a country-blues rock lens. He spent most of the show seated at a piano, occasionally standing up to sing into the mic — but no guitar, and his stage banter was literally nonexistent (he uttered a grand total of zero words). As for his performance, his movements were so minimalist that when he brought his hand to his hip during “Ballad of a Thin Man,” the otherwise slight movement came across as choreography.
Regardless, Dylan’s set was musically excellent — the latter-day stuff, especially “High Water (for Charley Patton)” and “Early Roman Kings,” works perfectly with his gravelly voice in a live setting. “Simple Twist of Fate” still has the power to force you to meditate with regret on past romances, and “Desolation Row” was given a robust blues-rock kick not present on the folkie original.
But Dylan’s opener wasn’t a home run. The audience, not exactly rabid for more, offered polite but gusto-free applause that brought Zimmerman back for a one-song encore of “Masters of War.”
When The Rolling Stones took the stage after Dylan (whom Mick and Keith Richards both called their “opening act,” a claim that produced some scandalized gasps from the pit crowd), the audience’s energy changed immediately.
Yes, Dylan’s catalog is a towering artistic monument for the ages, something that might be stacked up to the oeuvres of Rimbaud and Yeats for centuries to come. But when it comes to putting on a crowd-pleasing live rock ‘n’ roll show, the British rockers have the upper hand on the literate loner from Minnesota.
Within the first 40 seconds of the Stones’ set, Jagger had already moved more than Dylan did in 90 minutes. And yes, he actually talked to the crowd, something fans tend to enjoy.
But it’s almost unfair to compare the Stones to Dylan when it comes to spectacle. For decades now, the Stones have honed their live act into a product that’s as precise as it is fun: Even though they seem to have the evening mapped out to maximize Boomer Generation satisfaction, there’s still an appealing looseness in Mick’s shifting shoulders and Keith’s rouge grin as he tosses out guitar licks.
Nothing shocking happened, but there were surprise-ish moments. The Stones performed “Ride ‘Em On Down,” one of the songs from their upcoming blues covers album, Blue & Lonesome, live for the first time since announcing the LP. They also dusted off late ’80s gem “Mixed Emotions” and covered the Beatles’ “Come Together” (McCartney, the Saturday night headliner, watched from the stands and sang along to what Mick introduced as a song from “an unknown Beat group”).
It was the longer songs that hit the hardest, though. “Midnight Rambler” allowed Keith and Ronnie Wood to stretch out on guitar while Mick executed karate-like movements on the catwalk. They stretched “Miss You” to nearly twice its original length, allowing the band and the crowd to groove to the sinuous disco bass line. On “Gimme Shelter,” backup singer Sasha Allen — an alumni of The Voice who joined the Stones’ touring lineup just this year — stole the spotlight and gave the “rape, murder” solo a sandpapery soulful scratch even tougher than the original.
Another highlight was “Sympathy for the Devil,” which Mick delivered wearing a shimmery red-sequined coat while images of goat heads and pentagrams flashed on the screen behind him. For what felt like the first time at Desert Trip, the crowd sang along with what felt like true abandon.
But penultimate song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” delivered with the assistance of gorgeous harmonies from the USC Thornton Chamber Singers, was arguably the highlight of the night — and a fitting song for Desert Trip itself. You can’t always get what you want (i.e., your youth back), but if you pay a helluva lot of money, you can at least get a taste of it for a weekend.
The Rolling Stones Desert Trip Set List Oct. 7
“Start Me Up”
“You Got Me Rocking”
“Ride ‘Em On Down” (Eddie Taylor cover)
“It’s Only Rock n’ Roll (But I Like It)”
“Come Together” (Beatles cover)
?”Honky Tonk Women”
“Slipping Away” (Keith Richards lead vocal)
“Little T&A” (Keith Richards lead vocal)
“Sympathy for the Devil”
?”Jumpin’ Jack Flash”
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”
Bob Dylan Desert Trip Set List Oct. 7
“Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”
“Highway 61 Revisted”
“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”
“High Water (for Charley Patton)”
“Simple Twist of Fate”
“Early Roman Kings”
“Tangled Up in Blue”
“Lonesome Day Blues”
“Make You Feel My Love”
“Pay In Blood”
“Soon After Midnight”
“Ballad of a Thin Man”
“Masters of War”