Friday, Oct. 14, 2016
Bob Dylan: Just a day before he was to play Desert Trip, Weekend 2, Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize in Literature, for, in the words of the Swedish Academy, “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” It was a fitting tribute to the creator of such master works as “Blonde on Blonde,” “Blood on the Tracks” and “Time Out of Mind,” who for a half century has explored the tangled human condition in all its contradictions and messiness.
How fitting, I thought, for America’s Voice of the '60s to headline one of the most buzzed-about concerts since Woodstock. I was psyched to see him.
Until I did.
Bob Dylan, America’s poet laureate and conscience, rasped his way through barely recognizable songs.
The singing cigarette performed with zero passion. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
Dylan’s battered and broken voice grated. He made no effort to engage the crowd. His deconstructed song arrangements made even his best known works, such as the 1965 classic “Ballad of a Thin Man,” nearly unrecognizable. Only when he played “Why Try to Change Me Now” from his 2015 outing, Shadows in the Night, did he come alive, even infusing the song with a bit of melody.
How bad was Dylan? The Baby Boomers on hand seemed as disengaged and listless as he, greeting his disaster of a show with polite applause and the occasional tapping foot. They had spent hundreds, maybe even thousands, for this?
Afterwards, I saw a visibly upset middle-aged man talking to his wife and kids. “That was absolutely awful,” he said. Turning to me, he continued, “We spent months playing Dylan albums for our kids. We were all so excited, and this is what we get?”
Because of traffic jams and logistical challenges, we missed more than half of Dylan’s set. In retrospect, I wish traffic had been even worse.
At 75, Bob Dylan has earned the right to retire from the rigors of the road, end his Never Ending Tour and write a follow-up to his excellent memoir, Chronicles: Volume One. Here’s hoping he does just that.
The Rolling Stones: They say you can’t go home again. In one of the most powerful sets I have ever seen, the Rolling Stones proved you can.
In 1981, just weeks after I had started Berkeley, I saw the Stones at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. I remember the collective chill that went through the crowd when Mick Jagger bounded onto the stage and launched into a beautifully ragged version of “Under My Thumb.” Time stood still for the next two hours.
Among the more than 200 concerts I have seen over the past 40 past years, including the Talking Heads, David Bowie and Prince, that one stood alone.
From the slashing opening chords of “Jumping Jack Flash” to shambolic closer “Satisfaction” two and a half hours later, the Stones had the audience of 75,000 on its feet, putting on perhaps the single greatest performance I’ve ever seen.
As in 1981, the band played with a fiery passion that made even old warhorses like “Midnight Rambler,” “Sympathy For The Devil” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” sound fresh and even contemporary.
Jagger strutted, shimmied and sashayed across the huge stage like an artist one-third his age, all the while hitting even some of the high notes. Charlie Watts anchored the backbeat as well as any drummer in rock, forming a formidable rhythm section with bassist extraordinaire Daryl Jones. As always, the backup singers and horns tastefully rounded out the sound.
Unlike previous times I saw the Stones, Keith Richards and Ron Wood played with urgency and conviction. Their interweaving guitars bobbed, weaved and counterpunched, creating riffs with just the right amount of raunch and snarl. “Brown Sugar” and “Start Me Up” never sounded so good.
For this show, the Stones rejiggered their set list from last week’s Desert Trip, replacing good songs with great songs. Out went “Mixed Emotions” and “Out of Control.” In came “Get Off of My Cloud” and “Paint It Black.” The Stones even went deep into their catalogue to pull out “Sweet Virginia” from “Exile On Main Street” and a strong Keith-led vocal on “You Got the Silver.”
On this magical night, the Stones were once again the “World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band.” From the funk of “Miss You” to the tender balladry of “Angie” to the rock and roll of “Honky Tonk Woman,” this was the Rolling Stones at their finest.
Battle of the Bands Scorecard
Rolling Stones 9: Mick Jagger’s vocals weren’t quite up to his 1969 prime but damn good for a great-grandfather. The rest of the band rocked.
Bob Dylan 4: His talented band played well. Dylan’s voice, or what’s left of it, didn’t.
Rolling Stones 10: There is only one Mick Jagger. Even the faux Cockney accent of this former London School of Economics student charms.
Bob Dylan 1: He’s famous. He’s the most important singer-songwriter in contemporary America. He just won a Nobel Prize. My closet has more stage presence than the former Robert Zimmerman.
Rolling Stones 10: Anybody lucky enough to see this concert will tell their grandkids about it.
Bob Dylan 1: Anybody unlucky enough to see this concert will try to forget about it immediately.
Winner: Rolling Stones in a first round knockout.
Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016
Neil Young: Which Neil Young would show up at Desert Trip, Weekend 2? Would it be the beloved folk troubadour singing of love and regret? The Godfather of Grunge wielding his black Gibson like a weapon of mass distortion? The earnest environmentalist? Or perhaps the angry old man railing against injustice and inequality in an increasingly unjust and unequal world?
Young was all that and more during his blistering two-hour-plus set.
Walking onstage alone, Young, clad in his traditional black hat, sat at the piano and played “After the Gold Rush” from the 1970 album of the same name. His surprisingly strong voice and passionate performance made this 1970 gem about the importance of caring for the environment sound as relevant as ever. As he sung, the setting sun bathed the desert in gentle golden hues.
Young followed that opening salvo with some of his timeless acoustic favorites. “Heart of Gold,” his only No. 1 single, touched a collective chord among the mostly Baby Boomer crowd, with gray-haired ex-hippies singing along. Fan-favorite “Old Man” followed, giving way to 1976’s “Long May You Run” which seemed to speak directly to the crowd.
“We've been through
some things together
With trunks of memories
still to come
We found things to do
in stormy weather
Long may you run”
Young could have easily played it safe and delivered an entire set of reassuring and familiar chestnuts. The audience would have loved bathing in nostalgia’s warm glow. But Young would sooner retire than become a human jukebox. He cares more about cultivating his art more than his fan base.
With his powerful band, Power of the Real, joining him onstage, Young traded his acoustic guitar and harmonica for heavy artillery: his black electric guitar. The volume shot up to 11. Power of the Real pushed and prodded Young to play louder, harder and faster.
The ensemble blasted through incendiary versions of “Powderfinger,” “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Like A Hurricane.” Sludge, feedback and distortion never sounded so good. Throughout, Young’s fiery solos astounded with discordant beauty. It suddenly became apparent why CSN once recruited Y to beef up their sound.
On this memorable day, Young proved that, in the words of his musical heir Jack White, “Music is Sacred.”
Paul McCartney: Where Neil Young aimed to challenge his audience with loud guitars and pointed lyrics, Paul McCartney wanted nothing more than to please the 75,000 Beatles fans in attendance, some of whom had paid $1,599 to attend this historic event.
McCartney delivered – sort of. He filled his set with stone-cold classics such as “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Day Tripper,” “All My Loving,” “Blackbird,” “Let It Be,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Lady Madonna” and “Back in the USSR.” Throw in “Live and Let Die,” “Hey Jude” and “Helter Skelter,” and you had the makings of a show for the ages.
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
From the moment McCartney sung the first lines of “A Hard Day’s Night,” it became apparent that time had severely tarnished one of rock’s golden voices. McCartney warbled his way through much of that and other song and others. It was painful to watch – and hear.
After straining through “Jet,” McCartney gave a rousing version of “Got to Get You into My Life.” Interestingly, he did a much better job screaming than he did actually singing, turning encores “Birthday” and “Helter Skelter” into highlights.
Throughout the evening, McCartney seemed oddly detached form his material, almost going through the motions, albeit with a boatload of charm. He mugged, flirted and even turned around and playfully shook his behind to the audience during a decent “All My Loving.”
His able band didn’t do him any favors. They played far too perfectly, leaving no room for improvisation or exploration. With his faltering voice, McCartney might want to consider unshackling his musicians so they can find interesting ways to present his songs within his shrinking vocal range.
McCartney did come alive on occasion. Neil Young joined him onstage for a strong “A Day in the Life” and John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance.” The rock giants also collaborated on the “White Album” classic, “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road,” with Young’s stinging guitar solo serving as the perfect foil for McCartney’s effective singing/shouting.
In one of the set’s best moments, a sultry Rihanna joined McCartney for the 2015 hit, “FourFiveSeconds,” which they cut with Kanye West. Rihanna sang with palpable passion and authority. Sharing the stage with the legend only succeeded in making Rihanna look here-and-know and McCartney look, dare I say, old.
Here’s hoping it was just an off night, a very off night, for one of the most influential artists in music history.
Battle of the Bands Scorecard
Neil Young 9.5: Neil Young and his much younger backing group, Promise of the Real, showed that May-December pairings sometimes work perfectly.
Paul McCartney: 5: Paul’s warbled, strained vocals occasionally went into focus. Mostly, they didn’t.
Neil Young 8.5: Never the chattiest of stars, Young won the audience over with his authenticity and grizzled cool.
Paul McCartney 10: He mugs. He winks. He shakes his rump. He tells funny stories. He was a Beatle, for god sakes.
Neil Young 9.5: This was the third time I’ve seen Mr. Young over the past 25 years; the third time was the charm.
Paul McCartney 6: He actually deserves a lower score, but I cannot bring myself to give him one. I have too much respect for his music and legacy.
Winner: Neil Young in a shocking upset.
Sunday, Oct. 17, 2016
The Who: At the beginning of the Who’s performance, Pete Townshend told the crowd that this Desert Trip show was the last American stop on the group’s two-year 50th Anniversary Tour. They made it special.
From the opening riffs of “I Can’t Explain” to Roger Daltrey’s iconic shriek in closer “We Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the Who came to Indio to make a statement, namely that they remain one of rock’s most enduring live acts. Townshend windmilled his way through some of Classic Rock’s most enduring hits, while Daltrey swung and caught his mic with abandon. The Who’s two remaining original members seemed thrilled to participate in such a historic event, at times vanquishing Father Time.
They tore through a thundering “Bargain” off 1971’s “Who’s Next,” with Daltrey and Townshend moving next to one another on stage to the crowd’s delight. “Join Together” sounded especially poignant in this reunion of the “Love Generation.” “You Better You Bet” from 1981’s “Face Dances” showed Daltrey in particularly good form, with the crowd gleefully singing the chorus.
Remarkably, Daltrey’s voice gained strength as the set progressed. Although the 72-year-old front man had a hard time singing the opening lines of “I Can See for Miles” and the softer parts of other songs, his explosive scream remains a force of nature. On “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” Daltrey sounded like the young man who helped make “Live at Leeds” one of rock’s top 3 live albums. Mini sets of “Quadrophenia,” including “5:15” and “Love Reign O’er Me,” and “Tommy” (“Pinball Wizard” and “See Me Feel Me”) showed why these albums are among the rock era’s best.
That’s not to suggest everything worked. The mostly pristine sound occasionally echoed and all too often buried powerful drummer Zak Starkey in the mix. Vintage videos and photos of the group that played during the Who’s performance distracted from the music, only underscoring how many years have passed since their heyday. And without Keith Moon’s frenetic drumming and John Entwistle’s rock-solid bass anchoring the songs, the Who lacked something vital.
Still, they showed a vitality, engagement and passion often MIA in recent years. Even if they didn’t scale past heights, the Who came damn close.
Roger Waters: In February 1980, I was lucky enough to see Pink Floyd’s legendary “The Wall” Tour in Los Angeles. The band played the iconic album in its entirely, with “workers” building a wall around band members until they totally disappeared from view. Pigs and airplanes flew overheads. The quadrophonic sound system and visuals dazzled. David Gilmour’s guitar solos created musical rainbows. At the end of the show, the wall was blown up, and the band appeared onstage moments later to take a bow. Fittingly, the Floyd performed no encores.
A great show, to be sure, but a bit too pristine, a bit too rehearsed, a bit too much spectacle over music.
Waters’ closing performance at Desert Trip, Weekend 2, was all that and less.
His band did an admirable job of replicating past Floyd classics such as “Breathe,” “Money” and “Us and Them,” which sounded great. However, with hired hands copying the music made indelible by the Pink Floyd lineup of bassist Waters, guitarist Gilmour, drummer Nick Mason and keyboardist Richard Wright, something was missing.
Yes, the show’s visuals amazed. Throughout, the screen flashed pulsating colors and psychedelic and distorted images that matched the songs’ messages of alienation, greed and longing. All very cool.
Yet, I feel like I had seen it all before.
In the late 1970s, teenagers like myself would drink a few beers or get high and go to the Laserium laser light show at the Griffith Observatory to see Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” translated into colorful images. It was amazing – and more than 35 years ago.
Sunday night, I felt like I had attended a more high-tech version of that show.
Yes, Waters put on an audience-pleasing performance, but it tasted like a deliciously sweet slice of nostalgia: yummy but a bit empty.
Personally, I prefer my live music raw and raunchy rather than overly manicured and overly enhanced with arresting visuals. If you prefer the later, I suggest you find an old copy of 1982’s The Wall movie, fire up the VCR and try to recapture the good old days.
Good luck with that.
Battle of the Bands Scorecard
The Who 8.5: The band played with a power and passion long missing. However, an occasionally poor mix marred the music.
Roger Waters 9.5: I have never heard an outdoor concert sound so perfect – perhaps a little too perfect.
The Who 9: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend thanked the crowd profusely for supporting the group for more than a half century. Their performance felt like a warm hug.
Roger Waters 3: The dude has a reputation as a colossal asshole. He did nothing to dispel that impression.
The Who 9: Another surprisingly strong performance. I had heard Daltrey couldn’t sing anymore. Good news: he most surely can. Great show.
Roger Waters 8: Waters offered up an aural and visual feast that entertained more inspired. Nothing wrong with that .
Winner: The Who in a TKO.
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Second runner-up: The Who
First runner up: Neil Young
Heavyweight champion: The Rolling Stones