Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones at Desert Trip, in Indio, Calif., on Friday.
On Friday, Mick Jagger was talking to 70,000 or so people assembled on the grounds of Empire Polo Club in Indio, Calif. He told them the Rolling Stones had been playing to fans for more than 50 years, and that the band did not take this loyalty for granted. "We think it's pretty amazing that you're still coming to see us," he said.
With that, the Stones grooved into the disco-era vamp of Miss You, with funky Jagger speak-singing about the anxiety of separation. "We're gonna bring a case of wine. Hey, let's go mess and fool around. You know, like we used to."
It sounded like a plan.
The Stones set was part of the inaugural Desert Trip, a three-day festival of classic rock invented by Goldenvoice, the California-based promoters responsible for the state-of-the-art Coachella festival, also held on the Polo Club site in the desert. Friday's pairing of the Stones and Bob Dylan will be followed by Saturday's double bill of Neil Young and Paul McCartney, with Sunday's finale featuring concerts by Roger Waters and The Who. The whole thing is repeated next weekend.
Rock 'n' roll was never innocent, but there was a time when it was young and beautiful. Then came hedonism, hard. Rock threw outrageous parties; it paid heavenly bills. People died. But some made it out alive, and what else is Desert Trip if not a celebration of the survivors.
First up was Dylan. It wasn't dark yet when he took the stage, but it was getting there. A montage of archival footage played on three immense screens behind the stage. Don't-look-back Dylan paid his old images no mind as his band warmed up their instruments.
He didn't once speak to the crowd. Instead he played his hits – not the Sinatra covers that have dotted his set lists lately. We know him through songs; that is the nature of our relationship; small talk is not required.
Seated at a baby grand piano, Dylan's 16-song, 80-minute presentation began with him hitting big clunky notes during Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35. He kept up the freewheelin' spirit with Don't Think Twice It's All Right and the affable boogie of Highway 61 Revisted.
His voice? A raspy, nasal and welcoming instrument, with a tubercular kind of charisma.
The rakish troubadour left his piano and took to the mic stand for the rocker High Water (For Charley Patton), and at some point his close-ups disappeared from the live feed on the jumbo screens.
But if he withdrew visually, Dylan and his well-oiled band were a sight to hear. These were professionals at work, experts at a bluesy brand of Americana music. The crowd would applaud twice as hard for the Stones, even though the Stones' ragged performance was half of Dylan's level.
The audience didn't ask for an encore, but Dylan gave them one he'd been saving up anyhow: Masters of War, a riveting protest song and scathing indictment he no longer performs regularly. The message was wasted; the words about war mongers and death merchants was still hanging in the air when the crowd used an intermission to stock up on upscale food and drink options, or maybe a Ferris wheel ride.
Desert Trip has derisively been dubbed "Oldchella" because of the (affluent) baby-boomer demographic and its Coachella affiliation. But while the two festivals share the same venue and organizers, the site set-up is radically different for each. Where Coachella (geared to millennials) involves multiple stages and no reserved seating, Desert Trip uses a pair of large temporary grandstands, with a large open space in between for more seats and sections for blanket and lawn-chair arrangements.
During the Stones' concert, Jagger couldn't resist cracking wise about the age of the Desert Trip talent. "Welcome to the Palm Springs retirement home for gentle English musicians," he quipped.
Mind you, there's nothing genteel about the kinetic Jagger, who struts, shimmies and gestures outrageously. He's a kick to watch, always has been.
The Stones predictably began with Start Me Up and ended with (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction. Treats came in the form of Ride 'Em On Down (an old Eddie Taylor number that will be part of Blue & Lonesome, an upcoming album of blues covers by the Stones) and another cover, the Beatles' Come Together, with Paul McCartney in the audience.
The Stones seemed under-rehearsed, but they have enough muscle memory to get by on staples such as It's Only Rock 'N Roll (But I Like It), a bit of seventies glam-rock. In front of pilgrims who made the trip to a mecca and an oasis in the desert to see a meeting of distinguished elders, Jagger said "Yes, I do" to a satisfying, galvanizing sound. His notion was seconded, if not seventy-thousanded.
Bob Dylan's set list:
Rainy Day Women #12 & 35
Don't Think Twice, It's All Right
Highway 61 Revisited
It's All Over Now, Baby Blue
High Water (For Charley Patton)
Simple Twist of Fate
Early Roman Kings Love Sick
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
Rolling Stones set list:
Start Me Up
You Got Me Rocking
Out of Control
Ride 'Em on Down
It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (But I Like It)
Come Together (Beatles cover)
Honky Tonk Women
Sympathy for the Devil
Jumpin' Jack Flash
You Can't Always Get What You Want
(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction