Dispatches from the Dust – Desert Trip 2016 (Day 2)
If you followed online reports from Desert Trip, you’ve almost certainly seen a million cell phone photos of the gigantic harvest moon rising over the mountains behind the stage during the second weekend. This was one of those singular moments that was so freakin’ perfect that it seemed surreal.
And it couldn’t have happened at a better time.
We’ve got Mother Nature on the run in the 21st century…
Neil Young opened day 2 surrounded by teepees and screen imagery that underlined the environmentalist ethos he’s carried since the ‘60s. He came out alone and sat at the piano for an absolutely gorgeous rendition of “After the Gold Rush”; his voice clear and beautiful. Young’s voice has always found power in its fragility. He’s an extraordinarily gifted singer whose honesty is apparent in every note. This is no showbiz character – this is a vital creative force.
By the time he was halfway through “Heart of Gold” (the second song of his set), he had already eclipsed anything that happened the night before. He effortlessly moved from piano to acoustic guitar to pump organ in a solo performance that would have ranked among the best of Desert Trip even if he had left the stage after the first five songs. When Neil played “Harvest Moon” under an actual harvest moon? Forget it. It destroyed me.
Neil Young has often gravitated to younger, established groups rather than assemblies of random players and it’s a savvy plan. For Desert Trip, he brought out Promise of the Real – a California-based rock band led by Lukas Nelson (Willie’s son) on guitar. This turned out to be a brilliant combination. The fire these guys brought to the electric portion of Young’s set pushed it into truly visceral rock ‘n’ roll. There’s a raw, almost punk-like attitude in the best of Neil’s electric material and it made for the most satisfying performance of the weekend. Neil Young wasn’t serving up product or pointless nostalgia. He was in the moment throughout the set. On fire, even.
The set hit its zenith during a nearly 20-minute version of “Cowgirl in the Sand” – which had Neil and Lukas digging into their guitars with absolute abandon; the song’s Aminor-to-F chord sequence crashing across the desert with such heaviness that it told the whole story of grunge and metal within two simple chords.
It’s telling that my co-workers – one of whom had never heard a single note of Neil Young’s music until he started playing “After the Gold Rush” right in front of her – were more impressed with Neil than any other single performer of the weekend. It also makes sense. He’s never been a backward-looking artist – hell, the guy even released an electronica album in 1982. Young’s set would have gone down just as well at Lollapalooza, Coachella or Glastonbury. He proved the timelessness of genuine rock music and left his contemporaries in the dust of the California desert.
Highlights: “Cowgirl in the Sand”, “After the Gold Rush”, every single other song
The night was falling as the desert world began to settle down…
After such an amazing set from Neil Young, Paul McCartney had a huge mountain to climb to avoid seeming anticlimactic. Fortunately for Paul, he’s got the entire Beatles catalog to act as his Sherpa.
He hits the stage with “A Hard Day’s Night” and the place goes absolutely mental. Strangers are hugging, adults are crying like they’re 12-year-olds at an Ed Sullivan taping.
With his longtime band of Rusty Anderson, Brian Ray, Abraham Laboriel and Paul Wickens, McCartney had the most finely-honed rock group of the entire festival. They attack these songs with the same sort of joy the audience is feeling and it’s impossible to not get caught up in the excitement.
Beatles songs are the sacred scrolls of the rock ‘n’ roll mythos and seeing an actual Beatle singing actual Beatles songs right in front of you is undeniably intoxicating. Paul has been doing essentially the same set for a couple years now, but it’s a damn good one and in the Desert Trip environment it’s received like a sacrament. The only misstep was the visuals during “Jet” – actual jets flying around onscreen spelling out “jet” with their contrails. It was corny as hell and showed a real lack of imagination on the part of his a/v crew.
The long set covered an enormous range of styles and underlined that McCartney is the most naturally gifted of the Beatles. He was also the only performer of the festival to bring out guests and cross-collaborate with other artists on the bill. Rihanna was a surprise guest during “FourFiveSeconds”; duetting with Paul as he sang the Kanye West parts (weird to hear McCartney sing, “If I go to jail tonight…”). She sang well and seemed genuinely blown away to be there. It turned out to be one of the better moments of the set.
But one of the defining images of the entire festival has to be Paul McCartney and Neil Young embracing after Neil ripped through three Beatles jams with the band – his Les Paul down to two strings by the end of the set. That one moment embodied what a lot of people came to this gig to see.
Highlights: “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, “A Day in the Life”
Overall, day two of Desert Trip delivered the absolute best of classic rock ‘n’ roll and was the strongest single day of the festival.
Day 2 setlists:
After the Gold Rush
Heart of Gold
Long May You Run
Out on the Weekend
Comes a Time
Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders
Cowgirl in the Sand
Like a Hurricane
Rockin’ in the Free World
A Hard Day’s Night
Got to Get You Into My Life
Let Me Roll It
I’ve Got a Feeling
Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five
Maybe I’m Amazed
We Can Work It Out
In Spite of All the Danger
I’ve Just Seem a Face
Love Me Do
And I Love Her
Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite
A Day in the Life
Give Peace a Chance
Why Don’t We Do It in the Road/
Band on the Run
Back in the U.S.S.R.
Let It Be
Live and Let Die
Rip It Up
Carry That Weight