Photos: Desert Trip Kicks Off With Bob Dylan And The Rolling Stones
I've been a Bob Dylan fanatic since I was 14, but even I had trepidations about his opening set at the three-day Desert Trip festival (endearingly called "Oldchella" by millennials and boomers alike).
His once-mighty voice has been reduced to a gravelly murmur, and the mode he works in now is less the fiery maverick and more a legend coming to terms with his mortality. It's an act of defiance against the sands of time that his touring schedule since the late 80s has been nicknamed the Never Ending Tour.
Dylan's act now is a far cry from his goes-electric shows with the Hawks ("Play fuckin' loud!") or the carnival of the Rolling Thunder Revue, and he's adapted his extensive songbook to fit his scraggly crooner voice now. Shows over the past decade have drawn mixed reactions from audiences—a fellow fanatic said the show he attended two years ago in Europe was the worst concert he'd ever seen—so naturally I was cautious. How would he fare in front of a crowd of thousands, opening for the Rolling Stones?
Opening with "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" was a strong choice (it's my least-favorite Dylan song, but that's a discussion for another day), the hook of "everybody must get stoned!" instantly drew in the crowd. After that, Dylan and his band dove straight into a setlist of favorites from his catalog, including "Highway 61 Revisited" and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." The way Dylan sings now—with a gentle swing—lends a new, mature dimension to songs he wrote when he was, frankly, quite a bastard of a personality. "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" is less a nasty kiss off and more introspective and reflective. "Tangled Up in Blue" was also now a light, jaunty tune, as if the memories sung about in the song stung less than they did 40 years ago.
One aspect of Dylan that still hasn't changed after all these decades, though, is his resistance to letting us see the real Robert Zimmerman underneath "Bob Dylan." Dylan never once interacted with the crowd during his 90-minute set, and sat mostly behind a piano. After six songs, the giant video screens stopped showing him onstage and focused entirely on a video montage of vintage black & white stock footage. It was a strange and alienating choice, and one that was likely intentional.
Dylan began losing some of the crowd as he dove into deeper, more recent cuts like "Early Roman Kings," "Lonesome Day Blues," and "Make You Feel My Love." Boomers began making their way back to the food and drink vendors to pre-party for the Rolling Stones. But 60s favorites like "Desolation Row," "Ballad of a Thin Man," and closing out with "Masters of War" for the lone encore brought some back in. Even at 75, he still sings "And I hope that you die / And your death'll come soon" with all the venom in the world.
It was an odd choice to have the Rolling Stones play Friday night of Desert Trip, putting the most crowd-pleasing, energetic act into the first night. But hey, who's complaining? At the very least, it served to shoot down all the jabs that many have made about "Oldchella."
"I'm not going to make any age jokes," said Mick Jagger during their set. "But welcome to the Palm Springs Retirement Home for Genteel Musicians."
Strangely, the Stones seemed to follow in Dylan's footsteps for the early portion of their set. The first five songs consisted of material from albums after 1981 (opening with Tattoo You's "Start Me Up"), including a blues cover from their forthcoming album, that was mostly lost on this millennial's ears. (They played two songs from Steel Wheels on Friday night. Two!)
But once those were out of the way, they dove into the typical retrospective of their golden age hits: "Wild Horses," "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (But I Like It)," "Honky Tonk Women," and, the favorite of this writer, "Tumbling Dice." In a semi-nod to one of Saturday's performers, they even did a solid Beatles cover ("Come Together"):
At this point, Jagger and Keith Richards are no longer the contraband goods they once were, but have aged quite nicely into being the consummate entertainers. Jagger certainly still has the onstage charisma and slinky moves that made him the sex icon, getting mileage out of prancing on the catwalk that was certainly built just for him. Richards' blooze-riffs still cut deep, especially on their sinister tunes like "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Midnight Rambler." A little late energy was injected into the night when "Jumping Jack Flash" came accompanied by a fireworks show.
Before closing the night out with "Satisfaction," as they always do, Mick and Keef brought out the USC Thornton Chamber Singers for "You Can't Always Get What You Want," a graceful song to go out into the night before one last return to their firebrand days. Perhaps a fitting metaphor for Desert Trip, where thousands of boomers re-live the golden age of rock and roll before it's too late to do so.
Desert Trip continues Saturday, with Neil Young & Promise of the Real and Paul McCartney.