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Music

Classic rock veterans — and a clearly defined concept — help distinguish inaugural Desert Trip festival

Most modern music festivals provide content without context.

You show up at an annual mega-event like Southern California’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival or Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tenn., and you’re overwhelmed with options — pop stars, rock reunions, next big things from the Internet — but left on your own to figure out what, if anything, unites them.

Not so at Desert Trip, the classic-rock fest that debuted over the weekend at Indio’s Empire Polo Club (where Coachella also takes place) and is scheduled to repeat starting Friday.

Sure, this three-day concert was still designed to wow with a splashy lineup that included Paul McCartney, Roger Waters and the Rolling Stones, each a headlining festival act on its own. But nobody in the crowd of 75,000 struggled to suss the connections among the half-dozen rock veterans on the bill, which also included Neil Young, Bob Dylan and the Who.

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And that meant the performers here, unlike at most festivals, were confronting the same questions: How best to handle growing old? Must a once-rebellious figure continue to agitate? And what to do about the expectations of a long-established audience? Their answers varied, but they all were part of a single larger story.

Another thing nobody struggled to find at Desert Trip was a flushable toilet.

Though Coachella has offered increasing creature comforts over the years, Goldenvoice — the powerful Los Angeles-based firm that puts on both shows — significantly upped its game here, with reserved seats, higher-end food and drink, even a number of luxury suites that topped the grandstands jutting out from either side of the massive stage. (No joke about the plentiful bathrooms either, some of which featured individual stalls complete with wainscoting.)

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There was also an air-conditioned tent housing a display of vintage photographs of the event’s headliners — a far cry from the often-inscrutable art installations that dot the polo field during Coachella.

But all the amenities were just bait to help attract a noticeably older, presumably deeper-pocketed clientele eager to see their favorite artists without suffering the indignities of a typical music festival.

The Rolling Stones perform at Desert Trip. (Video courtesy of the Rolling Stones)

Indeed, with only two acts a night (compared to the dozens that perform each day at Coachella), Desert Trip allowed you to focus on the music in a way that can be difficult in environments where so much is competing for your attention.

That was crucial for Dylan, who opened the festival Friday evening with a gorgeous but hard-nosed set in which he seemed to laugh at mortality even as he conceded the world was in shambles.

Backed by his sturdy road band, which added fine-grain detail to everything he played, Dylan began the set with a handful of ’60s hits, including “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”; the former inspired the crowd, filled with baby boomers, to sing along with the willfully ambiguous chorus that goes, “Everybody must get stoned.”

Before long, though, Dylan had left the yearning classics behind for darker, more recent material like “Early Roman Kings” and the downright gruesome “Pay in Blood,” which straightforwardly threatens, “I could stone you to death for the wrongs that you’ve done.”

Desert Trip baby boomer talks about the changes in the concert scene.
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If you’d come to Desert Trip for easy nostalgia, Dylan seemed to be growling, you’d made a serious miscalculation.

Or maybe you’d just shown up a few hours too early. Following Dylan on Friday, the Rolling Stones were happy to oblige fans’ desire to hear all the old stuff: “Brown Sugar,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Miss You,” even “Mixed Emotions,” a hit from the late ’80s that Mick Jagger said the band hadn’t played in years. In a nod to Desert Trip’s lineup, the Stones also covered “Come Together” by the Beatles.

Yet whatever they were playing, Jagger’s energy — and the constantly interweaving guitars of Keith Richards and Ron Wood — made the group sound current, as though they’d just written these tunes and couldn’t wait to show them off in all their rhythmic, riff-crazed glory.

For the Stones, aging wasn’t a joke so much as something to be cheerfully ignored.

Neil Young performs at the Desert Trip. (Video courtesy of Neil Young)

Playing first on Saturday, Young faced up to the idea right off the bat in a plaintive solo-acoustic rendition of “Heart of Gold,” rhyming the song’s title with “I’m getting old.”

And nothing about his proudly rootsy set — for which he was backed by Promise of the Real, a sturdy country-rock band featuring two of Willie Nelson’s sons — reflected a concession to (or much of an interest in) modern times.

If anything, Young was rejecting a changing world in ecologically minded songs like “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)” and “Seed Justice.” 

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Then again, Young’s engagement on an important issue made him an up-to-date outlier at Desert Trip — at least before the Who’s and Waters’ performances, both scheduled to take place Sunday after the deadline for this article.

“You heard it here first: Donald Trump’s new campaign song,” Young said bitterly after a blistering “Welfare Mothers,” and the cheer from the crowd made you wonder why more of these once-outspoken rockers didn’t comment from the stage on what was a truly remarkable weekend in American politics.

Paul McCartney performs at Desert Trip. (Video courtesy of Paul McCartney)

Closing Saturday night’s show, McCartney stepped in that direction by having one of his band members wave a rainbow flag at the end of his set. Mostly, though, the former Beatle was providing the kind of inoffensive good vibes that have made him perhaps rock’s cuddliest superstar over the last half-century.

With songs from the very early ’60s up to last year (in the form of “FourFiveSeconds,” his left-field collaboration with Rihanna and Kanye West), McCartney’s assured performance made you reflect on how many social, cultural and political changes his career has withstood.

But even more than that, it reminded you of how cute he can be when he tilts his head just so and waves — something the tens of thousands at Desert Trip could understand without even having to try.

mikael.wood@latimes.com

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