The week in between Festival of Disruption (Saturday-Sunday) and Desert Trip (the following Friday-Sunday) we did a whole bunch of touristy things in L.A all leading up to the grand finale. Each day was something special and new, and while at the time we were totally immersed in whatever we were doing (e.g Amoeba Music for the umpteenth time), it was no secret that some strangely colourful, yet equally hidden pocket of our brains had dedicated itself and was preparing for Desert Trip. Before we had witnessed it, the size and scope of the event was unfathomable, even one of the two acts per night would have been incredible. For perspective, I had seen Neil Young twice before, but the anticipation was such that I might as well have never seen a concert in my life. Just to confirm, the line up was this:
Friday – Bob Dylan – Rolling Stones
Saturday – Neil Young – Paul McCartney
Sunday – The Who – Roger Waters
Friday the 14th of October arrived, and we were awake early enough to arrive at the Greyhound station in Downtown L.A by 7.30am for our bus at 8am, scheduled to arrive in the Palm Desert at 11.30. This doesn’t seem too bad, I thought, Greyhounds were supposed to be bottom of the barrel. We loaded on the bus and it wasn’t until a large bunch of older ladies got on and had to sit in the aisle on top of their luggage that I had the “ahh” moment. Our second experience with Greyhound would be on the way back to L.A the next Monday when the bus simply didn’t show up. Luckily that time we had a flag-draped Australian couple to keep us entertained. Arriving in Palm Desert we didn’t have any time to waste as we couldn’t check in to our accommodation until 2pm, which might give us an hour to sit down and relax for a bit before we had to leave for the gig (allowing plenty of time , scarred by Coachella horror stories) which started at 6.30 so we wanted to be an hour early at least, accounting for Woodstock-level traffic jams.
By the way, the Desert isn’t just called that because it’s hot and dusty, it’s a literal desert with some houses and a wal-mart plopped in the middle. A bird’s eye would show a green grassed backyard, a thin concrete wall, then sand for miles. Quite striking visually for a Kiwi. So when we arrived at 11.30 with all of our 30 or so kilos each of luggage, in 30C+ heat, we didn’t have many options. We decided we’d go to a shopping centre and sit in the foodcourt for an hour or something, at least it’ll be air-conditioned. Apparently in America there is a major difference between ‘shopping centre’ and ‘mall’ as our Uber driver didn’t feel comfortable leaving us on our own at the outdoor shopping centre which had only a few fast food places, and some furniture stores. He convinced us to stay at his house, unsupervised, while he finished his shift as it was much closer to our accommodation than either the mall or the shopping centre. We stayed at Joe’s for about an hour with his dogs, watching Key and Peele, at which point it was about 1pm. So we went to the McDonald’s inside the Wal-mart (‘Murica!) and then went on to our accommodation.
Arriving at Desert Trip was a trip in itself. The largest gathering I’d ever been to would have been either AC/DC or Eminem, both at Western Springs with around 60,000 people. In my own neighbourhood that was impressive, and ‘new’, enough. In the middle of California, with an extra 30,000 or so people was something else. Everything flowed really well, not like the Big Day Outs in Auckland of days’ past. To get in there were never any lines longer than 10 or so people, and even then security was a breeze. The scale of the venue was monstrous, and to use the term ‘fine-oiled machine’ is a pretty huge cliche, but that’s what it was. The planning and care gone in to the event was palpable – yes its goal was to make a profit, and they would have done so even if all the performers just stood on a box in the field and played – but it felt very special, curated just for you.
Taking our spot 3 heads from rail separating performer and attendee, Bob Dylan took the stage not long after, in a black blazer, shirtless otherwise. I honestly never thought I’d ever see Bob Dylan’s nipples, much less in the flesh, but I did. Dylan, as he often is, was the dark horse of Desert Trip, in that people weren’t sure if he was just going to get up and play Sinatra covers all night, although we knew he wasn’t going to treat us to a greatest hits set. Any fears were alleviated when he tore through his first few numbers, ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’, and ‘Highway 61 Revisited’. He started his encore with ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, another Dylan-related thing I thought I’d never see. It feels like a disclaimer now, that there are going to be at least a few people walking away from a Dylan gig slightly disappointed, but if that’s still the case then it’s your problem for being 25 years late. He hasn’t pandered to an audience in decades, arguably ever, I don’t know why anyone expects he’d start now. To be honest, I’d have been slightly disappointed if the set list didn’t contain any songs I was familiar with, but that’s still not his problem, and I still would have (and did) enjoy songs and/or arrangements I didn’t know. Dylan ruled with a smoky enigma, but the spectacle that was the Rolling Stones, complimented his subdued set in the most awesome display of yin/yang.
Two 10/10 acts in the same night. Less than an hour change-over, even. We love Dylan, everyone loves Dylan but I was extremely intrigued as to how the Stones’ set would pan out. They have the hits that are always going to go off – ‘Start Me Up’, ‘Satisfaction’, ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, to name but a few – but I’ve always been more or less content with the ‘hits’, never delving much further. From the second they hit the stage and the first chords of Jumpin’ Jack Flash rang out, I simply didn’t care. Even songs I hadn’t heard before I was catching on to and belting out the last choruses like they were the songs that shaped me. Keef and Ronnie jamming acoustic together on ‘You Got The Silver’ was something I won’t ever forget. We were close enough to see the hairs on their arms, lines on their faces, and I remember thinking that they actually look older in the photos and videos than they do in real life. We met a guy we aptly nicknamed “Michael Shannon’s Dad” who claimed it was his 51st Stones show. During ‘Miss You’ he made a note of bending down and checking all the immediate people around us to see if we were “Ooh Ooh OOH Ooh Ooh Ooh Ooh-ing” properly to the chorus, giving thumbs up in approval or a shaky palm if you needed to improve. Some guy caught Ronnie’s guitar pick and literally screamed for the rest of the gig. The passion was awesome and contagious, no one in the ‘elite’ $1600 pit was a ‘casual’ fan – unless they were very rich, which, ok there were probably a few of those people too.
The gigs ended around 12.30am, we got on to our pre-paid shuttle and were home around 3.30 – a trip that on the way there took 20 minutes. We got frustrated with how long it was taking and how many stops there were so we decided just to get off and get a Lyft the rest of the way, which was lucky because we were actually on the wrong bus. The shuttles were the only glaringly obvious inconsistency in how smooth everything else was running, we had plans and ideas in place for the next night to combat both foot and vehicle traffic on the way out. Collapsing in to bed, my head filled with visions of Richards, Dylan, Jagger – music’s equivalents of Windsors, or Obamas, names synonymous with power and the elite – I could only imagine what it would be like to see a Beatle in less than 24 hours.