The first historic all-star collaboration of Desert Trip (the Southern California classic rock festival cheekily dubbed “Oldchella”) took place on day two, Saturday, when Paul McCartney and “really good friend” Neil Young joined forces during McCartney’s headlining set. The legends’ epic, seven-minute medley of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” (with Young’s distinctively trebly vocals adding another layer of melancholy to the Sgt. Pepper ballad) and the Plastic Ono Band’s “Give Peace a Chance” was actually a reprise of a duet they performed at London’s Hyde Park back in 2009. However, what followed — a rawkin’, ramshackle take on the White Album jam “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” featuring a blistering, seemingly totally spontaneous guitar solo by Young — was a concert first.
Later in the evening, McCartney gave a nod to another Desert Trip performer, Friday headliners the Rolling Stones. The night before, the Stones had surprised audience members — among them McCartney himself — with a cover of the Beatles’ “Come Together.” So McCartney returned the favor Saturday by performing the Stones’ early hit single, “I Wanna Be Your Man” — a song actually written by McCartney and John Lennon in 1963.
McCartney was in a nostalgic mood on Saturday, going way back to play “In Spite of All the Danger,” the Beatles’ first demo recorded in 1958 (under the name the Quarrymen) for five pounds. He also reflected with a series of dedications to the many loved ones he’s lost over the years: “Maybe I’m Amazed” for his first wife, Linda McCartney; “Love Me Do” for Beatles producer George Martin, who died this year; “Here Today” for John Lennon, who would have turned 76 on Sunday; and a ukulele rendition of George Harrison’s “Something.” The latter ran into some technical difficulties when McCartney’s uke went out of tune, but fortunately, a roadie had a backup ukulele at the ready. “At least you know we’re really playing live!” McCartney chuckled, swapping instruments and starting the song over.
McCartney — a festival pro at this point, having headlined Coachella (held on the same Empire Polo Field grounds in Indio as Desert Trip), Bonnaroo, Firefly, Summerfest, and Glastonbury — kept the oldies coming. But he did sneak in a few new tunes, including a solo version of his 2015 single with Rihanna and Kanye West, “FourFiveSeconds,” and another sentimental dedication, of 2012’s “My Valentine,” to his current wife Nancy Shevell, with whom he’s celebrating his fifth wedding anniversary on Sunday. However, he was well aware that most spectators came for the classics, jokingly introducing 2013’s “Queenie Eye” with: “We know what songs you like hearing, because when we play the old Beatles songs, your phones light up. It’s like a galaxy of stars. But when we play the ones that you don’t really know, it’s like a black hole. So… here’s another black hole!”
McCartney’s concert was a crowd-pleaser from start to finish, but the real revelation of Saturday was the aforementioned Neil Young, who stunningly began his nearly two-hour set with stark, solo acoustic renditions of “After the Gold Rush” and “Heart of Gold.” The “youngster” of the Desert Trip lineup, at age 70, Young was then joined by backing band Promise of the Real, featuring Willie Nelson’s twentysomething sons Lukas and Micah. And the Nelsons matched their energetic, ageless mentor note for note and lick for lick. (“I’ve got a great band. They have no fear. Zero fear,” Young excitedly told Yahoo Music earlier this year. “This band is all great. They’re so tasteful, and they rock so hard, and they’re so good at what they do. And they know over a hundred of my songs!”) Young and POTR were fiery and furious and totally in the zone, be it on classics like “Human Highway” and “Powderfinger,” a 15-minute version of “Down by the River,” or four few brand-new tunes with the tentative titles “Hang Gliders,” “Texas Rangers,” “Peace Trail,” and “Show Me.”
McCartney avoided any political statements during his Desert Trip set (unless you count “Give Peace a Chance,” an acoustic performance of the Civil Rights Movement-inspired ballad “Blackbird,” or a processional of U.S., California, and rainbow flags right before his encore). But Young wasn’t quite so reticent — despite warning everyone, “You can’t be too serious at an event like this, you know!” A longtime environmental advocate, Young took the stage (which was decorated with Native American carvings and tee-pees) in a “Water Is Life” T-shirt, while women dressed as farmers scattered seeds and tended to plants. Later, he elicited major applause when he dedicated “Welfare Mothers” to Donald Trump and belted the line “When the women of the world are free to stand up for themselves!” during the new song “Show Me.” Another new song, “Hang Gliders,” referring to terrorist secret hang gliders, featured the lyrics: “I think I know who to blame/All those people with funny names/Moving into our neighborhood/I can’t tell if they’re bad or good.”
However, Young received the strongest response when he quipped, “Tomorrow night, come back, because Roger [Waters] is gonna build a wall and make Mexico great again!”
Desert Trip weekend one kicked off Friday with Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, and will wrap up Sunday with Roger Waters and the Who. While it remains to be seen if a Waters/Who collaboration (perhaps a Wall/Tommy mashup?) will take place Sunday, it has already been revealed that Waters will be joined onstage by Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe of the Brooklyn indie-pop band Lucius.
Neil Young’s setlist: “After the Gold Rush” / “Heart of Gold” / “Comes a Time” / “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)” / “Out on the Weekend” / “Human Highway” / “Hang Gliders” / “Show Me” / “Harvest Moon” / “Words (Between the Lines of Age)” / “Walk On” / “Texas Rangers” / “Powderfinger” / “Down by the River” / “Seed Justice” / “Peace Trail” / “Welfare Mothers” / “Rockin’ in the Free World”
Paul McCartney’s setlist: “A Hard Day’s Night” / “Jet” / “Can’t Buy Me Love” / “Letting Go” / “Day Tripper” / “Let Me Roll It” / “I’ve Got a Feeling” / “My Valentine” / “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five” / “Maybe I’m Amazed” / “We Can Work It Out” / “In Spite of All the Danger” / “I’ve Just Seen a Face” / “Love Me Do” / “And I Love Her” / “Blackbird” / “Here Today” / “Queenie Eye” / “Lady Madonna” / “FourFiveSeconds” / “Eleanor Rigby” / “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?” / “Something” / “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” / “Band on the Run” / “Back in the U.S.S.R.” / “Let It Be” / “Live and Let Die” / “Hey Jude” / “I Wanna Be Your Man” / “Helter Skelter” / “Golden Slumbers” / “Carry That Weight” / “The End”