Day two of Desert Trip broke cool, for a moment. By 11 o’clock it was roasting hot — literally as hot as I’ve ever been. There wasn’t much to do but find a piece of shade, soak the bandana in ice water and hang on for evening. It was worth the wait.
Tonight’s lineup was Neil Young with his new band The Promise of the Real (Willie Nelson’s sons and others) followed by Paul McCartney. When we arrived, the stage was set with giant tepees, and hung with enormous burlap feed sacks. Young entered silently and took a seat at an old upright piano and the screens showed the view from behind — Neil silouhetted against the setting sun over the mountains. He opened solo with a haunting rendition of “After the Goldrush” and the crowd was his. Remaining solo, he added “Heart of Gold” and “Comes a Time,” his iconic voice as strong and plaintive as ever. Then, stepping to an old 1920s pump organ, with the sunset now in full glory, he strapped on a harmonica and gave us “Mother Earth.” At least in our section, the crowd was transfixed by this consistent balladeer of the unheralded. Like an old preacher he reminded us of the things we say we believe but rarely if ever do anything about.
Young is a musician who has consistently brought a world view to his music. Agree or disagree, he earns unilateral respect through his consistency. Before anyone was concerned about the environment, or it became cool to raise up the less fortunate, he was there — calling out hypocrisy, illuminating the gaps, make us squirm in the proverbial pews of life. He has a way of making a point, reminding you of the point he made, punching you in the mouth with the same point and then standing over you grinding glass into to the open wound. And when he was joined by The Promise of Real, and asked for his bashed old Blacktop Les Paul, that’s exactly what he did. With volume, tone, and menacing determination, they crashed through what turned out to be a 22 minute rendition of “Down by the River” that left us all bloodied and begging for more. It was hard to imagine a more commanding performance than the Stones gave the night before, but Young and his band equaled them. The word arrived that he had “40 seconds” left in his set. But, you know, that was just the man’s clock, and Neil has never paid much attention to the man. So he set the stage on fire for another 12 solid minutes to ensure that we “[Kept] on rocking in the free world.” And we did, with great enthusiasm.
To follow such a performance would shake most musicians to the core, but Paul McCartney has been around. So he took the stage and did his thing, his way, slowly earning the audience with an honest and sometimes reverent awareness of the Beatles catalogue he knew the audience wanted. He claimed his solo artist legacy with crowd pleasing hits from Wings, and eventually exploded with newer collaborations like “four five seconds.” And then he called Neil back. Still sporting the old black Les Paul, they screamed through “A day in the Life/Give Peace a Chance” and burned eardrums with the rocker “Why Don’t we Do it in the Road” before Paul continued with firewaorks (literally) for “Band on the Run.” “Back in the USSR”, “Live and let Die”, Hey Jude” and “Helter Skelter” among others closed the show and released an exhausted but satiated audience.
While the energy grew in McCartney’s show, and he proved himself the quintesstial showman with his command of the audience, I don’t think he matched the raw, emotional power of Young. Regardless, we were treated to another amazing night of music from 70+ year old guys that proved they cana still grab 75,000 people in their hands, hold them, shake them, wring them out and set them back on their respective ways wondering how in God’s name it was done.
It’s a trip out here in the desert. A real trip.