DESERT TRIP FESTIVAL – COACHELLA, CALIFORNIA
Oct. 9, 2016
Mega-Post: This may be the longest Backstage Blog ever, and for good reason. So much to discuss…
First off, I’ll give a mini-review of the festival and acts, and then follow with the in-depth version of The WHO’s show here.
DESERT TRIP as you may well know, is a new event held in the California desert (settled with thousands of houses and shopping malls, but still a desert climate.) The location is home to the famous Coachella music festival. Yet this event varies from the traditional festival formula in several ways. Two bands play each night – no one is designated as “opening act” – as all 6 performers are considered not only headliners, but world-class legends. Of course, Bob Dylan would not normally follow a megashow like Paul McCartney’s, so they juggled the lineups to make sense, and it may have been a perfect solution to the puzzle of music, staging, and egos, as you may see…
The festival grounds is huge, with various areas. Some are accessible to all and others with various levels of pay-to-go depending on your tickets. The stage is big (not quite as enormous as some in the world) and the stage video screen IS immense: It’s 250 feet (80 METERS) long, roughly 3x the size of the basic stage itself. There are also further screens set out among the audience, so that those seated far away (or in a detached beer garden) can see the show.
The sound system is a monster. I can honestly say I’ve heard thousands of live concerts and the coverage was the most pleasant, high-quality sound I’ve ever heard. Detractors who didn’t come to this show will never know this wonderful improvement. Some compared it to a massive home Hi-Fi system, but the challenges of a live PA (and towers to “repeat” the sound for back seats) are much more complex. Yet it did sound clear and full, without the boomy bass and annoying brittle highs of most PA systems you hear. All the way to the back, if you were generally in the middle of the area, the sound was ideal. Loud enough to rock, but not piercing or painful in any way.
Yet, this is the desert, and the site is a polo grounds for certain months. Nicely-groomed grass covers the site, but the dust is quite a problem. Local workers were wearing cloth bandanas over their mouths to filter out some dust. Everyone else kept hacking and coughing dirt all day long, even sneezing it out hours after leaving the venue. And the heat – the desert is hot but dry. The festival opens later, around 2pm, there are shady beer gardens and some indoor air-conditioned things to see meanwhile. The music starts closer to 7pm, after the sun sets. So – it’s an easy day; wake up late, drive in during the afternoon (those who waited got stuck in horrible jams close to showtime) and enjoy yourself waiting for two amazing performances, each full-length concerts.
Bob Dylan – started the event, and eased worries immediately. Some (such as myself) thought he would be difficult for a general audience; his shows tend to be unusual choices of music and sometimes inaudible singing. Not tonight, as he really chose a mix of the best old and new, with a GREAT band. They had a cool look, some vintage light stands throwing shadows and light, and the band dressed in upscale suits and hats. On the backing screen, vintage black-and-white films of gritty scenes enhanced the mood. Bob sang as well as one could ever expect, with clear voice and enunciation rare to his modern shows. Enjoyable and comfortable music – and likely thousands got to see the legend for the first time.
The Rolling Stones followed. As expected, a spectacle. Mick is still in fine form, sounding and moving almost as he did about 25 years ago. The band had that classic sound, and in comparison to everyone else playing, they had the most danceable fun music of the weekend. They had some “pyro” (fireworks) to make the impact bigger, but generally it was a solid music-based rock show, with lots of lights and using the wide stage. Their sloppiness was welcome, and the interplay of longtime musical friends brought many smiles. Such a bunch of welcome characters, they are.
Saturday was Day Two, with Neil Young as the first headliner. Neil started with a short acoustic set on piano and guitar, which was perfect sunset desert music. This start was possibly the most appropriate environmental match for the weather at hand, and beautiful setting for the evening. Then he ramped up the instrumentation and volume throughout. Note that he was the sole artist who worked against the the hi-tech screens; he’d covered the portion around his stage with giant vintage burlap SEED/produce bags. He also posted a few large teepees around the stage, to emphasize that we are actually on Native American lands here. Nice to see someone fight against the technological progression sometimes, and Neil set was a fan favorite – mainly due to the rocking style and the lack of polish. People were here to have fun and get (just a little) wild. Neil delivered.
Paul McCartney is certainly the most-known artist on the planet now, and his catalog of tracks is undeniable. As a solo artist alone (post Beatles) he’d rival Elton John or Rod Stewart, but when you add in those Beatles songs he wrote (and some from John and George tonight) you have a show of megasongs. Paul did try a few lesser-known tracks (welcome to Wings and PmC solo fans) and even joked that all the phones go out when he does “a black hole”! His band are always great, going on 2 decades together, and the staging brought all the video, lasers, rising stage platforms, and lights to great use. They needed none of it, with songs that well-known, but it enhanced things to the level we thought could never be matched.
The WHO you’ll read about below…
Roger Waters brought an immense spectacle. His was a sit-down even for the most part, which was good after three HOT days outside in the desert. He brought a huge band, custom videos and staging. His new female singers (from the band Lucius) were incredible. Lesser known tracks like “Fearless” and “Set The Controls For the Heart Of the Sun” were still welcomed, due to trippy videos and lighting cues. Mostly, the Floyd catalog was familiar ground to any rock fan, and Roger brought note-perfect versions of every track, quite like McCartney’s set and quite unlike The WHO and Neil Young. No surprises in the music at all – they saved it for the visual and audible. The sound towers around the area are used by all the bands, but Waters had special sound effects come from around the area, noises, voices, helicopters, etc that used the whole site. And visually he turned the stage into the famous Battersea Power Station in London (the Animals LP cover, complete with flying pig). Look for visuals online – much to see and take in. At the end, for “Run Like Hell” he pulsed a stage-wide set of arc-searchlights (nearly 30 or so) as a curtain of white light into the sky. MUCH much larger than any skyscraper has even been, this light tower made even the huge stage and grounds seem tiny, taking the show to a limit one didn’t even imagine before. Well-done, Roger…
Part two – The WHO
Rough day for the crew – load in before dawn, so short night of sleep for most of us. Things come out of their cases while Waters tests their gear onstage, then we roll up and start setting our show at 11am. We work til about 2pm testing everything as the day grows bright and hot.
Our soundman Robert Collins was testing the PA and found a previous fault none of the other bands had caught (third day of the festival!) Notified, the local crew spent the day getting it solved. Certainly, the bands before sounded great, BUT it could have been even better, so maybe next weekend those who attend will have an improved show?
As we were joking around during line-check (we test the instruments and microphones without the band around) the local video crew was filming us. They mentioned they thought The WHO crew was the coolest bunch they’d seen of all (we were the last to set up for this festival). They thought the other crews were too serious, worried, and didn’t like being filmed. Maybe it’s because we work for two great guys who don’t worry about perfection and just have a “get on with it and make do” attitude. Or maybe we’d just rather laugh than worry (we have enough worries in general, no need to spread it around.) We are generally a non-competitive bunch who help each other out all the time, something noticed by the video team.
As the day progressed, we finished setting up and covered the equipment with tents and silver “space blankets” to keep the sun off. As we left for lunch it was 106F in the shade there! Later on, someone went to check how things were progressing, and it was 116 degrees Fahrenheit onstage (43C)! Ouch… Of course, things cooled down as the evening came on.
Our pre-show slides – you’ll have seen some of them on the recent tour – were a big hit, as we gave the immobile audience (some seated for hours to hold a good place) something good to see. There are interesting historical points/photos about The WHO and a whole new set we did just for this event, pointing out the many connections (there are hundreds) between the 6 artists here at Desert Trip.
Just after sundown, the band came on and Pete started out with a jocular “Well, here the F*** we are!” followed by a country-sounding “Y’all come to see some old people dance?!” And it was off to the races… As I suspected The WHO were not shy talking about their age, and the age of the expected older audience, etc. Of course the crowd WAS a mixed bag of ages, and Pete mentioned how appreciative they were that younger people enjoy their music and come to see it. He offered that the young ones might make room for the older to have a seat, joking as nearly everyone was already standing on-purpose.
When discussing 1967 era, he mentioned their first hit, and how (for a moment) they were cool, like the Adele or Justin Bieber of their day! He also noted their Monterey Pop Fest days with that “nuisance Jimi Hendrix” coming along… very funny.
As the night settled in, the sky behind the audience turned into a lovely rose/purple and they mentioned it from the stage. Such a gorgeous sight, with palm trees silhouetted against the colored big sky. “It’s not really a desert” Pete noted “It’s just DUST” – a lot of dust. True, in this big park, surrounded by houses and golf courses.
Unexpectedly, things like “My Generation” didn’t get a huge response. Pete had started it by saying that they couldn’t even see the people in the back, it was so far away, but they hoped to reach them musically and on video. But as time went on, the performance grew more intense and even the less hit-oriented songs did quite well. A huge cheer came up when Pete mentioned Quadrophenia, which we wouldn’t expect from a general audience – there must be a lot of real WHO people here. You’d need a calculator to count the number of windmill strums tonight, but those gestures really do help bring the show out to the people.
In recent months, Pete’s been exploring a new guitar sound, adding long repeating echoes to some parts. It’s a new version of the old slap echo from the Live At Leeds days, even more extreme and ambient. He’s been trying these parts out with various songs that don’t require so much punch and crunch, and it works really well. One more reasons to see The WHO nowadays, it’s always changing and evolving, without losing the past.
The TOMMY numbers started quietly – I think as they are not announced as TOMMY that people don’t quite “get it” as they do with the announced QUAD mini-set. But Pinball Wizard always wakes them up and starts us into the end-run of BIG SONGS. Tommy‘s “Listening to You” could easily have ended the show, it was so moving and ecstatic… people were in the band’s hands fully at that point. It certainly was one of the big highlights of the whole weekend.
Love Reign was another big winner, the lights and the mood playing against a beautiful perfect half-moon directly overhead. We had a lot of musical mishaps tonight, but nothing disastrous, just the usual random acts of error. And just as many brilliant moments happened, to. Notably, for the beginning of Baba, Roger started his first vocal a bit too early, and it sounded fine, but the backing track (of Pete circa 1970) is still locked to play what it should. Knowing they were heading toward a musical collision with the tape that would sound awful, Pete instantly gestured to the band (2x!!!) before hitting his first power chords. Everyone followed his direction, the chords rang out in two full sections and then everything was back in line. I don’t think many people knew it even happened. Stopping the song would have killed the energy, but waiting after the first chords for the tape to catch up would also have been terrible-sounding; it was a perfect save.
Our crew did an exceptional job today, with the heat and long hours, difficult setups etc. Especially nice was the video crew’s work, which looked great. They had to pre-plan how this mega-screen (and the others) would work, without getting to test it all beforehand. I’m told their communications headsets and microphones didn’t work, so the guys in the front couldn’t relay messages back and forth. Definitely not good news, but no one saw any flaws out front. Knowing this, they’ll be sure it all works perfectly next weekend, and the audience next week will have an improved show to see.
I hinted last post about a new piece of equipment, and now it’s been seen clearly on these giant screens. So I will make an unofficial comment on it: When Pete sang tonight, closeups of his face on the screen showed a new microphone. It is the venerable old Shure SM58, The Who’s main vocal microphone (since the days of The Detours, over 50 years ago!) This microphone is an actual WHO edition, with logo and great colorful psychedelic graphics on the body of the microphone. Soon these will be available publicly, with some extra-special options, too. Stay tuned, as they say…
Unexpectedly, Pete did a knee slide during Won’t Get Fooled Again, but timed it to be later in the song, after Roger’s big scream. Hopefully, some people saw it, we have a photo of it from the sidestage.
Reports were that we were the loudest of festival! Not a goal, but our shows generally tend to be less-loud than some bands, a change from the olden days. Reason being, the sound has been bouncing back from the walls of indoor arenas and affecting what the band hears too much. Outside, here – that’s no problem, it all disappears away into the distance. So loud is good!
This was indeed A Big One – with reportedly 75,000 people watching. It will rival the others in size; Hyde Park, Glastonbury, Isle of Wight, etc. while still feeling different because of the other artists and the design of the place.
Everyone saw 6 great shows this weekend, each brings out a different flavor of music and thoughts of past vs. present, nostalgia good or bad. I was struck by the quality of songwriting – that’s not nostalgia, I just don’t see many young bands doing the range of these artists (beautiful trippy long instrumentals of Floyd/Waters vs their angry rock protests, or the wild power of The Who vs beautiful involved pieces like The Rock). These bands are world-changing for a reason. They ALL work had, even today, to please and reach an audience, despite having earned a rest. No doubt there was ego involved, there has been competition between bands as long as they’ve all lived. But they all succeed in different ways. The Stones had the party crowd, Dylan had somber reflection, Neil had boisterous energy and gritty earthy reality, McCartney the ultimate songs played well plus staging, The WHO a wide range of beauty and power coming from raw performance – not lasers and tricks, Waters with pointed exact sonic copies, political commentary, ultra-mega-staging, and yet with emotion.
Fans of The WHO will no doubt have aligned with the human performance and earnestness that this band always brings. We love their take on ageism vs youth, showing it just does not matter how old you are, if you’re not dressing to look young, or pretending your hair to be what it’s not. Reality is as powerful as any prop or explosion – maybe moreso – and harder to write off.