“Tonight we’re not going to do any age jokes,” Mick Jagger said as he walked onto the Desert Trip stage alongside his Rolling Stones bandmates. “But welcome to the Palm Spring retirement home for genteel English musicians.”
The legendary rockers were bringing a showstopping end to the first night of the Desert Trip festival, which has taken place this week in California, organised by the same team behind Coachella. Bob Dylan played before the Stones, and over the next two nights Paul McCartney, Neil Young, The Who and Roger Waters would all also perform.
Dubbed “Oldchella”, it is almost definitely the last chance to see some of the most significant and defining artists of the last five decades, the Desert Trip offered a remedy to the rough year for deaths in the arts that 2016 has inflicted, which has undoubtedly led to serious thinking about musical mortality.
After the year had already started off on a bad foot with Motorhead’s Lemmy passing away at the end of 2015, in early January, David Bowie’s death caused the world to grind to a standstill. Since then, news of cultural and much loved icons passing away have kept on coming. Prince, Glenn Frey, Alan Rickman, and Phife Dawg just some of the more notable names that have reminded us of how temporary life can be.
Icons who we have all grown up watching and listening to, can’t and won’t last forever. So with that in mind it is easy to understand why an event such as Desert Trip, featuring a stable of 60’s music legends all in one place, appealed to so many. It offered a chance to see the undisputed greats of the last five decades across one extravagant event, the likes of which will probably never be seen again.
It’s fair to say that the founder and producer of the Coachella and Desert Trip festivals, Paul Tollett, has had a fair old year. Already responsible for reuniting the classic Guns N’ Roses line-up at this year’s Coachella festival, Tollet wasn’t done with just yet.
The idea first came to him in May last year, but it wasn’t until he had watched each respective act live again that it really started to gain momentum in his mind. What if he could put together the greatest rock and roll line-up ever assembled and combine it with a festival experience like no other?
Joining The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Neil Young, the Who and Roger Waters together to do this became closer to reality when Tollet actually gained a permit for two weekends at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California.
Convinced that these six pioneering and legendary acts had the capabilities and followings in order to attract an audience demographic unlike anything witnessed before, the job then became about locking down the artists. With a rumoured talent and production budget of around $100M- the financial aspects of it were already extraordinary.
“I was in slow talks with each of the six,” Tollet explained to Billboard. “Once the specific concept was confirmed, I sent a financial offer out with a short window to accept.”
He billed it as one of the greatest shows of all time and after some initial trepidation from the artists involved all six of his targets signed on.
“A couple of them asked, ‘What are you going to do if we don’t do it?’ [I said] ‘If we don’t get these six, we’re not going to do the show.’”
Over the years, Coachella has become the prominent festival on the American music calendar. A success story that has made eye-wateringly high amounts of money in all of its recent showings. Just take last year for example, when it raked in over $84M in profit. Or in 2014, when it made $78M.
Latching onto the festival’s mass appeal and popularity, promoter Goldenvoice noticed a glaring gap in the market though which wasn’t being attended to. While festivals nowadays are catering to the youth of the day, there were none that were being constructed around the tastes of older generations, like the baby boomers. Yet this was essentially an untapped market full of disposable incomes, who were willing to spend a bit more money if what was on offer was deemed as worth it. Add to that the context in which so many musical greats have passed away, the timing couldn’t have been better.
The three day event spanning across the weekend promised to fix this, with a festival which offered not only great music but also the chance of recapturing youth. The Desert Trip was rooted firmly in nostalgia, but it needed to offer more than just that if it was to be classed as a success.
When news broke of its happening in early May, the fan response was unequivocal. Tickets for the first weekend sold out in just three hours. While amongst the mad scramble, it was decided by Goldenvoice that they would do a second weekend which they had initially remained silent about when tickets first went on sale.
“We were on the fence about a second weekend right up until the day we announced and saw the reaction,” Tollet said. “It generated four times the traffic of a typical Coachella announcement.”
The sense of being there at a significant cultural moment in music history weighed heavily as a drawcard for people who dashed to buy tickets.
“The audience is going to feel real special about being able to see all of this at once. It’s a celebration,” Neil Young declared.
Meanwhile, Gary Bongiovanni of Pollster magazine described it as a game-changing approach to festival creating.
“The event is expanding the boundaries of what a concert can be. This is a new concept and is aimed at a much different audience,” he said.
Alongside the two concerts performed each evening, there was also a wealth of other activities to do within the festival grounds. It appealed purposely to a mass selection of people looking for something more than just camping in mud and listening to music all day.
Clearly catering to an older and more comfort-driven audience, a “culinary experience” was offered with 40 of the country’s best chefs descending into Indio, California to serve up cooking classes as well as food. Luxurious RV camping packages were available as opposed to the old trusty tent. While there were free shuttle rides to the grocery stores nearby, before an afternoon of pampering at the “Beauty Bar” or a browse around arts and crafts stalls beckoned. More than just a music show, Desert Trip was packaged as a sort of all-inclusive weekend vacation. However, despite having so much variables to offer, the festival would have failed without the strength of its line-up.
“All the bands you’re seeing here have been playing music for 50 years or more,” Jagger told the crowd during last Friday’s set. “We think it’s pretty amazing you still want to see us, so thank you.”
The fact that all six acts are still highly regarded after such a long time in the industry is testament to not only their enduring appeal but also their talent. It comes as no real surprise that so many people still want to watch Jagger theatrically bounce around the stage like he’s still in his 20’s. Or Bob Dylan while he refuses to let his face be put up on the big screens as he strums through Like A Rolling Stone, one of the many songs which have just earned him a Nobel Prize in Literature.
At a time where many are mourning the loss of Bowie, Prince and others, this festival catered to an audience who not only wanted to take a journey back in time, but a chance to see artists who, quite seriously, may not all be around for decades to come. It acts as a reminder of the fragility of human existence but while also being a joyful celebration of the past and present.