Paul McCartney has learned a few important things about his fans, and there were more than 70,000 in front of him Saturday on the second night of the Desert Trip festival in Indio, Calif. He has come to a profound understanding of the Beatles legacy, its connection to his solo career and the emotional resonance it has continued to have for generations of listeners for more than 50 years.
Like his 2009 headlining appearance at Coachella, McCartney arrived at Desert Trip prepared to connect not only with the most hardcore who travel across state lines to see him over and again but with other fans who are deeply connected in other ways. One of night's emotional peaks came late Saturday when McCartney brought out Neil Young, returning from his own explosive performance earlier the same evening.
Their choice of material was the Lennon-McCartney classic "A Day in the Life," which later shifted into John Lennon's anthem "Give Peace a Chance." Both McCartney and Young were all smiles sharing the stage, then tore into the raw Beatles oddity "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" leaving room for Young to set his guitar aflame with a joyfully ragged solo, a searing moment likely to be remembered long after this weekend.
As on other stops on his current "One On One" tour, McCartney opened with the distinctive opening clang from "A Hard Day's Night," plucking his old Hofner bass and going back to the early days of the Beatlemania. The urgent pace and upbeat vibe set a tone for his night, and he immediately followed with "Jet," from his initial post-Beatles career when McCartney was establishing an independent voice of his own.
"I'm going to take a moment to drink this in for myself," McCartney said, walking across the stage to look out on the landscape of faces stretching to the horizon. His set was an easy mix of Beatles classics and solo songs from across the decades, performed with typical good cheer, his voice in great form. "Let Me Roll It" even eased into an instrumental wind-out on Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady."
His solo work (with and without Wings) was one of the defining sounds of the Seventies and rarely sounded like a rehash of Beatles ideas, which continues still. Among the newer songs was the quietly dramatic "My Valentine," a romantic ballad played on grand piano and dedicated to his wife Nancy. (Their anniversary, he said, was the next day.) Black and white footage of Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman staring into the camera and reciting the lyrics with sign language played on the big screen behind him. Soon after was "Maybe I'm Amazed," his first solo hit, written for his late first wife, Linda, back when the McCartney was transforming from worldwide Beatle sensation into a family man.
Before his solo acoustic reading of "Blackbird," he explained the song's inspiration: learning of the civil rights struggle ongoing in America, he wanted to write something to comfort and inspire the movement. "How many of you tried to learn to play 'Blackbird'? See? And you all got it wrong," he said teasingly.
More recent songs were few in a set loaded with hits and deep cuts that have become cultural touchstones. "We know which songs you like," McCartney said, noting how the crowd will raise cell phones and lighters in the air in response to the hits. "When we play one you don't know it's like a black hole. Here's another black hole." Even so, "Queenie Eye" was bouncy enough to get fans moving, as did "FourFiveSeconds," his 2015 collaboration with Kanye West and Rihanna.
The early solo hit "Live and Let Die" (written for the soundtrack of a James Bond film) was accompanied with a staggering eruption of flames, lasers, smoke and fireworks in the sky as McCartney stood and pounded the piano keyboard. His Beatles anthem "Hey Jude" was big in a more profound way, connecting emotionally with the crowd as few acts can. A woman near the front held up a sign: "I'm Jude." And as McCartney led fans in a massive chorus of the song, the faces of people singing filled the big screens, both in closeup and in massive landscapes of waving arms. It was a picture of humanity as hopeful and affectionate as the Beatles legacy that is stronger than ever.
Neil Young's stage set up was conceptual on an epic scale with six large Native American tepees placed the full length of the stage, and a burlap-colored backdrop labeled with the words "Seeds of Life," "Organic" and "Indio, CA." His set began with a flash of an old Indian chief TV test pattern on the big screens as two women in overalls walked the stage throwing seeds to the floor. Young then took his place behind an upright piano to play the delicate melody from 1970's "After the Gold Rush," and got cheers for an updated lyric of warning: "Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 21st Century."
There were more cheers for the song's other famous line ("There was a band playing in my head / And I felt like getting high") but Young's intentions were bigger than that, as life-long concerns with the environment and Native American issues got new attention in 2016. His recently-released Earth is a live album that mingles old and new songs of an ecology in crisis with sounds of animal wildlife, chattering and shrieking as its only audience. Last month, Young also released a song, "Indian Givers," in support of Native American protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The set eased into focus with with some of his most popular ballads, including Number One hit "Heart of Gold" and "Comes a Time," as fans sang along, followed by "Mother Earth," as Young blew harmonica while playing solemn pipe organ. The song ended with the words: "Respect Mother Earth and her healing ways / Or trade away our children's days," as three men in hazmat suits walked through to blast the stage floor with an unknown substance.
Soon, Young 's five-man band of choice, Promise of the Real, began playing his "Human Highway," their harmonies soaring, giving the ballad the communal feeling of the country hymnal "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." He followed with a quirky, noisy protest song that contemplated "terrorist suicide hang gliders" up in the sky. "I think I know who to blame / it's all those people with the funny name, moving into our neighborhood."
His mood was joyful, even as he joked of current events and political warfare, pointing to the final night of Desert Trip and a set by Roger Waters. "Come back tomorrow night. They're going to build a wall and we can make Mexico great again."
Promise of the Real includes two of Willie Nelson's sons, Lukas and Micah Nelson, a collaboration possibly rooted for Young in his annual Farm Aid concerts with Willie. It's been a lively collaboration, as the quintet brings understanding and youthful discovery to Young's music.
The central event in Young's set was an explosive "Down by the River," clocking in at over 22 minutes. Fans began singing form the opening lines, but were soon overpowered by the force of the 1969 guitar epic. Young slashed and bashed at his guitar, the sound intense and nearly out of control, stretched out as always but still noisy and unpredictable, never exactly the same way twice. Lukas Nelson took a wild careening solo, soaring and crashing. "Too much," Young said into mic, then whispered "too much."
Neil Young Set List:
"After the Gold Rush"
"Heart of Gold"
"Comes a Time"
"Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)"
"Out on the Weekend"
"Words (Between the Lines of Age)"
"Down by the River"
"Rockin' in the Free World"
Paul McCartney Set List:
"A Hard Day's Night"
"Can't Buy Me Love"
"Let Me Roll It"
"I've Got a Feeling"
"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"
"Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!"
"A Day in the Life/Give Peace a Chance" (with Neil Young)
"Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" (with Neil Young)
"Band on the Run"
"Back in the U.S.S.R."
"Let It Be"
"Live and Let Die"
"I Wanna Be Your Man"
"Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End"