It was an ill-timed “woo!” to say the least.
It came during Paul McCartney’s intro to “Blackbird,” as he was explaining how the Civil Rights movement inspired him to write the song. African-Americans in the American South were “having a hard time with civil rights,” and…
I’m not sure whether the cheer was supposed to be for civil rights or if the guy who let it rip just figured out at that point that he was about to hear “Blackbird,” but it felt racist at worst (was it supposed to mean “woo, African-Americans having a hard time”?) and deeply insensitive at best (the same guy yelled out “Roll tide!” when McCartney included Alabama in the list of Southern states he rattled off whose racism inspired the song).
It was a reminder that Desert Trip’s audience consists largely of white Baby Boomers with the means to pay anywhere from $699 to $1599 for a seat at the festival (or in some cases, upwards of $3,000 for a VIP package). When Neil Young cracked a few Trump jokes (“Come back tomorrow, Roger [Waters] is gonna build a Wall and make Mexico great again,” and later describing “Welfare Mothers” as “Trump’s new campaign song”), they got laughs, but you still had to wonder how many Trump supporters there were in the crowd.
We live in bizarre times—a real dumpster fire of a year in which black people have repeatedly gotten executed in the street by police officers for simply being black and a racist, misogynistic reality star who lies constantly and blatantly and who was caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women while married to his third wife is the presidential nominee for a party that claims to be about “family values.”
And so it’s hard to watch Neil Young perform his new songs (“Hang Gliders,” “Texas Rangers,” “Show Me” and “Peace Trail,” so new that they all were debuted just a little over a week ago at Telluride), which are political and speak to the times, without wondering why the issues he’s singing about—in some cases, issues he’s been singing about for decades—still exist. Do the Boomers who cheer and pump their fists during these new tracks feel any twinges of guilt for their generation’s role in our current affairs? How is it possible for them to hear Young change “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s” to “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 21st Century” during “After the Gold Rush” and think anything other than “damn, what have we been DOING?”
They cheered when Young sang “when the women of the world are free to stand up for themselves” on “Show Me,” and when he later joined McCartney for “Give Peace a Chance,” they happily sang along, so…how did we get here? It’s easy to cast sweeping judgments on an entire age group (and as someone who might actually projectile vomit if she reads one more thinkpiece about millennials, I get that), and I’m sure a good chunk of the Desert Trip crowd has tried its damnedest to enact real change, but certainly somewhere a ball has been dropped by the peace-and-love generation—particularly the ones with the funds to drop three grand on a concert.
But that concert itself was great. Young sounded terrific, and McCartney’s set featured his usual mix of Beatles classics, Wings cuts and solo songs, along with his customary—though no less moving—tributes to John Lennon (“Here Today”) and George Harrison (“Something”). He shook things up a bit, however, with his 2015 collaboration with Rihanna and Kanye West, “FourFiveSeconds,” conveniently displaying the lyrics on screen for older fans who may be unfamiliar. He brought Young out for “A Day in the Life,” the aforementioned Plastic Ono Band cover “Give Peace a Chance,” and perhaps most remarkably, “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”, played live by McCartney for the first time ever. For his encore, he referenced the Rolling Stones’ cover of “Come Together” from the previous night and “returned the favor” by playing “I Wanna Be Your Man,” the Lennon-McCartney song the Stones recorded and released as a single in 1963, for the first time in over 20 years. McCartney and Young both genuinely seemed to be enjoying themselves, with the former pausing his set at one point to “drink this all in.”
So how do we reconcile two sets that were, in a vacuum, excellent, with the despicable political climate in which they occurred or the unfulfilled promises of their target audience? Is it fair to hold artists accountable for their fans? Should we think anything less of Neil Young and Paul McCartney because a bunch of guys with gray ponytails want to spend massive sums of money to see them play and failed to fix the broken world they inherited?
I don’t know. But I know you don’t yell “Roll Tide” during “Blackbird.”
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” (with Neil Young)
“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 USSR”
“Let It Be”
“Live and Let Die”
“I Wanna Be Your Man”
“Carry That Weight”