Looks Matter: A Lesson from Desert Trip's Opening Night

Music Features Desert Trip
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Looks Matter: A Lesson from Desert Trip's Opening Night

“I like the cool way you look at me/Everything about you is bringing me misery”-Bob Dylan, “Buckets of Rain”

I was not expecting my hands to shake at the sight of him.

I’ve seen Paul McCartney before, but only from a distance, in the same context millions of other people have seen him for over 50 years—the former Beatle on a stage, the rest of us in a crowd watching him do what he does best. And, sure, that produced a physical reaction too; that’s a given. Our hearts jump when we catch that first glimpse of a legend as he walks onstage. We get chills when we get to witness something like a former Beatle leading thousands of adoring fans in a sing-along of “Hey Jude.” It’s incredible, but it’s expected.

But all of a sudden, the people in the crowd around me all turned their backs on the Rolling Stones’ set and aimed their phones at someone behind me, and there was Paul, seated with his wife in the VIP suite about 30 feet back.

From that moment on, Friday night wasn’t just about watching the Stones—it was about watching Paul McCartney watch them. With each new song, I’d glance behind me. How’s Paul doing? Is he digging this one? I wonder what that is he’s eating. Oooh, I love this one—does Paul?

When Mick and company covered “Come Together,” I’m pretty sure my back was to them for the majority of the song, my eyes glued to Macca, desperately trying to read his face as he watched his contemporaries—pitted against him by fans in countless “Beatles vs. Stones” debates—perform one of his band’s tunes. He looked thoughtful, just as curious about what’d they’d do with it as the rest of us were, and when it was over, he stood up, knowing everyone in our general vicinity was looking at him for a reaction, and smiled, raised his fist and pointed to the stage in approval.

He ate during “Tumbling Dice.” He got up and danced during “Miss You.” He grooved along to “Sympathy for the Devil” and snapped a few pictures like the rest of the 75,000 fans who purchased tickets to the festival. (Is Paul McCartney going to look back at this picture he’s taking of The Rolling Stones playing Desert Trip one day and think, “Man, those lads killed with ‘Sympathy for the Devil’”? Does he save his photos to his laptop or order prints from Walgreens like my mom does?) He danced some more to “Brown Sugar,” this time arm-in-arm with his wife, giving her a playful spin.

It was incredible to see him on the other side of things, watching and reveling in live music like the rest of us. And as it turns out, I saw more of Paul McCartney on Friday night than I did of Bob Dylan.

Dylan kicked off the festival (and later would be thanked by Mick Jagger for “opening for u—for opening for you.” Keith Richards also referred to Dylan “opening” for the Stones, which is a little odd at a festival marketed as a once-in-a-lifetime coming together of six legendary acts. Yes, he played first, but is anyone really opening for anyone else here?). He sounded strong—better than I expected—particularly on “Make You Feel My Love,” “Desolation Row,” “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Masters of War.” But only the fans who shelled out the big bucks for floor seats close to the stage were able to actually catch a glimpse of him. He never appeared on the video screens during his set, and credentialed photojournalists covering the festival were forced to sit his performance out.

He didn’t say a word to the crowd in between songs, and while that’s kind of a bummer, it’s not surprising. But why doesn’t Bob Dylan want us to see him?

Is he unwell? Afraid of looking old? He should know those fears are unwarranted—fans don’t care how he looks, they just want to catch a glimpse of him, see the look in his eyes when he sneers “something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?” or the body language he uses to communicate with his band. Despite not being a visual medium, looks matter in live music—just not in the way you’d think they do.

Visual cues are important at a festival, in every aspect. When what’s normally a 15-minute drive to the festival site takes three hours and there’s not a single sign indicating we’re, in fact, headed towards the right parking lot, we freak out (and perhaps unleash some less-than-kind words at the cars trying to cut ahead of us—sorry, but hell hath no fury like a music journalist who’s about to be late to Bob Dylan). When there’s crowdsurfing (not an issue at Desert Trip), we keep one eye trained on it to avoid getting kicked in the head. When we see the people around us dancing and cheering or getting emotional, it hits us too and however we’re being moved by the music is amplified by the fact that it’s a communal experience.

No one at Desert Trip cares if Bob Dylan looks old. Every artist on the bill is old—as Mick Jagger joked, “Welcome to the Palm Springs retirement home for genteel English musicians”—but their fans still part with large sums of money to watch them perform because they are all titans, somehow more than human. If they look weathered, it’s because they’ve been doing this—making people dance and cry and tremble and laugh and sing—for over five decades. Their wrinkles don’t make us recoil; they’re awe-inspiring, like the rings on a tree stump. They make our hands shake.

Bob Dylan set list:
“Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”
“Highway 61 Revisited”
“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”
“High Water (for Charley Patton)”
“Simple Twist of Fate”
“Early Roman Kings”
“Love Sick”
“Tangled Up in Blue”
“Lonesome Day Blues”
“Make You Feel My Love”
“Pay in Blood”
“Desolation Row”
“Soon After Midnight”
“Ballad of a Thin Man”
“Masters of War”

Rolling Stones set list:
“Start Me Up”
“You Got Me Rocking”
“Out of Control
“Ride ‘Em on Down” (Jimmy Reed cover)
“Mixed Emotions”
“Wild Horses”
“It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (but I Like It)”
“Come Together” (Beatles cover)
“Tumbling Dice”
“Honky Tonk Women”
“Slipping Away”
“Little T&A”
“Midnight Rambler”
“Miss You”
“Gimme Shelter”
“Sympathy for the Devil”
“Brown Sugar”
“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”

For more from Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones, check out the videos below from the Paste Cloud.

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