Meet the New Boss, Same As the Old Boss: Desert Trip's Final Night Looks to the Future By Reaching Into the Past

Music Features Desert Trip
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Meet the New Boss, Same As the Old Boss: Desert Trip's Final Night Looks to the Future By Reaching Into the Past

“I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution/Take a bow for the new revolution/Smile and grin at the change all around/Pick up my guitar and play/Just like yesterday” -The Who, “Won’t Get Fooled Again”

When you have an entire festival rooted in nostalgia, the big elephant (or in Sunday night’s case, floating pig) in the room is relevance. Of course a historic collection of classic rock’s biggest acts is newsworthy, but how does it speak to the times or today’s musical landscape? How do these legendary artists—once the pillars of youth culture and rebellion—reconcile with playing an event dubbed Oldchella by kids on the internet?

If you’re Pete Townshend, you lean into it, making your entrance with a bottle of Pedialyte, shrugging and announcing drolly, “Well, here the fuck we are. You all come to watch old people dance?”

It’s been almost 50 years since The Who famously smoked The Rolling Stones on The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, and on Desert Trip closing night, they once again managed to show up everyone who played before them—simply by doing what they’ve always done. It wasn’t a flawless set (Roger Daltrey seemed to be having some issues with his in-ear monitor at one point and, as a result, struggled with pitchiness on “Behind Blue Eyes”), but it was as close to perfect as you could hope to expect from a band at this stage in its career.

Daltrey spent the set tossing and twirling his microphone, gradually undoing more and more buttons on his shirt (which, by the end of the set, he’d sweat almost completely through), hitting notes artists half his age would struggle with and just generally defying anyone witnessing his performance to believe he’s really 72. Townshend windmilled his way through some of the band’s greatest hits and even treated us to a power slide on “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (again—this is senior citizen who had just played for two hours with close to the same intensity he did as a 20-year-old dropping to his knees and sliding across the stage). And as usual, he provided the night’s sarcasm, comparing his band to modern artists like Adele, Rihanna and Justin Bieber, paying tribute to the late John Entwistle by noting he died “in a blaze of whatever” and lovingly referring to Keith Moon as “a great wanker.”

But despite staying true to their formula, The Who still managed to speak to current events, projecting footage from Occupy Wall Street and the Syrian refugee crisis in a video montage played over “The Rock.” Later in the set, Townshend got vaguely political, offering a simple “Good luck with the election, folks.”

That, however, turned out to be nothing compared to Roger Waters, who pulled out all the stops to completely eviscerate Donald Trump during “Pigs (Three Different Ones).” It wasn’t subtle, but it was effective, with video screens behind him depicting Trump in a variety of less-than-flattering ways—with a KKK hood, with the word “CHARADE” emblazoned below him, with a micropenis, done up in garish makeup, doing a Nazi salute. The traditional giant inflatable Pink Floyd pig released into the crowd was replaced with an anti-Trump one—red with its eyes crossed out and a picture of a skull and Trump’s face, along with the words “racist,” “sexist,” “lying,” “arrogant” and “Fuck Trump and his wall.” Some of Trump’s nastiest, most damning quotes were placed on the screen before “TRUMP IS A PIG” was displayed at the song’s end.

Waters also utilized Black Lives Matter imagery in his video backdrop—the only artist all weekend to make reference to the movement. He read a poem he wrote in 2004 after George W. Bush was reelected, and he called for Israel to “end the occupation” of Palestine. (The latter drew the most tepid response from the crowd out of all of Waters’ political statements.)

But beyond drawing present-day connections to some of his classic material, Waters kept it contemporary by recruiting indie-pop players Lucius to sing backup for him during the entirety of his set. The payoff there was huge—Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe’s harmonies lent themselves perfectly to the Pink Floyd catalog, and both delivered some truly powerful vocal solos.

It was a glimpse at what the festival could be, should it return in 2017—a legendary artist stepping outside his comfort zone by collaborating with a modern-day act, reimagining his catalog in the context of today’s culture, looking to the future by digging into the past.

The Who set list

“I Can’t Explain”
“The Seeker”
“Who Are You”
“The Kids Are Alright”
“I Can See For Miles”
“My Generation”
“Behind Blue Eyes”
“Join Together”
“You Better You Bet”
“I’m One”
“The Rock”
“Love, Reign O’er Me”
“Eminence Front”
“Amazing Journey”
“The Acid Queen”
“Pinball Wizard”
“See Me, Feel Me”
“Baba O’Riley”
“Won’t Get Fooled Again”

Roger Waters set list

“Speak to Me”
“Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”
“One of These Days”
“Breathe” (reprise)
“The Great Gig in the Sky”
“Us and Them”
“Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V)”
“Welcome to the Machine”
“Have a Cigar”
“Wish You Were Here”
“Pigs on the Wing 1”
“Pigs on the Wing 2”
“Pigs (Three Different Ones)”
“The Happiest Days of Our Lives”
“Another Brick in the Wall Part 2”
“Brain Damage”
“Why Cannot The Good Prevail” (a poem by Roger Waters)
“Bring the Boys Back Home”
“Comfortably Numb”