Review: Paul McCartney and Neil Young Share a Bill, and Some Songs
By JON PARELES
OCT. 9, 2016
INDIO, Calif. — All six headliners at Desert Trip, the festival of renowned 1960s rockers, have long faced the same question: How to choose a concert set from a catalog that has been growing for up to five decades? Paul McCartney and Neil Young, who shared the lineup — and the stage — on Saturday, had two disparate answers, though both juxtaposed some of their oldest and newest songs.
Mr. McCartney played several instruments during the show, including bass. Credit Carlos Gonzalez for The New York Times
Mr. McCartney was encyclopedic, demonstrating his mastery of multitudinous idioms and applying all his charm and skill to hits and non-hits alike. He reached back to “In Spite of All the Danger,” a demo recording he made with the Quarrymen, the Beatles’ precursors (which gave him a chance to hint at an Elvis imitation), and he made sure to include his most recent effort, his collaboration with Rihanna and Kanye West, “FourFiveSeconds.”
Mr. Young was more conceptual in both sentiment and sound. He focused on songs with environmental messages, and he reached back to the rock approaches he was using in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That served him both for longtime favorites like “Powderfinger” and for songs from his next album, “Peace Trail.”
Mr. Young sang his hits and songs from his coming album. Credit Carlos Gonzalez for The New York Times
At 74, Mr. McCartney is still winsome, tossing off dozens of memorable, brilliantly constructed, tidily performed songs with a grin, a shrug and a wave to the crowd. Perhaps the only way for him to address the fact that he has written and co-written generational anthems and indelible love songs — ”Hey Jude,” “Let It Be,” “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “We Can Work It Out” — is to treat those songs matter-of-factly and without undue gravity, like a craftsman calmly displaying his know-how.
Mr. McCartney’s own showmanship is in his air of casualness and transparency. Taking off his (collarless) jacket would be his only wardrobe change, he announced, and most of his stage moves simply involved switching instruments: bass, acoustic and electric guitars, grand and upright pianos, even a ukulele (taking on the chromatic challenge of George Harrison’s “Something”). However, Mr. McCartney also has stadium-scale video that moves fast and cleverly; “Eleanor Rigby,” with its string arrangement now replicable via electronic keyboard, got a backdrop of animated violins.
Me and Neil Give Peace A Chance. What a Desert Trip!
Since Mr. McCartney tours frequently, his observant fans have often pointed out that he doesn’t change the arrangements and stage patter for many of his staples. Onstage at Desert Trip, he observed a few times that people might have heard a story before, then told it anyway. That was no problem for “Blackbird,” which, he explained as usual, was written in sympathy with the 1960s civil-rights movement; he played it alone on acoustic guitar and held the festival audience rapt.
Even in a long set, there was no way for Mr. McCartney to get to all his hits, though he supplied plenty of them and also played recent songs to please himself, like “Queenie Eye.” Tunes did double duty, offering familiarity but also flaunting the breadth of his songwriting. He had raw rockers (“Let Me Roll It”), suitelike multipart songs (“Band on the Run”), folksy toe-tappers (“I’ve Just Seen a Face”), dramatic ballads (“My Valentine”) and Merseybeat pop (“I Wanna Be Your Man,” the hit John Lennon and Mr. McCartney wrote for the Rolling Stones, who played the Beatles’ “Come Together” in their Desert Trip set on Friday night).
The scene near the end of the concert. Credit Carlos Gonzalez for The New York Times
Although his voice showed strain at times, quavering at the top of his tenor range, Mr. McCartney still makes his most sophisticated melodies sound natural, and his falsetto stayed pure. And he had enough showstoppers for peak after peak, following the bombast, flashpots and fireworks of “Live and Let Die” with the grand singalong of “Hey Jude” and the ingenuity and ultimate benevolence of the finale of “Abbey Road.” But for someone who’s so adept at pleasing audiences, Mr. McCartney made an odd choice; his set was preceded by a man with a laptop playing about a half-hour of what seemed intended as dance-music remixes of McCartney songs, chopped up with muddy rhythm tracks. Maybe it was an elaborate put-down of contemporary pop.
Mr. Young was flanked onstage by teepees, a wooden Indian and a totem pole, with a burlap-looking backdrop suggesting a bag of “Seeds of Life.” His T-shirt, and one of the teepees, read “Water Is Life.” He’s worried about despoiling the planet with pollution, corporate agriculture and other exploitation, and his set was a long crescendo of fears and warnings — tumultuous and hardheaded.
He started on his own, with solo versions of older nature-loving songs like “After the Gold Rush” and “Oh Mother Earth.” Then he was joined by his current band, Promise of the Real, which includes two of Willie Nelson’s sons and can split the difference between the electric assault of Crazy Horse and the rootsy 1970s rock of albums like “Harvest.” Mr. Young, unsmiling, worked through telling older material like “Words (Between the Lines of Age”) and disgruntled new songs from his coming album like “Show Me,” which invokes sacred land and calls for equal treatment of women. He also took time for a 22-minute jam on “Down by the River,” with Lukas Nelson’s lead guitar as a dueling partner. And he added a verse to his embittered “Rockin’ in the Free World” to address energy: “In the endless search for a drop of oil,” he sang, “people’s lives get shattered while we suck it from the soil.”
Mr. McCartney brought Mr. Young onstage to join him for what turned into three songs. “A Day in the Life” emphasized Mr. McCartney’s musical intricacies; it segued into John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance,” which is credited to Lennon and McCartney. And Mr. McCartney kept Mr. Young onstage for “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”: bluesy, rowdy and just the song for some of Mr. Young’s rightfully loud guitar.