"It's rare that someone like me gets a platform like this, and I'm going to use it," declared Roger Waters to thousands gathered in Indio, California, for the final night of Desert Trip's opening weekend on Sunday. He was the last of the six major acts to perform, all of whom date back to the 1960s and the era of rebellion songs. Before the night was over, he made vivid connections between his work with Pink Floyd and the political crises of the moment.
So there was a truck-sized inflatable pig floating above the crowd during the song "Pigs," with a map of the U.S. painted on one side with the words: "Together we stand, divided we fall." On the other side was the face of Donald Trump and the words "ignorant," "lying," "racist," "sexist" and "Fuck Trump and his wall."
During the Who's set earlier in the evening, Pete Townshend alluded cryptically to the presidential election, and the day before, Neil Young sang of threats to environment. Waters was more aggressive in messaging as he weaved politics as an essential element of his performance of Pink Floyd classics. He read a poem of rage and protest called "Why Cannot the Good Prevail" that he wrote on the eve of George W. Bush's second term and expressed ongoing support for Palestinians in the multi-decade conflict with Israel. He brought out a chorus of children in black T-shirts reading in Spanish "Derriba el muro" ("Tear down this wall") during "Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)."
But the music of Waters did not become overtly political until late in his career, beginning with his final album with Pink Floyd, 1983's The Final Cut. Before that, his concerns were largely with madness and the dehumanizing of the personal. Sunday's set eased into focus with classic Floyd imagery, with a vast moonscape on the stage's super-wide screen, as familiar sound effects from Pink Floyd recordings slowly emerged from the venue's various speaker towers, like something on an old quad stereo from the Sixties or Seventies.
The music began with "Speak to Me" and "Breathe," the opening songs from 1973's The Dark Side of the Moon, which remains one of the best-selling albums in history. From the same album was "Time," lush and forward looking but classically melodic amid the dark messages: "Short of breath … one day closer to death."
From The Wall, Waters strummed an acoustic guitar and sang "Mother," with the words "Mother should I run for president?" drawing cheers from fans, then a bigger response for "Mother, should I trust the government?" The gifted singing duo Lucius were recruited as vocalists, and performed the the voice of "mother," sweet, soulful and smothering.
Earlier in the night, the Who performed a more upbeat set. "Well, here the fuck we are," Pete Townshend announced with biting good cheer as the band stepped onstage Sunday, also the birthday of their late bassist John Entwistle, who died in 2002. With a long history of career-defining moments at events from the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock to the Concert for New York after the attacks of 9/11, he expressed special affection for the young fans in front of him in the Southern California desert venue.
"You young ones, we love you for coming to see us," he said. "It must be pretty tough out there for the old ones. Why don't you make a little chair for them, and they can sit down and rest."
The Who didn't exactly slow down in a set that emphasized the muscular rockers of their first two decades. "I Can See for Miles" was tuneful hard rock, with Townshend's riffs of increasing tension and a beat always pushing forward, shattering eardrums for 50 years. The guitarist crouched as he slammed the downstroke attack on "My Generation."
"We were were a 1967 version of Adele or Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber," Townshend said, jokingly recalling how hot and hip they once were, then adding, "We were a bunch of reprobates actually."
The Who were always an exceptionally physical band, with Daltrey wailing up front and leaping with windmill guitar strokes. Few performers in their 70s can maintain that physical presence, but the Who remain a vibrant musical force for other reasons. Like all the acts at Desert Trip, the Who were always as much about ideas and attitude as youthful spectacle.
Daltrey reshaped some vocal parts from the superhuman originals to fit his range, more improvising bluesman than young shouter. And at 71, Townshend often just seemed like a more experienced version of the literary, snot-nosed hooligan from the 1960s.
"Good luck with the election, folks," Townshend teased his American listeners, without further comment.
Daltrey and Townshend were supported by a backing band of seven players, including drummer Zak Starkey, who was born the year "My Generation" was released in 1965, and guitarist Simon Townshend, brother of Pete. Midway into the show, Pete told of how his younger brother was at a premiere of Tommy at the Royal Albert Hall in 1968 and was looked after that night by David Bowie.
The band performed a suite of songs from the rock opera Quadrophenia, beginning with "I'm One," with lead vocals by Townshend, who closed with the defiant plea, "Why should I care? Why should I care?" the song's character Jimmy pissed off and thinking hard. They followed with the album's instrumental of sweeping guitar, piano and an anxious beat called "The Rock," introduced by Daltrey: "This is as good as any classical piece ever written."
From the Eighties was "Eminence Front," mingling a dynamic funk riff with cascading electronics, but it was as much of a guitar epic as anything else in their catalog, sending Townshend into spasms of slicing leads.
The Who set ended as they have traditionally for years, with the career-defining songs "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" (both from 1971's Who's Next), euphoric anthems of rebellion, escape and history repeated. In these final moments, Townshend was moved to emphasize the pent-up rage, frustration and the "teenage wasteland" of his lyrics by sliding across the stage floor on his knees. It wasn't as graceful as the band's old movie footage, but Daltrey looked pleased. Some habits are hard to break.
The Who set list
"I Can't Explain"
"Who Are You"
"The Kids Are Alright"
"I Can See for Miles"
"Behind Blue Eyes"
"You Better You Bet"
"Love, Reign O'er Me"
"The Acid Queen"
"See Me, Feel Me"
"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"
"The Great Gig in the Sky"
"Us and Them:
"You'll Never Walk Alone"
"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)"
"Why Cannot the Good Prevail"
"Bring the Boys Back Home"