NEW YORK: Since the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll, promoters have strived to create the ultimate festival, delivering the perfect lineup and atmosphere that will live on in fan lore.
This weekend will mark what will likely become the highest-grossing music festival of all time as six acts who form rock’s canon — the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Roger Waters, The Who, Bob Dylan and Neil Young — play in the desert of southern California.
Called Desert Trip, the three-day concert starting Friday — to be repeated with an identical schedule the following weekend — is driven by an unstated question: When will fans have the chance to see the acts again?
While the rock greats showcased at Desert Trip are active and appear in good health, all of them are septuagenarians with the sole exception of Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood, who is a youthful 69.
The Who, who in 1965 spoke for baby boomers with the anthem “My Generation,” may be the first to bow out as the group has said its ongoing tour will be its last.
For wonkish music fans, Desert Trip will be a deep historic experience, bringing together both the Rolling Stones and McCartney of The Beatles — the two British mega-bands who defined rock in the 1960s with their rival visions.
Desert Trip will also mark the first time that McCartney and Dylan have shared a bill after years of off-stage encounters — most famously in 1964 at a New York hotel, where the folk icon was said to have introduced The Fab Four to marijuana, the effects of which were soon musically evident.
Paying a premium
Set to draw 150,000 people over the two weekends, Desert Trip is the fruit of the masterful booking skills of the promoters behind Coachella, the lucrative festival that takes place each April at the same venue, a polo ground in the city of Indio.
While young revelers have driven a boom in festivals, Desert Trip has tapped into a more senior audience, so much that online detractors have dubbed it “Oldchella.”
Desert Trip sold tickets for up to $1,599 for three-day reserved seats with access to a premium lounge. The festival is also offering special dining packages with food and drink from leading California restaurants and bars.
“It’s kind of setting a new boundary for how much an audience will absorb in terms of the ticket price and what people are willing to pay for the finer things in life,” said Gary Bongiovanni, president and editor-in-chief of the live-music industry site Pollstar.
“Everybody ate the same $5 hot dog, and that’s not the case anymore,” he said.
Bongiovanni said that Desert Trip has proven to be an extraordinary success, with tickets quickly snapped up.
Less successful have been brokers or individual gamblers who bought tickets in hopes of reselling them at a profit.
The cheapest three-day tickets — $399 face value for standing in the back — were going for half that on resale sites amid an apparent glut.
Few would contest that Desert Trip’s six acts are among the most influential in rock. Taken together they have grossed more than $3.1 billion in ticket sales since 2000, according to Pollstar’s data.
The Rolling Stones, McCartney and Waters — who has had wildly successful tours based on “The Wall” of his former band Pink Floyd — lead the pack and will be Desert Trip’s late-evening performers, putting the other three in the rare position of opening acts.
But Desert Trip has raised inevitable questions of who from the rock pantheon is missing.
One absence is hard-rock pioneers Led Zeppelin whose key members Robert Plant and Jimmy Page have not played together since a 2007 benefit in London that set a record for ticket demand.
Also not involved in Desert Trip are California’s own Beach Boys, who still tour but without key songwriter Brian Wilson who has a strained relationship with the group’s singer, his cousin Mike Love.
Desert Trip promoters have hinted that the festival will not be a one-off, raising a guessing game on who could be such major draws in future years — perhaps giant acts a generation younger such as U2, Bruce Springsteen or Aerosmith.
For John Covach, a music professor at the University of Rochester, the enduring pull of the bands is extraordinary.
“If you chronicle the history of rock music, it tends to move in three- or four-year style phases and most groups don’t continue in the limelight much beyond the moment where the style they practiced was at its commercial height,” he said.
“It’s amazing that the rock ‘n’ rollers who are playing youth music — that’s how it started out, youth music — are septuagenarians who are playing to gigantic crowds of people over the age of 40.
“It isn’t what anyone expected to happen.”