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Desert Daze

Posted By Emma Wise     July 8, 2018    


Oh, the modern music festival. Over the past 10 years, what began as a playground dominated by a few major players has grown into an unruly, overwhelming battlefield, a cavalcade of getaway opportunities powered by high-priced tickets, corporate sponsorships, and a yearly stock-taking of who our favorite bands and nostalgia curiosities of the moment might be. There’s always an undercurrent of utopia when talking about music festivals, and Southern California’s Desert Daze has set out to get as close to the idea of a classic Woodstock-style free-for-all as is possible in this day and age. Taking place over the course of three days at the Institute of Mentalphysics in Joshua Tree, the camper-friendly festival unabashedly goes straight for the moon-gazing, palm-reading style of bohemia that has earned it some comparisons to a Silverlake version of Burning Man.

One’s mileage with the lava-lamp aesthetics certainly may vary, and over the course of my weekend in the desert, I’d be lying if I said that the whole thing didn’t feel more than a little goofy. But for all of the meditation workshops and tie-die boutiques (and the exorbitant ticket/camping costs that out-priced more than a few of my friends who would’ve otherwise come), Desert Daze still did a magnificent job of uncovering the core of what makes music festivals of this ilk so rewarding to attend. The overarching banner of “psychedelic” opened itself up to such an eclectic and exciting collection of performances, that coupled with the good-old fashioned satisfaction of roughing it in the campgrounds under the stars for three nights, made for one of the richest music festival experiences I’ve had. Rolling in on Friday morning, there wasn’t too much on the schedule I was terribly keen on until later in the day, so we spent our first couple hours just settling into the campgrounds, getting familiar with the layout.

One of the remarkable things about Desert Daze is how small the whole thing really is while still having the feel of a major festival. We were parked about as far from the entrance as one could get, and yet it was still only about a 5-10 minute walk to get from there to any of the stages, so we were easily able to meander back and forth to the car for beers (which we were freely allowed to bring in and out of the festival — major), or to throw on warmer clothes as the temperature dropped. The timing couldn’t have been better either, what with the heat waves of summer mostly behind us and the cold desert winter nights yet to come, making for a surprisingly comfy half-warm/half-cool three days. Before I committed to diving into the music, however, I absolutely had to inspect one of the sillier curiosities of this whole affair: the Mystic Bazaar. Located in the middle of the campgrounds, this huddle of tents not only offered a full marketplace complete with jewelry booths and a massage parlor, but a sizable hut in which various activities were lined up every single day from 8 in the morning to midnight. Peeking through the Bazaar’s schedule was a hoot in its own right, which included such events as “Intro to Energy Healing,” “Mens Sun Circle,” “Plant Activation Meditation,” “Progressive Tarot,” and, of course, “Black Metal Yoga.”

To start my day off, I dropped into a class titled “Discover Your God/dess Archetype Through Self Portrait.” It consisted of a group of people painting in a circle, with a session leader who read us a children’s story about the beheading of Medusa. Afterwards, the woman asked us if we had any thoughts about the story, or wanted to share our paintings. A young man from Mexico showed us his drawing of an eyeball, and proceeded to tell us about the first time he took LSD. At one point, the group leader said that these kinds of festivals are a place where people go to realize their own self-mythologies, which struck me as a surprisingly fair assessment. But enough with the children’s drawings, there was music to go see. Strolling between the three stages, I spent most of the daylight hours inspecting various psych-rock bands, including Austin’s Holy Wave and France’s La Femme, both of which rubbed me as fairly nostalgic retro acts, and served mostly as background music while I explored the festival’s many zone-y art installations. There were crafty VR headsets dangling from a tree, various booths that consisted of miniature mirror halls inside, and all manner of tents lined with pillows and shiny objects that practically screamed for people on drugs to wander into them.

The day sort of passed by, and as 6pm approached, I made my way back to the main stage to begin my first major stretch of must-sees. Boris, as always, were engulfing to behold. As smoke poured forth from the stage in copious amounts, the trio tore through tracks off their new album Dear, alternating between sludgy classic rockers and doom-y fits of distortion. The whole thing was righteous, but the real treat came when the sun finally set halfway through their performance. Now, I’m not an expert on the ways that sound travels differently depending on the time of day, but what I do know is that whether it was due to physics or just the magic of being in the desert at night, once darkness settled, Boris became an absolutely demonic force. The band began to trudge through a deafening, amplifier-destroying take on their new song “The Power,” and as with the last time I had seen them, I was mesmerized at the fraying tones that the three of them were able to wring from their endlessly hanging notes and tastefully deployed gong smashes. Capping it off with a shoegazey version of “Farewell” from Pink, I knew that the weekend was really starting to hit its stride. From there, we walked over to the Block Stage to catch Panda Bear, who sadly delivered one of the limper sets of the weekend.

Whereas the previous times I had seen Noah Lennox felt massive, layered, and focused in their unfolding swaths of sound, his Desert Daze show scanned very much as an in-betweener concert, without much in the way of new (or even old) material. Lennox mainly flirted with vaguely dance-y drum machine beats that were sorely lacking in interesting sounds or even vocals, and by the time he reached “Tropic of Cancer,” his last and arguably best song of the set, we were already ready to move on. Fortunately, Ty Segall was on fire as usual, plowing through songs from across his scattered catalog, executing each one as if he were headlining a greatest-hits tour at Madison Square Garden. Showing plenty of love to his self-titled record from earlier this year, Ty skidded between pop finesse and an almost metal fury, even delving into a full-on extended fusion jam of “Warm Hands,” finding the midway point between Mahavishnu Orchestra and The Stooges.

The segue from that 10+ minute prog-out into the sub-2 minute punk explosion of “Pretty Baby” was proof alone of what an incredible, gripping, and multifaceted performer Segall truly is Dipping out for a bit to grab our jackets, we returned in time to catch Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile take the main stage, both clad in flannel and performing songs from their collaboration album that had been released that day. Having seen both of them individually in the past, I can say with a degree of authority that Vile’s shtick simply does not translate well in the live arena. His shaggy, bedroom-ready folk-rock just sort of hangs in this middle area of not being particularly slow enough to be gentle, nor fast enough to be energizing, and frankly it was a bit of a bummer to see Barnett sway back and forth with these easy-schmeazy songs knowing how electric her shows can really get.

The highlights came when each member took to their own material: Barnett’s “Depreston” was absolutely gorgeous, and Vile’s “Pretty Pimpin’” hit a chugging country-rock groove that invigorated in the way the rest of their set never quite did. Rounding it out for the night we had Ariel Pink, who, as usual, teetered on a line between being bracingly vulnerable and painfully awkward. Leading his band through glammy cuts from his new album (as well as a couple old favorites like “White Freckles” and “Menopause Man”), Pink by and large appeared showy and composed, a refreshing thing to witness with how meltdown-prone his concerts can be — though the set did contain its share of troubling moments. As has been reported on in his dates since Desert Daze, Pink’s girlfriend Charlotte Ercoli has joined his band for a number of songs on this tour, and though nothing at this show matched the level of line-crossing that apparently happened in San Francisco just one night later, there were points where it seemed to me that Pink was being inappropriate and rough with Ercoli, making her visibly uncomfortable in the middle of the performance.

It left a bad taste in my mouth far beyond the usual jerky Pink-isms on display that night (e.g. his constant interruption of band members mid-sentence, something that truly never stops feeling strange no matter how many times I’ve seen him). With Day 1 in the can, we moseyed back to the campsite to make hot dogs, only to realize that we had forgotten to buy buns and ketchup. We decided to use quesadillas as buns.


1 comment
  • Alice Woods
    Alice Woods  · December 2, 2018