Joshua Tree, California – “Pretty much everything about this festival is unprofessional.” That was the easiest way to reflect upon Desert Daze 2016, as we walked back to our camp Sunday night following the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s closing set. This is in no way meant as a criticism either. Desert Daze was described as the “no rules festival of the year” by many of my fellow campers and music fans. In fact, I am somewhat nervous writing this review as I don’t want the word to get out on this perfectly sized psychedelic festival in the heart of Joshua Tree.
But I will be honest. Brutally honest at times. So I will start with the bad and lead towards the good (I promise, there is much, much more good than bad). Landscape wise, I really didn’t heed the warnings regarding dust that the website described prior to the festival. The desert sand gets everywhere and a bandana is more than necessary in order to keep your eyes, nose, and throat clear of dust over the three days. This was particularly true during some of the insane moshpits that took place throughout the weekend. More on those later though.
The dust and sand wasn’t the only natural obstacle facing campers either. Scorpions, desert mice, giant spiders, and cacti certainly threatened the well being of festival goers both during day and night. Our camp had a little taste of it all, with one fan stepping on a nasty ball of cactus Friday morning and having to go the medical tent to have the dozens of splinters removed. Later that day, we were lucky enough to spot and capture a scorpion – taming him, and then naming him Simon before releasing him into the desert field at the back of the campsite. By the end of day one, it was clear that this was not a “no shoes” festival like the neighboring grass fields of Coachella, just a few miles away.
The sun obviously played a serious role, creating stifling heat during the day, before making its evening exit to the west and ushering in the cool desert air. Naturally, water was a concern for all, and while the festival map claimed to have a water station in the campground, it unfortunately was inactive all weekend. Perhaps even worse was the water situation inside. An outside company was contracted to supply water in the festival; a perfectly normal occurrence at festivals around the world. However, this company included a tip jar and continuously hounded festival goers to leave them tips as they filled up their bottles and camel packs. I’m in the desert and need water and you’re trying to solicit tips out of me?
The final issue, and perhaps the most serious of all, was the quality of sound, particularly in the Wright Tent. There was serious issues in the tent throughout the weekend. I believe it was a combination of multiple factors. First, the tent was drastically undersupplied with speakers. With just three speakers hanging on each side of the stage, supplanted by a few subs below, the technicians were forced to turn everything way up in order to compensate for the lack of power. The result was an incredibly cluttered sound that did not interact well with the acoustics of the tent. While the six hanging screens above the crowd provided excellent visuals, their metal bodies perhaps provided an inappropriate medium upon which the sound could bounce and reflect awkwardly throughout the tent.
The main stage had two racks of 8-10 speakers on each side, and the Block Stage and the Wright Tent should have had very similar setups. As a result, there were serious sound issues during Mild High Club and Connan Mockasin in the tent while S U R V I V E started a half an hour late as a result of sound issues. The back monitors on the Block Stage created problems throughout the weekend and lead to late set times for King Gizzard and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, among other acts.
So now to bridge the good with the bad! The festival grounds were perfectly curated. The campgrounds laid beneath the hill, upon which the stages were situated allowing the perfect amount of noise bleed from the stages to the campers. This often drew people into the festival after hearing a band they were intrigued by. A tree at the top of the hill had projections mapped upon it at night, serving as both a nightlight and a beacon for fans in the campground to stare at as they got ready to head inside for the night of festivities. As I walked around on the first day, I said to my friend, “I have a feeling we are going to see a dog here this weekend.” Sure enough by the end of day one we stumbled across a pack of pitbulls laying on the ground happy to be pet and snuggle with festival goers. It seemed as though nearly 50% of the vendors also brought their pups along to enjoy the music, as well.
The grounds were full of quirky interesting pieces of art that captivated people walking around in the cool desert air at night. Whether it was the random TVs playing old VHS’s or the “portal” teepees filled with trippy lights and endless mirrors, there was never ending entertainment for everyone walking around. Perhaps the coolest aspect of the grounds was the Cave of Far Gone Dreams. Filled with Duck Hunt, fake trees, and “haunted” bones, upon which you and friends could play melodies, it provided the perfect atmosphere for a group of festival goers to get creative and weird in between sets. Moreover, the actual facilities of the Institute of Mental Physics provided a variety of little nooks and oases where festival goers could congregate.
The stages were expertly placed. Both the Main Stage and the Block Stage were placed at the bottom of either side of the hill, providing great sight lines for the audience, from the front to the back, while also creating a bowl for the sound to reverberate from. While the tent had awful sound issues, the six TV screens hanging from the ceiling and two giant triangles flanking the stage provided an excellent visual environment. The Block Stage was adorned with flowing white sheets that interacted perfectly both with the wind and psychedelic color visuals in the background at night. The sanctuary hall, where you had to remove your shoes prior to entering, was an escape from the heat and hectic atmosphere of the desert outside.
Building off of this positivity, let’s move onto the best aspect of the festival: the music fucking rocked. What a stacked lineup from top to bottom! The entire weekend was full of expected jams and pleasant surprises throughout. There was certainly not enough time to catch every act, but here are some of my favorite moments across the three days:
Solar Suns opened up the weekend on the main stage with spacey, psychedelic jazz rock. While the instrumentals were on point, I felt as though the lead singer’s voice was somewhat lacking the intensity of the music behind him. Solar Suns was followed by Mind Meld on the Block Stage. The L.A. based trio was the first to experience issues with the monitors on the side stage and were about twenty minutes late to start. Mind Meld’s explosive jams were certainly well written, but the band seemed frustrated by the delayed start time. New single, “The Viper” was the highlight of the set.
Mild High Club was a hazy smoke filled dream in the Wright Tent at 4:20. Frontman Alex Brettin struggled with some feedback on the vocals, but the band trudged through with some extended jams on “Club Intro” and other new and old tunes. Mild High Club has definitely been working on improving the quality of its live show since the release of Skiptracing a few weeks ago, adding little flourishes and additional breaks to songs in order to spice them up. Still, this couldn’t stop fans around us from pointing out the similarity in sound and style to Mac Demarco’s more recent work.
Perhaps one of the greatest surprises of the weekend was Bombino. Omara “Bombino” Moctar and his band were not anywhere on my radar prior to the festival, but I will be spreading the word of Bombino’s music for years to come. The Tuareg guitarist from Niger has some of the longest fingers I have ever seen! Those amazing fingers enable him to move up and down the guitar, shredding arpeggios as fast as any other guitarist I have witnessed live. Bombino’s combination of reggae themes with experimental songwriting and instrumentation brewed up the first epic face melting of the weekend on the main stage.
Bombino was followed by Toro Y Moi on the main stage, later Friday evening. While I am a fan of Chaz Bundick’s music on record, it is much more lo-fi and restrained in the studio than in person. Since he has added a full band to his lineup, he has been able to find the perfect combination of these qualities to create one of the best live shows I have seen this year. Chaz led on vocals, guitar, and the keyboard the rest of the band was driven forward by the insane basslines laid down by Patrick Jeffords, in the middle of the stage. The band ripped through tracks from nearly all of Toro Y Moi’s discography, playing recent songs such as “Half Dome” and closing with “Say That” from 2013’s Anything in Return.
Washed Out was probably one of the biggest disappointments of the weekend. I have seen the chillwave outfit a few times over the years, but this was one of the poorest performances I have witnessed in a while. The set lacked energy and the band was clearly off point playing the first show of its tour. Moreover, Ernest Greene was unable to engage the crowd in a meaningful way, instead teasing a new album without providing any samples of the new work. I was pretty bored throughout the set.
Thankfully my boredom was combatted by the absolute masterpiece that is King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. I was lucky enough to be right up at the rail, sandwiched between the insane moshpit and adoring fans staring up at the Aussie rockers. The band’s set is best described as a “circular mindfuck,” starting with “Robot Stop” from the recent album Nonagon Infinity and often returning to the main refrain throughout the set before closing out with it at the very end. The amount of dust kicked up and inhaled throughout the set certainly lead to a few dried out bloody noses the next day, mine included. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s ability to transition from song to song seamlessly is incredible and their instrumentation is impeccable. It will be very interesting to see where this band peaks, as the seven-piece has clearly gained widespread adoration from fans with its use of a variety of genres. Don’t be surprised to see King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s name climb higher and higher up lineups next year as the band gets ready to release its tenth album.
Deerhunter closed out on the mainstage and Bradford Cox was in rare form. He was certainly very excited to be playing the festival and engaged the audience often, at one point screaming, “I just pissed on my leg!” “Desire Lines” was a highlight and the audience was given the chance to choose between “Nothing Ever Happened” and “Agoraphobia” for the closing song, and the former did not let us down, as the band jammed on the final refrain for an extended couple of minutes.
If you read my festival preview you will notice a giant gap where the name Wand should have been. I had heard of the L.A. based band, prior to the festival, but really had no idea what it sounded like. Upon hearing raving reviews from my fellow campers, I was intrigued enough to make sure I was able to catch Wand’s set on the Block Stage, Saturday afternoon. The band’s driving basslines and uncanny guitar solos were the perfect psychedelic concoction to get the crowd going into the evening. This is very much a band to keep on your radar!
Vinyl Williams followed on the Block Stage with his sexy grooves, as the sun began to go down over the Institute of Mental Physics. Moving everywhere from soul to shoegaze the band’s set was a testament to the experimentation that frontman Lionel Williams explores over three records to date. Being the grandson of renowned film composer John Williams, it’s no surprise that Lionel has a knack for creating the perfect melody for the right atmosphere.
There isn’t much to be said about John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees that hasn’t already been said. His set on the main stage on Saturday night was a whirlwind of jams, from across his prolific discography. In many ways, Thee Oh Sees was King Gizzard before King Gizzard was King Gizzard, employing the verse, chorus-mosh, verse, chorus-mosh, bridge, chorus-mosh formula perfectly across the hour set. Don’t be surprised to see more and more bands pop up with two drummers in lieu of the recent popularity of Thee Oh Sees and the Gizz’s explosive live shows. With two albums out this year, we should also see plenty of opportunities to catch Dwyer on the road in the near future.
One of the most widely anticipated sets of the weekend was The Black Angels performing Passover. The Austin band is known for its fuzzed out psychedelic guitar riffs and they were in full form on Saturday night. The combination of excellently curated visuals and pumping basslines was just enough to get the packed crowed twisting and moving their bodies in true psychedelic fashion. This is a band that hangs just low enough under the radar to maintain its unique status, while also being able to draw in and captivate large crowds around festivals. There is a reason The Black Angels garner so much respect amongst the psych community.
A late morning recommendation from a friend convinced me to check out Teebs (w/ live band), on Sunday afternoon in the tent. He opened up by describing how the live band was a new experiment, and that they would be performing for the first time in just a few minutes. Without much material however, he ended up playing some of his beats prior to the guitarist and keyboardist joining him on stage. “Can you see me shaking up here?” he said to the crowd, explaining that he himself is not a true instrumentalist. The lack of experience didn’t show at all as they swept through a few sexy space tracks with ease. These are the type of vibes I expect Desert Daze to expand upon in next year’s lineup.
The late afternoon sun on the main stage provided the perfect atmosphere for the surfy vibes of La Luz. Ripping through a set featuring songs from Weirdo Shrine, the ladies from Seattle captured the attention of crowd with groovy rhythms and melancholic lyrical themes. As the set continued, the energy grew to the apparent appreciation of the band, as they blew through old tracks, such as “Sure As Spring” and “Morning High.” La Luz has a distinct talent of generating visions of the beach and sun through instrumentation, while conjuring rainy day feelings via the crestfallen vocal melodies across all four members.
I think the greatest moment of any concert I have ever been to happened during JennyLee. About half way through the set, I noticed a dog sitting on the side of the stage. Shortly after Jenny, the bassist from Warpaint, shouted out “MuMu! Get out here!” into the microphone. The pup immediately ran on stage to greet her owner, as she jumped into the next song of her set. A dog sitting in the middle of the stage during a set isn’t something I ever imagined would ever happen. Thank you Desert Daze!
Pond, thanks mainly to lead singer Nick Allbrook, has a reputation for being out there and weird. However, the band’s new songs, produced by Kevin Parker, seem to show Pond heading into a more commercial direction capturing the popularity of the psych-pop of Tame Impala. This is very disappointing. Especially since the band’s set on Sunday night was filled mainly with new tracks and songs from 2015’s Man it Feels Like Space Again. While I personally love MIFLSA, I would much prefer tracks off of their psychedelic masterpiece Beards, Wives, Denim. Instead we only got “You Broke My Cool” from BWD. While the new songs are a let down, Pond still knows how to deliver its explosive riffs off of Hobo Rocket and Man it Feels Like Space Again in a live setting. Please don’t become lame like Tame Impala, I’m begging you, Pond!
As a whole, Desert Daze was a nearly perfect experience, with the sound of the Wright Tent being the only setback. Had Connan Mockasin and S U R V I V E not had sets marred by the sound in the tent, I probably would say this was the best festival I have ever been to. The combination of the small size, with the awesome community of people created an amazing atmosphere around the expertly curated psychedelic lineup. I will definitely be back next year, but it will be interesting to see the changes made to the organization. Will it be a “no rules” festival again? Or will Desert Daze sure up organization to come to par with other modern festivals? Personally, I love the idea of maintaining the freewheeling atmosphere. Will the word get out on the rapidly growing festival leading to a significant increase in capacity? I’ll just have to head back to the desert next year to find out!