Desert Daze 2017
Institute of Mentalphysics; Joshua Tree, CA

Photo: Zane Roessell

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.


Friday
Boris (Photo: Debi Del Grande)

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.

(Photo: Sheva Kafai)

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.

Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile (Photo: Lexi Bonin)

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.


Saturday
Iggy Pop (Photo: David Evanko)

As we arose to greet Day 2 of our desert-hippie saga, we were refreshed to find that the campsite was way less rowdy than any of us were used to from our experience at weekend music festivals, with no noise at all past midnight and the morning crowd being seemingly as groggy and slow-paced as we were. Around 9am, we wandered over to the Mystic Bazaar to take part in a “Modular Sound Bath.” Entering the hut, we were pleased to find a huge group of people all sprawled out on the ground, as two ladies with flowers in their hair made drones out of crystal bowls and a bearded man fiddled with a synthesizer. We each found a spot to lie down, soaking in the humming sounds for about 30 minutes in what was possibly the greatest hangover cure I have ever experienced in my life. Refreshed, we cooked up some breakfast, got our bearings, and set off.

Once again, there wasn’t anything particularly pressing on my list until around 6 in the evening, but Saturday’s early lineup proved more varied than the day before. We checked out most of Winter, an L.A. band with a dream-poppy sound that got a nice jolt of energy from frontwoman Samira Winter’s infectiously joyous stage presence. Meanwhile, King Woman took things in the opposite direction, trudging through a procession of gloomy, metallic songs grounded by Kristina Esfandiari’s necromancing vocals. We meandered by the Thurston Moore Group, who basically sounded like Sonic Youth, and decided it was time to start checking out some of these other buildings in the festival grounds to see just what this Institute of Mentalphysics (??) was all about.

There were two separate indoor auditoriums that had been set up with audiovisual installations running throughout each day of the festival, sometimes with performers in them as well. The Sanctuary Hall was pure psychedelia, a massive room with projections running along the walls and ceiling with various lights refracting about the room (we were handed 3D glasses as we walked in), and made for a nice place to lie down and just absorb for a bit. The Noble Hall was a little less intense, featuring a variety of short films and animations from the likes of IHEARTCOMIX, Adult Swim, Brainfeeder, and even Paul Thomas Anderson. There were some tall, tinfoil pyramids inside lined with blankets that we hung out in for a while, until the time came to really kick Day 2 into gear.

(Photo: Zane Roessell)

Funny enough, Sleep were scheduled at the exact same time that Boris were on the previous day, and they essentially served the same purpose of unleashing night time upon the denizens of Joshua Tree, one billowing riff at a time. The band was performing all of their classic album Holy Mountain that evening, and even though my days of listening to stoner metal are mostly behind me at this point, it must be said that these three guys are absolute fucking monsters live. “From Beyond” flowed from one syrupy chord to the next, playing like some epic hair metal song slowed down to the most crawling pace imaginable, each note luxuriating in its own punishing, resonating overdrive. There’s an undeniable childlike glee at the heart of this music, the same sense of escapism and wonder that powers D&D sessions (and, of course, weekend-long music festivals), only distilled down to an absolutely elemental, encompassing force. The night was off to a great start.

Scurrying over to the Block Stage, we sidled up to see possibly the most legendary artist on this lineup, the wizard himself, Terry Riley. Performing on his keyboard as his son Gyan Riley handled the guitar, the two phased between various passages of beautiful, sparse music that evaded easy description or categorization. The two would occasionally find a loop and sink into it, piling arpeggios atop one another, but often they would just float in a new-agey drift, welcoming atonality into their improvisations, and above all just seeming to enjoy the pure act of playing with one another. It was a delight to behold, though sadly it coincided with my only major scheduling conflict of the weekend, as Avey Tare was playing on the opposite side of the festival. Having managed to catch a Riley performance last year, and being particularly fond of the new Avey Tare album, we left to catch the second half of Dave Portner’s set, which ended up topping Panda Bear’s performance as the best AnCo-related show of the weekend (not something I would’ve expected in years past). Drawing almost entirely from his new album, Portner held the stage down with just an acoustic guitar and some sound pedals, creating an intimate, colorful sway of half-songs that managed to feel both otherworldly and down-to-earth at once. It was simple and moving and stripped of the sonic hubbub of Animal Collective’s recent output, clearing the way for something genuine, emotional, and humble.

Terry Riley & Gyan Riley (Photo: David Evanko)

At this point, my feet and back were starting to feel the toll of the weekend, so we decided to hang back for a couple hours as we waited for the big headliner of the night, Iggy Pop. Scooting our way up to the front to get a primo slice of the action, Iggy eventually emerged with both middle fingers held high, and before I knew it he had already begun unleashing “I Wanna Be Your Dog” upon us in what was one of the horniest openings to a show that I’ve ever seen. For an hour-and-a-half, every hippie in the crowd transformed into a frothing, savage punk, lifting one another into the air and thrashing about as Iggy wildly flailed his arms and generally held complete command of the audience like some kind of elder gargoyle come to rob every last drop of innocence from the world. “Lust for Life” was pure joy, and as he tore through all the hits one could ask for from a music legend who seems to be bidding the stage goodbye, it was truly an inspiration to see how invigorating a 70-year-old human can still be.

Satisfied, exhausted, but doggedly determined to round out the night, we stumbled down to the Wright Tent to catch the remainder of Tortoise, an act that I thought I would probably never see but whose set was one of the classiest acts of the weekend. The band members took turns on one another’s instruments between songs, with the core of their sound revolving around jazzy vibraphone lines and John McEntire’s flowing drum rhythms, and strangely enough the group actually felt more in line with what an idealized “jam band” might sound like than any other act at this hippie festival. If Ty Segall’s set had reminded me of Mahavishnu Orchestra, these guys were all Return To Forever, mellow to a tee and offering a nice comedown to Iggy’s brute force. Unfortunately, due to either sound issues or a scheduling hiccup, the band stopped playing in the middle of one of their songs, looked around awkwardly, and then told us that apparently they had to stop playing. It was a bit of a shame, though at this point I was fairly ready to turn it in for the day anyways. We headed back to the campsite, and as we walked I noticed a powerful orange light emitting from the Mystic Bazaar tent. I peeked inside to see a group of people strung out and laying across the floor as one woman moaned like a banshee.


Sunday
Jerry Paper (Photo: Zane Roessell)

Our last day in Joshua Tree held easily the fewest priorities of the weekend, with a few stray early acts I was keen on catching but nothing in the headliner department I was too concerned about. Nevertheless, the day ended up being as rewarding and memorable as either of the previous two from the moment we left our campsite. Our first goalpost of the day was a “Desert Plant Walk,” scheduled to begin in the Mystic Bazaar at 12:30, though unfortunately we arrived a few minutes late just to find the tent full of people engaged in a pre-meditation ceremony that we apparently weren’t privy to. They said they couldn’t take any more people in until the walk began, but at that point the pre-walk circle hum seemed like a crucial component for us to miss out on, so we just decided to bail and get the day rolling.

To give you an idea of what the level of security was like walking from the campground into the music festival, on the third day as we approach the entrance, a security guard turned to us and said, “Alright guys, let me pat you down…JUST KIDDING HAHAHAHAHAHA” and waved us on in. We passed into the Wright Tent, where John Dwyer was DJing old rock and soul cuts. One of the songs he played culminated in a particularly righteous, swelling guitar solo, after which everyone in the crowd applauded, and Dwyer just shrugged and pointed to the record on his turntable. From there we wandered over to the Block Stage, where Drugdealer was capturing a wonderfully breezy, Fleetwood Mac kind of cadence. Weyes Blood was guesting on vocals for a handful of tracks, and the band’s upbeat sound lent itself well to her deep, silvery melodies. As they finished, we wandered over to the Book Nook, a mini-library run by the Stories book store in Echo Park which featured selections from the various acts playing at the festival. One book in particular — Metamagical Themas by Douglas Hofstadter, chosen by Jerry Paper — completely baffled and entranced me, and made me incredibly excited to see Paper’s set later in the day.

Death Valley Girls (Photo: David Evanko)

Meanwhile, Death Valley Girls were holding down the main stage with a scalding punk energy, with lead singer Bonnie Bloomgarden writhing around and taking pulls of Jack Daniels in between making doomsaying commentary about the dangers of the sun. Their sound managed to be retro without feeling stale, dark without being gloomy, and all around just exhilarating in the way that bands still playing punk music with guitars in 2017 should strive for. On the other side of the grounds, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith was envisioning a whole new sonic landscape, dipping into songs off her new album The Kid that weighed new-age mysticism with layered synth topography. Twisting the knobs on her Buchla synthesizer, her music boomed with a bassy authority that contrasted with its airy, more pastoral wisps of sound, which were made all the more hypnotizing by Smith’s hyper-processed, chanting vocals. During her set, a woman hiding her face in a scarf began loudly clapping her tambourine, and though it actually felt pretty appropriate with the sounds of the music, the people around her became visibly bothered, with one man eventually turning around and asking her to please quiet down. Immediately tearing down her scarf, the woman began screaming, “NO RULES IN THE PIT. NO RULES IN THE PIT,” to the dismay of everybody around her. The man attempted to quiet her down, before eventually giving up; later in the set, during a particularly ambient, formless song, the woman began to howl like a wolf.

We returned to the Block Stage to catch Weyes Blood’s set, which unfortunately didn’t live up to how lovely and smooth her songs with Drugdealer had been. Though Natalie Mering has an undeniable stage presence (aided in no small part by her charismatic banter and terrific choice in power suits), many of her numbers simply trudged along at a morosely slow pace, their cosmic, folky sway becoming a tad too monochrome to stand through for 45 minutes. Though there’s a certain starkness to her music that lends it an atmosphere all its own, I can’t help but feel like her wonderful voice would benefit from a more diverse array of songs.

(Photo: Zane Roessell)

Laying low for a couple hours, we returned to the tent around nightfall to catch Jerry Paper, who ended up being one of the most exciting acts of the entire weekend. Fully clad in a wonderful, striped tube dress, he pranced about the stage like an amateur karaoke star, his silly dance moves and un-flashy vocals feeling both triumphant and modest all at once. His band was absolutely locked-in too, decorating his songs with excellently cheesy saxophone and cartoony synthesizers that brought his lo-fi pop nuggets to life. It was a juicy spectacle that once again made me thrilled at the open-endedness that the festival’s theme allowed for.

As we reached the home stretch of the weekend, we wandered over to the main stage, where Eagles Of Death Metal had begun their full-throttle boogie assault. Though the group brought an undeniably high energy to their music, their vibe just felt a little bit off from the rest of the festival — people weren’t really moving, and the way frontman Jesse Hughes would take a break in between every single song to deliver a mini-sermon and ask the audience for an “amen,” it felt impossible for me to ignore the general hubris of this band. Knowing that Hughes is the kind of guy who can live through something as horrific as the Bataclan shooting in Paris and still come out as a vocal proponent of the NRA just taints their music, casting their good-time guitars in a much more toxic/boneheaded light. Still, the band delivered a strong cover of “Moonage Daydream,” and the back half of the set consisted largely of lead guitarist Davey Jo taking one endless, fiery guitar solo after another, his enormous beard being outmatched only by his enormous hat.

Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions were up next, and to be completely honest, as someone who’s never been particularly into Mazzy Star or the myriad of bands that have attempted to sound like them over the past 15 years, her set struck me as very boring. The stage was lit all purple, as one would expect, and I took the opportunity to go grab a surprisingly quality Chicken Tikka Masala wrap. We made our way back to the Wright Tent, where GØGGS, the second Ty Segall group of the weekend, were shredding their way through a lighthearted hardcore punk set. Segall took turns bashing away on drums and handling guitar duties, though the real show for me was watching a pumped-up group of teenagers towards the back of the tent joyfully thrashing around with one another and tearing each other’s shirts off. At one point, the group lifted up one of the kids to crowdsurf, only to then accidentally dunk him headfirst into a trashcan, the kid smiling the entire time. It was exactly this kind of heartwarming sight that made it clear to me why this kind of music is still important.

Spiritualized (Photo: Sheva Kafai)

With only two acts left on our lineup, we wandered over to the main stage where Spiritualized had just begun the swaying, bittersweet chant of “Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating in Space,” bringing the whole weekend to a close in a surprisingly graceful fashion. Having not heard anything from the band in some years, their set felt like a warm greeting from an old friend, their rock-band style of psychedelia making for a fitting end to the festival with its colorful touches of elegant piano and gospel-dashed vocals. Jason Pierce’s voice sounded as smoky and classic as ever, and between the slow ramp of “I Think I’m In Love” and the mysterious drift of “Cop Shoot Cop” (complete with 10-minute noise freakout in the middle), the band’s set ended the whole weekend on a calm, yet enveloping note. We caught a few songs from Unknown Mortal Orchestra for good measure, and though the group got into some funky jams (particularly on “Ffunny Ffriends”), their music just doesn’t really sound as good once you strip away the lo-fi production of their records.

And with that, Desert Daze 2017 was in the bag. Looking over my notes, the sheer amount of bands that I had managed see in three days outnumbered almost any other festival I had ever been to, to say nothing of the caliber and variety of performances I had seen. Though there had been no shortage of hammy hippie-isms to test one’s patience for gift-shop mysticism, the whole air of the weekend had been so welcoming and fun, the people we met so friendly, the location too breathtaking to ignore. Desert Daze seems to be hanging on the precipice between blowing up into the next major SoCal festival and maintaining its intimate roots, and it’ll certainly be interesting to see where the festival goes from here. But for now, Desert Daze has proved itself a magical beast in its own right, a unique festival happy to stand apart from the countless other heavy-hitters in the field these days, a lovable lone wolf gazing stoney-eyed into the desert night sky.

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