Desert Daze 2016: Live Music in Joshua Tree

 

eardrums-happily-ruined-atA three-day weekend spent in California’s high desert at a music festival left eardrums happily ruined.

As a burning super moon crept above the hills of Southern California’s high desert, it cast into relief the silhouettes of thousands of people and Joshua Trees dancing in unison to the beat of Desert Daze music festival. Together we thumped and bobbed, dust covered and mesmerized by the insane riffs raining down from the main stage. Bound by the moonshine and united under bandana masks, we joined the collective conscious of rock & roll.

Desert Dazed, But Not Confused

For the first time Desert Daze — a festival of music now in its fifth year — moved from spring to fall, bringing bands and fans out to the desert Oct. 14-16. While it has changed in ways since its debut in 2012 (when it was an insane undertaking of more than 120 bands performing on two stages over 11 days), Desert Daze remains intentionally small in comparison to the Coachellas and Lalas of the music world, focusing on providing a consistent, reliable experience that for the most part eschews typical festival culture pitfalls.

This year that meant a three-day event with 70+ bands that melted minds across the Institute of Mentalphysics, a 420-acre desert retreat center with Frank Lloyd Wright architecture some 120 miles east of Los Angeles in Joshua Tree. Though the fest wasn’t strictly broken into genres, each day carried a definite undertone with it: Friday plucked jammy, while Saturday pitted punk, and Sunday tripped on a psychedelic lean. Droves of psych-loving campers and day passers made the trek to bask in the musical rays of bands like Primus, Television, Washed Out, the Black Angels, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the Sonics, Foxygen, Thee Oh Sees, Temples, Pond, and more.

One of the many things Desert Daze got right is the schedule. Unlike many large festivals, here few bands had to compete with overlapping set times. The two main stages (Moon and Block) roared just a short distance apart and rotated acts back-to-back, while a brief downhill trek past vendors led to the Wright Tent, where shorter sets had to share the spotlight only briefly with the larger stages.

Day 1 Photos

 

All About That Bass Line

Headliners may be the main draw for many attendees, but it’s the earlier sets from those lesser-known bands that really shape any festival experience. At Desert Daze that translated into transcendent performances from a few notables, including Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, who filled the Wright Tent with tracks from their latest record, A Man Alive, a decidedly more intense collection of songs from their previous work. The punk-rock, all-female stylings of the Coathangers never disappoint, particularly when paired with desert sunset haze and a sand-kicking mosh pit. Metz, another three-piece who played the sun down on Day 3, were equally compelling, while the dreamy psychedelic tinges of Sugar Candy Mountain were sweet as can be.

While the music that rattled the three outdoor stages was the focus, additional programming included speakers, yoga, film screenings, various healings and readings, and sound baths (a high desert specialty). In all, being at Desert Daze took little effort — if anything, the festival fed energy back into its participants, a rarity in this scene.

Day 2 Photos

 

Reasons to Go:

  1. It’s pure mellow. The crowd kept it cooler than even Newport Folk Festival, which is full of old-timey softness. There’s something to be said for the hippie-ish crowd here — this was hands down the friendliest festival this writer has attended.
  2. The lineup is consistently killer. The Desert Daze track record is trustworthy (hello, Moon Block organizers!), which means that new-music discovery is inevitable.
  3. There’s a strong environmental lean. The festival ran a recycling program that gave out VIP tickets to next year’s Desert Daze in exchange for collected cans, cups, and the like collected and turned in. Plus there were no plastic water bottles to be seen — the fest hydrated solely on Boxed Water.
  4. The costs were appropriate, for the most part. Sure, a PBR set you back $7 at the bar, but security was super lax in terms of letting people bring in their own boozy goods, so long as glass bottles were left at home. Three-day festival passes started at $140, camping at $75, and the whole thing was all-ages. Which brings us to reason No. 5.
  5. It’s family friendly. Seeings kids rock out with their parents is kind of rad. No, scratch that — it’s straight up priceless. Underage kids have too few opportunities to see live music in a setting that isn’t (solely) about getting high.

 

Day 3 Photos

 

Highlights:

  1. Thao & the Get Down Stay Down frontwoman Thao Nguyen’s out-of-body intensity during her set ender, “Meticulous Bird.”
  2. Thee Oh Sees’ dual drummers. Enough said.
  3. The super moon’s red glow as it rose massively and quickly behind the Moon Stage between sets.
  4. Sugar Candy Mountain’s brunch set on Day 3, with frontwoman Ash Reiter thanking Primus for opening for them the night before.
  5. The Black Angels ripping through their debut record, “Passover,” in its entirety to celebrate the album’s 10th anniversary.
  6. Three days straight of black boogers caused not by smog but by desert dancing.
  7. Australian outfit Pond (with members of Tame Impala) spewing somehow uplifting self-deprecation between songs.
  8. The casual style of Part Time frontman David Loca, with one hand on the wireless mic and the other slouched in his pocket.
  9. Deap Vally inviting the unofficial mascots of the festival to dance onstage.
  10. Cherry Glazerr frontwoman Clementine Creevy just being Clementine Creevy.
  11. Gazebo hangs with a rotating cast of new friends and midnight naps in the Mystic Bazaar.

 

The author, post Coathangers mosh pit
Hannah Lott-Schwartz is a lifestyle journalist based in San Diego. You can creep on her on both Instagram and Twitter at @itsaseahorse or read more of her work at itsaseahorse.com or journalistmusttravel.com, her forthcoming travel and lifestyle website. She attended Desert Daze on a complimentary three-day press pass in order to cover the festival for We Said Go Travel.

 

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Hannah Lott-Schwartz

An award-winning journalist with an ear for music and an eye for adventure, Hannah tells stories for National Geographic Traveler and Adventure; the in-flight magazines for United, Delta, and Hong Kong Airlines; Robb Report, and more. She’s quick to say “yes”—most recently to motorcycling Morocco with a mustachioed stranger—and is a well-versed guacamole snob. While San Diego may be basecamp these days, Hannah is a woman at home in the world.

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