Desert Daze, Day 1: Barnett & Vile, Ariel Pink, Boris and other alternate dimensions

Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile at Desert Daze (Photo by Zane Roessell)
Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile at Desert Daze (Photo by Zane Roessell)

“The only devil out here is the dust,” a masked security guard informed a driver as a car was checked for contraband at the entrance to the sixth annual Desert Daze festival. Truthfully, the dust on the compound of Joshua Tree’s Institute for Mentalphysics wasn’t that bad, and all the devils playing the festival’s stages more than made up for it.

The brainchild of Phil Pirrone, the man behind Moon Block Party and a whole host of other events, Desert Daze seems to have something for everyone, including everyones you didn’t know existed. Set amid a placid desert camp between Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree, three stages rotated between indie-rock to Euro-pop to free-form psychedelia to sludge metal. The ease of travel between stages, the unique art installations, the plethora of interesting and delicious food choices along with a Mom-and-Pop-oriented tent village for shopping make Desert Daze feel as if it’s happening in some alternate dimension, where it’s 1968 but with 2017 technology. Someone made the excellent point that you could have a great time here and not see a single band. By not following that lead, attendees are blessed with enjoying some pretty incredible talent.

Here’s how the day went:

1:45 p.m. — Emel Mathlouthi’s North African world/electronic fusion may have may been more aptly placed in a late-night chill-out space, but the Tunisian singer-songwriter riveted what small audience she had with her gorgeous serpentine melodies. She treads the line between what is known as “world” music and then taking her heritage and creating something sultry and alluring.

3:25 p.m. — Austin garage-rockers Holy Wave came and kept it weird, ticking off all the boxes when it came to the druggy psychedelia one would expect from a festival such as this. The desert dust inside the Wright Tent only adding to the light show, as fractal beams gave it architecture.

3:55 p.m. — If Lux Interior and Iggy Pop had a love child, it would be Starcrawler’s Arrow de Wilde. Clad in an impressive overstuffed codpiece, de Wilde writhed about the Block Stage like an electric eel, driving their frenzied neo-punk stylings into an ever-building crescendo of a musical heroin trip. This gal has charisma to burn and guitarist Henri Cash can slash with the best of ’em.

4:35 p.m. — Out on the main Moon Stage, popperfic Francophones La Femme sound sweeter than a pile of fresh macaroons. Drawing from influences such as Francois Hardy and Jane Peynot, they are indeed French as fuck, and yet there are inklings of surf, ’80s dance-punk and even some indie-rock scrapings throughout their set. They are an analog version of a digital pop band.

5:05 p.m. — Some artists wear their influences on their sleeve, and in the case of Froth’s Joo Joo Ashworth, he wore it on his torso, in the form of a Ride T-shirt. These boys aren’t breaking any new ground with their set, but cascading shimmer this good stands on its own. There was all kinds of shoegazey caramel dripping from their set in the Wright Tent.

5:40 p.m. — The saying goes that if you can’t say something nice … Oh hell, Drinks are art-school noise masked in the trappings of indie rock. They are the anti-song, and they wear that badge with pride. There is the occasional band that you struggle to get, and with them, the struggle was real. It was odd, because the primary members of this band have both done brilliant work in the own right, Tim Presley with Darker My Love and then as White Fence and Cate Le Bon in her remarkable solo work.

6:15 p.m. — The mighty Boris had no problems with pretension. It was a cape — long, flowing black ones — they wore with pride. Playing at a bowel movement-inducing volume, the Tokyo trio, celebrating their 25th anniversary this year, are skilled at playing a 10-minute long intro to a song that never seems to arrive. Monstrous riff after monstrous riff, it was slo-core metal played on the Moon Stage amid enough dry ice smoke to hide an airborne assault team. Imagine if you will a Japanese metal Sigur Ros, but metal, and Japanese. Should amplifier manufacturers want to do any extreme testing they would do well to employ this band. Boris were hilariously bold and left one truly puzzled as if their act was some sort of inside joke that had gotten out of hand.

7:10 p.m. — Panda Bear’s chill electronics on the Block Stage were a welcome relief after Boris’ hail to the sonic Satan. Borne from those kooky kids in Animal Collective, Noah Lennox weaves quite a tapestry of sound, drawing in bits of classical, hip-hop and dub. Not a DJ, and not a band, it was more an on-the-fly soundtrack composition for a film the audience never saw.

8:00 p.m. — Ty Segall is one prolific dude, having produced and recorded an astonishing amount of work for one just entering his third decade. The O.C. native has an aw-shucks charisma that’s sweet enough to draw you in, just so you’re close enough for him to smack you in the face. The songs in his set on the Moon Stage drew from metal, punk and glam yet aped none of those styles in an obvious manner. His set progressively morphed into a runaway train, on fire. Segall was preceded by the delightful post-punk weirdo Ian Svenonius, who officially opening the festival.

8:35 p.m. — Mad respect to the departed king of soul, but Lee Fields is the second hardest-working man in show business. He transformed a white plastic Wright Tent into a proper Carolina juke joint. Backed by a cracking six-piece band of R&B pros, Fields got sweaty despite the desert cold moving in. Charles Bradley, sadly, has left us, but we can be grateful the Lee Fields in carrying that funky torch.

9:25 p.m. — Yes, there was jazz. Of course, young Canadians BadBadNotGood are not your typical staid quartet, bringing influences as varied as Ornette Coleman, Krautrock and hip hop into their collective stew.

10:15 p.m. — Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile essentially threw their record-release party for their collaborative LP “Lotta Sea Lice” in front of a few thousand hungry hipsters. Those two are made for each other, as their sing-song deliveries play well off one another, recalling the patron saint of the deadpan delivery, Lou Reed, but sadly without uncle Lou’s piss and vinegar. They sang of a “Continental Breakfast,” “Blue Cheese” and, yes, percolators.

11:30 p.m. — Closing out the night attendees had the choice of two parties, Ariel Pink’s goofball indie-pop confections on the Block Stage or the hirsute beasts known as the Budos Band in the Wright Tent. Each made for a happy crowd. Ariel Pink’s happy songs about horrible things have one wondering if he really just did say that while bouncing and smiling. Meanwhile the eight-piece Budos Band scalded their audience with a volcanic blast of crunchy neo white boy soul, and left a chanting crowd begging for more.

If it all sounds like musical whiplash, it was. Thankfully, all the body parts are now loosened up for the next two days of Desert Daze.

Photos by Zane Roessell