Roy Jurgens on
Iggy Pop had searched and destroyed Saturday night at Desert Daze, and the wear and tear was starting to show on Sunday’s campers. Friday’s fashionistas were now Sunday’s Tusken Raiders, as people wisely sought comfort over glamour. The blinding morning sun shone down upon the art garden, with attendees laughing, climbing, lounging, taking selfies among the various installations. The intoxicating smells of various exotic cuisines were wafting through the air. The third day of the world’s best-ever adult summer camp had begun.
Sunday would end with a blast from Eagles of Death Metal and varying degrees of spectral wonder from Spiritualized, Hope Sandoval and Cigarettes After Sex, but it was not hard to think about 2012, when Moon Block Party’s Phil Pirrone conjured up the first Desert Daze. It was an ambitious, struggling little festival, attempting to present an alternative to Coachella, which had lost its outsider pedigree. After some up and down years, 2016 found established entertainment entities Spaceland Presents and Knitting Factory Entertainment joining the fold, bringing with them the financial support, credibility, booking and big-game experience needed to take a boutique festival to the next level. Unlike Live Nation, which typically devours smaller events and transforms them into full-fledged corporate sponsorship opportunities, Spaceland/Knitting Factory saw not only opportunity but beauty in Pirrone’s organic vision and supported his endeavor as partners, not occupying armies. Additionally, the group found a willing progressive partner in the City of Joshua Tree. One can imagine that resources were stretched with thousands of campers descending upon the city, but the the money pumped into the local economy was well worth it.
The festival grounds, the Institute of Mentalphysics (aka the Joshua Tree Retreat Center) were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and his son Lloyd with the intent of having the structures interact with the desert surroundings. Those guys pretty much nailed it. Thusly, the Desert Daze had a free and relaxed essence that is absent from most other events. In many ways, the grounds themselves were a headlining act, spurring relaxation, art, contemplation and even activism. The set times along the three stages were staggered so that one could reasonably get from stage to stage in about 10 minutes, should you ignore the amazing food, hipster shopping and beautiful people along the way. There were multiple outdoor “living rooms,” a book garden, yoga events, film, meditation and a nightly afterparty in the artist’s village for those still awake and fortunate enough to attend.
But about Sunday …
11:23 a.m. — Imagine standing in line for a breakfast burrito and a familiar voice emerges from behind. Why that’s Miranda Lee Richards playing beautiful folk songs in the Mystic Tent for breakfast. Time to linger.
11:59 a.m. — Goddamn, these breakfast burritos are good. Goddamn, Miranda Lee Richards is good.
12:40 p.m. — The Moon Stage kicked off the day with all kinds of “Summer of Love” vibes from L.A. lads the Creation Factory. They’d be the best ’60s cover band of all time if they didn’t write their own material, which is a terrific Strawberry Alarm Clock/Traffic/Hollies/Jefferson Airplane/13th Floor Elevators-inspired mishmash. And they’re smartly dressed and coiffed as well. They are another of several area bands mining the “Nuggets” catalog for inspirational treasures. What to make of this? Heck, I hated my grandparents music.
1:10 p.m. — “We’d like to dedicate this next song to Elon Musk, because we know he’s here,” said Drugdealer singer Michael Collins in his best deadpan. “Yeah!” screamed a tie-dye-garbed acid head in the midst of the crowd. It actually got a lot more funny from there. Imagine Burt Bacharach writing songs for Tinder while on benzos. “We’re dedicating the next song to George Carlin, who is here,” said Collins. “Yeah!” screamed a tie-dye-garbed acid head in the midst of the crowd.
1:34 p.m. — Heard outside the 3D deep drone light installation outside Sanctuary Hall: “Fuck man, it doesn’t open until two, and I’m peaking right now.”
1:45 p.m. — Death Valley Girls are campy, punky fun. Imagine if some city kids got lost in the desert, ran into some scary characters, escaped with their lives, adopted badass alter-egos, and then peeled out in a GTO and ended up in Robert Rodriguez film. Or something like that.
2:00 p.m. — The art installation Circular Dimensions by Cristopher Cichoki was something to behold. Donning 3D glasses, one enters the domelike Sanctuary Hall where you lie supine underneath a pulsating sound bath of light and sculpture. It was all rather soothing and womb-like and I did not wish to be reborn back outside into the desert.
2:25 p.m. — Dreamy, ethereal whale noises are great and all, but not in the mid-afternoon sun. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s electronic travels on the Block Stage are beautiful creatures indeed, but they are more suited to a late-night chill tent accompanied by the glimmer of a light show. Anyone not chemically enhanced is bored right now.
3:15 p.m. — The Babe Rainbow are from a lovely little seaside town called Byron Bay, Australia. Things to do in Byron Bay include surf, drink, smoke weed, eat poor versions of Mexican food, visit the lighthouse and shag on the beach. Every so often you get a band that sounds exactly like where they come from. On the Moon Stage, the Babe Rainbow sound like they come from Byron Bay.
3:50 p.m. — Continuing on the theme of sounding like where you come from, Joshua Tree’s Earthlings? fit that bill. A side project of Rancho de Luna alumni Dave Catching (also of Eagles of Death Metal) and Pete Stahl, they filled the Wright Tent with perfect two-lane highway desert-driving music — electro-grunge with spooky, spoken-word interludes from the guys who live the high lonesome lifestyle.
4:45 p.m. — Allah-Las are another local band that mines the Sixties for inspiration. While not considered surf music, the band borne out of working friendships at Amoeba Records creates a splendid mix of light and breezy Cali rock. Hence, the Allah-Las would sound great in a convertible with the top down weaving down the 101, and did a reasonable interpretation of that in the waning afternoon light on the Moon Stage.
5:24 p.m. — Where Allah-Las were like watching paint dry, Fever the Ghost, in the Wright Tent, were like watching Jackson Pollack paint a fleeing Keith Haring with a paintball gun. Featuring a revolving crew of costumes and characters, their set was a loud, smashing party not unlike the goofy bash the Flaming Lips are famous for throwing, but without Wayne Coyne’s underlying melancholy.
6:11 p.m. — I’ll admit, I’ve had L.A. Witch mixed up with the Death Valley Girls … like how for the longest time I thought Lil Jon and Lil Wayne were the same guy. Cut me some slack, I’m old. Truthfully, the two L.A. bands aren’t similar beyond the basics of heavy mascara and danger. At dinner time on the Block Stage, L.A. Witch’s sound lands in the sweet spot somewhere between the Velvets and the Jesus and Mary Chain.
6:31 p.m. — Three days of sand, dust and sweat have me smelling like a rancid goat, regardless of how many baby wipes and French showers I’ve gone through. But that’s ok, everyone here is sexy and gamey, so it’s a communal thing.
6:45 p.m. — “Welcome to my front yard,” Eagles of Death Metal guitarist Dave Catching said to a roaring crowd. The hometown boys were going to throw a party and for a full hour it was rockabilly metal going full throttle, screaming through through the desert evening. New bassist Jennie Vee made for a pleasant distraction away from Jesse Hughes and Eagles’ greasy trailer-park personas. One could sense that playing an outdoor desert venue near their hometown was a special experience for the band and they delivered a blistering set accordingly.
7:40 p.m. — For a long time Mazzy Star’s 1993 album “So Tonight That I Might See” was a go-to record for initiating romantic intent. Hey, when you find something that works, stick with it. Hope Sandoval has that voice that makes you close your eyes, open your heart and drift away. Painfully shy, Sandoval performed on the Block Stage from an unlit shadow, which only added to her mystique. Tellingly, her rapt audience didn’t clap with the same fervor they did for other artists. This wasn’t because they didn’t enjoy the performance. It was because they were in such a trance, clapping would have seemed like too much effort or break the mood.
8:25 p.m. — Attempting a shortcut to get to Spiritualized, I accidentally stumbled upon a couple procreating within the bushes. This stands as proof of my “Hope Sandoval initiating romance” theory. Be careful kids, some of those desert succulents are pretty mean. Desert Daze marketing director Britt Witt informed me that a couple had indeed made a baby at last year’s festival, and that they came to this year’s with a 3-month-old in tow.
8:40 p.m. — About 25 years ago I smoked a “jazz” cigarette that, unbeknownst to me, someone had laced with PCP. A close “friend” decided to take advantage of my altered state and put Spaceman 3 on the stereo. I spent the next several hours feeling as if I was strapped to a helicopter blade. Where am I going with this? Jason Pierce was the leader of Spaceman 3, who were the musical equivalent of LSD. In 1990, Jason Pierce moved on to form Spiritualized, who are the musical equivalent of LSD. Alas, I was spared from having acid flashback issues with Pierce, who spent the entire set conducting and playing from an office chair (he has been struggling with severe liver ailments for years and yet soldiers on). Pierce and his band roared through his set of hallucinogenic trips, which had inklings of R&B within the storm, bringing a soothing and ascendant aura to the chilly evening.
9:55 p.m. — Closing out the festival’s Block Stage, Portland’s Unknown Mortal Orchestra is a jagged musical catharsis. Leader Ruban Nielson comes across as affable and happy-go-lucky, but once you deconstruct the songs you can see there is quite a bit of pain and sorrow beneath the veneer. This is challenging music with a pop beat that is easy to sway to, if you want to stay on the surface, and heavy experimental jazz, in case you wish to delve deep.
10:30 p.m. — I raced downhill to catch the last song of Brooklyn’s Cigarettes After Sex in the Wright Tent. Dreamy, understated, breathless, ethereal, they were the perfect musical Ambien for the end of the night. Not seeing more of their set was a bummer.
10:55 p.m. — Desert Daze was special because it felt not of this earth. It transplanted you into a place where there was no outside world. Few things can do that, and certainly not for several days. At the afterparty in the artist’s village, a bunch of ’90s hipster babies were dancing groovily to the Rolling Stones’ psychedelic classic “2000 Light Years from Home.” For one memorable weekend we all were.