Desert Daze 2021: Scaled-down but unrivaled in breadth, vision

The War on Drugs, Friday night's headliner at Desert Daze 2021 (Photo by Josh Beavers)

From headliners such as the War on Drugs and Kamasi Washington to powerful sets by the likes of Ty Segall, Yves Tumor, Sudan Archives and A Place to Bury Strangers, Desert Daze lived up to its reputation as the most daring, eclectic festival around.

Nearly everyone is familiar with the following scenario … long-lost relatives, or partners, or lovers and friends, running towards each other, shrieking with joy as they finally meet after a long spell apart. That joyful spectacle repeated itself dozens of times at this year’s Desert Daze festival at Moreno Beach on Lake Perris. Like a long, postponed family reunion, fans and several of the acts returned to celebrate what has become one of the most eclectic and daring festivals in the country.

There was no 2020 Desert Daze due to the pandemic, and the 2021 version was in question until a few months ago, when festival founder Phil Pirrone and partner Morgan Margolis (CEO of Knitting Factory Entertainment) decided to make a go of it. “The original plan was to do multiple Desert Daze shows at Pappy & Harriet’s throughout the fall. However, due to logistical disagreements, that proved impossible,” said Margolis, “so in late July, we decided to take a swing at doing a scaled-down version. We didn’t want to gamble on a large festival and decided to return to our roots instead. The reality is that they pulled off creating this festival in four months. Phil and the Desert Daze team did a remarkable job pulling this together in such a short time.”

So the lakefront festival was mounted with just one stage and 24 acts across three days. What resulted was a relaxed, amiable weekend of music across a wide spectrum of genres. The kaleidoscope onstage mirrored itself within the crowd, which was diverse in ethnicity, taste and age. It would be quite challenging to find two acts more diametrically opposed than NYC noise merchants A Place to Bury Strangers and L.A. jazz maestro Kamasi Washington, and yet they both appeared on the same stage on the same calendar day.


For many, Friday was about the soaring and melodic Philadelphians known as the War on Drugs, playing their first show since the release of the band’s new album, “I Don’t Live Here Anymore,” last month. The day saw many highlights, however, from Desert Daze alumni Deap Vally’s transformation from stomp duo to full-scale rock and soul revue (their new album “Marriage” is out this Friday) to DIIV’s multi-faceted shoegaze. Ty Segall’s exhilarating shred-a-thon was cut cruelly short due to time constraints, and the crowd expressed some dismay. Friday’s greatest insanity took place after the witching hour. Vancouver-based clown car art-punk weirdos Crack Cloud’s performance could best be described as sound in your head when the Molly finally kicks in. They were followed by the terrifying white squall of A Place to Bury Strangers, as longtime leader Oliver Ackermann destroyed at least four guitars throughout their murderous set.


Saturday began with Partisan’s latest signing, Geese. These teenaged miscreants rambled through a set reminiscent of Television and the Strokes. Off to France to support labelmates Idles, these kids have a bright future. Pachyman’s dub flowed nicely across the beach. Violinist Sudan Archives delivered a one-woman show full of African and Irish influences. Devendra Banhart and Andy Shauf performed sets of precious chamber-pop. But the day clearly belonged to Kamasi Washington. Flanked by his ridiculously talented band of jazz pros, Washington led the crowd on an extraterrestrial journey through space and time, warping both before returning to earth safe and sound. Festival founder Phil Pirrone took upon the unenviable task of following Washington with his band JJUUJJUU, playing a rich set of psych-rock that danced beautifully under the stars.


Sunday started with church, as Oakland-based prog popster Spellling and her multicultural ensemble performed a joyful and spiritual set into the mid-afternoon sun. She was followed by entertaining sets of thrash metal by SASAMI, and space jams by Tokyo guitar wizards Kikigaku Moyo. Desert Daze vets the Black Angels are a one-trick psych-rock pony, but that pony is very, very good. They were followed by Crumb’s meandering cosmic musings. But the night was owned by a most welcomed fiery set by Yves Tumor, who channeled Prince, Bowie and Manson while confronting the crowd with an aggressive set of riff-heavy glam rock. Charismatic Japanese Breakfast had the unenviable task of playing after Tumor, but she won over the crowd with her endearing and unconventional pop songs. Toro Y Moi closed the festival with a slick performance of the groovy chillwave he is known for.

The magic behind Desert Daze is not just its diversity, but its willingness and acceptance of that diversity. Like a giant buffet line, but of music, one could sample and experience bands that one would never consider seeing. And so, ears were pricked up, heads were turned, and explorations led to fandom. Desert Daze is everything Coachella once aspired to be — experimental, multicultural, accessible and important. Here’s hoping Pirrone and Co. go for a 10th version of this festival in ’22.

Photos by Josh Beavers