Desert Hearts comes to the city … and though it’s not the same, the heart remains

Scene at the Desert Hearts festival (Photo by Jake West, courtesy of Desert Hearts)

After being blindsided by near-impossible, unforeseen expense and policy hurdles that arose from their most recent campground location at Lake Perris, Desert Hearts, the boutique SoCal music festival boasting the simple mantra “House, Techno, Love,” returned this year with a last-minute Hail Mary that was much closer to its humbler City Hearts counterpart than its typically extravagant weekend campout. Rather than a lakefront spot in Moreno Valley, the festival went off at the L.A. Coliseum in Exposition Park on Saturday, May 6, and Sunday, May 7.

For reference, it’s important to point out that facing similar challenges, Desert Hearts’ contemporaries like Dirtybird Campout and All Day I Dream have postponed their California festivals to 2024. That left Desert Hearts as the sole community that was willing to take risks and challenge their community of hyperbolically weird house-, techno- and fashion-loving misfits — many of whom were willing to forgo their expectations of camping, nature and 72 nonstop hours of music for whatever the masterminds had cooked up in their makeshift psychedelic lab for two jam-packed days. Did it beat pulling the plug?

The 11-year festival was certainly no stranger to challenges, from losing their first real location almost instantly at the La Jolla Indian Reservation in 2013, to a strange almost-canceled one-off in the high desert of Apple Valley (nostalgically renamed “Arctic Hearts” on account of the snow that surprised the campground early Sunday morning), from losing their long-time home, the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation after COVID, to accepting and adapting to the much larger and more public Lake Perris in 2022. Unfortunately, 2023’s hurdles were daunting. With unforeseen price hikes, inflation and new regulations imposed by their apprehensive but potentially adaptable new home (a state park), Lake Perris became an impossibility.

If any thought rang truer throughout the weekend, it was “expectations are the thief of joy.” Did I expect to lose myself for multiple days in a carefully crafted wonderland in a psychedelic playground fractalized across the Lake Perris campground, free from Los Angeles’ endless lines of cars, concrete, homeless and day-to-day hustle that we’re all trying to escape? Yes. But when I compare what I actually experienced to the absence of an event altogether, I realize this experience needs to be seen through an entirely different lens. Was there still joy? Absolutely.

The magic of Desert Hearts and its decade-long effect on the electronic music scene lies within the ever-strengthening connection between each person in attendance and their consistent purposeful intention of spreading as much love as possible. These events are necessary. Whether you flew in from Austin or drove up from San Diego, you were destined to find a community of positive people committed to the same cause. Life is better with good music, good people and good vibes. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

As a longtime Desert Hearts devotee, I can fairly say that this was a surprisingly successful pivot, considering the cumbersome circumstances. The Desert Hearts extended family still delivered. Every DJ went full send. Chinosound (collaborating with NorCal Soundworks and Magnetic Sound) accomplished sonic perfection, living up to their reputation, and the two stages sounded pristine with no noise bleed, truly tapping into the acoustics of the giant coliseum towering just beyond the event space. While the venue was a concrete jungle in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, at least one of the stages was nestled into a nook by a shadowing tree with the sun blinding us enough to forget where we were. Alternative Lighting Solutions painted the stages with their signature psychedelic tapestry as well, giving the Coliseum the unique Desert Hearts touch. While many of the auxiliary theme camps and rabbit-hole destinations were sadly missing, the Pile Palace was still a cuddly reprieve from the daytime sun and constant walking between two stages and a couple of art cars plus the typically vibrant vendor row added some flare to round out the experience.

This year’s pivot can be forgiven once, considering the circumstances, but it’s important to remember that, at its core, Desert Hearts is a living, breathing organism best executed in an expertly actuated vacuum. It’s a weekend camping experience in the welcoming wilds of Southern California, where time seemingly pauses, your environment melts together, and there is no other world around you other than the forever-beating heart of the one festival stage, invigorated by the electric connection among the dance-floor disciples.

Organizers need to find a way to bring back that magic … or forever change the name to City Hearts.

In spite of the frenetic one-hour sets due to time constraints, the music was also pretty damn solid all weekend. Here are some highlights:

Derrick Carter b2b Mark Farina on the Desert Hearts Stage

Probably the best b2b of the weekend, these two Chicago House legends effortlessly showed off their skills honed from decades in the scene. Perfectly time-slotted, their oozing house synergy soundtracked the setting sun behind the giant torch atop the Coliseum on Day 1. My only gripe was that they were forced into a 1-hour set, something that should be avoided for all DJs, let alone a b2b. Thankfully Dirtybird’s Justin Martin expertly picked up their baton and continued the sprinter-paced marathon into the night with ease.

Miss Monique on the City Hearts Stage

The green- and black-haired Ukrainian progressive house DJ, Miss Monique, was a perfect fixture atop the City Hearts Stage, adorning the booth like a neon sprite that might as well live in the psychedelic nooks and crannies behind the cacti on a stage that looks like its been weirdly designed in a bizarro art world operated by Lisa Frank and George Washington Carver. Neon and nature commingled and cross-pollinated in an alien landscape with a soundscape best fit for extraterrestrial orgies.

DJ Seinfeld on the City Hearts Stage

Swedish artist, DJ and producer Armand Jakobsson is a man with multiple aliases, from his housey stint as Rimbaudian, to his almost jokey DJ Seinfeld moniker side project, to his jungle alter-ego Birds of Sweden. Ridiculous sitcom references aside, Jakobsson is the exact opposite of the kooky everyday observational humor implied by his nom de plume. You should definitely take him seriously. He delivered a tight set of his standard bouncy beats and warped vocal samples that had the dance-floor jumping as the sun slowly set behind the goliath Coliseum.

Shaded (Live) on the City Hearts Stage

L.A. native and Desert Hearts extended family staple Shaded has quickly proven to be a consistently reliable addition to the always-stacked lineup, delivering fully live and original sets that punch from beginning to end, whether it be 2 hours or the rare 1-hour set this year. This hour felt like so much more, chock full to the brim with his signature Shaded sound. Prolific producers like this outside of Berlin are few and far between, but we are blessed to have this juggernaut in our own backyard.

Partiboi69 at the Festival on the City Hearts Stage and the official After-Party

Australian G-House DJ and producer Partiboi69 may seem like a gimmicky internet phenom, but don’t let his fratboy handle and ridiculously meme-tastic look fool you (with his long hair and half-cocked sunglasses always hiding his smirk, he shows he’s clearly in on the joke). Half the festival-goers seemed to be dressed in his signature look anyway. But the after-party in downtown L.A. is where he was able to truly let his freak flag fly. I’m not sure it was worth the $50 price point to squeeze in a few more hours that would typically be gratis on the festival grounds, but Partiboi69 always pays his weight in gold chains. Honestly, I’m not sure he is even real. He’s more like a hyperbolic representation of the peacocking trickster that lives within us all and only gets let loose in those rare 5 a.m. benders when we don’t want it all to end. I guess we all have a little Partyboi69 in us.