Desert Daze Fest Serves Up a Modern Quest for Infinity

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By Lindsay Krause

Joshua Tree, California transformed into a mecca for divine freaks of all sorts this past weekend for the 5th edition of Desert Daze. The festival boasted one of the more intriguing alternative lineups of the year, pooling legends such as The Sonics, Television, and Primus with underground darlings The Brian Jonestown Massacre, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard and The Black Angels. The venue for the celebration, a retreat center known as The Institute of Mentalphysics, offered a supermoon lit desert paradise for the already mind-bending lineup. Not only could Desert Dazers catch a plethora of soul satisfying tunes, but there were additional offerings such as morning yoga, sound baths, and a (somewhat hilarious) cacao ceremony.

Friday

After setting up camp among the ancient trees and wandering past the slanted stone guest cabins (designed by world renowned architect Frank Loyd Wright), I found myself at the Moon Stage. The Saharan sounds of Tuareg guitarist Omara “Bombino” Moctar floated above the sunset, instilling a nomadic wanderer vibe that would persist through the entire weekend.

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Temples – Photo: Elysandra Cruz

Over at the neighboring Block Stage, UK psych-pop foursome Temples performed songs off their debut album Sun Structures, as well as their new single “Certainty”, alongside two bizarre costumed dancers with metallic streamers covering their faces. The band seemed unaware that they would be joined by the alien duo, and the dancers exited the stage after one song. Back at Moon Stage, Toro y Moi delivered sizzling nu-disco grooves fit for a romantic tryst under the star speckled sky. One thing that began to stand out about the musical offerings at Desert Daze was that although many acts could be described as “psychedelic”, the variety and nuances within that sub-genre were plentiful. One could easily adventure to stages offering everything from swooning swirling visions, to dance beats fit for a go-go girl, to headbanging trip-outs; all sounds falling under that magical lysergic umbrella.

The Sonics rolled through a career spanning set, stomping out boiling garage rock hits like “The Witch” and “Strychnine”. I was handed two beers by a tall blonde surfer dude from Venice. I noticed that unlike large scale mega-festivals, the tightness of the community could truly be felt while standing in the audience. However, the action truly began after Australian fuzz-gods King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard turned on their amps. The prolific 7-piece incited a raucous dust storm while closing the Block Stage, tearing through tracks off of their most recent (and infinitely looping) release Nonagon Infinity. It was as if a nuclear bomb of sweat, LSD and speed was dropped directly onto the mosh pit, the size of which rivaled most dive bars. One battle wounded comrade didn’t even notice the stream of blood exiting his nostrils and continued moshing.

Wrapping up the night on the main stage, Deerhunter soothed dusty fest-goers with an hour plus set stuffed with their ambient and experimental indie offerings.

Saturday

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The Coathangers – Photo: Giorgia Autelitano

Native Angelinos L.A. Witch brought their dark punk sorcery to the midday sun scorched crowds on Day 2. Fellow L.A. residents Wand satiated early crowd surfing cravings during their late afternoon set, bringing a bit of metallic sludge to those engaging in mind expanding substances. Atlanta’s female punk equivalent of The Black Lips, The Coathangers, blasted the main stage while lead singer Crook Kid Coathanger screeched “Shuttup! Shuttup!” during a track I imagine myself singing to Donald Trump.

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L.A. Witch

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Wand – Photo: Elysandra Cruz

Thee Oh Sees’ demented California garage rock throw down included a body-rocking, tripped out panda bear suited fan that leapt offstage and into the arms of the ballistic crowd. Lead singer John Dwyer was sure to mention to the security, “No need to rough him up” as piles of brave fans skimmed their way over the barrier after floating on top of the madness. Quintessential Austin psych band The Black Angels delivered a career defining set shortly after, tackling the entirety of their debut Passover for its 10-year anniversary.

One band that every fest-goer seemed to be pumped about was the headlining set from Primus. Their giant astronaut inflatable loomed behind Les Claypool as the band bellowed tracks like “My Name is Mud” and “Jerry Was a Racecar Driver”.

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Connan Mockasin

An intimate late night performance by New Zealand dream pop artist Connan Mockasin led one fan to remark, “I felt like I was being serenaded by him and his weird family in his living room”. The platinum locked singer proceeded to remove his velvet track suit to reveal silver silk pajamas, only adding to the cuddly vibe. Outside, the Blood Moon bathed the winding down Dazers after the final set of the day. It seemed no coincidence that the festival formerly known as Moon Block Party had chosen such an auspicious lunar even to coincide with this year’s musical gathering.

Sunday

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White Fence

The final day of the fest brought cooler temperatures to the slightly fatigued crowds. Scuzzy lo-fi punks Meatbodies amped up early desert wanderers as close pal Ty Segall watched from the side stage. Over at the Wright Tent, Tim Presley, better known as White Fence, coaxed the energy even higher. “Cleaning, fooling, never hungry. Want to live like that!” he cooed as frantic feet kicked their way to the ceiling in the crowd. A Johnny Thunders cover by the L.A. musician spoiled listening ears.

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Foxygen – Photo: Elysandra Cruz

A somber moment for many was the Alan Vega  tribute; the wound still fresh after the artist’s passing in July. The Suicide vocalist had been an inspiration for so many of the artists performing that weekend, and was given honor by Ariel Pink, Greg Foreman of Cat Power and others. Shortly after Jennylee wrapped up her set on main, ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” sounded into the dusk, and a dance party broke out as folks waited for the next act. Strangers dancing in the golden hour, it was an enlivening pause in time and space. Aussie imports Pond transported the audience to a space-age disco, blasting off with last year’s “Elvis’ Flaming Star”. The group features past/present members of Tame Impala, and debuted two new tracks from their upcoming album. There was tension in the air as fans migrated to the Block stage to catch the return of San Francisco love train Foxygen. Due to sound issues, the band came on over 20 minutes late. The group’s lead singer Sam France had been involved in controversy last year over abuse allegations from his ex-girlfriend. In what seemed to be a moment of pure vulnerability, the dry winds swept through white fabric streamers fluttering above the stage, and Sam twirled and stomped with arms spread open like airplane wings. The look in his eyes seemed to plead for forgiveness as he encouraged the crowd on “Shuggie”: “If you believe in yourself, you can free your soul”.

Iconic NYC strummers Television packed the main stage on the final evening, delivering a once in a lifetime rendition of songs off Marquee Moon. Lead singer and guitarist Tom Verlaine, now 66, delivered a flawless vocal performance. If you closed your eyes, you could easily time-travel back to CBGB 1974. Closing out the festival with a 2-hour set, The Brian Jonestown Massacre seemed to glow before the immaculate liquid lights delivered by Mad Alchemy Light Show. As they are known as a band that often plays 4 hour sets during their own shows, this performance felt a bit short. Singer Anton Newcombe reminisced about childhood memories of buying bullets at a store nearby at the age of 10 and riding his bike through the desolate terrain. Tambourine man Joel Gion put on a hilarious show, throwing his instrument high into the sky before collapsing to the ground to catch it.

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I was a bit heavy hearted to see such a beautiful event come to an end, but befriended my camping neighbors and had those “deep talks” that only come after surviving a magical desert festival for three days (with the help of some extra magical substances). As we chatted around our “campfire” constructed of propped up glow sticks, we could hear tribal drumming and chanting coming from the nearby Mystical Bazaar. It was the Cacao Ceremony, an entheogenic activity becoming more popular in this community. Often ingested as a warm drink like hot coco, cacao is the purest form of chocolate, untainted by factory processing that dilutes its adrenaline inducing properties. Basically, it’s a bitter elixir that gives you a mild hyper-euphoria which is relatively safe. Apparently in Berlin, they are doing lines of the stuff in clubs. Suddenly, we hear in the darkness a small girl creep upon our campsite with a crazed look in her eyes. We were unsure of what substances she may be on, and welcome her to come talk to us to make sure she’s ok. The assumption is that she had partaken in a tab or two of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, but in fact, she admitted it was the cacao.

Rumors as to whether the festival would be held in the same spot next year entered casual conversation, as the locals are concerned with the impact it’s having on the environment. Wherever the next Desert Daze ends up, I have no doubt that the lovely souls in attendance for the 2016 edition will be making the return trip. Organizer Phil Pirrone (of JJUUJJUU, who also performed) curated a multi-sensory experience through installations, spiritual offerings at the Mystic Bazaar, engaging light shows, and a lineup that could not be pulled off by other festivals (except perhaps Austin’s Levitation). This was a truly transformational gathering, with each being welcoming the other with open arms. I look forward to seeing what Daze the Sonoran Desert entices us with next year.

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