Desert Daze Recap
by Saeli Eshelman
There are two things one should know about Desert Daze. First, everyone on the lineup is amazingly good and incredibly important and/or innovative. And second, everyone sounds absolutely incredible live; like, lifted off their records level of good. In short, Desert Daze is one of those rare festivals that feels kind of perfect, and seamless: all of the acts started promptly and there were no real technical difficulties. What ensues, then, is a weekend consistently filled with the cacophony of beautiful sound and art, melding perfectly in the trippy setting of the Institute of Mentalphysics in Joshua Tree. (As an aside, every band’s visuals rock throughout the weekend, with lots of old-school oil projections and just generally hallucinatory inspiration.) The only thing I can even complain about was the amount of dust, and that’s just a result of being in such a beautifully pristine part of the desert, surrounded by a unique natural landscape.
Being that this was my second year at this festival, I knew the lay of the land a little better. Some art pieces and meditation centers were familiar, as were the stages, so I was able to spend the first hour or two of Friday just traversing the grounds, checking out all of the interactive, visual, and sculptural installation art. Unfortunately, I was a pretty sick going into this weekend, so I was relatively low-key in terms of the amount of artists I pushed myself to see. But the beauty of Desert Daze is that it is not like the rat race of other festivals, where you can only see half of each act, and you can’t walk without physically running right into throngs of people. Desert Daze still has the DIY-charm that all early festivals should, providing a more contextually aware audience that is both respectful and reflective. This creates a joyful, yet totally relaxed setting for everyone to fully enjoy whatever creative pursuits caught their eyes (or ears, tastebuds, and noses).
One of the installations along the path from the Moon Stage to the Wright Tent
In light of the sheer excellence and transcendence of each and every band I saw, I’ve decided to shy away from my usual “top” acts. Instead, I have listed each artist we saw in order, with a little blurb about the set. Let’s begin!
These French psych-pop punk rockers shined in the sun with a mix of laid-back tunes and some rap-like vocals, melding sounds. Their audience interactions were superb and irreverent, getting everyone dancing. Also they’re all too cool and fashionable.
As a frequent collaborator with Ariel Pink, Maus put on a post-punk/synth-pop show that particularly tickled my fancy. His experimental sounds mixed with his unique voice made for a sublime set that was hauntingly melodic and beautiful, yet always a little weird.
As a long-time Animal Collective fan, I’ve so thoroughly enjoyed watching each member branch off do solo work. Panda Bear has been the most commercially successful, with his down tempo electronic chillwave (that draws on many genres for inspiration). Buzzbands said it best about how this translated to his set: “Not a DJ, and not a band, it was more an on-the-fly soundtrack composition for a film the audience never saw.” I’ve never more thoroughly enjoyed swaying wherever the beat and Lennox’s warped vocals took me.
Lee Fields & the Expressions
After the loss of Charles Bradley this year, it was such a treat to see another soul and funk legend shredding it on stage. His six-piece backing band jammed and Fields’ interaction with them, as well as the audience, was so thoroughly endearing. The improv and call and response amongst everyone that are basic tenets of soul, made this show lively and hot despite the dipping temperatures outside the tent.
Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile and The Sea Lice
Barnett and Vile are truly a match made in musical heaven, with their respective takes on indie rock mumble core. They both focus heavily on ironic lyrics and their deadpan delivery. Because of this, their collaborative album Lotta Sea Lice has been highly anticipated, and getting to see this partnership come to fruition on stage was so mesmerizing. Their sounds meld perfectly, and we still got to hear some solo stuff.
Ariel Pink was just outright fabulous. As an artist with a storied past in terms of live performances, it was so exciting to see him in such good form, right on the heels of a superb record, Dedicated to Bobby Jameson. His lo-fi pop sensibilities were on full display, with a great backing band, and a terrible Beverly Hills tank top. A walking contradiction, his happy up-beat music about off-kilter topics made for a bubbly crowd.
Thurston Moore Group
Sonic Youth is a band that I have never seen live, so seeing Thurston Moore in all his feedback-laced and guitar-shredding glory was a special experience and opportunity. They lived up to their noise-rock roots with My Bloody Valentine‘s Debbie George on bass.
Avey Tare is another solo artist originally from Animal Collective, but as the main vocalist with the four-piece, his music is far away from Panda Bear’s electronic mishmash. Instead, this set saw Avey with a mic, guitar, and some sort of electronics, sounding more like psychedelic indie folk-rock than anything else. It was intimate and sonically complex, filled with loops and his specific brand of shrieks.
The Velvet Underground is hands-down my favorite band of all time. And I will always regret not getting a chance to see Lou Reed live before he passed. So getting to see John Cale was particularly special for me. He pulled from all over his expansive solo catalog, a show in minimalism and alternative, yet classical sounds. And he played “I’m Waiting for My Man,” giving me a small sense of closure over Reed’s passing.
I was lucky enough to see Iggy Pop at FYF just a few months ago, where he was absolutely stellar. His Desert Daze set was very similar, so I will say what I said in my FYF recap: “Iggy Pop is a renowned performer known for putting on kick-ass shows. He played all of his hits, and still has every shred of rocker sensibility, spinning and throwing the mic stand at times and yelling obscenities at the crowd. He may look his age, but he sure doesn’t sound it.”
Going into this weekend, Chicago garage rockers Twin Peaks may have been the band I was excited to see. I’ve been a fan for a while and after seeing them live for the first time at Coachella this year I was hooked; their energy is off the charts, and they sound even better than their records, both sweet and angry. While the overlap with Iggy was unfortunate, I had plenty of room to dance, and that’s what I did the whole set.
Twin Peaks merch I picked up
The Allah-Las sonically occupied a space similar to La Femme, and literally were on the stage at about the same time. They have a 60s rock sound with a bit of surfy flare. Their music is light in the best sense of the word, getting everyone to their feet and rocking along in the afternoon sun.
Al Lover was my best find from Desert Daze last year, billed as Al Lover’s Dronal Dissonance. This year, I specifically sought him out as a beautiful slice of serenity and rest, where you could sit or lay and just enjoying the droning, gong-like reverberations of polyphonic and meditative tunes. (Note: This was the only set I saw at the Mystic Bazaar and the setting was cozy and well-decorated.)
Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions
My parents raised me on bands like Mazzy Star, so it was exciting to see Hope Sandoval in her current iteration of dreamy folk-pop with the Warm Inventions. While it was tough to remain totally in the moment when I couldn’t see the unlit Sandoval, her voice is so sweet, pure, and otherworldly that you remain transfixed. The whole set cast more of a mood than anything, punctuated by soaring yet restrained vocals.
Cigarettes After Sex
Cigarettes After Sex, while not the final act I saw, felt like the perfect punctuated end to the weekend. Melancholic and sweet, it was a sonic continuation of Sandoval’s cutting vocals and ethereal sound. They were both ambient shoegaze, and kind of pop-like, always hazy and chockfull of lyrical prowess on topics of love. They sounded hauntingly beautiful and the show was dimly lit and personal, captivating the audience at every moment.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Since I stayed for the entirety of Cigarettes After Sex I really just caught the last three songs by these indie rockers. I’ve seen them about half a dozen times at this point, and like always their sound and presence is big and catchy. Their sound and material is layered yet always easy to get into based on groove-ability alone. For me, Sunday was the most musically mellow day of the weekend, so it was fun to end off on a couple danceable tracks before heading back to Los Angeles.
Like I said in my closing sentence last year, “True indie vibes runs throughout every part of the festival, bringing strange and amazing sights and sounds every crowd can enjoy.” And I stand by that, after another wonderfully easygoing musical experience.
Thankfully, I’m not the only one who appreciates the superiority of this fest. This talent-packed weekend is no longer so under-the-radar, but don’t take my word for it, check out these other great reviews of Desert Daze from OC Weekly, LA Times and Buzzbands.la!
See you there next year!