The Last Great Festival (before COVID): Desert Daze 2019-2020-10-06 09:30:52

By ELI JACE >

Photography By Erika Reinsel >

Let’s trip back one year ago this weekend.

To a time when musicians held outdoor concerts for massive groups of comingling, dirty, despondent, drugged out groups of people camping in close proximity with little running water. It was the tail-end of festival season–October 10-13, 2019.

 

The last great event before COVID-19 would put down the entire concert industry for 2020–the 8th annual Desert Daze music festival held at Lake Perris, California. After eight years it has found a unique slice of musical representation on the spectrum of stoner metal—free jazz. This is the festival’s second time being held at the scenic campgrounds just west of Palm Springs.

 

The Last Great Festival (before COVID): Desert Daze 2019-2020-10-06 09:30:52
Midday lake gazing early Friday at Lake Perris. Photos by N. Leon. Composite by Eli Jace.

DAY 1: OCTOBER 11, 2019, FRIDAY

Music on the brain. Anticipation high.

Feet antsy waiting in line. First thing to alarm the senses after mucking through security is Lake Perris, set back above the tent-tops and stage speakers. Art installations scattered, awash in color. Giant white sheets flapping in the breeze. Everyone in a state of confused ecstacy.

 

From a distance I see Jessica Pratt, sun bearing down. Her voice feathers above the churning crowd. For a moment I’m in it. Over at the Theater stage comedian Fred Armisen is minutes into his “Comedy For Musicians But Everyone Is Welcome.” He assuages everyone’s dumbstruck mind. Some corny bits, and now he’s going through a relay of regional accents, state by state. His Arizona is a muttered drawl. It feels like a live Portlandia sketch and is an icebreaker for such an overwhelming scene.

 

The lake is stunning, glittering in the distance, pulling in colors off the lights as they signify the start of night.

Opening Ceremonies have officially begun with Ian Svenonius and Alexandra Cabral. In slick black leather, they’re ginning everyone up. Svenonius slides across the stage with warped scuzz guitar and Cabral pounds on her keyboard. Waiting for the legendary Stereolab out of London. After a decade-long hiatus, they returned to the road in 2019, touring with Wand who plays later tonight.

 

The Last Great Festival (before COVID): Desert Daze 2019-2020-10-06 09:30:52
Stereolab’s Lætitia Sadier performing Friday night.

 

Singer Lætitia Sadier steps out with co-founder and guitarist Tim Gane; the band follows. They play songs from almost every one of their 13 albums in a seamless thrust of deep-space disco. Cooler than cool. Stereolab is a neon orange popsicle, a yellow bike ride in summer. Fried blue and purple electrolytes on the fade-out. Quick dip back to camp and Witch is mucking up the soundwaves at dark. The Vermont stoner metal group with Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis on drums is not to be confused with W.I.T.C.H., the Zamrock group, whose name stands for We Intend To Cause Havoc, playing later tonight.

 

The campsite still an unknown plane of dried out shrubs and unmarked walkways.

Vodka surge not helping. Stumbling back towards the fairgrounds and “Banshee Beat” by Animal Collective fades in. I can hear it. It’s pulsing unevenly over the parking lot. The purple furry suit I’m wearing gets caught, or my legs get tangled, I don’t know, but I’m the dirt, pathway disappearing. Shrubs are boobytraps and I hear Avey Tare singing, “There’ll be time to just cry and wonder why it didn’t work out.”

 

I’ve arrived in time to blurt out the chorus and the song cracks with a single note change. “I duck out and go down to find the swimming pooOOool!” Too dizzy to surge through the packed crowd. Sitting against the outer rightward wall I lapse into a half-dream world. A voice enters and I return to the field. Some figure of security stands above me and asks if I’m okay. I nod thankful and pick up in time for “No More Runnin'” and the hysterically jubilant “For Reverend Green,” played for the first time since 2006.

 

The Last Great Festival (before COVID): Desert Daze 2019-2020-10-06 09:30:52
Animal Collective’s Avey Tare on the main stage Friday night.

My drunk subsides and I’m in the pocket for The Flaming Lips‘ performance of The Soft Bulletin.

I’m in a gaggle of superfans from Michigan all geeked out in big sunglasses and droopy clothing. The Lips enter the stage. Wayne Coyne is sharply dressed, all-white head to toe, and most of his hair now. Fastened across his breastplate like a bra is a black leather holster complete with lock and unidentifiable gadgets. He’s brought out one of his more recently used prop concepts for us. Extended above his body, out like wings he’s holding silver lettered balloons that read FUCK YEAH DESERT DAZE.

 

“Race For the Prize” clicks off and they break the egg of The Soft Bulletin and let its yolk spill all over. Soon as the song starts Coyne throws the balloon into the crowd. It slackens inward and is pulled apart by every freak with an outstretched hand. I grab a fistful (and will use it to wrap holiday gifts.) The gush and ooze of pure love. An institution of psychedelic sunshine. The Lips turned their classic 1999 album into an endorphin-throttling live-action cartoon extravaganza. The gong was banged. A medley from Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was played. An encore milked for all eternity. Back at campgrounds I am collapsible.

 

The Last Great Festival (before COVID): Desert Daze 2019-2020-10-06 09:30:52
The Flaming Lips leader, Wayne Coyne, performing Friday night.

 

DAY 2: OCTOBER 12, 2019, SATURDAY

First band up is Big Business, from Seattle.

It’s two guys up there, Jared Warren screaming and playing bass; Coady Willis on drums. It’s a midday pummel of some thick beat-down metal. Peek-a-boo, I see Devo. Fell into a crowd pepped up with anticipation. Pogo punk with biodegradable luminescence. On the screens flash a mishmash of early-MTV graphics–did a wafer just sweetfuck a donut? Uh-oh, the band is making a dress change. The red energy dome hats are out for “Girl U Want.” Lord, this unsuspecting psyche trance is rising. Their cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” has the groove tightened, pitched and diluted with hairbrained precision.

 

Mark Mothersbaugh, mid-song, has asked how it feels to be living under a tyrannical minority with all his carnival barker gusto. An unspoken dirge has settled among the crowd. A weird pall of quiet anxiety. I don’t know where the fuck I am. I’ve been sucker-punched. Standing here slackjawed. It’s not just “Whip It” and phone commercials. This band’s main implementation is to be heard live–electrifying, engaging, inspiring, radical, goofy and flooded with energy.

 

The Last Great Festival (before COVID): Desert Daze 2019-2020-10-06 09:30:52
Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh performing on Day 2.

 

A period of wandering.

Gleaming structures speckle the darkened landscape. Colored lights float along the sand. I’m drawn into some cactus cut-outs near the shore (“Space Mushroom Cacti Garden” and ” Wood Wizard Wall” by Brad Rhadwood). I see faces melting, winking, morphing animalistically and can’t tell if it’s the lights, indigestion, or the art itself. I must look like a true maniac staring at this right now.

 

A nearby presence breaks my spell and a conversation starts with a man who in the dark looks like guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez but is really a French drummer. Lights reflect off his glasses and we discuss our common musical identity. A dark-eyed girl with a luring face shrouded in black hair enters the circle. She looks back and fourth at two drummers and smokes her cigarette. She asks each our Zodiac sign. I can’t hear his answer. We’re both Cancers.

 

I wander towards the Sanctuary tent where a hum is shaking the ground.

DNTEL is playing whooshing drones to a group sitting cramped from tentpole to pole, dazed by the deep electronic gurgle moving like ocean sludge. There’s a group literally asleep in a big dogpile. I fit myself into a corner and feel the buzz.

 

The Last Great Festival (before COVID): Desert Daze 2019-2020-10-06 09:30:52
Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova on the edge Saturday night.

 

Skronking mic feedback at the Theater stage waiting for Pussy Riot. Frontwoman Nadya Tolokonnikova and the group are plugging in wires frantically. No warning–lights out. A shaky video collage splashes across the members, standing poised. First tone strikes and the crowd grounds. Deep house bleeding the speakers. I’m packed in at the front of the stage. At my back a woman taller than me in a thick fur coat keeps whiplashing up and down, trying to break through the human blockade. Her bones are in my back. She leans in close, whispers in my ear, “This is our time,” and presses into me the full energy of the moshpit.

On stage each member wears a neon balaclava pulled down.

Two dancers gyrate with precise electric energy on either side. They stare from eyeholes without emotion. The music is live drums and an electrical onslaught of hyperdigitized beat content. Scorching and confrontational. Tolokonnikova is the engine, soaking the whole crowd in their own sweat. On “Hangerz” she screams the refrain, “My body does not need advice from a priest!” Fur coat woman is mixing it up in the moshpit, pushing and pulling limbs, shouting, “If you’re a white male, this isn’t for you!” My breath barely makes it out of my lungs as the final note rings out.

 

The ringing, the ringing. I’ve stumbled now into a polar opposite scene. Temples are playing their Wal-Mart psychedelia. Every rail thin white male dances like seaweed in an underwater current. Rainbow lights. I turn my head and the girl of my zodiac sign from earlier is there. She offers me the very last half-filter drag of her cigarette and disappears in the shadow crowd when I decline. I look behind, turning all the way around, then walk through the limpid bodies. The trail of cigarette smoke scent dies and the wandering continues.

 

The Last Great Festival (before COVID): Desert Daze 2019-2020-10-06 09:30:52
Flying Lotus in 2-D.

A three-dimensional dog with the face of Flying Lotus sits on a couch.

The video features director David Lynch and is our outré intro to Flying Lotus 3D. Throughout the day boxes filled of 3-D glasses were placed about. I had pocketed one. As the clip finishes, FlyLo walks out. His DJ setup looks like a giant melting boombox. Behind him is a huge fucking screen that pulls everyone in and out.

 

The visuals splash on the screen–too difficult to describe. Beyond the crystalline 3-D, there is such rapid movement to the visuals. Zoom pan-directionally through this Weird Cosmos. This spot of earth we stand on feels like a spaceship hurling forward on the whims of every beat drop from the turntables. When I can focus on FlyLo he looks like a 20-foot tall pirate slinging bags of coins. His dreads spin out sunbursting. This is future 3-D. Acid with a clear tongue. Walking outward from the throng I have to double-check the veracity of these glasses. When my feet hit the beach sand, I focus on making it to the front of the Theater stage for The Locust.

 

Goddamn sound issues again. Waiting with wrists bent against the rail.

Waiting as Justin Pearson figures out the mechanical failures. The band is dressed in tight buglike bodysuits outlined in caution yellow. All four members wear helmets with face shields covering their eyes. Ant-Man on the set of Blade Runner 2089. Another return act of the weekend–The Locust haven’t played for us heathens since 2013. It’s begun. My back is a bolt upright in a metal grinding machine. The band plays their instruments like jackhammers. The music is grating, toneless–a gnawing irritant like its namesake. A large man dressed in a pinstripe clown suit and an old punk mohawk just lumbered out sidestage, lingered for a moment, then dove drunkenly headfirst into the throng. Take a breath when you can.

 

The Last Great Festival (before COVID): Desert Daze 2019-2020-10-06 09:30:52
Justin Pearson for The Locust early Sunday morning.

 

It’s over. The dust creates a milky haze that only the colored lights can break. In the sand scattered among ripped cups, broken eyeglasses and trash is a 6-inch dagger. No blood, but still menacing. There are two surfaces of which I walk. At the Mystic Bazaar I follow a strangely familiar sonic glow. Radiojed is playing decontextualized Radiohead songs for a slow-ending twitching night.

 

DAY 3: OCTOBER 13, 2019, SUNDAY

Alvvays in the distance.

Wavering on strip of grass, walked on by legs and feet–beer counter to my left. Fatigue causing a fade… Sun is lower in the sky. Up ahead the screens are black and red. The Black Angels are starting. Alex Maas is out with the maracas, hat pulled down low. The band is already in flux. It’s dark by the end of B-side “Molly Moves My Generation” and the hallucinations are beginning. The band is in total control. Each note hits the back of the neck. The Black Angels arguably are the band to fully encapsulate the core sound Desert Daze is known for.

 

The Last Great Festival (before COVID): Desert Daze 2019-2020-10-06 09:30:52
The Black Angels’ Alex Maas at sundown on Sunday.

 

Night has fallen for the final time. Ride was a last-minute addition, taking the place of Japanese psych hero Shintaro Sakamoto. Sakamoto was to be making his U.S. performance debut, but got held up because of a typhoon in Japan. After seeing Ride perform a few songs, I’m stopped by two guys my age. One asks what I thought of some band. I humor the question, but he keeps digging. His friend, standing to the side, is smirking and I realize this guy thinks I’m someone else.

 

My feet lead me into George Clanton‘s tent.

I dance to a few songs. In the distance from the Moon stage are deep blue hues emanating. They’re calling me. Pushing through I come across the French drummer from Day 2 and we watch the first-half of Khruangbin‘s set. The trio from Houston are owning the positive vibes put forth tonight. Pure musicianship that brings one close to tears. By the time I get in closer the group has its audience melting with a sleek hip-hop medley and cover of Pink Floyd’s “Have A Cigar.”

 

The Last Great Festival (before COVID): Desert Daze 2019-2020-10-06 09:30:52
Khruangbin performing Sunday night.

 

Burned out but persistent I make it to The Claypool Lennon Delirium and am pretty close right before the lights go on. Les Claypool, from Primus, and Sean Lennon, from the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, Cibo Matto and John, enter through the fog. Lennon wears a captain’s hat that spills hair down his back. Claypool is suited up with a crisp felt bowler hat. They begin the night’s second Pink Floyd cover, “Astronomy Domine.” Half their set comes from South Of Reality released earlier this year. They finish with The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

Speed-walking to catch a glimpse of the Wu-Tang Clan

The 9-man rap crew out of Staten Island, New York are scheduled to play their 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). The full rapt audience is before me. The screen turns on and plays a trailer for the show Wu-Tang Clan: An American Saga on Hulu. Finally every rapper is on stage. All fanfair. The classic album I guess has started. Can’t quite recognize the songs–beats are different. Growing antsy and heading back over the lumpy sandgulf to the Theater for Lightning Bolt.

 

The Last Great Festival (before COVID): Desert Daze 2019-2020-10-06 09:30:52
Les Claypool performing with The Claypool Lennon Delirium on Sunday.

 

Crushed against the fence. Drummer Brian Chippendale is positioned with his left side to the crowd. It’s everyone’s last chance to splash in the pit and you can hear the anticipation in the anxious yelling. Chippendale slips on his mask with the microphone human-centipeded to his mouth and gives it a test. Sound issues again. A scrambling of frustrated barks. The crowd responds to each scream. Bassist Brian Gibson stands patiently. Sound issues solved, or at least sidelined, and it starts. High-contrasted rainbow lightshow for the jolt. Lightning Bolt is pure noise of wood steel skin cymbal and amplification colliding with a rhythm of happenstance.

 

Out of breath, distant bruises not yet revealed–the grass is squishy. 

I linger outward, lay down and get up. Pockets of flashing colors spread out. Here and there are unaccounted for bodies, passed out, in a sleepstate. Dead Meadow rings out over everything.

 

The moon is well hung in the sky. Every drug is pumping its last molecular transfer. Many have already left the campgrounds leaving strange vacant lots in the tent neighborhood. Most are asleep too exhausted to move. At the Mystic Bazaar there are a few groups milling about and a trail leading into a tent. It’s Jjuujjuu & Friends set up for the Closing Ceremonies.

 

The Last Great Festival (before COVID): Desert Daze 2019-2020-10-06 09:30:52
Sean Lennon performing Sunday night with The Claypool Lennon Delirium.

I peak over shoulders and see that Claypool and Lennon are here for the final jam. 

The one for those who’ve misplaced time. I see Phil Pirrone of Jjuujjuu, and king godmother of Desert Daze, and others at a small stage. Since the Mystic Bazaar is part of the campground, we bring our open containers, smokeables, edibles and settle in for what happens once and only once.

 

As the final beats accumulate and hit their peak, Claypool slips out a slit in the tent. Lennon soon follows. When the music finally does stop Pirrone sticks around to meet everyone left, and outside the sky has turned its first post-twilight shade.

 

 

Hopefully Desert Daze Number Nine can get back to it double time in 2021.

 

Photos used with permission from photographer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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