Looking around at all of the handkerchief covered faces in the crowd, it seemed as if a train robbery themed flash mob might break out at any moment. Rarely can a bandana be considered a useful accessory, but when Desert Daze rolls around, the thin, square pieces of cloth becomes an absolute necessity. The three-day festival is held on the grounds of The Institute of Mentalphysics in Joshua Tree, California, and when the crowds of people move between the Moon Stage, Block Stage, and the Wright Tent to catch their favorite artists, they kick up a lot of dust. If you couldn’t figure out were the music was coming from exactly, you just follow the small dust storm created by the migrating herd. This of course is where the handy dandy bandanas come, well, in handy for all of the people that aren’t into choking and sneezing from dust inhalation.
Desert Daze must be doing something right. The crowd seemed bigger than last year and certainly with a little more international flavor. One only had to strike up a conversation with a few people to meet someone that flew in from places like Scotland, France, or Australia. Some recognizable people from last year’s audience were also in attendance; yeah person with the lighted giant carrot on a stick, you were noticed. Kudos to the people running Desert Daze for making a solid festival even stronger.
Photographer Wes Marsala and I arrived at The Institute of Mentalphysics in the middle of the afternoon with the music of two bands intermingling in the temperate desert breeze. With our sunblock applied and aforementioned bandana masks filtering the dust from the air destined for our lungs, we took a bit of time to familiarize ourselves again with the stage layouts, art installations, vending booths, and lavatories. With our memories restored and changes noted, we headed to the Moon Stage to catch one of the founders and former member of seminal art/noise rock band Sonic Youth, Thurston Moore.
It was still fifteen minutes before the Thurston Moore Group was to begin, but we wanted to make sure to find the perfect spot to check him out. As we approached the stage, it became clear that the guitar tech checking the equipment for the set wasn’t a tech or roadie of any kind. Thurston, longtime Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, bassist Deb Googe of My Bloody Valentine fame, and Nought guitarist James Sedwards were doing it all themselves. With levels ready and instruments in hand, Thurston and his band bantered a bit as they waited for the ok to start. Moments later Thurston scanned the crowd, introduced his band, clutched the neck of his worn sunburst-painted Jazzmaster, and began melodically picking out the notes of “Turn On” as a young woman loudly proclaimed the audience’s love for him. The musicians worked their way through songs like “Smoke of Dreams” and “Aphrodite” from Thurston Moore’s latest album, Rock N Roll Consciousness. The songs went from soft and melodious to jarringly discordant and frenetic, sometimes within a few bars. The band deftly work their way through the music choosing to more succinct album versions of some songs while exploring the melodies on others in more long form jam versions. While most of us would have liked the set to go on longer, all good things must come to an end. Thurston bid us farewell, and many of us headed to the Block Stage to catch the next act.
As we approached the Block Stage, The Gories were finishing setting up. The sun in its descent to the horizon blinded everyone in the audience from center stage to stage left. Being no fool, I headed stage right to check out the trio from Detroit. In doing research prior to attending the festival, I found that Jack White credited The Gories as being an influence on his band The White Stripes. While it is sometimes hard to hear the influence that a band might have on another one, the sparse garage sound of The Gories owes much to punk and the blues and features very straightforward drumming. In addition The Gories singers/guitarists Mick Collins and Dan Kroha rely on the crashing backbeat of Peggy O’Neill’s two drums and one tambourine without ever really missing a bass player. Dan Kroha addressed the crowd, “Some of you may have heard of us; some of you have not. We’re The Gories, and we’re from Detroit.” The band feverishly set into “Goin’ to the River,” as the unindoctrinated among us quickly learned how good this band is. They rocked through songs like “Telepathic” and “I Think I’ve Had It” winning more fans as the sun set.
After we left the Block Stage, we walked around the art installations. Platforms with rainbow painted mannequins with skull heads stood just beneath a similar mannequin with a single eyeball for a head. Tents positioned next to the rock maze contained media like a television/VCR combo with a video loop playing a clip of a man warning of the impending apocalypse, more mannequins painted in gold hieroglyph and coded script, and a wishing well with a 8 bit monitor in the opening. People took turns sticking their heads in the dozens of art pieces as conversations ran the gambit from scandals and politics to the mundane. The best line of the night came from the area as one guy explained to his friend, “I’m not taking acid with Tim no more. He always just starts tripping and calls his dad.”
After sampling some food and beverages from the Desert Daze vendors, we headed to the Wright Tent to check out Animal Collective co-founder, Avey Tare. David Portner, who goes by the moniker Avey Tare, sat on a chair with a laptop on a table to his right and a rack with guitars to his left. A small, single, multicolored spotlight illuminated him from head to waist as he pressed play on the backing track to his first song. It was a loud, mushy, swirling soundscape that hung over the crowd. He picked up his guitar and began to play and sing quietly as the background rhythm coming from his laptop overpowered his soft contemplative song. It almost seemed like the songs didn’t match as some of us began to wonder if there might have been a mistake. Well, there hadn’t been. Though the next two songs were not quite as schizophrenic, it became immediately clear that Avey Tare is an extremely experimental artist using all kinds of ambient sounds melded together to create his vision. Music is an art form, and art can be polarizing. Avey Tare was not my cup of tea, but there were many in the tent that seemed to enjoy his music immensely.
While Oldchella aka Desert Trip did not return in 2017, Saturday night of Desert Daze seemed content to bring in a few legends of the older, albeit a bit more less mainstream variety. John Cale, best known for being one of the original members of the Velvet Underground, is in his seventies and Iggy Pop, famous for his band the Stooges and solo work, turned seventy this year. Both are fantastic songwriters and legends. Both were brash, experimental, and exciting in their youth. Both are very different experiences live.
John Cale stood behind his Kurzweil keyboard. With his disheveled white hair and soul patch, dressed in a black coat, he regarded the audience for a moment before playing songs from his four decade solo career including “Leaving it up to You” and “Rosegarden Funeral of Sores.” While the music was dark, moody, and sharp, Cale was largely a stationary figure, painting the air with his largely doleful sound. He moved only to play guitar for a song and quickly moved back to his keyboards for the most melancholy version of “Heartbreak Hotel” ever recorded or performed. Soon after, he revisited his Velvet Underground days to the delight of many in the audience playing his keyboard with the same urgency that he did when he recorded “Waiting on the Man” all those years ago. He would go on to play another song, but it was time to get to the Moon Stage to get a good spot to catch Iggy Pop.
Within moments the keyboards started driving a familiar tune as the guitar, bass, and drums pounded “I Wanna Be Your Dog” as Iggy Pop shimmied on to the stage, dancing all the way to the microphone stand and snatching it up with, well, raw power. Shirtless in tight blue jeans, the grizzled, sinewy, leather skinned seventy year old whirled, danced, and prowled the stage with a presence that no one matched that day. The crowd began to sway and swirl as Iggy Pop whipped the audience into a frenzy that can only be achieved by revival preachers, dictators, and rock gods. The frenetic pace of the music barely slowed until three or four songs in when Iggy sang the more medium tempo but extremely catchy “Passenger.” Our photographer, Wes Marsala keenly noticed Henry Rollins in full geek out mode on the side of the stage near the board singing along to all of Iggy’s music. Iggy worked his way into the crowd during “Search and Destroy” and enlisted a few fans to help his sing a line or two. He pulled another lucky fan on stage to sing “I’m Sick of You” to her. He played a bit beyond his allotted time to the delight of the audience hitting us with Stooges and solo songs from throughout his long career. When he came out for the encore, he sang to the crowd about how much fun he had when he was twenty-one which lead into the song “1969” when Iggy Pop was twenty-one. Without missing a beat the band transitioned to “Real Cool Time” to end the show. Well Iggy, we couldn’t have expressed the feeling better ourselves. Thank you for a real cool time.
Words / Vides: Jon Bostick
Photos: Wes Marsala
More Photos from Desert Daze!
John Cale “I’m Waiting for the Man” (Velvet Underground) Live at Desert Daze in Joshua Tree, CA
Thurston Moore “Smoke of Dreams” Live 10/14/2017 @ Desert Daze in Joshua Tree, CA
Iggy Pop “T.V. Eye” Live (Stooges) @ Desert Daze in Josua Tree, CA