Over the weekend, Desert Daze, California’s psych-rock festival (and two-time nominee as Pollstar’s festival of the year), celebrated its 10th anniversary as a destination event for the free-spirited, open-minded, anti-commercial, pro-instrument music fan. It was a veritable Australian takeover of the desert with two out of the three headliners being from that region: King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, who are practically the Desert Daze house band, and Tame Impala, who in 2018 had their set cut very short due to weather conditions and were returning to somewhat finish what they started.
The hippie-natured festival’s titular ethos has involved several different locations in its decade-long history, with its latest headquarters, on the sand at Moreno Beach, Lake Perris, being one of the most scenic. The backdrop of craggy mountains and a crystal-clear lake is life-affirming for festival-goers who brave the relatively rough terrain of Desert Daze, where the focus is more on the vibe than it is on logistics.
That vibe extends to a marketplace that feels like an arts and crafts fair, interactive art installations featuring an obsolete collection of televisions, neon light sculptures you can crawl through, teepees you can post up in, a giant Jenga you can play, a living room set “washed up” in the sand you can sit on, and a beach area that looks like a seaside town with striped umbrellas where you can take an abbreviated vacation.
The attendees, many of whom camp in the area for the weekend, bring as much to the aesthetic of Desert Daze as its jewel-toned, uplit trees and swirling analog liquid light show, courtesy of Mad Alchemy. Clothing with lights, giant animal floaties, a disco-ball helmet, elderly bearded gentlemen in sequined capes and very young girls with bra tops and humongous pants, their fanny packs draped diagonally over their bodies — these are all de rigueur at the annual gathering. Hippie style is witnessed everywhere, from flowing outfits to jewelry made of animal parts, feathers and gems glued on faces.
But it’s aimed at the hardcore music lover as well as those just on site for the vibe, as many of these über-friendly festivalgoers have their pulse on what’s next, so many artists have benefitted from getting early looks at Desert Daze — cases in point being Khruangbin, the aforementioned King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Idles, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Kikagaku Moyo.
After a significantly scaled back year in 2021, this year’s festival hours were roughly from 2 p.m.-2 a.m., with the headliners playing super-late and some artists even playing “chaser” sets after the headlining acts.
Australians weren’t just the headliners, but also scattered generously among the lineup, including Pond, Gum, Babe Rainbow, Divide and Dissolve, Mildlife and the act that hands-down wins the best band name of the festival, Psychedelic Porn Crumpets.
Despite being spoiled for Australian choice, it was Southern California native Sky Ferreira — looking like she came straight out of “The Matrix” — who was in full effect on the (main) Moon Stage. On the Beach Stage, which is actually on the beach, the slinky sounds of France’s Cortex had the crowd caught up in a mass shuffle, and over at the Block Stage (the most attractive of the four stages of the festival, thanks to the aforementioned Mad Alchemy), Canada’s Men I Trust performed a dreamy set under a kaleidoscopic puddle.
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard — longtime Desert Daze favorites who have grown to increasingly bigger stages and later time slots — exploded onto the Moon Stage for their headlining appearance. They blasted through selections from their hefty catalog like Stone Roses playing speed metal or Metallica on acid, while inflatable alligators were tossed around, and a skeleton on a stick and a skewered fuzzy worm were waved about by an enthusiastic crowd.
In stark contrast, Perfume Genius, over at the Beach Stage, was so disconnected from his own performance, it was challenging to get into what he was doing.
Perhaps the most talked about act of the first day was Charlotte Adigéry & Boris Pupul at the Sanctuary, where the most interesting, experimental, electronic-based music was happening. Escalating loops courtesy of Pupul and high-spirited vocals from Adigéry had everyone in the area screaming in unison, like they were going down the drop and around the curves of a roller coaster. When Pupul shouted “This next song goes out to all the people that did ‘shrooms,” even the more sober attendees might have felt like the fellow juggling lit-up bowling pins, or the gentleman wiggling his butt in silver short-shorts.
The second day had significantly larger attendance, and if the number of Kevin Parker lookalikes was any indication, this was most likely due to Tame Impala, not to mention a solid cross-section of other talent.
It started on a dull note with the much-lauded Nilüfer Yanya on the Moon Stage. The day was soon saved by Seun Kuti, youngest song of the legendary Fela Kuti, who led his father’s band, Egypt 80, on the Block Stage. They play Afrobeat like an African big band, and there was no taking your eyes off the performance with the showmanship that is in Kuti’s DNA — from his matching top and bottom sunflower-patterned outfit to super-sexy moves that make him seem boneless, along with his classic mic and flawless delivery.
But then the Viagra Boys ruined the mood with their heavily discounted Iggy Pop impression. Back at the beautiful Block Stage, JJUUJJUU, fronted by Desert Daze founder Phil Pirrone, embodies the spirit of the festival with its heavy instrumentation, excellent musicians and classic stoner-rock. This was helped by the Mad Alchemy visuals whose combination of oil, water, alcohol and ink on glass plates, projected onto the entire area, suggests like what you would see under a microscope.
The energy was starting to center at the Moon Stage when Japan’s Kikagaku Moyo arrived for the group’s final performance before going on indefinite hiatus. Another favorite of Desert Daze, in their fabulous ‘70s wardrobe and with amazing musicianship (including a sitar player), the group was just the right flavor to get the crowd geared up for Tame Impala, back in the desert to perform the 2012 album “Lonerism” in its entirety.
Parker brought up 2018’s aborted appearance to the audience, saying he’s been thinking about that fateful night and coming back to Desert Daze at least once a week since. The crowd participation during Tame Impala’s performance was part of the show, with glow sticks flying in the air in time to the music. The “Lonerism” album, which Parker said was special to him, was performed in its original running order, with the singles, “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” and “Elephant” receiving the most intense response. It definitely felt like Parker got some Desert Daze closure.
The last day of the festival had sparser attendance, with more festival-goers sprawled on the grass and dirt than walking around. The music was just as on-point, however, with BadBadNotGood performing a fantastic set with no lighting except for unique filmstrip visuals on the Moon Stage. On the Beach Stage, the U.K.’s Sleaford Mods were losing their minds with the two members in their signature stances: dancing laptop guy and angry vocalist guy with arm crooked behind his back, standing sideways to the crowd, shouting into the microphone.
Also on this stage was Ukraine’s Dakhabrakha, a four-piece group (one man, three women) that performed sitting down. Wearing sky-high, beehive-like, black Cossack hats, the women cut quite the figure while the man, their primary vocalist, swapped between an accordion and a concertina. Dakhabrakha’s emotive songs were performed in their native tongue and met with a respectful response (and a bouncing moon-man totem) during each song, and vociferous, sustained applause after. Unfortunately, the sound bleed from the Moon Stage was interfering with this heartfelt experience.
The sound was from the Marías, a latter-day Mazzy Star crossed with Tame Impala, which you would think would be an astounding combination, but it falls far short of both those iconic acts. The Grammy-nominated group’s covers of “La Bamba” and “One More Time” further illustrated how they have a long way to go before truly becoming a contender. The same went for Beach House, who stepped in as Sunday’s headliners after Iggy Pop had to cancel. Beach House had also played at the This Ain’t No Picnic festival in Pasadena a few weeks prior, and it was clear then that they would be a poor substitute for Iggy Pop, whose raw power only grows stronger each year. Their soulless performance closed the Moon Stage on an underwhelming note.
Luckily, the effects of Fuzz earlier that evening on the Block Stage hadn’t worn off. A three-piece with a drummer vocalist, the group came off like Black Sabbath without the satanic element. Midway through their set, during which a stuffed cow was flung about, a fellow on a board began his crowd surf, which took him all the way from the front of the stage to the back of the crowd and back again. He was shooting something (safe) at the crowd with his bow and stood on his head a few times during this journey, which, somehow, was just the right accompaniment to Fuzz.
As genuine and unfettered an experience as Desert Daze is, it always seems to be operating at 66.666% efficiency. Getting into the festival was a mess, organization-wise, with the box office being a couple of miles away from the actual festival grounds. Cars were searched on the way in, which made little sense as the cars weren’t entering the actual festival. Beyond the egregiously high parking rates, the parking lots’ walkways had no lighting, making it necessary to use phone flashlights to stumble around. Signage from the parking lots to the grounds was non-existent, as was the sound of music, so there was no way to know which direction to head, since there’s no phone service in the area. Still, the absolute silence of the location gave the confusion a strange air of peacefulness.
There was a different procedure for entering the festival each day, which made all the knowledge gained on previous experiences useless. Even the (extremely nice) security said they got a different directive from their superiors every hour. Whatever they did receive wasn’t uniform as what one security knew, another one didn’t, which made navigating the spaces unsure. Wherever you were going, eyes needed to be trained on the ground for the numerous “potholes” and “speed bumps” created by gophers; this is a state park after all. Park police and private security were on hand, assisting without punitive actions or attitude.
Even with its disorganization on the ground, Desert Daze remains a deeply likable festival, with great daylong music, a pretty setting, rocking chairs and couches in the VIP areas, a general allowance for chairs to be brought in and set up anywhere… and loaded tots from quality food vendors. Both its workers and its attendees are unusually friendly, and when it’s over, you can close out the experience with one big pile of heavy soil laundry and only remember the fun parts that are singular to Desert Daze.
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