The most important year in a music festival’s life cycle is when it tries to make the jump from boutique festival to something larger. This past weekend, Desert Daze 2018 made that plunge, moving from the desert an hour closer to Los Angeles in Riverside County at Lake Perris State Recreation Area.
When I pulled up as part of early arrivals Thursday at the main gates, I saw festival founder Phil Pirrone greeting attendees as they pulled up and grabbed their wristbands for the weekend. I thought to myself, how endearing for the guy behind it all to be one of the first faces you see. As I waited an hour as the staff scrambled to find a press list so I could get my wristbands and enter the park, I realized that even though the venue and attendance was scaled up, this is still a boutique festival staff where the people at the top aren’t able to rest.
With FYF Fest cancelled this year and no news on whether the fest will return, the Echo Park and Silver Lake crowd that loves their fuzzy and eclectic rock music had few options as far as west coast music festivals. Desert Daze has always been extra welcoming to that crew, and as I setup camp and met people from Alberta, Melbourne, Flagstaff, San Francisco, and many other places far and wide, I realized for many this is a destination festival.
To me, the move from Joshua Tree and the Institute of Mentalphysics felt similar to when FYF Fest expanded to a bigger festival at Expo Park from its roots at The Echo and later LA State Historic Park. There were logistical nightmares — I remember waiting in line more than an hour to get into the festival and missing Angel Olsen in 2014. That same Saturday, the Arena stage was only staffed for the floor, which reached capacity and kept people from seeing acts they paid good money to catch.
Desert Daze 2018 this past weekend experienced similar kinds of growing pains. As many people arrived Friday, the lines to get into the festival kept people waiting for multiple hours. Signage was hard to find and those hoping to park and camp were led in circles by volunteers who didn’t have a clue that lots were filling up. Then, the unthinkable happened: rain in southern California.
As Warpaint finished up their main stage set prior to Tame Impala, a steady drizzle began to hit the park. When they finished, free fireworks in the form of a lightning storm started lighting up the sky as the setup for Tame Impala began to form on the stage. The band would arrive on stage about 10 minutes late, get through three songs including “Let It Happen”, and them promptly vacate the stage as a festival representative shouted over the microphone for people to take shelter back at their camps or cars and that Tame Impala would return to the stage to finish the set.
Alas, that didn’t happen. At 10:38 PM is when they posted for people to take shelter. At 12:10 is when they called off the rest of the night’s music. The service and complimentary Wi-Fi were both so spotty that those who arrived via rideshare apps were hit the hardest as they had to walk far to get enough signal to call a ride. The rain was pouring down until at least two in the morning.
But it was how Desert Daze 2018 handled the mess that has me most hopeful for the future. The festival refunded all parking costs for the weekend due to the miscommunication, and allowed single-day Friday ticketholders to return to the fest either Saturday or Sunday. The many who were there specifically to see Tame Impala may still be jaded by the experience, but I thought it was a brilliant response that also brought more money to vendors inside the festival as a result.
While FYF Fest grew further away from the niche acts they booked in the festival’s early years to placate a more mainstream audience, Desert Daze 2018’s lineup is proof they aren’t headed in that same direction. Tame Impala is easily the biggest booking in the festival’s history in terms of mainstream appeal, but the bill was filled with niche acts that don’t get bookings on the top-tier of the festival circuit. The sheer amount of bands I saw that I didn’t know was overwhelming in the best way.
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard topped Saturday’s bill with a marathon two-hour set and noise rock legends My Bloody Valentine destroyed eardrums to end the main stage programming Sunday night. Late-night offerings Saturday and Sunday stretched until the early hours of the morning in both the Theatre Tent and on the Moon Stage.
As someone who only attended my first Desert Daze in its last year at Joshua Tree in 2017, I’m glad I got to jump on the bandwagon just as it looks to grow. I have a lot of faith that a lot was learned from this year, and if it returns to Lake Perris I am pretty committed to returning. With that, here’s a wrap-up of the Best and Worst of the festival.
BEST: Warpaint delivers catalog-ranging set Friday to adoring fans
As you all know, I am a massive fan of Los Angeles four-piece Warpaint, and seeing them at Desert Daze on the main stage as an appetizer for Tame Impala was a longtime dream. They’ve cultivated a die-hard following on the West Coast and they rewarded longtime listeners with a set full of deeper cuts than what they have hit the festival circuit with over the last couple of years.
Per setlist.fm, they hadn’t played “Warpaint” since 2015, “Drive” hasn’t been played in America since 2014, and “Above Control” was one of the better deep cuts from their most recent album, 2016’s Heads Up. I even got an opportunity to crowdsurf on top of an inflatable watermelon pool float during “Beetles”, though I apologize if I harshed anyone’s vibe tumbling into the crowd after that. I’ve long professed that Warpaint is one of the most underrated live acts out there, and it was awesome to see them at an all-guitar festival where a large crowd showed them heavy support.
BEST: The original food offerings at The Restaurant
I very rarely make a bullet-point in these Best and Worst recaps about food. But Desert Daze 2018 had this little restaurant set up by Austin-based chef Mari Soto that I hit twice Sunday it was so good. There was a pastor on her original-recipe coconut cardamon rice with pickled red onions and candied Serrano that was absolutely to die for. Another option was to get it on a Hawaiian roll rather than rice (as seen above). I then had one of the deserts, grilled peaches with herb marsclpon serrano, lime syrup, and mints that had me saying “Holy shit” with every bite. The originality of the items offered were what made it worth the price.
For those more cost conscious, there were a variety of good food trucks around the premises that were more affordable (the four tacos for $11 deal at one of them was solid).
WORST: Lightning strikes during Tame Impala, organizers don’t Let It Happen
The Elephant in the room all week leading up to Desert Daze 2018 was the weather forecast, which called for at least some heavy rain during the weekend. As Warpaint wrapped things up on the main stage, rain started to fall and lightning began to hit pretty heavy. Though Tame Impala would eventually take the stage 10 or so minutes late, It Is Not Meant To Be. They were forced to walk off the stage after a couple of songs, including “Sundown Syndrome,” a track the band hadn’t played much since 2010.
A festival organizer came on and said to take shelter back at camp and in their cars, and took a Half Glass Full of Wine approach to the situation by saying the set wasn’t being cancelled and the band would return when the weather cleared. As fest-goers waited hours for an update, they wondered Why Won’t (they) Make Up (their) Mind? Eventually, The Moment came where Desert Daze staff had to let people know the rest of that evening’s programming was cancelled. I couldn’t help but feel for all the Mind Mischief happening to those who decided to imbibe mind-altering substances in anticipation of the set.
BEST: The clear skies Sunday
Those who stuck things out after a brutal start Friday night got rewarded with perfect weather Sunday. I’ve never seen so many all-black outfits on a beach — it was quite literally beach goth out there. Even better was there was a bar on the beach, and I’ve very rarely been as relaxed at a festival as I was chilling on the beach. When sunset came during Earth’s set Sunday, it was pure bliss accompanied by chilling guitar riffs.
BEST: Mercury Rev performing Deserters Songs highlights what bigger fests miss
I’ll admit I’m not the most knowledgeable when it comes to the rock genres covered by Desert Daze’s lineup year after year. But I’ve come to trust their taste and lineup positioning, so when Mercury Rev was so high on the bill for Saturday, I gave the album they were playing in full a listen. I was pretty quickly blown away after one listen and circled it as can’t miss. I still couldn’t have anticipated just ow good their show was going to be.
Deserter’s Songs celebrated 20 years this year and you could hear so much of today’s music in it when they performed it live Saturday. I heard M83, I heard Arcade Fire. I also heard older stuff like Styx in some of the more ballad-sounding arrangements. Most of the songs were so cinematic in nature I felt like I was in a movie (and this was without mind-altering drugs). If they tour through LA again I’m for sure checking it out.
WORST: The things you miss from bigger budget festival experiences
To my knowledge, there were no charging stations anywhere in the campgrounds. I never found any inside and guest services couldn’t tell me where either, but an e-mail from a reader told me they were positioned near some of the art. In the campgrounds, the only outlets in the camping grounds were the two in each restroom. Some kind souls near our restroom made a Home Depot run and bought two power strips to hook up. The only thing that kept me from charging from those was they were right under and on top of a sink and I can’t afford for my phone to get destroyed. They should contract out one of those vendors next year that sells battery packs for $20 that you can return to the fest for fully charged ones.
The cell service was complete trash, making it hard to meet up with anyone throughout the weekend — especially closest to the lake. I understand that much of the allure of festivals like this is being able to detach yourself from civilization as we know it. But when things like the evacuation Friday happen, people need to have access to these things so they can get where they are going safely and as quickly as possible.
Five Favorite Sets of Desert Daze 2018:
- Warpaint — I’ve seen this band almost 20 times and this was the first time I can say I crowdsurfed on top of a pool float during one of their shows. As noted above, it was just a really special set where they played some more obscure tunes, knowing they had a large contingency of die-hards in the crowd. Since Tame Impala got cancelled after just 15 minutes, Warpaint turned out to be the de facto main stage headliners, and they served up a tasty offering to an adoring crowd.
- Mercury Rev — I’m just going to regurgitate what I said above and say that I had little idea what I was getting into heading in, but was blown away. It was also one of the few shows at the festival featuring some flute, which was handled by the same guy banging on the keys.
- POND — This was my first time catching this Tame Impala collaborators off-shoot and I was wowed. They played a couple of new songs that were really well received and they have such depth to their song that they’ll surely be headlining festivals of this ilk in no time.
- King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard — I don’t really listen to King Gizzard on my own time but as a live show they’re not to be missed. They played for two straight hours and I’m still sore from being crushed in the mosh pit. My pinky toe may never recover but it’s a worthwhile sacrifice to have been up close for this show. You’ll never find a more supportive festival crowd for them than at Desert Daze, which is why they’ve probably played it the last several years.
- Stonefield — This Aussie sister sibling four-piece have been on my radar for a little while and I finally got to check them out Saturday. The lead singer Amy Findlay is also the drummer, and her voice reminds me of fellow Aussie singer Daniel Johns formerly of Silverchair. The band absolutely shreds, and it was one of the heavier early-day sets of the weekend.
After a rough start to the weekend, Desert Daze earned my vote of confidence going forward. No matter how much you plan for, things always seem to happen once the gates open. They learned from their traffic mistakes Friday and I didn’t hear any complaints the rest of the weekend. They allowed those who were boned by the issues Friday back into the festival free one of the other two days. And most importantly, the vibes of the festival were unrivaled by most any other I’ve experienced this year. They’ve got the most important stuff figured out, and it’s just a matter of tinkering with things to improve the experience moving forward.
Words by Mark Ortega
Photos by Frank Mojica