Since moving to Los Angeles in 2017, I only started hearing about the magic of Desert Daze the deeper I got into the music journalism world. Everyone around the world knows about Coachella, but only a special group of people know what a music festival can truly be like by attending Desert Daze. Imagine a festival free of corporate sponsorship, with independent and local vendors happy to greet you with their amazing products, and a heavy weekend line-up of killer artists ranging from psychedelic rock to indie pop. Now – imagine being able to camp nearby next to kind like-minded people who help you out when you need it and have a beer or 2 with your neighbors while you hear their life stories about why Desert Daze means so much to them. Lastly – imagine a festival where there is a beautiful lake with white sand that also has green grass and shade from large trees where you can take a nap during the day and go into the water without your prized possessions and (gasp) return to your towel and tent with nothing stolen. This is the beauty of Desert Daze 2021 – trust among a community of concert-goers who strive to be respectful towards one another while having an amazing time experiencing the art and music the festival has to offer.
Coming back after the pandemic shutdown of all music festivals last year, this was my first music festival of 2021 since Desert Daze 2019. There were many amazing features despite the pandemic, but of course there is always room for improvement.
BEST: Desert Daze Traditions Live On
I can imagine it’s very difficult to get a music festival back on its feet after a global pandemic, let alone retain the same flair and uniqueness it has developed over the years, but Desert Daze was able to do just that! With the traditional opening & closing ceremonies, late night performances and yoga and modular sound baths in the morning at the Outer Space stage within the campground, festival veterans felt right at home. In addition, there was also the return of crowd favorites like Jello Man at the main stage (a cupid-like man who shoots jello cups to individuals in the pit during different acts) and the dancing carrot brought by long-time festival veterans who keep it dancing to each act in the GA pit. It’s these fun special details that make you want to come back every year despite who is on the line-up.
BEST: Tim Heidecker & Weyes Blood Perform “Fear of Death”
One of the main highlights of Friday and the whole weekend was being able to see Tim Heidecker and Weyes Blood perform together on stage, especially their album “Fear of Death.” It is a rare occurrence these days to see Tim Heidecker perform musically on stage when he’s not acting or doing a comedy tour with Eric Wareheim, and Weyes Blood hasn’t been on tour since 2019, so being able to hear both singing beautifully together was a real treat. Tim of course was hilarious as he always is, asking the crowd ridiculous questions and getting huge laughs between songs. Natalie Mering, AKA Weyes Blood, sang beautifully as she always does and even had her own solo song that showcased her vocal abilities.
WORST: Repetitive Opening Acts and Art Installations from 2019
While the festival line-up had some really stand-out artists that have never played Desert Daze before, some of the opening acts such as DIIV, Sasami, The Black Angels, and Crumb, while still putting on a hell of a show, played at Desert Daze 2019 as well, which led to a repetitive-seeming weekend lineup. Since the pandemic has been especially difficult on everyone, these artists didn’t necessarily have new music to debut either, so much of their sets sounded very similar to their 2019 sets. Some of the art installations as well were repetitive to 2019, such as the beach head & heart installation and the giant TV’s piled on top of each other. I’m not sure if these choices were intentional or were part of the backlash of the pandemic, but overall the festival was still amazing even with these repetitions.
BEST: Kamasi Washington & His Live Band Blew Everyone Away Saturday Night
Being a Los Angeles local now, Kamasi Washington is a local jazz saxophonist you hear about performing at the Hollywood Bowl and small bars alike, such as in Downtown LA at the Love Bar at the Teragram. So when he premiered as the headliner for Saturday night, locals knew it was going to be a special performance, but no one knew how special until they saw not one, but two drum sets on stage before the full band entered. His live band is full of musicians that are equally as talented on their respective instruments as he is, so being able to see them each do their own instrumental and vocal solos at the beginning of the evening was a true sight to behold, and the group pieces themselves were so tight and dynamic that all you could do was just watch in awe and true wonder. To say that Kamasi killed it as a headliner would be a real understatement.
BEST: One Stage for All Artists
Not only is having only one stage to manage ideal for production and press alike, but the concert goers also loved having a more intimate festival experience this year. With there only being one stage, the Block stage seemed to be a bit bigger than 2019’s Block stage, and everyone was able to either stand in the grass or bring a blanket and sit in the back to enjoy the shows from a distance. This also made it really easy to camp out for certain artists if you wanted to be at the barricade for any favorites, and the food and drink vendors were so close you could quickly grab something and go right back to your ideal viewing area. Even with only one stage, there didn’t seem to be any pushing or shoving of any kind in the GA or VIP pits, and everyone was very respectful of each others’ space. It is also important to note that event security was very attentive as well and made sure everyone was having a fun and safe time.
WORST: Long Sound Checks for Opening Artists
While it’s understandable with only one stage that the sound checks would be a bit more noticeable than when there are multiple stages for you to visit that aren’t experiencing sound check at the same time, they did seem to drag on a bit longer than expected, and even set some of the artists back in their set time by 15 minutes. The long sound checks on Friday even forced Ty Segall to end his set early to prepare for the War on Drugs set on time, which was the only time all weekend festival-goers booed at Desert Daze production staff. There also seemed to be some sound difficulties during Kamasi Washington’s set that required his sax mic to be changed out mid-song. Kamasi is a true professional though and did not seem to get upset or rattled by the sound issues.
Overall, Desert Daze 2021 was one for the books and an amazing experience I’ll always remember. It has become one of my favorite festivals to date and I can guarantee you will see me in the photo pit shooting again next year, so be sure to join me next year in experiencing this wonderful weekend and say hi while you’re at it!
Five Favorite Sets of Desert Daze 2021
The War on Drugs: I feel a bit biased since they have been one of my favorite bands since seeing them at Coachella 2015, but The War on Drugs really delivered a powerful headliner performance, especially with playing mainly all new songs off their recently released album I Don’t Live Here Anymore. Adam Granduiel and the whole band gave it their all and left the crowd wanting more after an hour and 15 minutes flew by. They could have easily done a full 2 hour set or longer to close out the evening.
Japanese Breakfast: It’s been a delight to see Michelle Zauner & the full Japanese Breakfast band over the years rise in the ranks of set times at festivals, and their headlining performance Sunday night truly delivered what was expected to be their current peak performance. Wearing a beautiful fairy-like dress designed exclusively for Michelle by threeASFOUR by Cece Liu, she rocked the stage with her husband Peter Bradley and full band playing mainly songs off their newest album Jubilee since they have been on tour for most of 2021 for their latest release. Everyone had an amazing time dancing and singing along during their set, especially when Michelle revived their old “Dreams” cover.
Kamasi Washington: As described above, Kamasi is a true musician that can put on an amazing performance whether playing solo or with a full band.
Deap Vally: As one of the openers on Friday, I was super impressed by Lindsey Troy and Julie Edwards, the female rock duo Deap Vally, who put on a great set. With solid melodies and clever lyricism, I’m sure these two are ones to watch in the future.
Tim Heidecker & Weyes Blood: Also described above, I loved everything about their set and had the best laughs between songs.
Words and photos by Sarah Woods