I was first graced with the epic wonder of the Moon Block Party-produced Desert Daze festival last year. A niche blend of everything alive and well in the world of rock, I found myself grooving to Khruangbin, moshing to King Gizzard and head-banging to, well, almost everything else. It was a perfect blend of psychedelic-influenced tunes and the crowd and atmosphere at Joshua Tree’s Institute of Mentalphysics was the ultimate setting for such an event. Joshua Tree happens to be my favorite national park so odds were stacked in favor of me having the weekend of a lifetime and I did indeed.
I’ve been singing praises for the festival organizers this past year and kept faith that whatever came of the new Lake Perris venue at Desert Daze 2018, it would inevitably be for the best. After weathering a few storms this past weekend, both natural and mental, I can safely say the change is in fact for the best, but it’s not without a fair share of constructive criticism.
Any doubts I had that the new home for a festival known for such visual splendor, might fail in delivering equally stunning natural beauty, was put to rest as soon as my feet hit the sand. Surrounded by mountains made of the same rock found scattered across Joshua Tree, Lake Perris provides a refreshing watering hole for us hairless monkeys to flock to while remaining entirely inundated with the beauty of the desert landscape.
The main stage of the fest is called the Moon Stage and it stretches as far back as the sand reaches. I’m one of those hippies who likes to rid myself of shoes or sandals at events like this. Having the opportunity to squish sand between my toes while dancing to the lineup’s bigger names was a welcomed addition. As the sun set and the clouds rolled in on the first day, my friends and I laid at the edge of the lake watching the spectacular bursts of lightning in the clouds reflecting off the lake and meeting at the western horizon. A sight to behold and one I wished could stick around in the background of the night rather than forcing an early exit of the band most of us were there to see that night. More on that later.
This year’s capacity felt like it more than doubled. I couldn’t locate an exact number at time of writing this but last year was an estimated 10,000 over the course of the weekend. This year felt like we got about 8,000 each day but I could be overestimating. Luckily the new location easily accommodated the increase in numbers. There was never a moment I felt claustrophobic or that everything was too packed in.
In fact I felt there was almost too much space in comparison to last year. I know this sounds silly at first but hear me out. Amongst the trees and random buildings of last year’s venue we could find pockets of opportunities to meet new friends. There were fabrics hung from trees, couches and chairs tucked into cozy corners, blankets laid out under pocket of trees with colorful mushrooms that I remember being called the “Groovy Grove.” It felt like a bit of a maze where you could take a new path each time you made way for a stage and come upon a new space with new people that would be happy to chill with you.
Don’t get me wrong, the beach was awesome but the art that was littering the grounds had no cohesiveness or flow to it. There were random couches and chairs to hang out on but they were in the middle of the grounds where one would feel a little more vulnerable than cozy. There was no chance you would just stumble upon the couch, you’d have to see the couch and the people in it and approach them if you wanted to hang out. I have no problem starting conversations but for a festival with such a strong psychedelic influence, it seemed like this was a bit intimidating for most folks already way too in their own heads to begin with. The wide open space took away those comfortable spots to take a load off and feel safe for a bit. In the future I’d hope for a few more art installations with some sort of roof or housing component to them as well as a layout that lends itself to some general paths of foot traffic, so its easier to decipher the best chill-out zones for those needing a breather.
Most of us were aware this festival was reaching adolescence and that would come with a fair share of growing pains but perhaps I put too much faith in the organizers. Parents are never too stoked to have to have “that talk” with their adolescent child when Mother Nature calls, but it’s something they do prepare for so when that awkward time comes, it goes just a little less rocky. This year Mother Nature came calling to the tune of a lightning storm that caused a festival-wide evacuation. Unfortunately the parents neglected their child until it was a bit too late.
The day started with a gigantic holdup just getting into the festival. Many festival goers spent three-to-five hours stuck on the road to the one entrance as bands played to half-filled sets inside. Some patrons barely got inside before the headliner played and when they did they were told to turn back around. After just fifteen minutes of amazing music from Tame Impala, a voice told us to please leave the campgrounds and seek shelter in hotels, brick and mortar buildings or cars.
It was a complete logistical mess. Everyone was peaking off whatever they ingested that evening and it left a lot of folks stranded in the rain staring at the sky wondering if what they were seeing was real. This might sound like hyperbole but I’m not kidding. My camp took in a new friend named Bryan as he contemplated his life and wondered how he’d ever make it out of this situation. The first words we heard from him were, “Wait, is that real?” Yes, it was real and I have a strong suspicion I’m not the only one to run into people needing assistance like this. A quick shoutout to the attendees who lent helping hands to neighbors and helped everyone get out of Friday safely.
In the future I’d hope for a better contingency plan than “Everyone please leave. Good luck.” Getting into the fest was hard enough. Had everyone actually decided to leave the fest at the same time it would have been a far more dangerous situation, especially if there were people needing medical assistance that couldn’t find a quick way out of the grounds. Fortunately most everyone under the influence made the wise decision against getting into a vehicle and attempting to operate thousands of pounds of machinery. I understand you can’t plan for every little detail and sometimes crazy situations come up but that day made every other logistical oversight that much more frustrating. For example there was only one food vendor in the campgrounds so patrons had to wait until 12 PM when gates opened if they wanted any food that wasn’t Avocado toast or Acai bowls. I’m unsure if vendors backed out at the last minute since they had three or four in camp last year when we had far less people camping. Just another point added “What were they thinking here” list.
The oversights aren’t a huge deal when the festival is so small. You can get away with a couple mistakes as the general lack of care usually extends to other aspects of the festival that benefit patrons such as relaxed bag checks that filter out any weapons but not a flask of whisky, for instance. As any festival grows however, that same level of oversight exacerbates issues and creates new ones. This time around it just wasn’t enough freedom to validate the lack of logistical planning causing unneeded stresses on patrons.
The Art, The Crowd and The Magic
You can go to any festival based on the lineup but another integral element to the fun is the atmosphere built by the visual aesthetic of the art and the “vibes” brought by the people who attend. The art this year followed a similar theme as last year’s since we had a few repeat bookings. A highlight for me was Prescott McCarthy’s Absolute curtains which hang high and dance in the wind. Saturday nigh the rain had dried enough to allow for the “auditory explorations thru time and space” from 1 AM to 5 AM. Lucky for me they decided to keep that experiment going well into the the afternoon Sunday morning and I found myself planted in a beanbag chair bumping to some house music on the beach with beautiful people around moving in unison. It was a nice reminder of the amazing people who make it out to this festival as well as the freedom allowed to artists to go with what they are feeling. They hadn’t been able to play the previous two nights and no-one came around to tell them to stop playing that day.
Later an old-school motorcycle would show up with a cast of masked characters stopping to pose for pictures. A series of costumes monsters danced their way over to the moon stage. A girl next to me picked up a rake and danced around with it while making patterns in the sand as she outlined a proper dance floor. There’s no doubt the rain dampened a spirit that could have been booming full-force all weekend but by the end we were back to what we had known this festival to be. A fun place to let loose with a bunch like-minded people who know how to bang their heads as well as move their hips.
In the end the weekend didn’t go entirely as planned and left much to be desired but there was still quite a lot to love as well. I hope they plan to hold other events at the Institute of Mentalphysics as that size of a festival and being surrounded by Joshua trees is something I’m still very much interested in doing. Overall I’d say the venue change is one for the best. It allows for the growth of the festival that they deserve. Despite this year’s unfortunate circumstances I want this festival to survive the festival bubble. I believe it differentiates itself enough from the pack of homogenized festivals and has enough of a cult following to stay relevant and come back stronger next year.
The fact that staff made the decision to honor Friday tickets for both Saturday and Sunday as well as refund all parking passes shows they are putting their best foot forward. I’ve been to festivals that have had weather before and never witnessed that kind of action taken. It annoys me and many other three-day ticket buyers that our $400 ticket was basically devalued to $100 but at least those who paid to get in Friday were treated to a weekend of music if they so chose. It was a good gesture and one that I think illustrates that Phil Perrone and the rest of the Desert Daze staff do care about us, they just bit off a bit more than they could chew this year.
Words by Jordan Mitchell
Photos by Frank Mojica