It’s impossible to talk about Desert Daze 2018 without discussing the previous year at it’s former location in the high desert. My personal experience as a visitor to DD 17 is unmatched by any other festival I’ve ever attended. The lineup was insane, the installations were engaging, and the location truly felt like it held some kind of spectacular aura. I’ve never understood the appeal of the Joshua Tree getaways Angelenos fiend for and I’m absolutely disgusted by the false bohemian ideology perpetuated by burners (and Burning Man as a whole) but for a brief three days in the high desert it all clicked for me.
The Institute of Mentalphysics was a challenging place for some because of the of its sporadic dust storms and painfully low temperatures at night, so it seemed like a great idea to find a location closer to the city that still maintained a sense of the desert – minus the harsh elements. Cue the announcement of DD 2018 staking its new home alongside the manmade reservoir Lake Perris: a location touted as an oasis with “virtually no dust” tucked quietly on the edge of Riverside. Moderate temperatures and the possibility of taking a dip in the lake were extremely appealing, as was the stacked (but not as stacked as 2017) lineup. I had my reservations because I was so attached to the experience I had last year but the logistics at play this time seemed promising – until nature decided to shake things up.
Friday was a complete disaster for me and many other festival attendees. The time evaporated by a congested commute to Riverside was nothing compared to the well documented parking fiasco the festival experienced. I spent three and a half hours in my car waiting in line to park that evening, and by the time I finally was given a space nearly out of the park on it’s opposite end there was still a line of headlights trailing off in the distance. The total stretch of road covered was hardly over a mile, but the use of public space limited the festival attendees to only a small portion of the lots available in the park. Extensive searches of vehicles (a given at a fest like this) were made worse by the extreme presence of police and park rangers (something I’ll discuss more later) and this only wasted time that could’ve been used to negotiate lot usage earlier in the day. After parking at 9:45pm I was lucky enough to meet some of the very kind staff members that offered to give me a ride to the box office in their utility cart so I could check in before Tame Impala took the stage. The moment I reached the gates the show was cut off by a staff member urging everyone to find shelter due to the lightning storm overhead. I couldn’t get my camping pass – the campgrounds were being evacuated anyway, and the downpour pushed me into a crowded medical building filled with others that needed shelter. After about two hours it was announced the show was finally canceled for the evening, prompting a very “friendly” police officer to begin demanding people leave the medical building, to which panicked attendees shouted “we don’t have anywhere to go.” There was no cell service to call a Lyft and the line of traffic was still present, so most of these single day attendees were truly stuck. I ventured back out into the rain and spent the next two hours trying to find my car in the dark in the poorly marked lots – a quest in which I encountered countless others attempting the same.
Saturday began with a sense of gloom from the grounds and visitors alike. Not long after I woke up I overheard a camper in the car next to me telling his friend “if it rains again, we’re so fucked.” The first event of the day was a talk from Damien Echols, the key member of the West Memphis Three and truly an inspiring figure of tragedy. Hearing him discuss his struggle at the hands of a corrupt judicial system was both inspiring and soul crushing – a taxing way to resume the fest after the events the night before but still unmissable. Surprisingly, it felt like this was a cathartic reset button necessary to get the weekend back on track; the effects of which were gradually felt throughout the day.
The installations were still wrapped in plastic but performances from Cut Worms and Hand Habits captivated many and lead the day to its most blissful point: a set from Boogarins. Fernando Almeida Filho’s beaming stage presence is beyond infectious – it’s impossible not to feel some kind of connection to the music after seeing it performed by someone who truly looks like they love playing. Texturally rich, Boogarins’ music is still lesser known in the states than the tunes of many of their peers in the genre; something I can only attribute to the (unfortunate) language barrier the Brazilian band faces in the english speaking mainstream.
As the sun set, the installations lost their protective sheeting and sprung to life again. The festival was finally in full swing the moment Mercury Rev took the stage; the first “headliner” of the evening performing Deserter’s Songs in its entirety to a crowd mostly discovering the cult psychedelic act for the first time. Desert Daze founder Phil Pirrone’s group JJJUUJJUU followed on the slightly smaller stage: a performance that (thankfully) felt nothing like an act tacked on because of the identity of the frontman, but instead a very well crafted and performed set from a band that deserves recognition. Blissed out melodies from Cosmonauts and Kikagaku Moyo paved the way for the hyped appearance of Slowdive – the late addition to the fest that carried an immense draw. The true surprise of the evening was an intimate performance from Malcom Mooney, the former singer of the legendary CAN, who carried his performance with an electrifying presence hardly any of the other performers at the fest half his age could summon. It’s hard to believe his appearances in LA aren’t talked about as much as those of the countless acts inspired by him.
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard closed out the main stage for the evening to a rabid legion of fans. I’ve been one of them for quite some time but the fatigue of seeing them so frequently without much of a change in their setlist has dulled their impact. The band still plays well, with Stu Mackenzie’s wild stage presence setting the bar high for the acts to follow on Sunday, but the music lacks the gentle twists and turns it once had that made me such a massive fan. Shannon and the Clams and A Place to Bury Strangers followed with contrasting sets across the property to wind things down as the overnight cycle began.
A fantastic highlight of the festival was the occasionally abrasive, occasionally comforting synth and drone experiments emanating from the Sanctuary Tent. Often accompanied by a dynamic light show, smoke machines, and projections covering the entirety of the dome overhead, the Sanctuary was the place to be if you truly wanted a sonic experience.
Sunday was the day the fest finally reached it’s full potential. The clouds had passed and the heat of the area finally made the lake appear enticing. Those who attempted to witness the overnight performances carried their bragging rights with baggy eyes as the festivities wasted no time resuming with a final push featuring some of the most important artists of the weekend.
The two main attractions for many were playing back to back that evening: Earth commemorating the tenth anniversary of The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull by playing the lucid masterpiece full, immediately smashed against the hyper abrasive chaos of the weekend’s most destructive group – Death Grips.
Earth’s performance was a perfect example of gentle instrumentation played with immense weight. It’s a style easy to pick up but extremely difficult to master, and Dylan Carlson’s work is truly on it’s own level. It’s unfortunate the soundcheck for Death Grips occurred midway through Earth’s set, prompting many of the visitors lying in the grass to jump to their feet and RUN to the next stage at least 20 minutes before Earth finished.
The tension in the crowd before Death Grips began was unlike anything else experienced that weekend. As hinted at above, the suffocating presence of police at the fest made it’s head here which only seemed to make things worse. Obnoxious cops lined the photo pit proudly displaying their predatory ignorance as they acted as if a riot was about to break out the moment the Sacramento based trio hit the stage. Stefan Burnett’s vocals drove the crowd into what looked like an endless pit from the front but nobody in the crowd was doing anything truly dangerous. My Bloody Valentine played a gripping set to close the main stage of the fest but the intensity of their performance felt phoned in after seeing MC Ride and co. obliterate the audience. To quote the food vendor I spoke with about Death Grips that night: “Was that the guy that was just screaming things? Yeah, I hated that.” Some people don’t get it.
While I do have fond memories of the previous year/location, I can see the beauty of the new home of the fest. There were enough moments I witnessed – both bizarre and sweet – that I can say Desert Daze still holds the power to draw a wonderful crowd and create an atmosphere that matches the ideologies of the music. With time I’m sure most of the frustrations will be worked out, eventually matching the logistics of the previous home. The cops just need to go away first. Let this fest be the only reason to ever head to Riverside.
Words and Photos by: Dillon Vaughn