Joshua Tree Music Festival, Joshua Tree, California, 5/16-18
In Hebrew, the words for “desert” and “he speaks” are the same. Hebrew is a root based language and correlations like this are almost always intentional. At first glance, it seems counterintuitive, after all, the desert is a large, silent place. A place to get away from the endless talking of our society, replete with iPods, YouTube and talk radio. But upon further inspection, it takes on a deeper logic. Beginning with Abraham, most of the Hebrew prophets and up through their Christian and Muslim offshoots, communicated directly with God while in the otherwise silent desert. It is a place to escape to, in order to hear what is really happening above, or potentially within. It is a place where the world can begin to make sense, an escape from city life, and the hustle and bustle of the working grind. The Joshua Tree Music Festival, located minutes outside of the Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California makes full use of this solitude. Although there is live music virtually non-stop from early afternoon until the wee hours of the morning, the organizers of the JTMF do not overlook the locale of the festivities.
The festival is situated within a ring of hills and mountains, some near at hand, some further into the distance. Enchanting in the day, in the evenings, they become part of the tapestry. This year, they were used as a backdrop for a laser light show, sometimes inspired, sometimes simply part of the experience. At times I saw dancing penguins and rolling globes working their way across the hills closest to the campground. Although the sun can be cruel during the day, there is a special ambiance that comes with being able to perform during the early evening sunset, right there around the corner. And the roster of bands is as varied as the colors of the evening sky. Music as eclectic as gypsy swing to reggae and techno to Afrobeat could be seen, and heard, gracing the two stages employed by the festival.
The Joshua Tree Music Festival is not a big festival. There were a little over two thousand people in attendance this year. But none of the music overlaps, and so the entirety of the crowd can be ensured for each performer who makes his or her way onto stage, regardless of time of day or style of music. About a week before the festival, someone asked me who was playing and I told them that it was beside the point. The mastermind behind the JTMF is Barnett English. His full time job is running the Java-Go-Go, a festival seeking, roving coffee stand and guaranteed late night party wherever it sets down for the weekend. He has a sixth sense about bands on their way up and manages to bring in the best of what is out there that no one has ever heard of. That is why people are willing to brave the sun and the heat and leave the comfort of their camps in the middle of the day in order to take to the stage and see what is happening.
Saturday began with Memphis blues-woman . She plays a stand up bass that towers at least eighteen inches over her head, even in her cowboy boots. She has a desultory voice and commanding presence and is backed sparsely by guitar and drums. Picture Johnny Cash and Alison Kraus’ illegitimate child and you are in the ballpark. At one point between songs she thanked us all for coming. She admitted, “I was a little worried about the sacrificial lamb spot,” but clearly, she had not been left to fend for herself. In the upper ninety degree sun, people had shown up, most of whom had no idea who she was. But she left part of the JTMF family.
My jumping ahead to Saturday morning is not to imply that nothing interesting happened the night before. Far from it, in fact. After several strong kick off sets culminating in a sunset performance by the B-Side Players, took the stage. Their front man was absent, but no one was asking about it. The band started with Yako and roped the crowd in immediately. Guitarist Jordan Klemons, in plastic orange spectacles and a wool cap, started with a funky and unmistakably Afrobeat riff and was shortly joined by percussionist Justin Hunnicutt and then baritone saxophonist Ryan Knowles. Each played his own role and when the full force of band joined in, it was mighty. This strong introduction helped the listener understand the construction and the placement of the sound for this eight person band from Asheville, NC, who are happily and ferociously picking up where Fela Kuti left off. A few scant minutes later, after a quick turn of the head and readjustment of the sound system, the other stage took off. JJ Grey and MOFRO gave us their gritty and soulful take on Southern Rock and Roll. They picked it up, slowed it down and then picked it up again, working the crowd like the well toured band that they are.
And then something magical happened took the stage. Everyone who had seen them swore by them and the crowd was excited and trusting, with no idea of what to expect. Our guide through the turbulent waters of electronica and danceable techno pop was Aaron Behrens. He was backed up by less a musician than a mad scientist named Thomas Turner who controlled the majority of the sounds underlaid beneath Aaron’s falsetto voice and mutated guitar. They were as much a band as they were an experience, as much an aural sensation as they were a visual spectator sport. With lasers on top of lasers and lights inside of light, the desert truly came alive over Ghostland Observatory’s infectious melodies and Aaron’s dancing, which was impressive. The lasers twirled and danced amongst themselves and the crowd, constantly new and unpredictable, but always intelligently with the music. These guys are definitely not just a band to hear, but to see, at your earliest possible convenience.
Throughout the festival, one of the coordinators kept taking the stage and reminding us that this weekend was not about entertainment, but rather about culture. It is an interesting idea to realize that you are part of the culture of your country, even if not the most common layer. It is a nice idea however to think about. While the rest of the world thinks about American music as what they see on MTV (that is right, MTV in other countries still plays music), here we were being part of something different, and grand.
Saturday was a big day. It started with the aforementioned Amy Lavere and lasted until close to sunrise. Highlights of the day were the Rose’s Pawn Shop’s rendition of ABC’s Aiesha, the Lloyd Family Players 25 plus drum line that could have marched right off of a Berklee College of Music football field during halftime (does Berklee play football?) replete with a jaw harp soloist which was stellar, and Athens, GA septet who brought out the reggae vibe like they were locals. Front man Adrian Zelski has a way of tapping into the energy of the crowd and always speaking from the heart and to the masses. Today was no different. It was Dubs first time to the festival and only there second time to California and people were already singing along with the band’s catchy and socially-conscious lyrics. Adrian thanked us for welcoming them to our family. The thanks were clearly mutual.
As the cruel sun started to set and day gradually ebbed into night, JTMF brought out the funk. Starting with On the One, there was a groove Jaco Pastorius would have been proud of all the way until morning. On the One is a powerhouse band. Envision Bela Fleck and the Flecktones getting together with Tower of Power and seeing what happens. And you do not get more solid than Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe drummer John Staten behind the kit. They were matched by Zilla, featuring Michael Travis of String Cheese Incident fame.
As if the night could not get more powerful, Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk took the stage. This band is so funky, it needs two bass players. Now I have seen bands with a second guest bass player, and I have seen bands where someone switches off onto bass for a song or two, but I have never seen a band with two full-time bass players. After a night with these guys, I am starting to wonder why not. BLVD and MC Souleye were the late night set and they kept the crowd moving.
It was 1:30 in the morning when they finished, but the late, late night was just getting started. No sooner had BLVD walked off stage then a rumbling came directly at us from behind. We turned around and the Lloyd Family Players were well under way. Then, members of Long Beach’s Delta Nove, On the One and Dubconscious amongst others set up for a few improvised pieces, after which they were rejoined by the Lloyd Family Players. Suddenly there were twenty people making rhythmic music for everyone who was still up to hear it. And it went late and it went strong. This was the Joshua Tree Music Festival at heart. This was the desert sound and the people shaking off the hot sun that they had survived today and would live to survive tomorrow and getting down and making the most of the night, and the music, while it was available to them.
Although the party went late, it did not stop the crowd from being up in time for and the Vibration Army first thing Sunday morning. If there was ever a local band in Joshua Tree, it is this awesome couple who truly do it all. Although they have added drums to their otherwise full sound, they still rock hard as a duet. Wife Moriah on bass and husband John looping, singing, beat-boxing, playing the saxophone, the guitar or the keys. They even called up Venice Beach star Harry Perry. Amongst a slew of others films, this turbaned, rollerblading guitar player has been in White Men Can’t Jump and Dragnet. He took to another level, bringing his 60’s sensibilities to the stage. They closed the set with a staple called “Peace in the Middle East.” The song concluded with husband John playing a solo on the soprano sax offering a stunning display that moved perfectly between the Jewish wails and the Arabic croon and showed us just how similar they really are.
Then the Kidsville parade emerged and carried the crowd to the other stage. It was full with accordion, guitar and lots of percussion. There, nobody knew what to expect from the next band, Luminescent Orchestrii. As it turned out, wearing a colorful silk shirt, Sxip (pronounced Skip) Shirley led a zany ensemble on a resonator guitar and a melodica, playing everything from Romanian folk to Yiddish dance songs. Sxip was all energy and zest, but that is not to discount his talent. I have simply never seen anyone play an acoustic guitar quite like it. Mostly comping for his very strong string section, he played rhythms that were unintelligible but always direct on their mark. Oh yes, and they encored with an old pirate song. Not in the vein of Johnny Depp, but a real live pirate song. From here the good music continued with the Eric McFadden Trio featuring Bernie Worrell. McFadden was one part Ben Harper, one part Lenny Kravitz and all parts balls-to-the-wall Rock and Roll.
The Joshua Tree Music Festival really is something special. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in energy. What it lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality. And whether it is a bunch of people leaving their comfortable campsites early in the day for a female bassist that they have never heard of, people singing along to Dubconscious or the fact that even though this was The Afromotive’s first westward journey, I heard them getting pumped through a loudspeaker at someone’s campsite, the message is all the same. This is a family and we are all lucky to have been a part of it. Until next year, speak softly, and listen for that voice in the desert. It’s there, it speaks, you just have to hear it.