Beyond the alien wind farms of Palm Springs, down the Sonny Bono Memorial Freeway, a few miles off the 62 where the datura grows thick on the roadside, 3000 partiers converge for the eighth annual Joshua Tree Music Festival.
“I accidentally on purpose came to this campground eight years ago, woke up in the morning and thought, This would be a great place for a music festival,” says founder Barnett English. “So I moved to Joshua Tree, and 12 weeks later we had our first festival.”
Namesake Joshua trees cringe on the horizon like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. An eight-year-old shoots strangers with a squirt gun in afternoon heat. Girls in wooly leggings hula-hoop next to amplifiers blasting world, jam, and electronic music. Twenty-three bands that span the musical spectrum are lined up to play back-to-back over the weekend, including Midnite, Orgone, Delhi 2 Dublin, and San Diego’s own Heavy Guilt.
“Half of our audience is from San Diego,” English continues. “To me, this really is a greater–San Diego event.”
At dusk, the landscape works its strange magic and the festival blossoms like a hallucination. Bizarre music emanates from a circus tent by the lake. Inside, an array of automated gamelan gongs ring out in foreign consonance. Curious whispers circulate as the mysterious apparatus rattles in the night.
At the main stage, costumed partiers groove to Latin funksters Mexican Institute of Sound. Later, Italian electro-wizard Gaudi dispenses crunchy bass, pacing manically and tugging at his mad-scientist hair poof. He chain-smokes and twists knobs with impish glee, dropping the bass like a dirty secret. We dance weirdly into the night, shrouded in piped fog and burning sage.
A sunrise yoga session summons Saturday. Campers cook breakfast and dance in the spray of the water truck. A train full of kids and some big kids makes slow circles around the lake. People lounge around the Utopian apocalypse in buggy goggles, sipping margaritas and hiding from midday sun. The extreme heat invokes altered states, an unspoken sense of community. The spirit moves us to dance at dusk, when New Orleans brass jammers Bonerama take the stage.
Morning begins with the Integratron sound bath, a cerebral symphony of nine resonating crystal bowls. A windstorm whips through the campsites, overturning tents and shade structures where under-slept people say things like: “I’ve put some thought into it, and I’d like to present myself to the world like a thin slice of watermelon gelatin.”
“It was kind of a last-minute decision,” says festival first-timer Kyle Kull Nixon of Ramona, 26. “There was a post on Facebook for volunteers to work for eight hours on Monday in exchange for a ticket. The atmosphere was incredible. Everyone was friendly. Everywhere you went there were people wanting to talk and music playing.”
“I’ve been going to music festivals for almost 20 years — over 450 of them, I’ve tried counting,” says English, who spends much of his summer hopping festivals with his JavaGogo organic coffee cart. “You walk away after three days from these life-changing, monumental experiences and friendships founded, to the point where you practically cry when you drive away on Monday.... I fully believe in the concept of live music in an outdoor setting over a few days with the same people.... It’s a way of life that I believe in.”
The location will see its fifth annual roots festival in October, which English says is “newgrassy...has a bit of a twang to it.” ■