Leading up to the spring equinox on Sunday, March 20th, the Serenity Gathering of bass heads and Burning Man faithful at Joshua Tree National Park featured a roller coaster of personalities, scheduled and improvised, that all but guaranteed a good time all along the way.
Despite technical difficulties with the speaker systems and noise complaints from the nearby residences that began on Friday and came to a head on Sunday, most of the festival went on without a hitch. But for many the weekend, and the events leading up to the weekend, really, was a true exercise in individual serenity for everyone involved.
Although the Joshua Tree Retreat Center in Joshua Tree National Park is a beautiful location and the festival organizers were able to make it work, it was a forced relocation. Originally planned for Lake Hemet Campground, the campground went back on the deal only a few short months from the supposed weekend.
Of the three main stages, only the center of the main festival grounds’ “Serenity Stage” was actually inside any semblance of a festival boundary. The “Bridge Family Stage” and the “New Moon Stage” both were adjacent to the main gathering point, and operated almost as independent satellite stages of renegade sounds; common among the Burning Man tribes and communes that the community operates.
This open ended desert setting provided a complimentary sense of freedom, as the discovery of faux stages and sounds defined everyone’s individual map of the grounds. Unlike most festivals I have been to, there were no walls fences or gates, and that had a larger effect of welcoming than I had anticipated.
But at the same time, a lack of an actual campground map to highlight roads, camping areas and trails to each of the stages, and changes in schedule were largely left unannounced or only broadcast to a small group. There is room for improvement on several fronts, but the thirds year of the festival ought to be considered a large success.
The four day festival focused heavily on the equinox theme, celebrating a perfect balance between the sun and the moon, the old and the new, the dark and the light.
Among the three official stages, scattered throughout the camping area and even in the desert between the auxiliary stages were at least three of these renegade sound setups. One make shift camp around the geodesic dome dubbed the “Mojo Dojo” featured live, psychedelic funk three-piece rock outfits like the SoCal-based Solar Sons or extreme down-tempo drum and bass mixes, making the tent a popular late-night between-set pit stop.
On Saturday, Choric Lumina and The Light Crusaders are a female fronted psychedelic rock group based in SoCal that kicked the day off on Saturday with an energetic and fun performance on the Bridge Family Records Stage. They have a very Edward Sharpe-esque vibe in their soulfully catchy tunes.
At the New Moon Stage, turntableist Safi’s Lab brought funkified mixes of Latin, reggae and hip-hop beats to life among an enthusiastic crowd. People practiced their acrobatics and poi spinning on the outskirts of the crowd, while an endless stream of bubbles flowed throughout. The good vibrations were flowing strong.
Even though the solstice didn’t happen until Sunday, it was Friday that stole the crown and proved to be the highlight of the weekend’s scheduled programming. A highly anticipated set from Desert Dwellers’ Live Experience, a burner community favorite that is quickly rising to the upper echelon of festival presence both domestically and abroad, delivered in unexpected fashion.
The duo of Amani Friend and Treavor Moontribe, who have been playing world electronic music for dance and yoga in the deserts of New Mexico and California since the 1990s, kept their dance beats suspenseful. Mixing a live score to the Cirque de Solei worthy acrobatics and feats of endurance comprising their Live Experience, the set highlighted what was the true spirit of the weekend.
Although there has always been a place at deep bass and earth-connected festival settings like Serenity for these displays, it is uncommon for them to take the main stage focus and across so many acts – the Desert Dwellers’ Live Experience was not the only set focused on these acrobatics. But for anyone that caught the previous Serenity Stage set from San Francisco’s ill. Gates, it was all but expected.
“This isn’t about me, or about us playing music up here,” he said near the end of his set. “It is and always has been about you guys, the people out there giving all of your energy. The artists, the musicians the dancers that give in to the flow, that’s what we’re here for.”
For the first time in Serenity Gathering’s three years, the flow performances and feats of strength typically scattered throughout the viewing area actually took precedence onstage and ahead of the DJs night performances.
With the Live Experience, Desert Dwellers join forces with incredible aerialist, acrobat, and fire performer Tammy Firefly, visionary artist Anthony “Flowers” Ward, and powerful vocalist Meagan Chandler, set against the backdrop of an intricate stage structure designed by the visionary artist Carey Thompson. Additional performers and instrumentalists join the Desert Dwellers Live Experience along the way as it brings the duo’s catalog to life with thrilling performances, wild re-interpretations, and breathtaking choreography.
Over the weekend, the heat was relatively cool by desert standards, and the night was relatively warm. But being in the desert sun is still incredibly taxing. The forgiving gravel of the desert floor was comfortable and easy on the feet, and kept the kick up of dust to a bare minimum, but there were still plenty of parched patrons.
Unfortunately, aside from official merchandise vending, the only other vendors were those serving their own independent wares and food. Serenity Gathering needs to invest in a general store where festival goers whose food and water supply are compromised can refuel their bodies. There was one large water reservoir on site near the main stage, but by Saturday afternoon, it was empty with no plans to refill it.
Although self-sustainability and self-reliance are two huge factors in the desert rave scene, with an emphasis on leaving no “material out of place” or MOOP, if the festival is conscientious enough to supplement water for half of the festival, it ought to investigate supplementing the second half over the first half at least, security and medical tent employees were left working their shifts without any on site replenishment and the vendors ran out early.
But for everything that could be an issue was largely drowned out in the moment, and the festival was all about brining your positive self and best intentions. A major positive could be found in the inclusion of musical acts across the spectrum of raver’s tastes. Not limiting itself to trap, glitch, techno and hip hop, there were a slew of fantastic up and coming musicians.