Joshua Tree Music Festival | Review/Photos

Article Contributed by Patrick Giblin | Published on Friday, May 20, 2016

Twice a year, in May and October, the Joshua Tree Lake RV and Campground awakens from it’s desert slumber to welcome a few thousand music fans from around the world to join together and create one of the most magical communities imaginable.  The 14th annual Joshua Tree Music Festival took place from May 12 – May 15 and this year proved to be yet another spellbinding experience complete with music from around the globe, light and physical art installations, painters, dancers, stilt walkers, and bodywork instructors of all disciplines.  Beginning as the brainchild of Barnett English 15 years ago, the festival area is nearly entirely composed of recycled materials and comes to life as Barnett and his team of devoted volunteers arrive weeks before the festival to construct the captivating environment in the mystical desert.  One of the most unique characteristics of the festival is that, with but a few exceptions, every band that you want to see on the lineup can be seen.  There are very few schedule conflicts, no mile-long walks from one stage to another, and there is no need to get to a stage early just so you can see the musicians. 

The primary festival music grounds, also known as the Music Bowl, consist of 4 stages: Café, Indian Cove Stage, Copper Mountain Stage, and the Boogaloo Backstage.  The Indian Cove and Copper Mountain stages are the primary stages for music throughout the day as they are the largest and come complete with house lighting and laser projectors.  The two stages rest virtually side by side, so no matter where you are in the Bowl you can see either stage.  The Café is used for performers that play before noon or after midnight, and it really has the feel of an old saloon stage with wooden benches and a little runway for the performers to engage with the crowd.  The Boogaloo Backstage feels as if it is the Wetlands Preserve’s high-desert, hippie-disco complete with Persian rugs on the ground, a walk-around balcony that goes over and around the stage, dancers on stage, and lounge style couches and seats surrounding the main dance floor.  The festival takes on many personalities throughout the day and night and into the morning, but it ultimately feels like Burning Man meets Legoland as the focus on the kids, especially throughout the day, is unmistakable.  The festival is geared towards festivarians young and old, and the daytime is dominated with the distant laughter of children playing in the Kidsville, dancing in their own silent disco, or enjoying their own school bus and attached slide that clearly states NO ADULTS ALLOWED!

The Kidsville is located in the upper festival area that wraps around the Joshua Tree Lake.  This is also where many painters and performance artists will take their post throughout the weekend, as painters for the Sunday Silent Auction craft their pieces and mingle with the folks passing by.  Possibly the two most healing stations on site are also located in the upper festival area: the Vibration Station and Yoga Stage.  All throughout the weekend these two areas offer ongoing opportunities for guided yoga classes of a variety of disciplines and sound baths from Gongs, Singing Bowls, Hangs and Hand Pans, and Didgeridoos.  Even the campground is set up to offer something for everyone; as you drive in the main campground you see general tent and RV camping to your right and Dry Camping and Family Camping to your left, so everyone can feel comfortable and at home with their neighbors throughout the weekend. 

The music kicked off on Thursday with the Boogaloo Backstage hosting all of the musicians for the day, and local DJ Tomas de la Noche was spinning his funky brand of hip-hop, samba, and reggae beats from above the stage in between sets while the bands set up on stage.  High desert native Gene Evaro Jr. and his band were the first ones to take the stage as the sun was getting ready to set, and it would be the first of many times during the weekend that an Evaro was performing at the festival.  They powered though a funky, folky set that not only demonstrated Gene’s powerful songwriting and catchy vocals, but also offered a canvas to all members of the band to splash their colors on the music in a tight, cohesive style.  After another mid-set spin from Tomas de la Noche, Dam-Funk from LA took to the stage and brought his dirty, heavy, nasty brand of funk with him, offering the first of many high-powered funk experiences of the weekend.  Tomas de la Noche then wound things down and the eager crowd carried on their way, either touring through the rest of the festival grounds or back to the camping area to get ready for the first full day of music starting in the morning.

With the first full day of music came the first full day of heat, with temperatures reaching the low 90’s on Friday, and the day got off to a hot start in more ways than one. Tim and Faith Chinnock brought their one-of-a-kind blend of folk, psychedelic rock and indie rock, complete with horns, as The Adobe Collective kicked off the main stage music on the Indian Cove Stage.  The crowd that was up and braving the heat at the noon hour really got a kick out of the Collective when they broke out the Pixie’s “Where Is My Mind” and put their own stamp on the lauded tune.  Next the Rainbow Girls opened the Copper Mountain Stage, and delighted all of the first time listeners, as well as existing fans, with their unadulterated folk-rock experience.  The day carried on, as did the heat, until the Ukrainian sensations Dakhabrakha took to the Copper Mountain Stage.  The crowd, seemingly energized partly by the near setting sun and partly by the other-worldly fusion of African, Indian, Russian, and Arabic rhythms and instrumentation, began to envelope the Music Bowl. 

The personal highlight for the day came next on the Indian Cove Stage, where Chicago based The Main Squeeze demonstrated their silky blend of funk, soul, and rock and roll.  Lead by singer Corey Frye and founders Ben “Smiley” Silverstein (Keys) and Max Newman (Guitar), the band wound their way through an hour and half set chock full of originals and a few special covers.  In honor of Stevie Wonder’s birthday, Frye led the quintet through a stirring cover of Wonder’s ’73 classic “Living for the City”.  As the band approached the end of their set, they also played a very natural, soulful rendition of the Grateful Dead’s “Eyes of the World” that certainly caused a stir among the deadheads in the audience.  Boulder based Sunsquabi closed the main stage performances in fitting style, with their high energy EDM meets Jamtronica soundscape, accentuated by the accompanying lights and lasers projected on the stage, on the shade cloths, and out on the mountain.  The late-night acts are the lone time where attendees may be forced to make a decision as to which music to see.  On the Café stage, Trevor Green and his band brought their funky, world, jam-rock fusion to the rustic stage.  During one of the extended tribal jams, some Native Americans in ceremonial dance regalia demonstrated for the crowd as the band’s beats pushed them on. Green then treated the classic rock fans in the audience to a worldly-folk take on Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”.  Over at the Boogaloo Backstage, Boulder’s Stone Soul was dropping his funky, electro-soul beats and getting the late-night crowd in full frenzy mode before winding down for the night, as he brings a style familiar to his hometown area with the likes of Pretty Lights, GRiZ, and Big Gigantic.

Saturday’s arrival brought more heat and sun down upon the festival goers, as temperatures exceeded the mid-90’s, but so did the music as festival favorite Dumpstaphunk was scheduled to headline the end of the evening, and you could feel the excitement in air for all of those anticipating their greasy, funky ear-candy.  But before then, there was a whole slate of music from all over the world on display for the fans.  The morning kicked off with Dani Bell & the Tarantist on the Café stage, where Joshua Tree Festival veteran Al Howard joined Dani Bell for the first set of the day to show off their unique mid-desert Motown soul sound.  The Desert Rhythm Project was one of the most pleasant surprises of the festival, as they brought a tight reggae, funk, roots sound to the midday sun and had bodies moving despite the climbing temperatures.  Lead by Mikey Reyes and Bryanna Evaro, the outfit rollicked through their set going from funk, to reggae, to folk, to roots, and back again.  The gang even took a turn at hip-hop when local rapper Will Da Beast, from Indio, CA, came out onstage and he and Reyes took turns being MC while the whole band supported.  Tahoe-based Little Hurricane caused quite a buzz around the festival as well when their pre-sunset timeslot was filled with a Black Keys-esque power-blues duo sound that caught a lot of festivalgoers’ attention.

Boulder was very well represented at this year’s festival, with rising jamband stars Greener Grounds taking the Indian Cove stage.  Their sound is along the lines of Lotus, Signal Path or STS9, but with a heavier rock influence more akin to an all instrumental Umphrey’s McGee.  At last it was time for Dumpstaphunk to take the stage, with the additional treat of being joined by the Steeltown Horns for the entire set.  Led by Ian (Guitar) and Ivan Neville (Keys, Vocals), Nick Daniels(Bass, Vocals) and Tony Hall(Bass, Guitar, Vocals) often providing a two-headed bass attack, and Raymond Weber(Drums) living in the pocket, Dumpstaphunk took the crowd through a blend of covers and originals.  The highlight of the set came with a 15-minute version of the staple “Meanwhile”, which gave each of the musicians a turn at giving the crowd some love with solos of their own.  The late-night decision came down to The Cactus Wine Experience burlesque show at the Café and the All Good Funk Alliance dance party at the Boogaloo Backstage.  The Cactus Wine Experience, featuring Gene and Gabba Evaro, offer a truly interactive musical experience with burlesque dancers, wild west costumes, and a dirty, dusty, roadhouse blues accompanying the performance. All Good Funk Alliance provided the perfect nightcap for those looking to cut loose one last time for the night.  The 90’s funk/hip hop beats streamed seamlessly from one to another as the stage filled with dancers, dancers on the balcony above the stage, and of course dancers littered the dance floor.  At the point in time he had to cut the music, the crowd begged for one more song but to no avail, that time had come and the hippie-disco had to be closed for the evening.

Sunday woke to the Silent Art Auction in the Music Bowl with the artists works that had been painted throughout the festival grounds during the weekend.  21 artists demonstrated their various influences and approaches to covering the 3’ x 3’ wooden canvasses with illustrative art, abstract art, and even 3-Dimensional art.  The vibe for Sunday’s music was distinctly global, with the international collection of musicians from Dhara World Music, Joshua Tree’s own 3rd Ear Experience, and world-renown Hamsa Lila, who returned to the stages in the high desert for the first time since their legendary 1 am to dawn set 11 years prior.  Gene Evaro took the stage one last time in advance of the festival closing DJ set by Hamsa Lila members Vir, Inkx, & Evan.  Despite the warm days, the festival on Sunday was full of attendees still carrying big smiles and wide eyes as friends old and new said their goodbyes to one another in anticipation of the next time this collection of beautiful people would gather at the Joshua Tree Lake RV & Campground for the Joshua Tree Music Festival.  The first lineup is already announced for the 11th annual Joshua Tree Fall Festival on October 6-9 and includes acts such as Gene Evaro and Cactus Wine Experience mentioned above, as well as shamanic dub heavyweights Liberation Movement.  Those passing on the first week of the Desert Trip mega-festival in Indio can head to the high desert for a more intimate and collectively shared music experience.

Check out more photos from the show.