Locals in the Morongo Basin refer to the Joshua Tree Music Festival as “our festival.”
The Sweet 16 version of the festival, held May 17-20, broke records, with a reported 3,500 people in attendance.
For me, the festival is kind of like a block party run by the local artist community. You run into your actual neighbors controlling traffic, submitting art projects and/or just having a good time. With more than 25 bands performing, there was music for everyone’s tastes. When someone asks me who is playing at the festival, I always say I have no idea—but the music is always great. This is a testament to the organizers’ ability to produce a festival that stays away from the mainstream, vanilla acts we see at most musical gatherings.
Tradition dictates that the pre-party takes place on Thursday, with the serving of free beans and rice.
Desert Rhythm Project warmed up the crowd on the Copper Mountain stage on Friday, playing to the hometown crowd. It’s always a fun band to watch, as friends and family sing along to every song. Cory Henry and the Funk Apostles ruled the Indian Cove Stage that same night with a fabulous cover version of “Staying Alive.”
Saturday’s highlights included Con Brio, a soul-funk band on the main stage from the Bay Area. Lead singer Ziek McCarter had dance moves that would make Michael Jackson envious, with speed faster than a Mojave rattler. He walked onstage and asked, “Are you ready to fly?” Fans tried to keep up with Ziek’s grooving and gyrating, but to no avail. His soulful singing dug at one’s heart with vigor.
Walking the grounds on Saturday, I ran into Lali Whisper, a multimedia artist and clothing designer who was one of the contributors to the massive art installation by Randy Palumbo, Lodestar, at Coachella 2018. She created a small mirrored piece for JTMF titled “I Am You.” She openly shared her obsession with mirrors.
I received passionate recommendations from music fans to see Dirtwire, another fun Bay Area band, with Ennio Morricone-inspired instrumentals with some heavy Cajun influence. The meaning of the song “Shish Kabob” is explained on the band’s YouTube post: “Shish Kabob is about an orange mans (sic) unstable appetite for an absurd amount of power and the unintended consciousness.” The cover of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” rocked.
As I left the Boogaloo Stage, I heard music coming from the shaded music bowl. I first thought it was recorded music being played by the production staff as they prepared for another day. As I got closer, I realized the singing was pitch-perfect—and that a band was performing on the Café Stage. I ran into my friend Marisol, who once created a stir by kissing Peter Murphy at Pappy and Harriet’s (but that is a story for another time). Marisol told me excitedly, “I am going to cry; I am going to cry—she is singing perfectly.” She was right: Gabriella “Gabba” Evaro, the lead singer of Earth Moon Earth, was incredible, with silk-smooth vocals on “Rose City (Can It All Come Back)”: “I am lost without your love, my dear, I am afraid, I am afraid to go without you, feeling has always been so hard to speak to you again … it’s been so long since you held me in your heart. … Can it all come back?” Gabba was truly a highlight of the festival.
On Sunday, the festival closed out with some incredible acts. The Shook Twins from Portland were a pleasure, melding alt-country with an indie feel, and proving that adding a banjo is always an improvement. The twins’ sound check prior to their performance was a very quiet version of “La Cucaracha.” Laurie Shook announced: “We are the Shook Twins, not to be confused by the Shit Twins.” The song “Safe” was flawless with spiked melodies. They added to a new song, called “Stay Wild” … imagine if the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack had banjo influences. The Shook Twins’ cover of “Dear Prudence” was astonishing.
Bicicletas Por La Paz, a Latin funk band by way of Oakland, was part carnival and part Resistance, with campy lyrics. Bicicletas’ funk shared influences with traditional Latin music, melding African and indigenous harmonies. Various band chants were encouraged by Adley Penner, who handled the majority vocal duties. Political chants—like “Nazi skinheads go away; Trump is in bed with the NRA”—gave way to a free-for-all cavalcade with dancers, marchers and a few stilt walkers. The members of Bicicletas Por La Paz are pure entertainers with a message.
Grammy-nominated Adam Freeland, a DJ and music producer from the United Kingdom, closed out the festival on the Boogaloo Stage, thumping up some incredible rhythms via his turntable. His live band The Acid recently did the score for The Bomb, a film that debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival. I just know him as the guy who lives in Pioneertown, who DJs some of the parties at artist Cain Motter’s Domeland. He is just another talented great artist drawn to this enchanted place.