Desert Rocks Music Festival 2011
Desert Rocks Music Festival
May 27th-29th, 2011
Words By J-man
Photos By Carly Marthis
No matter the festival, there is something special about the season opener. The open road on the way to the event, the shining sun, the live music, the sense of community and collective elevation... this was the experience for many music fans traveling great distances across the country to see their favorite bands this past Memorial Day. Our group, departing from Colorado, consisted of myself, my girlfriend Carly Marthis and "Pistol" Pete Wall of The Motet, Particle, etc. Our destination was Desert Rocks Music Festival, a short 6 hour stone's throw to a weekend of music in Moab, Utah.
If you haven't experienced the drive west on I-70 from Denver towards Grand Junction, it's one of the most beautiful in the country. The mountains transitioning into Red Rock Desert is truly breathtaking. We passed Arches National Park then through the town of Moab to arrive at Desert Rocks. Pulling into the festival, I noticed tiny sign marking the event and nothing else. We reached the festival box office which consisted of a trailer and a shade tent. The check-in process brought our first interaction with festival personnel and our first challenges. We were given our bracelets and one of our laminates while being told that that the festival didn't print out enough and that we would have to just "deal with it, or talk to someone else".
I took a deep breath and knew it wouldn't be an issue. We'd just get the additional laminate from one of the bands. I then looked over to the artist check-in where Pete was being told he wasn't on the list. I definitely found entertainment in this ridiculous situation. Minutes later, The Motet was contacted, Pete was given his credentials and we were on our way into the festival. We stopped just inside the festival grounds at the second artist booth as Pete picked up his laminate and beer / food tickets. We obtained a "Guest of Artist" laminate at the same location.
We pulled into the festival on uneven and challenging roads, found a spot to park and set up camp. Following a short and efficient set up, we grabbed Pete's gear and made our way into the backstage area to get ready. While entering the gated area, we heard the young Jaden Carlson on stage. The bass sounded familiar to me so I made my way closer to see Garrett Sayers of The Motet on Bass. It sounded great!
As Elephant Revival took the stage next, we made our way into the crowd to get a better view. Elephant Revival captivated the small crowd instantly. The sheer power, beauty and transcendental sound gave me goosebumps and left me in a trance. The electric banjo work of Sage Cook was loose yet impressive. Equally as impressive, the fiddle playing of Bridget Law stole portions of the show. The washboard playing of Bonnie Paine coupled with her vocals were mind-blowing as the collective energy and sound that was enhanced by beautiful harmonies won over the crowd.
Elephant Revival is one of the few bands whose reception is consistent no matter the venue or crowd. Folks seem to eat them up, myself included. Their vibe represents more than the individual musicians and the collective of notes they play together... the music creates a connection unlike any I have felt.
WhiteWater Ramble followed and led off their set with a handful of typical WhiteWater songs. Their instrumentation, energy and style was entertaining, but their setlist seemed to slide into the same mold as always. Just when I was about to step away from the stage to head back to camp, the band called Pete Wall to the stage, triggering me to turn around. The energy immediately soared higher, as if some missing piece was placed into the equation. The music took off! Patrick Latella's guitar playing and solos were nothing short of awesome. Patrick's playing always sucks me in and makes me groove. Patrick Sites's electric mandolin playing wailed. His ability to shred on what appeared to be a mini-guitar is fantastic.
Pete's solo killed per usual and he exited the stage to a solid applause. WWR followed his sit-in with a version of "Shakedown Street" that blew me away. Howard Montgomery handed off the bass to Latella and turned around to utilize a really danceable and nasty synth/midi. Luke Emig's drumming was consistent and with the addition of Adam Galbum's fiddle and Sites's raging electric mandolin, WWR played one of the most high energy and enjoyable jams that I have ever them play. I looked back at Pete who was sitting by the van and he was getting down. We made eye contact and both smiled. I pointed to the stage, dropped my jaw and let my eyes roll back in my head with a laugh.
As WWR walked offstage and tore down their gear, Vince Herman and Great American Taxi sound checked on the other stage. I looked over to see Taxi's bass player Brian Adams call Pete over. He leaned down and said something to Pete that made him smile.
"I'm playing with Taxi." Pete said calmly but with a smile.
"Nice! Which songs?" I asked.
"Ohhh... only the last two. Is that good?" Pete said in a falsely confused fashion.
I laughed and sat down in the sand to listen to Taxi and to write a few notes about the festival thus far. By that time in the weekend, Friday around 8:00 PM, I had expected the turn out to be better. There weren't many folks in attendance and it was one of the main evenings of the festival.
Taxi began with their usual folk / Americana fashion, but somewhere in the middle of the set, their music ascended to a new level. Guitarist Jim Lewin tore it up as the band sounded much more jammy and spacey than previous shows. At some point mid-set, Vince called up his son Silas Herman to join the pickin' party. Shortly to follow onstage were Bridget and Bonnie of Elephant Revival. The chemistry was clear and clean, and it was obvious that all of the musicians had come from the Colorado music scene.
The last few songs became an all-out jam with the addition of Pete on sax. He fit perfectly! It was wonderful to see Bridget and Bonnie looking down the line smiling as well as Vince moving in closer to jam with Pete directly. The crowd was getting down and Taxi closed out the set with a bang!
Following Taxi, Dubskin took the stage featuring Ryan Jalbert of The Motet. We missed the majority of the set due to an issue we were trying to resolve. What were heard of the set sounded appealing and positive.
The issue at hand was regarding the assumption that there would be an ATM onsite, and there was not. We were told by staff that the box office would be able to charge our credit cards for an allotted amount and give us cash in exchange. Carly and I walked all the way through the festival grounds and up the main road back in the darkness towards the box office. We arrived at the box offices and were looked at with massive confusion.
"We have no clue what you're talking about, " said one staff members.
"Actually, we can do it in increments of ticket prices; $55, $105, etc, " said another girl a minute later.
We decided on the increment and the girl took our credit card and headed into the trailer. We then watched her wander around "helping" other folks and chatting with staff. She then looked over at us and then headed back into the trailer.
"Sorry, we just decided to change the policy. We don't want to give out all of our cash." She said.
I contested the verdict, then she took me over to speak with someone "higher up". I stood and was ignored for several minutes. Eventually I reached my boiling point and wandered back towards the festival with Carly. Strike two for the festival staff. We were really disappointed and inconvenienced by this turn of events.
We made arrangements with Pete for cash and went off to get dinner and drinks from a food vendor who was from Colorado and vending his first festival. The food was tasty, and as we ate, we could hear Wisebird from the stage. They had a classic rock sound and were really getting at it. Folks in the crowd, though few and far between, seemed to really be enjoying the music. We headed backstage and sat down with Pete in the dinning tent. Bran Adams, Patrick Latella and Patrick Sites sat down one by one and joined the conversation which ended abruptly with rumors of a jam at the WhiteWater Ramble tent. Latella gave us detailed directions to camp and headed off into the night. We followed shortly behind, but when we arrived, it was Vince Herman and a few other folks pickin' around the fire.
Back at the stage, People Under The Stairs were taking an unusually long time checking their microphones. A couple folks backstage were making comments about it as I fell into conversation. About a half hour later, I realized the group was still checking the mics and coming off as complete prima donnas. They finally began their set which was awful. I looked around in amazement and thought to myself "Is this what they were checking the mics for?!?"
As their set wrapped up The Motet could be heard soundchecking over their music, which triggered a somewhat harsh response from People Under The Stairs. The crowd then seemed to become enraged, even though it was no fault of The Motet that they were turned up so high on the soundboard. I glanced back to see one of the sound engineers smiling, clearly taking pleasure and revenge for the extended soundcheck prior. The set concluded and angry folks wandered by The Motet's stage sharing angry sentiments.
"Fuck you, assholes!" one angry fool yelled.
"You fucking suck!" yelled a trashy jezzabell.
Several others joined the harassment until The Motet started playing and folks went nuts. Once you hear The Motet, it's kind of hard to talk shit. It was a fantastic change of pace and exciting to see the festival shift into high gear with a top-notch professional band.
It was around 2:00 AM and the crowd was dancing as the horns stepped up. The funk / dance vibe was thick. Garrett Sayer's displayed some of the best bass work that I have seen in a long time as he threw down above and beyond his normal destruction. Drummer Dave Watts led from the back of the stage, his playing enjoyable and tight. Keyboardist Joey Porter, per usual, tore it down. The Motet was joined by Juno What's Steve Swatkins for a handful of tracks and then it happened.
What followed was one of the cooler transformations that I have seen. One of my favorite bands (The Motet) morphed into one of my other favorites (Juno What)! The dance/80s sound increased and members of The Motet filed off of the stage. Garrett joined Juno What for a few tracks and Scott Messersmith remained on percussion for some additional backbeats and fills.
We stepped away from the main stages for a a short time to head down the hill and check out the "Solar DJ" which was a DJ booth covered in solar panels that powered the music. We really dug that concept, but it couldn't save the music. Across from the Solar DJ booth was a small stage that played host to music into the wee hours of the morning. Through the stages was a saloon filled with odd objects, scantily clad women and massive amounts of nonsense. It's safe to say that this was one of the trippiest environments that I have ever been around.
As the night progressed later and later into early morning, Juno What continued the dance party for a surprising amount of fans that stayed up to get down...
We awoke in our tent to some intense heat. The sun was beating down directly above us in the sky meaning it was almost the afternoon. The Saturday schedule for Desert Rocks was weak. It seemed as if a majority of the bands that were scheduled to perform were simply filler due to their next-to-nothing appearance fees. Desert Rocks was almost empty. We headed into Moab for breakfast at a local diner, then we continued on to Arches for a portion of the afternoon.
Arches National Park, located about ten to fifteen miles from the festival grounds, was one of the most beautiful National Parks that I have been to. The natural beauty was stunning and its close proximity to Desert Rocks made it a must-see.
After fueling up on some Mexican food, we returned to the nearly empty festival. On our way back into the grounds, we noticed that a car being was being towed out of the festival and commented on how much of an inconvenience it would be to have our car towed at a festival. We were waved past the initial security at the box office but were stopped at the second security gate going into the festival. We were told that we had to have a parking pass to enter the camp and I explained that we had been there for two days, had an artist and VIP passes, and that we were never given parking passes. We were then made to turn our car around and head back to the front.
I grew furious. What if we had not pulled out to go to Arches that day and we had left our car parked in the camp without a parking pass, to be towed with all of our equipment, food and supplies in it? When we reached the front my anger peaked. I explained the situation and got a response that I wasn't expecting.
"Yeah, we ran out of parking passes both days," one woman said with a casual attitude.
"So you ran out of passes and yet are continuing to tow cars without passes?" I asked aggressively.
"Yeah, well, you need a pass..." a guy spoke up.
"Right, I understand that! My point is, if you (the festival) ran out of passes, you shouldn't be towing people out without passes!" I exclaimed.
"Yeah, it's messed up," another staff member responded.
The staff then issued me a parking pass and went back to what they were doing. I wondered if they were even going to address the issue. Heading back towards the festival I began to calm down... until we passed a tow truck towing another vehicle out.
I try to give festivals the benefit of the doubt. It's a lot of work to throw a festival. There is a lot involved and a lot of logistical planning, but what we witnessed at Desert Rocks was a complete breakdown in communication. No one had any clue what was going on during the festival's 7th year.
We returned to camp, parked the vehicle with the new parking pass, grabbed some beers and headed off to wander around the grounds. The most impressive aspect of Desert Rocks Festival is the terrain itself. The festival grounds crawled up and down cliffs, over desert terrain, by abandoned mines and up mountainsides. It is truly one of the most beautiful venues that I have ever been to.
That evening we caught Hot Buttered Rum. Their cross of bluegrass/string music and jam was really enjoyable and different than a lot of the other jamgrass bands. The instrumentation was bright and overall, the song selection uptempo. Following a couple of line up changes and transitions, Hot Buttered Rum sounded the best they've ever sounded.
After the HBR set, we wandered around camp a bit before landing in our tent.
Those who remained at Desert Rocks were awoken by high winds. I brushed off my face which was covered in sand and dust from the desert. We headed to the same vendor that we had been supporting throughout the weekend and purchased some breakfast burritos. The conversation at the vending booth consisted of talk of a girl walking off a cliff the previous night. The story was very believable as the venue was surrounded with unmarked, open cliffs.
We walked across the way, grabbed some coffee and sat down to watch some morning yoga. The winds picked up and it became almost impossible to enjoy breakfast in the open. We dashed backstage and settled down in the main green room on a couch in the large temporary steel tent structure. We watched as the winds picked up as the structure seemed like it was going to blow away, though it held... at least for the moment.
A band attempted to play their set but it was cut short due to the unstable weather. Regardless, only about ten people had turned out to see music. We tied scarves over our faces and hiked down into the cliffs, past some mine shafts then down a dry riverbed to some nearby red rock formations. Again, I can't express how beautiful the venue and area around the venue were.
We returned to the backstage area to find that the greenroom / steel structure had collapsed. The fence surrounding the backstage was now chained shut and no one was allowed inside. I was able to talk my way back to grab some of my equiptment from the rubble. We were told that they had begun canceling the evenings sets. It was at this point when we decided to pack up and head home. Walking through the camp, we could see collapsed tents as well as tents barely holding on in the wind. The sand hurt as it hit our faces in the high winds. We packed up, recycled and separated our trash, and then made our way back to Denver, Colorado.
We had a blast at Desert Rocks. No, we were not impressed by the staff or festival itself, but we enjoyed Friday's music and the natural beauty of the surrounding area. We had a blast with Pete, WhiteWater Ramble and the guys from The Motet/Juno What. Desert Rocks was proof that even under the most unprofessional and unpredictable circumstances, the desire to have a good time can triumph over all.
Photo Gallery One
Photo Gallery Two