When ArtsEarth contacted me about bearing witness to JTMF I became possessed with a flurry of curious expectations counting down the hours to the opening of the 15th annual festival. Many sources will tel you this is not the average festival. Where as Coachella bathes in glitz, plastic, consumerism and pop elitism, JTMF maintains an ethos of earthiness and unity that is the spirit of the High Desert. Starting with the founding fifteen years ago, those who become involved become family returning time and time again to contribute art or music or lend skills in carpentry, sound and administration. The yearly themes “Teach Peace”, “Love Everybody”, and “Music Is The Spirit Of Life”, advocate a global unity. Artists like Bret Philpot leave lasting homages to these themes on the walls which can be found all around the venue. The importance of community is palpable at this festival. Passes are offered to volunteers in exchange for time in the preceding weeks clearing the grounds of weeds and desert brush growing between the Bi-Annual festivals, taking care of patrons thought the weekend, and cleaning up afterwards. Among the security, the parking attendants, will call attendants and engineers, there is a sense of camaraderie, familiarity and cooperation. Its not uncommon to recognize the person dancing in costume one day donning the orange vest and greeting you at the gate on the next. The festival promises to always be small, restricting ticket sales to no more than 450, in order to maintain the family friendly ineffable JTree-an vibe that larger festivities lose with restrictions, VIP access, and the other concerns that come from thousands of people gathering together. Instead you are rewarded with something spacious and uncrowded like the surrounding desert, you never feel that you need to miss anything though many things are happening all around suiting the varying interests of different people. In hindsight, I’m inclined to suggest Burning Man’s origins encapsulated in a tiny permanent installation and carefully maintained as a bonsai tree is an apt description.
The location is as much a part of the festival as the event itself. Starting with the allure of Joshua Tree major, the desert, the park, the quirky little town, the long thin road winding away from the main highway towards an uncertain destination, the house with the strange rust patina metal sculptures, the large swoop arrows saying “All Stop Here”. Upon passing through the metal gate one is let loose inside a wonderland of wood, sticks, sand, concrete, metal, crafted with care one stage or dividing wall at a time, each nook and cranny filled with some artistic flourish. Rumor has it there is a portrait of founder Barnett English in pirate regalia in a back stage greenroom. The lake, which also hosts the local astronomy club, was all that existed in the early days, a single stage where now all day yoga classes are offered next to a sanctuary dedicated to well being. One is Invited to wander around the lake and taking in the fauna, flora, and artwork displayed in various enclaves about the premises. We cut through the layout of stages in the music bowl and back to the Boogaloo stage which looks like something out of Peter Pans favorite dreams in which the lost boys are all cowboys in a Sergio Leone western. The area traditionally reserved for a mosh pit is filled with small children chasing bubbles in the lights. Here exist the Travelers, Vagabonds, Nomads and Burners, time worn hippies, the smell of dank and pachouli, tie die and dreadlocks, sandals and hiking boots, costumes, fancy dress, bikini tops and harem pants, hula hoops and poi, bare skin and headscarves along with a smorgasbord of hat wear from all over the world. The attendees gather alongside the listed acts, each performing in some small or large way against the back drop of an eclectic music festival. The bowl becomes a staggered call and response drawing the active crowd from stage to stage while some settle their chairs near the center sheltered under the shades and rotating towards the active stage and migrating slowly as the familiar desert sun crosses overhead. Carpets are placed upon the sand before each stage beckoning for attendees to relax on the ground indian style or lounge back on elbows as they meditate with the music. Without fail a dancing swarm moves in upon the space and the sitters may either rise and join or be displaced to an outer edge.
The set list features 9 bands with elements from international countries and representatives from all over the west coast. There is also the pick of local talent, a growing pool of creative imports drawn like iron in the sand to a magnet from across the country and beyond the sea. The Desert has a way of knowing its own, roots are taken or the dust and sun withers or chases away that which does not belong. Amongst the local acts a fair amount of musical intermingling plays out, individuals share the stage with one another in a multitude of configurations sharing the limelight and jamming as they often do on the the stages of many of the local establishments and smaller house and desert parties occurring through out the year.
Thursday Night: The night of reconnaissance, I really had no idea what to expect, or how to find the place for that matter. The familiar face, Chris Unck wore a blue jacket and dollish wig with a little red ribbon bow and pounds away at his Gibson SG, backed by a spanish guitarist in flat top hat and sash who would trade to bass and electric guitar loops, along with Wally who would yet become the traditional percussion bearer for much of the local talent. The early crowd made itself known as big fans of Reggae. The children owned the area, eventually giving way to excited older dancers eager to kick off the festivities. Sasha Rose of Liberation Movement played three DJ Sets, and Down North took the late prime spot with their groove rock. Along the edge of the lake we found our friend Cain Motter setting up lighting for his installation of strange desert treasures mounted on a wooden fence. He is one of many making final preparations for the weekend. It has become dark and knowing that much will reveal itself in light and completion, we drove the long strait ribbon of quiet road back to the highway and found our beds for the night to get an early start.
Friday Morning: We meander around the lake to see the installations that have blossomed over night, rough sketches on canvas to be filled in by live painters through out the week, a class of yoga being taught to a group of 30 or so attendees would later be found to be a continuous staple rising and falling in attendance as festival goers found new and exciting things to do before returning for more rejuvenation. By the cafe, Bad Jamma explores Loop performance and multi-instrumentalism. A toddler runs through the crowd down to the front and waving a white ribbon as Shea Freedom advocates togetherness, personal empowerment and transgender issues while singing campfire songs with the soulfulness of a young Tracy Chapman. Hidden back on the Boogaloo Stage local artist Philip Rosenblum presents a soft acoustic instrumentation and whimsical twisted lyrics like something out of Alice in Wonderland. The familiar sounds of the locally popular Adobe Collective are followed by Myshkin who’s ensemble of circus performers propels the music in to something much more. La Inédita from Peru follows bringing dance with their latin/rap fusion sounds. Next, Kraak and Smaak return from the Netherlands for a dance party that starts in daylight with something reminiscent of Deee-lite and ended in full stage lighting and surprising industrial pounding. In the midst of that set while resting on a bench I met a man with a Don Quixote tattoo, he tells me why he became a clown after using laughter to cure himself of cancer. He travels every year from Colorado because the festival offers him time with his daughter and grandchildren who live in San Diego. I begin to understand that this festival is about more than just music and art to many attendees, that community becomes a reason to return again and again. The now sufficiently pumped crowd migrates to a performance of dazzlingly exceptional tightness by Joshua Tree’s very own “Prince”, Gene Evaro, Jr. who switches with virtuosic funk from guitar to keys, grinning and dancing backed by a horn and solid rhythm section recently off tour. Next up is Liberation Movement in an adventure of lighting, costume, theatrics and dance blended to strange world music sounds and deep dub beats. They take us late into the night into a night closed by Marques Wyatt and Wiskerman.
Saturday Morning: Starts out soft with the vocal harmonies of Sirens of Soul. I’m late to arrive, held by locals at the entrance grumbling over the one day admission. “Last time I was here it was cheaper… nit picky charges, like extra for parking and more for ins and outs… what happened to a local discount?” The previous night has taken some pep out of the early morning step but the crowds are back on the dance carpets for local act Desert Rhythm Project. A girl is naps on the ground, making it through an hour and a half of that set and the following set by singer/songwriter Tom Freund who switches from guitar to ukelele to upright bass song to song backed by the previously mentioned and now featured Wally Ingram on percussion, with a lady fiddler and steel guitarist. I venture from the sitting area to get a better look at the collection of continental (Pakistan/UK) Baraka Moon. As the lead singer teaches the audience to “Send Love” in the outstretched hand waving motions of balinese monkey chanters, I am overcome by the smell of Indian food lingering over the fest and think with all this SaReGa going on there will never be a better moment to get a pair of $5 samosas. I wait in line and hand the guy my twenty, he offers samosas and a five. I say “I gave you a twenty.” He shows me a ten retorting “You gave me a ten.” Back and forth we go until I in frustration I call him thief and take refuge in my $15 snack, consoling myself with “what is a little sacrifice? I have been well taken care of here on the whole.” When I return the sleeper has risen and wandered off, my friends have vanished and strangers have taken over their chairs. Aerialists take over the western area in front of the vendor booths, backlit in gold by a sinking sun. Jambanai from South Korea peaked my interest early on from their description. The opening noise drone using a reed woodwind of traditional origins rang out across the bowl at a tremendous volume bringing a joyful ecstasy at the idea that this disquieting jolt of timbre might sustain indefinitely. The audience churned and many didn’t know what to make of it, until the sound swarmed into writhing distorted guitars and broke into zithers and traditional bowed Korean instruments. The effect transported all into a far unfamiliar place in the end holding the audience captivated. The rising and falling texture welcomed in the night and the California Honeydrops and Orgōne, concluding in the early hours of morning with the local burlesque sensation Cactus Wine Experience surprising all with fantastic catwalk cameos of the rarest form.
Sunday Morning: I am left to find my own parking spot, the day’s first sign of the shift towards the events coda. Only the main gate attendants occupy their posts. A calmness has displaced the buzz that peaked first on Friday and built roughly again towards Saturday night. Sunday seemed a day of soul searching, sound checks and sunburns. The auction benefiting Joshua Tree Living Arts brought together the final live paintings from the scattered locations throughout the festival. The atmosphere carries the same consolidation. Edith Crush plays guitars and sings drifting into and out of French as she holds down a steady beat of kick drum tambourine with her feet. She is joined temporarily on stage by Teddy Quinn of Radio Free Joshua Tree for a song with pious overtones. Megan Hutch follows on the Boogaloo stage. Seeking the spirit of stillness I wonder to find Steven Morris doing a repeat performance of his hand pan set in the The Vibration Station, a shaded henge of painted walls offering an opportunity to interact with artists away from the main stages in a more intimate setting. Here is a place of creative/mindfulness talks, sing alongs and drum circles. Most things on the lake side involve interactivity, children paint, a golf cart continuously circles dragging a literal boat full of children shouting with glee at the prospect of high fives from strangers as they roll past. Trevor Green is first to take one of the major stages, he plays acoustic guitar and didgeridoo with the familiar Wally and a violinist with a subtle calmness. There are a few new faces in the crowd, interlopers on the weekend’s established culture, uninitiated, shall we say? Superbowl Backyard BBQ types. In the spirit of togetherness and equality it seems strange to single them out. Especially as Trevor sings of sacred nature and global harmony. The dancers build to the side, chairs have been placed directly down center in disregard of festival etiquette. I sit, straight spine, eyes closed, migrating slowly to the center, half pushed half by choice into the vacuum of a departing family. At the end of the set a kid pulls me out from myself, “Hey, You want to buy me lunch?”, I say “No thanks”, I’m still holding a grudge about being ripped off by the Indian food vendor the day before and I tell him to take it up with him “He owes me…” As I turn to leave he sulks and says quietly “I’m starving”… I ignore him and wander off to be truly alone for the first time the whole weekend, processing, seeking some transcendental thread I can hold on to, trying to figure out what is to be said of all this. Stopping to refill my water bottle at the hydration station, I contemplate whether any of it has changed me, what I will take away from all of this, the music is a backdrop to a bigger picture, hardly a thing to define the festival by. I’m feeling the judgy nags of sobriety, I can hear a sound check back in the bowl. When I get back to the Indian Cove stage I am greeted by a beautiful kora and get caught up once again in another sound check only to find hungry kid sitting next to me again, saying to some other person how hungry he is. I say something along the lines of “haven’t you found something to eat yet?“ He pitches the goods on me again and we banter refining processes of tree bark, definitions of natural, chemistry and I exercise extreme self control, when I give him the left over $5 from my samosas and say go get some pizza. I want to offer some kind of meager generosity. The kid takes his leave and Dirtwire takes the stage in all black playing an eerie harmonica solo over Charlie Chaplin’s poignant monologue from “The Great Dictator”.
“We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost. The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in man; cries out for universal brotherhood; for the unity of us all.”
— Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator
The overall vibe has coagulating into a texture almost physical. I am the silent watcher on the outside looking in upon the vibrant entanglement of youth, dancing, hoola-hooping, spinning sticks and poi. Mokembe from Zimbabwe takes the stage, Sound checking in little virtuosic bursts. The MC prophesies, “those sitting won’t be for much longer”, and within 45 seconds it has come to pass. The dance area erupts as the sounds of high life cut through the air. I marvel at the interplay between the bass and guitar player as they dance along side the vocalist. Shadows stretch long upon their faces as the mid afternoon sun begins to burn in from the edges of the canopy. The temperature has risen steadily as the days have gone by. I skirt the congregation bouncing to African rhythms reminiscing on the wonder of sounds from a vast world melded into the psyche of the global tribe. Each has an individual experience, committed in their own way, choosing what to offer and receive in return, some put in work, some join the family, some graze the surface, some opt for full immersion. Participants in a ritual as old as time. A gathering, a celebration. The bearers of the festival’s quintessence are burnt from days of partying in the sun and cool nights of dancing, yet still they persist, holding on for the conclusion of the very last acts before packing up tents and heading once again into the real world. They alone truly own the experience of each and every moment. They have made new friends, stretched the boundaries of themselves, they have heard expressions of sound previously unknown to them. This tiny microcosm, for the chosen, has opened a gate to a much larger world. Turning to sneak away, some where amongst the rabble, I over heard someone say “I lost my friends but I found something else.”