Desert Rocks Festival | 05.23-24 | Utah

Words by: Corby Anderson | Images by: Jared Dayley, Jason Baldwin & Corby Anderson

Desert Rocks Music Festival :: 05.23.09 – 5.24.09 :: Kane Creek, UT

Kayaker at the main stage by Dayley
Hellacious storms of biblical proportions bore down again and again for most of the weekend during the 2009 Desert Rocks Music Festival. It would become our great obstacle and in the end helped create one of the most memorable festivals in recent memory.

Kane Creek, Utah, eight miles south of Moab, is a natural geological funnel leading down from the shattered Colorado plateau into the namesake canyon. Its desert strata consist of sandstone, Pinyon, and Juniper, and little else in the form of substrate to hold it all together when total saturation occurs. With demented-looking Godhead clouds ranting all about, exploding sheaths of lightning and dumping more than a third of the average annual precipitation in the course of 48 hours, there was no place for all of the water to go but down. And down it went, with startling alacrity, forming torrential flash floods and waterfalls that split the Desert Rocks' acreage in half. In scant seconds, a waist-deep river of milk chocolate gushed forth where firm ground had been immediately prior, forever claiming the tents (with onboard stashes of keys, phones, clothing, journals, smokes, and other consumables), chairs, coolers and sleeping bags of stunned festivarians on a dramatic Saturday afternoon.

The Mother Hips, a road-tested rock quartet from San Francisco, were setting up their gear on stage when a wall of water and mud burst through the green room tent and underneath the main Utah Stage. "It looked like the stage was going to buckle!" said co-frontman Tim Bluhm. "We grabbed our guitars and amps and threw them into a van. It was crazy, so much water came down."

Desert Rocks 2009 by Baldwin
Seizing the opportunity, a ballsy rocker named Scott Whitaker paddled out into the new river in his kayak, while stagehands frantically gouged out trenches around the battered stage in a heroic Bobcat mission which saved the stage and all of its expensive lighting and sound equipment from wholesale ruination.

For the hearty crowd, there was nowhere to really go except for into their vehicles once the ground reached the saturation point in the sheeting rain. "It was insane. It was a full on river. People started screaming. It was a nine out of ten on the drama scale. Our neighbors lost their tents out into the abyss, forever. We were under a tarp, staying dry. Well, trying to stay dry," said festivalgoer Jim Hoy of Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

While the desert is a giant sponge, normally soaking up and evaporating rain quickly, there are rare times, like what occurred on Saturday, when the ground emulsifies, turning into a goopy maroon pudding that can act like quicksand and make it nearly impossible to walk without sucking the boots right off of your legs. It was at that moment, in surreal atmospheric conditions, that this festival came together as a real community, a family, and it was a beautiful thing to see.

Desert Rocks 2009 by Dayley
People helped each other rebuild their camps, offered up their camper heaters, and eventually their fires to those who needed to dry off. A call went out for volunteer towels to be used to wipe up the moisture that had befallen the stage from large pools of water that had collected in the plastic tarps, which were lanced like giant boils to relieve the pressure on the steel structure. Soon enough a pile of dry towels, ones that surely could have been used by their owners, arrived to mop up the stage. Garbage bags were turned into raincoats and handed out to those who lost theirs or had none to begin with. As darkness took over and it was clear that the worst of the storm had moved on, a large crowd waited patiently for the crew to reclaim the main stage from the elements, and we danced to the DJ who played from within the strange gills of the "solar powered spaceship" that was sticking diagonally half out of the mud and served as the brightly throbbing brain of center camp.

Finally, at nearly 1 a.m., a good eight hours after the flood that wiped out The Mother Hips set, Colorado bluegrass unit Head For The Hills, with String Cheese Incident guitarist Billy Nershi aboard, took the stage to the drenched delight of the persevering crowd.

Normally, you might think that bluegrass music and rave culture would mix about as well as moonshine and seaweed smoothies. The notions that define each movement come from far different traditions - the buttoned-down home goodness of Southern folk music and the anything-goes, sweetly buffoonish liberty taken by the late night festival rave set seem utterly philosophically opposed, and generally are. But, Desert Rocks has this way of amalgamating all cultural streams and influences into one exotically cohesive, raging party. It's all music, so let's dance!

"The Nersh" is touring with the younger Hills boys after the band partnered up with Nershi to record their latest album at his home studio. In a tireless display of musical dedication, the whole gang weathered the storm in Moab, played their rain-delayed set until 3:30 a.m., then drove to Springs (a seven hour drive in good conditions) to play a Sunday set at the Meadow Grass Festival. "We were just really excited to put on a good show for the people who had been waiting in the rain," said band manager Sean MacAskill. Deferring to Nershi's lauded flat-picking chops, the drum-less unit played their form of feel-good, authentic bluegrass, jamming away on "Goin Down" and traditionals like "Long Journey Home," while mixing in a few of Nershi's tunes, such as the romping pick swapper "One Step Closer."

Bill Nershi w/ Head for the Hills by Anderson
Meanwhile, a two-story wrought iron elephant head with a strong Mad Max-ian influence launched natural gas fireballs out of its long, upturned tusk as a crowd of boozy dancers cavorted in its forehead balcony. Two human-sized birdcages spun wildly from each ear like giant earrings, serving as a hippified thrill ride for several steel-gutted radicals. A wrecked pimp wearing a plumed hat of red feathers and a neon green leisure suit with zebra skin trim bopped wild-eyed through the muddled masses, eventually ending up transfixed on the flaming mastodon's breath like some weird, oblong jabbering moth drawn to a prehistoric flame. He was not alone by the fire; scads of dancers flocked to the surging flame, twirling up to it, possibly burning themselves, and then flitting off in unpredictable zags into the sloppy darkness.

The improv-rock quartet known as ALO took the stage sometime after 3 a.m., and quickly set about delivering a mass spine liquefaction with their brand of jazz-rooted jam rock. Spacey atmospheric squeals and yelps swirled in the low clouds. "If something needs to happen, just let us know! We are here to support you," shouted singer/ivory-tickler Zach Gill, summing up the band's appreciation of the all-weather fans and the seat-flying nature of the reconstituted festival schedule.

It is hard to grapple with the sight of ALO's eminently talented guitarist Dan Lebowitz's large acoustic axe when hearing the very electric sounding skitta-scatta groove chunks and blazing leads that emerge from the speakers. The stringy difference is enough to pit your own sensations against one another in a fit of aural self-questioning. Veteran ALO fans have long "gotten" this band. Their supporters gush in tones of Phish-ian esteem for not only the diverse musical chops that the band so smoothly displays but also for the unrealized potential that they possess. As a dogged skeptic of bands that lean more on long, dissonant jams than songs with actual stories to tell, I can honestly say that ALO has now proven their mettle. These four splendid technicians know the business end of a proper groove and seem genuinely gracious and nice. ALO did their damndest to make sure that the near disaster that occurred earlier in the day was but a strange memory by the time they took their deserved bow, which I think occurred around 6 a.m.

It was at this time that Magicgravy came on, but there is little evidence of this action beyond an oscillating ring in my inner ear and a few foggy recollections of a few dazed ravers.

Continue reading for more coverage of Desert Rocks...


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