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...

Desert Rocks 2009 by Dayley
The actual, technical act of "living" (to live), may someday be defined: Living: (li-ving) Sipping a nice cold can of beer with your feet buried in mud while watching an armada of May clouds slip eastward in Kane Creek, Utah.

Day broke slowly and peacefully, and finally the sun held court in the arena where it performs best. The desert was now in full bloom. Campers dried out their things on makeshift clotheslines while vendors set about recouping their losses with a strong Sunday. Beers were cracked early, along with guitar cases, jokes and smiles. Hikers wandered off down into the canyon, four-wheel drive missions lurching off in dust spewing squadrons under a libertine blue sky.

A short walk away from the festival grounds cast new light on the setting, which now seemed to be that of a shambling oasis hanging over the edge of a desert rock that looked like a post-apocalyptic fortress. Up on the bluffs, a ragtag foursome of Frisbee chuckers bombarded unsuspecting camps, cars, and sun-dazed humans. A deep mystic with blue face tats known as Dragon repaired the cabana that covers his brilliantly painted art car, as well as decorating the trees around his camp with homespun charms. A model-hot woman with no shirt, her nipples covered in dope leaf pasties, sauntered by as an African gaucho passed going the opposite way. The pair met in the middle, embraced and floated off together in a wholly new direction. A teacher from Colorado walks the muddy washes, hoping to find her backstage pass "or possibly some of her lost brain cells" snagged on a Juniper branch.

Desert Rocks 2009 by Anderson
Back at the ranch, Austin (by way of SLC, UT) band Wisebird started what turned out to be a massive day with a jolt of energetic, lyric-driven funk rock, perhaps best compared to The Band or Little Feat, with a tad of The Allman Brothers and a smidge of Foghat thrown in. Several attendees later attested to this set being the most surprising of the festival, an assessment I wholeheartedly agree with. Wisebird is for real. Wafting organ, searing guitars, and a thumping back line, they are powerfully eye opening, FUN and should not be underestimated nor missed if a chance arises.

Wisebird sailed away and the happiest man that you will ever meet took the Utah Stage. Nathan Moore exudes anti-star normalcy and positivity, and may be the most humble musician going these days. Comparisons to Dylan are apt; such are the intellectual weight of his verses and the strength of the melodies that carry them. "I want to bust some moves on the dance floor/ I want to sit in the back of the debaucherish den/ I want to live to be a hundred and twenty/ tell the wondrous tales to my Grandchildren," he sang, and damned if you weren't right there with him.

The significance of the Saturday deluge was not lost on Moore. "Yesterday was just a miracle unfolding one moment to the next. I'm just proud to be a part of it and witness to it," the troubadour remarked with a slight boost to his regular smile. "I feel like it was just a religious experience. I saw the crucifixion and the resurrection. Oh, man!"

Nathan Moore :: Desert Rocks 2009 by Dayley
Moore, known widely for his work with ThaMuseMeant and Surprise Me Mr. Davis, is in some ways still getting used to being a solo folk singer, exclaiming that very sentiment while trying to explain the big drums and orchestras that he hears in his head when performing by himself. "I guess it's ok if you hear them, too!" he said before starting "Rubber Ball," which involved several starts and stops as he cleared his vocal pathways of a series of magic red rubber balls that emerged like deviled eggs from his mouth.

Warming in the afternoon heat of Desert Rocks and taking in the mellow vibe was a man with a great hat. Hats are important in the desert – they keep the sun at bay and tell a story unto themselves. This one was a trucker hat with a mesh back and a logo of a nude silhouetted lady dancing in a wheelchair. It belongs to Josh Warburton, who fronts a solid rock unit with the fantastic name Crippled Stripper, out of St. George, Utah. Warburton also runs a publication called The Independent, and filled me in on the pre-storm Desert Rocks activities that occurred on Friday, kicked off by a beautifully bluesy set by Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers and headlined by the "fantastic" Hot Buttered Rum.

Hot Buttered Rum is a multi-instrumental collection of musicians who have branched out of their roots as a bluegrass band and now command large, enthusiastic crowds who flock to their maturing meld of harmonious, elbow-swinging grass-rock. The lead Stripper reported that the HBR set began with an apropos tune called "Desert Rat," a fiddle and flute driven number with lyrics that read like an Edward Abbey poem. "The mountains gutted by strip mines/ The deserts crisscrossed by power lines/ They drown the canyon so the city can have fuel/ The powers that be won't let me/ and the war and the mall and the sprawl are part of the same machine/ And it's no damn simple thing like a conspiracy/ What's a desert rat to do?" Everyone Orchestra's Matt Butler accompanied the band on percussion and reportedly "threw down a sick" didgeridoo intro to "Desert Rat." A small Newport Folk-ish paradigm-shifting panic rippled through the gathered Rumhead's when bass player Bryan Horne sported an electric bass throughout the HBR performance. As it turns out, it was his only option, other than to play a set of fairway irons, since a bad trade occurred at the airport on the way in, and Horne ended up with a fellow Park City travelers' golf clubs instead of his standard stand-up bass.

Torphy & Adams - Big Light :: Desert Rocks '09 by Dayley
Back to Sunday and San Francisco-based Big Light bounced onto the stage as dark westerly clouds began to ominously loom overhead once more. When I first heard Big Light on MySpace, I had huge expectations for them, which were sort of diminished slightly when I saw them live at the February "Gramble On Big Sur." This may have been due to minor concerns about the high timbre of lead singer Fred Torphy's voice. But that is how things go. Sometimes it takes a few bites to understand a sandwich. I can now say with certainty after Desert Rocks, and subsequent listening, that I get this band and they are deserving of their rising status.

There below the perfect, arched frame of a vivid stage-wide rainbow, in the low gloom of a shrouded sun, just a day after a massive flood nearly erased an entire festival, the aptly named Big Light delivered a stoking dose of stoney rock to set the tone for an epic (a trite and cliché description perhaps, but only when it isn't really true) night. Their driving slacker anthem "Heavy" should be on everyone's summer song list, much like Chuck Prophet's "Summertime Thing," The Mother Hips' "TGIM" or "Fireflies" by Billy Midnight.

Desert Rocks 2009 by Anderson
As the clouds thickened and began to re-douse the sun-fried festivarians, heady rumors abounded, perhaps egged on by Saturday's liquid theatrics, or maybe due to the remoteness of the venue. This is uranium country. Just fifty years ago one would have seen a steady stream of Jeep lights sparkling across the desert floor – miners scouring old vanadium tailings (which themselves were cast off from previous radium mining) for the suddenly useful uranium byproduct. Some say the dormant ore can nuke clocks and iPods, and scramble minds and bodies, too. But I've never felt it and I have literally bathed in the stuff. Yet how to account for the rumors? That the Feds were looking for an informant who had been imbedded but had gotten himself lost out in the storm? That Bob Weir was in attendance? Or that a glowing zebra was spotted standing in a nearby gully? One tale that seems believable is that Tha Alkaholiks had been forcibly kicked off the stage for displaying literal alcoholic behavior – arriving an hour late for their one hour and twenty minute set, and then spending those twenty minutes getting the crowd to alternately chant "Al-ka-hol-ics" and "I say fuck, you say you," before finally pouring alcohol on crowd members from the front of the stage and then attempting to turn the crowd against the festival organizers, who had a schedule to keep, especially after losing most of Saturday to Mother Nature. Whatever the real story, it took some doing to clear the stage of rampant Alky's before The Mother Hips could perform.

The Mother Hips are one of the greatest American rock & roll bands currently performing new music, and were it not for the profusely good songwriting coming out of both Neil Young and Tom Petty these days, I would make a case that The Mother Hips are the most important musical group in the American rock world, which is amazing considering that so few people know of the band or their songs. The consistent quality of their songwriting and live performances has grown from remarkable to brilliant to legendary. Equally striking is their collective humility and good-natured showmanship.

Tim Blum - The Mother Hips :: Desert Rocks '09 by Dayley
As the rain pittered down and a pensive mood brought on by the unknowable ferocity of the new clouds settled in, Tim Bluhm - the rangy, vastly talented lead singer - spoke in mystic tones, reminding the crowd of the special nature of the situation. "Hello. We're happy to be here. We're really glad to get to play tonight. Last night was crazy... so crazy. So, we're playin' for all you people here. We're playin' two shows in one here 'cause we gotta make up for yesterday. And we're playing to all the ghosts that are out in the desert - they can hear us. And the chipmunks... coyotes... the ravens. Just imagine you're a coyote about three miles out there in the hills, listening!"

"Time Sick Son of A Grizzly Bear," a semi-autobiographical tale with a devastating dueling guitar intro and sage Californian lyrics led off, and the crowd burst into a mud stomping dance, which peaked amidst the claustrophobic groove of the lamenting "Third Floor Story." Long the masters of tempo, the Hips carried the gathered Desert Rockers on a time-changing journey that slammed gears from slow melodic throbs to chilling howls, both human and electric. The rarely played "Desert Song" took on new meaning when Bluhm coaxed the defiant chorus with a desperate yearning - "If you look out across the desert sand/ you might see a storm a brewin'/ You think that we can't live in the desert/ you who take the dreams from the night/ You think that we can't live in the desert/ We are the people that the rescuers will never find."

A youthful attendee named Shack from SLC swayed and juked jawlessly as guitarist Greg Loiacono dug into the strings of his White Falcon with needle nose pliers and tore the ass out of a magnificent "Figure 11." "It's exactly the vibe that I'm on! Perfect! I'm actually pissed that I've never heard of these guys!" yelled Shack to a group of longtime Hips fans that danced in a small heaven behind him.

The Mother Hips :: Desert Rocks 2009 by Baldwin
Jason Baldwin, a professional soundman that made the journey from Palo Alto, California to see the Hips, gushed openly about the aural clarity that the Desert Rocks sound system afforded Bluhm's voice. "It was the best I've ever heard Tim sound. Kudos to the sound crews - soundtrician Robbie Miller of Pratt Sound [SLC], and stellarly recorded by Cory Ballentine of ENSO Audio & Design [Sun Valley, ID] - for killing it in some pretty hairy conditions."

After the show, while an all-star band called Guitarles in Charles pumped funk into the late night, Bluhm sat contentedly in the band tent and answered questions from a festival film crew. "I want people to come away from our concert and say that they got scared and stoked, and that they had a good time."

Colorado's The Motet took the festival home with a deep-space exploration of the works of Herbie Hancock that left all of the boulders in a ten-mile radius turned over, teasing out even the shyest snakes, scorpions and centipedes for their last dance at the annual frolic.

Reflectively, the 2009 Desert Rocks Festival was a pleasant erosion, a necessary scouring that revealed inner gems and stripped all who experienced it down to their base concerns – shelter, warmth and friendship. The merciless deluge and its flood-spawn that threatened to wash out this year's festival was a dramatic, memorable event, something that everyone who went through it, including the musicians, will likely always remember. The flash flood remained the most talked about moment of the entire weekend, yet it was the generous community spirit and can-do attitude of all participants under extreme circumstances that will ultimately define this weekend. Together, we overcame. Together, we rocked the desert.

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