Desert Rocks Festival | 05.23-24 | Utah

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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[Published on: 6/8/09]

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