Area 51 Soundtest 3-D | Indian Springs Hotel and Casino
Indian Springs, NV | 4.11.03 – 4.13.03

Photos by Zach Ehlert | More Area 51 photos

Down straight roads lined in telephone poles (making straight lines seem natural), past ten-building towns huddled to the highway like a life source and other towns with fluorescent lights advertising "new girls" and "loose slots," I came to a small one casino, two gas station military town widely acknowledged as the governments base for alien activity, where I planned to spend three days camping in a roped off area sprouting grass from sand in a casino parking lot. What is this madness? At what point did I wake and choose this strange course? These questions dissolved once I arrived. There's a great beauty to balancing government secrets, gambling and military training with a festival rooted in peaceful vibes, great music, grassroots organizing, fun and volunteers, all under a giant yellow and red striped circus tent smiling at the tumbleweed blown highway and pastel coated regulars pulling slot machines under green and blue blowup aliens hanging from the casino ceiling.

The Area 51 Soundtest is a completely unique three-day party. Organized on a grassroots level by a community of music lovers all volunteering year round (the Las Vegas Jam Band Society), it's an intimate festival growing bigger and better each year. An amazing friendly and generous vibe pulsed the scene, matched only by the caliber of music. moe. headlined this year with two sets both Saturday and Sunday, along with a copious array of musicians playing under the tent and inside the casino, my particular favorites being: Particle's late night foam party (lacking the foam), and Uberschall (an improvisational side project of members of the Blue Man Group, with Tim Alexander of Primus making a guest appearance).

Saturday morning woke with the gentle sounds of David Gans, host of the Grateful Dead Hour, preceding the primal rhythms of Uberschall on the outdoor stage. Two continuous sets of tribal drums, spacey jams, heart-pounding-blood-spun-dust-stomping-earth-energy grooves rooted me to the wind and filled the tent with wild enthusiasts attempting to crack the earth under their feet. Four drum sets lined the rim of the stage, backed by two guitars and a bass. They dropped and picked up the beats, pumping, pulsing, pounding the air higher and deeper, then dropping it down and up like tossing a ball on a string never touching the ground. Complete improvisation, beating and recycling rhythms, pounding intensity with subtle cues. The music tweaked and broke in experimental sounds between the swirled batter of unity. They started low and drove until they had no control and the music created itself.

The sun dropped pink on the horizon as a parade led by the members of the LVJBS and volunteers, dressed in various costumes, followed the calculated improv music of olospo. moe. received its gift of a large yellow cow branded red with a moe. Insignia, and played the first set in shadows of their fingers and metal poles soaked in baby blue light. Al Schnier modeled a pink wig fashioned in Marge Simpson style and played his guitar against a metal pole supporting the tent like a saw with no blades.

They have perfected their sound, and timing to the point where I found myself standing dry-eyed for minutes at a time wondering if those sounds are really coming from the mouths and instruments of the men on stage. Surely this must be a recording, some form of music tweaked and siphoned through machines. Mere men cannot possibly stand on a stage in front of hundreds of people and sound that good. They play one rhythm, turning it over like kneading bread, one of the guys adding a variation each time, taking turns, until eventually it's a different song completely and I'm surprised each time. I've never been able to comfortably fit them into a genre but I know I like listening to them more at night, after eating sweet potatoes, in musky rooms breathing jasmine, around a bonfire, during lightening and dust storms, sun burnt and with as few clothes on as possible. They weave spacey jams, heavy-pounding soul pumping rifts, and flowing harmonies into their high-energy chalkboard scratching music that gets inside you without defining itself as good or bad, friend or foe, but waking something abysmal and primitive.

A hired moth danced across the stage while they played "Moth" (it was clearly the best in the business and will be donating half of its profits to national larvae organizations and political parties dedicated to eliminating fluorescent lights). Chuck Garvey caught it on the end of his guitar. Purple tapeworms danced in my body with no bones and the space filled with ripples from a muddy bog that only bubbles. The bass imitated frog calls of threat and warning, then began to ice skate across golden meadows of cracking mica. Balloons bounced over the crowd's head, full of music and vibrating.

Completely taxed after two sets and a three-song encore ("Captain America" into "The Weight" into "Recreational Chemistry," with DJ Shoe) I praised words like "horizontal" and "dead weight," regaining energy for Particle. Particle's sound is all so hard and tight and loose and unique and driven - so driven, bursting again and again, and all the while building. The music comes in layers, flowing space grooves laced under fast hard jams hinting that there's something going on I can't see or hear; I taste the transformation. A Jimi Hendrix tune churned in their experimental rock, while primary colors stewed into shades unintended by even the most brazen of sunsets on two large white projection sheets hanging in the back of the tent. It was a musical gallery. Sound grew like crystal veins and flowers blossoming in dew. Chuck and Rob Derhak from moe. came out to stretch the music, lubing the sides.

Ending the first set (after two hours and 13 minutes,) Charlie Hitchcock closed his eyes and moved his fingers faster than my eyes are equipped to see, twiddling his arm on fire across the guitar, strumming for minutes like a broken pendulum. Steve Molitz smoked the keys like a man in a bath with a toaster and loving it; Eric Gould on bass played himself into the music like one of Robin Hood's Merry Men, and Darren Pujalet palpitated the drums with relaxed efficiency, melding the various approaches into a cohesive cosmos musical of the Clockwork Orange. When it stopped Steve looked to Charlie and asked, "Did we make it to first base?" Charlie shook his head no, despite the fact I was rounding third. Steve claimed they fouled out and would return with gusto for a second set. By the end of my night the tie-dyed tapestries behind the stage turned into sunrise over a golden field, which I thought was odd since we were in a desert and there were no fields for miles. So I let the music stop holding me and gave gravity a chance. Particle played well into the daylight hours.

Crowds thinned Sunday and a mellow bluegrass vibe played in the dust with the Pickadillos and David Nelson Band. It's always a treat to see the David Nelson Band. They play old-timey music in an old-timey way that has inspired generations of bluegrass bands to experiment with the originals. They have a gentle, soft, full talent. Little kids took handfuls of rocks and put them on their heads, and the band said "Good morning" well into the afternoon. They followed with a playful "wake-up" medley of unhinged, completely disconnected, metal squeaked sounds tossed like tomatoes in a food fight, similar to the opening of a Claypool song. The contrast was perfect and people began getting up from their chairs to dance.

moe. closed out the festival with the same caliber of music from the previous night. I was tired and made very valiant attempts not to dance, but looking down at the foot holes in the dirt like moon boots around my feet I knew my efforts were futile. The motion came from my shoulders, refusal to flail my arms and legs would only have resulted in injury. Hidden behind instruments and three talented men, it's easy to forget the music has a percussion backbone. Vinnie Amico harnessed and wove the band's driving momentum on the drums like a conductor of a thunderstorm. Jim Loughlin maintained this rhythm while experimenting with sounds on various percussion toys, and managed to smoke a cigarette almost all night without using his hands.

At set break everyone in the tent joined in a giant group hug to send vibrations of positive energy from the weekend to the outside world, and enjoy the mutual experience we all shared in this area that may or may not exist, depending on who you ask. It was a beautiful weekend that will surely dissolve into fable and folklore when we leave, as this mysterious land so often does to great events.

Check out more Area 51 photos at!

Words by Reanna Feinberg
Images by Zach Ehlert
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[Published on: 4/29/03]

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