Gearing up for the second annual Joshua Tree Music Festival was chalk full of excitement and curiosity. All of the elements where present, including a tasty line up that consisted of some well known groups in addition to acts many had never even heard of. Two separate stages were set up on both sides of the location and were bound together by a decent mini village of vendors offering everything from drums to ice coffee. Tasty food booths allowed those who attended to be treated to enormous burritos and delicious pizza. All of this was going on around the lake that sprawled through the middle of the site. While not so much an actual lake, but more of a glorified man built pond, the lake did succeed in creating a nice ambience and pleasing view from one end of the grounds to the nest. The two stages were draped with what looked like a fish net covering the tops and created a shadow down onto the musicians. The "side" stage had a large white tent that proved to be the most shade anywhere on the premises, and because of this, more people placed themselves at the shows taking place there as opposed to the "main" stage, which happened to be smaller in size anyways. The portable toilets stayed relatively clean throughout the weekend both because there were plenty of them to serve the crowd (less then a thousand including artists and workers) but also because they were sprawled strategically throughout the inner festival areas as well as the campground. The showers were a nice relief from the sun and proved to be the saving grace for many as they were easily accessible and almost never had any lines... a definite plus for all in attendance. All in all things came together nicely, aside from a few snags here and there. So without further a due, I Give you my take on the second annual Joshua Tree Music Festival.
With things falling behind schedule by almost three hours, the fest got off to a rocky start, but were quickly remedied with the opening notes of music. With Bat Makumba kicking things off on the Sea of Love stage, the few in attendance were treated to a fantastic drum induced Brazilian funk that over lapped with grooves that had everyone within earshot dancing along the mini lake's edge and hoping along the dry desert sand. Their ability to create a groove powered by percussion and drumming shined as a highlight of their opening set.
Next act I caught was the Wild Ass Ranchers on the Kyoti King Kanopy stage. Bringing out the good old plucking sounds of Americana bluegrass, the Ranchers wasted no time and had people front and center in the sun's heat dancing and rocking along with the two gigantic rocking horses placed next to the stage. The Ranchers attention to detail in their music is a very admiral quality, and I was very pleased to see them included in this year's line up. Having never heard them play before, I Thought that the inclusion of their music in addition to the bluegrass represented over the three days, was of the best aspects of the whole festival.
Next act I caught was none other then my friends Alfred Howard & the K23 Orchestra. Not to take away from the musical acts that came before the K23, but this was the hour that shook Joshua Tree, and reminded us all this was a music festival and we are here to rock, funk, get up and get down. Wasting no time what so ever, Al and crew delved into a meaty set that showcased just why they have been invited to play a late night with Sound Tribe Sector 9 at the upcoming 14th annual High Sierra Music Festival. With Jeremy, Scott and Aaron throwing down some of the best groove beats around, they proved how important it is for the backbone of the sound to be married to each other. Slapping skins like it was his career for the past 40 years, Aaron's percussion reeked of skill and commitment to the words that flowed from Al's mouth and flirted along with the rest of the band. Josh and Travis did what they do, making the sound what it is; a sweet blend of fiery solo's and smacking keys that make this band one of the biggest up and coming acts in the circuit as we know it. Not only are these guys breaking barriers between spoken word, hip-hop, jazz and funk, they are spreading good vibes and positivity in the form of goose bumps that grace your skin when you see them flow together like one unit. After the set was done, demands were made for just one more, we got it and we loved it. Few in attendance had ever seen the band before, and everyone that was there to witness first hand what the K23 is about, are now full fledged fans.
Alfred Howard & the K23 Orchestra
Before I delve into the late night shows, I must make reference to a certain band that I saw that left me speechless. Gram Rabbit took to the Kyoti stage in front of a decent sized crowd. What transpired on stage before me is what left me confused and utterly speechless. I am unsure if the three musicians were trying to be silly or if they truly felt that what they were doing was raw, on the edge showcase of talent and musical genius. To me, they were no more then a novelty act. Blending cheesy trancy record spinning and bass lines, they reached the climax when their key member came forward to add in on the keys dressed in a bunny suit, complete with ears. What continued to transpire was a mixture of bad distortional singing and even worse music. I reminded of the movie High Fidelity, where there are the kids that steal from the store to sample the music to use as their own on the album that John Cusack thinks is "really good."
Novelty act or not, I will commend the Rabbit on the fact that they did own the crowd; I was plenty surprised that the people in attendance were dancing around and shouting encouragements to the three on stage. I began to think I was missing something vital in the understanding of what they were all about. Be it as it was, mamaSutra was due on the other stage and I made way over to catch all I could from the Venice beach Funkateers. Molly and crew absolutely owned the stage. Swaying through some of the sexiest funk around, they bounced along through a lengthy set that included my personal favorite song of the entire weekend, "Dropping The Kids Off". The song breeds hilarity and addictive funk all in one as us dancers were treated to 20 plus minutes of funk that smacked your ass and lyrics that spun your head. "Dropping the kids off at the pool, one day after school" I laughed, I grimaced, I danced my ass off. The great thing about mamaSutra is that they have made leaps and bounds in their music and are continuing to grow and spread danceable vibes and sounds to all who will listen. With fun loving antics and open communication between the four members on stage, you can see each member smiling and having the time of their lives making music with each other. That is a very admiral quality in my opinion and it always makes for tight grooves and flowing funk. Make no mistake about it, mamaSutra owned the best in show spot for the first night, K23 held it a close second and would have been to close to call, except for the fact that K23 played for an hour and mamaSutra got over three.
Green Lemon took to the opposing late night duties, pumping trance induced grooves that went well into the morning. Within minutes I could tell that this was in every way possible a late night band, and I Thought they were great at what they do. With a group of folks dancing along into the wee morning hours, the second half of the first day proved to come together and make the time delays not too big of a deal. With the sun creeping up over the edge of the Mojave, it was off to bed for an hour or so... as long as you could stand in the intense morning heat.
Still small in size, I did notice that there were more people who had arrived late in the night or early in the morning. While not being incredibly hot, the sun felt good as it beat down on the camp grounds. That first morning I could tell by the look in everyone's eyes; summer time is among us and festival season is alive and kicking... it was time to get the show on the road. Scott Law and Code Green were first on the menu to spread the finger pickin' licks through the desert like a blanket of reassurance and bliss. Law and the boys took to the stage a bit late but not to any complaints; these guys absolutely tear it up. Complete with sassy horn play and speedy mandolin picking, Law and crew kicked off day two on just the right foot. They are another band to look forward to at this summer's High Sierra, look for their late night with ALO to be a stand out in the best of the best.
Scott Law and Code Green by Stephen Echtman
Following Code Green, The Groove Syndicate took to the stage to prove what they were all about to a fresh sea of ears, many of whom had never heard one note of what they have to offer. With the always on Natalie Martin heating up the desert just that much more, and the band sounding wound up and tight as ever, they proved to serve up one of the finest hours of the day. With a penchant for deep grooves and jazz solos, this fivesome serves up a mish mash of soul, and they super bad.
The next act I caught was one of the reasons why I came to the festival in the first place. Mary and Mars hit the stage and started plucking away nailing bluegrass to the desert air like a flutter of excitement and jaw dropping skill. Their sound is remarkably full and I do believe that Bill Monroe himself would have done a jig if he was there to witness this trio. Albino was the next group I was able to catch, and glad I was that I did. Bringing the classic sounds of Afro beat to the Mojave they held down a funktified groove that was backed by the ultimate of beats, percussion and flying horns that shouted out at the crowd that had formed. This hour proved to be the most crowded set at the entire festival bringing in all sorts of festivarians looking to get the tribal beats in their soul and the jig back in their feet.
Mutaytor dropped jaws in every way possible with their impeccable drumming and amazing fire dancing display. Branching out above and beyond just beating on the skin of a drum, this ensemble created a tribal beat that you could here back at the campgrounds and the fire acrobats truly gave the over all vibe a hint of circus sophistication and the up most of showmanship. The addition of the fire dancing acrobatics was at the very least, stunning. Jump roping, juggling and so much more cemented their place at the festival. It was no doubt that the buzz on these guys was still circulating the next day as eyes sparkled and lips quivered trying to explain how amazing this group was. The future is looking bright for Mutaytor, and I give big kudos to the folks behind the scene for getting them to come and play. The late night duties belonged to the quickly expanding Hamsa Lila with special guest John
Whooley. Blending soulful harmonies, tribal chants and Indian sounding rhythms and beats, the band sent all in ear shot dancing. Hamsa Lila took the award for best late night over the three days. They create a sound that is completely unique in this community, and it is no secret why they have come to be one of the best late night acts around. As yet another band due at High Sierra this summer, things are looking very good for this group that specializes in taking your soul to another place and creating space in your heart for tribal sounds that echo in your body for days and days. With the sun rising in the East, they put Joshua Tree to rest, exhausted and fulfilled.
Mutaytor by Stephen Echtman
The last day found me feeling excited for the two biggest reasons I came to the fest, ALO and The Slip, but it also found me very ready to be out of the sun and on my way back to the city. First things first though, jitters in the belly began to flutter as I made way to get a dose of San Francisco's own Hot Buttered Rum String Band. These guys have exploded onto the map in the last year, landing some pretty impressive gigs with some of the best groups around. Yet another High Sierra band, they wasted no time in getting the crowd good and buttered in the desert sun. These boys from Northern Cali have been spreading the picking sounds throughout the country, blending the best kind of songwriting alongside some of best bluegrass around. This was the perfect way to kick off the last day, especially with their set ending, and the Slip's gearing up on the other stage. In what proved to be a running trend, The Slip took to the stage late to a crowd that appeared both beaten down by the sun and exhausted from lengthy down time. No matter though, as soon as this trio took the stage, it became evident why they are at the top of their game and bigger then ever. Much like scientists at work, the trio owned every note they played and got people on their feet, swaying along to the blissful sounds that are sweeping this nation. It was at this time that I was strapped down with a hint of disappointment, The Slip still playing on one stage while ALO took the other. The first thing that stood out to me was the fact that there weren't enough people to need to stages, and no reason whatsoever to put two of the best acts of the weekend against each other. This is especially true when one stage had a large amount of shade while the other had not so much. Regardless, both bands came to play and play they did. ALO used their set to unveil some new material that they have just recently brought to the table, in addition to a classic song that keyboardist Zach Gill wrote to honor the birth of his daughter and salute to his wife. "Waiting for Jaden" was the finest salute to all the mothers in attendance on the fine sunny mother's day and it was evident as one by one you could see the crowd reaching for cell phones to call and wish their mom's the happiest of days. ALO is cranking it up in 2004, reaching all the way to Jazz Fest, High Sierra and Baja Bash. Look out for the release of their new album this summer and expect things to go to eleven for these hard working guys that deserve the attention and respect from all in the land. They are one of the best sounding on the rise bands right now and Joshua Tree never sounded as good as it did when they were on the stage. Unfortunately I had to leave after ALO's set, and I missed both Maktub and the Soul of John Black, but I heard absolutely astounding things about both bands and am looking forward to seeing them in Quincy this coming Fourth of July weekend.
ALO with Whooley by Stephen Echtman
There were so many bands to see and not enough time to see it all]. In the end I thought that this young growing festival was a success. Barnett English succeeded in bringing awareness to some great bands over looked and proved that So Cal is a place that is rising in providing great music for great people. The overall vibe was incredibly positive throughout the three days, and smiles were extremely contagious and dancing served as a form of currency in this small Mojave Desert. The years to come are looking very bright for the young Joshua Tree Music Festival, and I will make it a point to be present each and every year in the future. Many thanks to all who made it possible and contributed what it took to pull it off, for those of you who missed it, keep your eyes peeled for the release of the DVD.
With so many acts to follow and so many places to be at all at once, of course it is impossible to catch it all. One thing I did notice was a certain six foot eight, red haired musical monster that appeared just about everywhere your eyes would land. John Whoolilurie (formally Whooley) and wife Moriah-Melin were on hand all weekend, taking their new and improved two-person show all over the grounds. With a small amp strapped on to his rather flashy matching outfit, John and wife made their way through every speck of ground spreading soul syncopated sax and beat boxing skills that left all thinking there is no way this cat is white... let alone almost seven foot tall with red hair and a shiny purple jump suit that matched the one of his absolutely charming and energetic wife that spreads cheer like wild fire. From Hamsa Lila to ALO, John was a musical slut all weekend long, getting down and dirty with the best of them. His commitment to playing the perfect notes at the right moments is evident, but it his prowess and his extremely caring nature that makes him a favorite in this fine musical community of ours, and the very reason that it is my honor to award both John and Moriah-Melin the first ever Joshua Tree Best In Show awards. For more information pertaining to the current project, visit www.vibrationarmy.com. These two people are doing something positive and helpful and are giving back in a big way... bright things are in store for this up and coming two man show, and I can not stress enough, they are not to be missed. Best In Show, Indeed.
John Whooley by Stephen Echtman
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