Joshua Tree Music Festival :: 05.13 - 5.15 :: Joshua Tree, CA
The only thing more interesting than gathering a mass group of people together for multiple days of camping, debauchery, and live music, is attempting to do so in the harsh conditions of the desert. During the middle of May, the people over at the Joshua Tree Music Festival did just that. For the third year in a row, the masses came, saw, and danced their hearts away during a most memorable weekend in the Southern Californian sun.
Without a doubt, the all-star of this year's Joshua Tree experience was none other than hammered dulcimer wizard, Jamie Janover. Keeping people's bodies in a constant state of motion, Janover simply seemed to be everywhere, always ready to create. The Jamie Janover and Friends show during sunset on Friday was mesmerizing as Janover was joined by Hamsa Lila's rhythm section, Vir (bassist) and Inks (drummer) for an incredible start to the weekend. The explosion of beats and danceable grooves laid the foundation for a set that everyone seemed to be talking about. While Inks and Vir made quite notable contributions to the music, it's a Jamie Janover and Friends session for a reason, and Janover came out and showed why he truly is one of the most creative musicians of our generation. His set that night was just not enough, as Janover sat in with the exploding Signal Path, continuing to help build and expand upon the music, showing his seemingly infinite ability to add a new element to any form of music.
Jamie Janover by Tobin Voggesser
However, it was Janover's newest project, Zilla, that was truly an improvisational journey led by drummer Michael Travis (String Cheese Incident), bassist/guitarist/everythingelse-ist Aaron Holdstien (Vibe Squad), and Janover. This trio takes the term "improvisational" to a new level, creating a completely new, organic, group-identified form of electronic music that hits powerfully to the core. It's different from your typical "boom-sist boom-sist." You can tell that all three of the musicians are on the same page and that they truly have a direct focus on the music that they're creating. I'd name songs they played, if the songs they played had names. With no format and no real clue as to what is going to happen next, Zilla straps in and gets ready for liftoff each time, with Joshua Tree being no exception. Each Zilla experience proves to be a unique exploration for each musician, and from the looks of exhilaration on their faces Saturday night, they had just as good a time as the crowd.
You knew from the way headliners, Signal Path, dominated the stage that you were in this for the long haul. I had seen this band three times prior to this performance, and I was absolutely blown away by how much they had improved. I can remember seeing them in smaller clubs around San Francisco, having a very fun evening, and dismissing the group as a good dance party, but simply another "jamband" jumping on the livetroncia bandwagon. Consider me told. Signal Path is way more than just some "jamband." They have become one of the hardest-touring acts in the country (500+ shows in 3 years), and the work has paid off in a major way. The production level accomplished onstage was astonishing. I found myself gazing upon the band, wondering, "Where are all those sounds coming from?" On the barren desert plain, Signal Path finished their ruckus of a dance party somewhere around 1 a.m., however that wasn't nearly enough to satisfy the thirst of this dance-hungry crowd. Make no mistake, and be sure to catch Signal Path in a festival setting this summer.
The biggest attraction at Joshua Tree for the previous two years has been Hamsa Lila and their late night set. 2005 kept the theme running, as the tribal groove leaders got ready to start playing shortly after 1 a.m. on Sunday morning. They didn't stop until the light of day had struck, and it was fantastic. They kept the energy level high, playing old favorites such as "Eh Mustapha" and "Turka Lila," however, the band kept it fresh by extending the songs and pushing them in new directions. This was Hamsa Lila in one of their best elements, the desert. The ties this band has to the Burning Man crowd were apparent, and there was something so fitting and perfect about watching this group of musicians escort Saturday out of our minds and welcome in the Sunday morning sun.
A big surprise at this year's festival was Al Howard and the K23 Orchestra. I had seen this band before in the Bay Area, but never in a festival setting and with so many people in attendance. It was jazzy, it was funky, and by god, it was fresh. Watching the enigmatic Howard manipulate his own form of prose is truly something to marvel, and before you could say, "Wow, how many words was that?" the band would proceed to kick your ass. There is much potential in this young group. With an outstanding lead man in Howard and solid musicians to back him, look for this band to only increase in ability and popularity.
The Benevento/Russo Duo took the stage on Sunday afternoon and provided a mellow but amazing blend of jazz/industrial/noise related bliss. Without enough power to keep the organ in tune, Marco Benevento was challenged with the task of playing without his signature instrument, the B-3 organ, and forced to turn to his other two keyboards. Some musicians might have gotten upset at the instrumental malfunction and blamed it on the sound guy, but Benevento shrugged it off and delivered a remarkable set including tracks off the new album Best Reason to Buy the Sun like "Becky" as well as throwing in old Radiohead favorite "Paranoid Android" and a breathtaking "Mephisto." I can't forget to mention Joe Russo - the best drummer I've seen in a long time. If you've never seen him play the drums, you truly are missing out. Without Benevento adding to the music, there would be no "Duo," but clearly the reason two people can create such a complete sound is the relentless pounding and immaculate timing of Russo.
The festival closed out with one of my favorite bands, The Frequinox. Normally a quintet, the band was without horn player Donald Harrison (of the Headhunters), but the foursome still managed to get the remaining attendees alive and kickin' up dust. Personally, I thought this band would have fit much better in a late night slot, but the performance was a fine close to both Frequinox's current tour, as well as the festival. The highlight of the show for was most certainly keyboardist Robert Walter's tune "Aquafresh," which allowed guitarist Will Bernard to step up and take the reigns in Harrison's absence. Without Harrison, the band as a whole had more room to explore a more basic aspect of their music, however, Harrison's energetic and often "blow the roof off" style of playing was certainly missed.
Robert Walter with The Frequinox by Rob Foster
As a whole, the Joshua Tree Music Festival gets a big thumbs up. The festival was fairly priced, had great facilities, ample places to park AND camp, and a continuous stream of great live music. For a third-year festival, Joshua Tree is well on its way to creating a legacy that requires people to get their sun block out annually and get out to the desert.
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