Desert Daze: Saturday in Review

Kikagaku Moyo by Travis Trautt

Kikagaku Moyo by Travis Trautt

The tents in California aren’t really built to be waterproof. There’s no such thing as sideways rain in Moreno Valley. In any British festival you buy your ticket expecting a storm, but in a landscape where it only rains for ten minutes every couple of years, you can forgive the Macalikes for not bringing their storm-proofs. It does mean that when my companion Deirdre and I roll into Desert Daze on Saturday morning, after a sound night’s sleep, the contingent of American millennials look like they’ve spent the night asleep in a puddle. There is a taste of resentment in the air that the festival didn’t have a plan in place for such events, and that Tame Impala only played two songs before the lightning proved too much. A man named Houston, who claims to be a lawyer, tells me he’s going to sue. “It was like the apocalypse,” he says from behind his vapal plumage.

There is a sluggish grumble on the breeze, and it seems to me the bands have their work cut out for them, most of all the first act, Cut Worms. These guys wriggle bashfully onstage before a dusty crowd of myself, Deirdre, and four or five others. With matching collars framing matching jaws, they look the part. They quickly get into their stride, and their gorgeous country-pop rapidly rallies a crowd. Infectious melodies soon blow away the cobwebs of the previous evening, as they easily breeze through sweet harmonies and rhythms with aplomb. 

My companion Deirdre suggests a beer; I can’t fault the idea. Does a PBR taste better when you’ve paid $8 for it? Does it taste worse? As we sip that sweet, weak water, I spy a man who looks like an anteater, scrabbling on the floor amongst the crowd. When I ask him what he’s lost, he tells us that there’s a tent somewhere where you can trade old cans in for drinks tokens. Hallelujah, I think to myself, getting down on my knees. 

Up next Hand Habits serve up indie tunes so delicate and wonderful that, if the weather decides to pick up again, they could well blow away on the breeze. Megan Duffy has crafted some really sublime stuff, with heartfelt whispers and soft, beautiful guitar work. “Register to vote.” She says at one point whilst tuning. Yes, I think, okay. Here is a woman who believes in democracy.

Under a gazebo which supposedly resembles a theatre of some sort, Cat Scan take to the stage. It seems that punk has a friendly new face. Sounding like a Disney Channel Dead Kennedies, they bop at breakneck speed through songs that scratch at the surface of psycho-billy and hardcore. The drummer wears a great polo shirt. Black and white stripes. The band work up a sweat at 180 bpm, and though there are some seriously great guitar parts here, the whole thing feels a little bit tame. A teenage ‘pit’ opens up at one point, but there’s no real cause for concern. Not a Welshman amongst them, the hubbub is mostly just rotating. One thought keeps occurring to me throughout the whole thing; would I suit a polo shirt like that? 

As Kevin Morby takes to the stage, the sun tentatively pokes out from behind the clouds. The crowd go wild, roaring applause more empathetic than any heard up until this point. After a couple of songs it goes sheepishly back away again, but nobody notices. That’s how the whole set feels, like the sun coming out after a storm. Morby moves effortlessly and energetically through a brilliant back-catalogue of indie hits, his trademark country licks ringing gloriously out across the crowd. Remember Meg Duffy? From a couple of paragraphs back? Well, she’s here, further demonstrating her mastery of the guitar. At one point she climbs atop Morby, draping herself over him like a pelt and reaching over his shoulders to play his guitar. It’s an extraordinary bit of human puppetry, one that reminds me a bit of that scene from Goldeneye. 

Remember Towers of London? Ex-Cult apparently don’t, as they try to channel The Damned into energetic rhythms that wouldn’t have been out of place in Camden Market circa 2007. It’s punk by numbers, and the pit looks like it’s finally grown some teeth. By this point, though, Deirdre is thirsty.

Managing to channel their entire set through a kaleidoscope, Cosmonauts are the perfect sound for 8pm. A bit like that weird dream you have where you’re running through treacle, but with more reverb. They might not look like it but these guys are having a good time - you can hear it in the snare. Delightfully reminiscent of early Jesuits, and all the bands early Jesuits were delightfully reminiscent of, you think you’ve got these guys pegged until a shaker and a slide come out and adds an Americana twang to what is already a beautiful and beguiling sound.

As a young boy during the great Wye Valley heatwave of ‘72, I put my pet salamander Gethin in the freezer in an attempt to cool him down. He of course froze to death, and in attempt to console me afterwards, my mother, herself a veterinary assistant, told me that Gethin was cold blooded, and that his untimely demise in the freezer, as his heart rate slowed down and his brain started shutting down, would have been totally painless. This is how Kikagaku Moyo make me feel, like a lizard in a freezer. Slow, chilled, sleepy thoughts. A cool, icy bliss. Phenomenal stuff from these Japanese psych heroes, though my thoughts keep going back to poor little Gethin. 

Wooden Shjips strip everything back to the basics. With each jam a sum of its parts, the tunes are hypnotic, dizzying and arresting. The bass lines, staggering in their simplicity, run under each track like the pulse of a robot operating at maximum capacity. By this point I’ve worked out not to scavenge the used cans from the floor, but rather the bins. Free drinks tokens galore, and what’s more, there’s a man named Mike giving out free samples of fermented lemonade. I would normally hope that marketing this tactless wouldn’t work on me, but gee whizz if Mike’s Hard Lemonade isn’t just one of the easiest drinks I’ve ever had the pleasure to drink. 

There seems no doubt in anyone’s mind that King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard is the main event. For the day. For the weekend. For the century. Braying for blood, the clamorous crowd pulsate in anticipation. Without much hooha, seven Australians take quietly to the stage. “Okay,” says vocalist Stuart Mackenzie. Here are three thoughts that might go some way to describing the ensuing onslaught: turbo, fervid and mega. With the relentless intensity of the 1972 Welsh Rugby Union Team, King Gizzard blast through the 90 minute set with no hesitations. No clumsy tuning, no awkward stage banter. No pause or respite, it’s a feat of endurance, especially for the double drummers, who are a spectacle in their own right. I have no idea how they do it; thundering through technical songs like The River, Road Train & Altered Beast. They remind me of Flash Gordon. Seven Flash Gordon’s blasting out song after song at a million miles an hour, taking in a rainbow spectrum of genres, one at a time. 

Afterwards, watching Shannon & The Clams’ constant stream of cute, catchy psycho-billy anthems, I get to thinking about the car park, and more specifically the backseat of my car, and how it might make a comfortable bed for the night. There’s a lot of lemonade in my system at this point, and I don’t have nearly half the pep that Shannon does. “Yeah,” says Dierdre, “yeah let’s go to bed.”

By Jethro Jeffries