Desert Daze: the best music festival in all the land

Post Author: Jeff Cubbison

Men I Trust swoon, King Gizzard transcend & Tame Impala turn back the clock at an immaculate weekend at Lake Perris

Before Desert Daze weekend, I’d already attended a whopping SEVEN music festivals in 2022 (Coachella, Cruel World, Just Like Heaven, Sound & Fury, This Ain’t No Picnic, Primavera Sound LA, CRSSD). To say it’s been an incredible summer festival season would be an understatement; I had some of the best times of my entire life at all of those events. And yet, somehow, I saved the very best for last.

Enter Desert Daze, the psychedelic music extravaganza that celebrated its 10th birthday with yet another immaculate edition at the stunning Lake Perris. Sometimes, a venue is just a venue; a big empty space wherein you can house and entertain many thousands of people. But Lake Perris is more than that, it’s a character in its own story – a setting that defined the tone and mood for an immaculate weekend. A vast, picturesque lake, sandy beach, and sprawling grass field that absolutely ignites the vibes and allows them to spread like wildfire. The second I walked through security, I felt myself transcending. That feeling did NOT let up all weekend long.

The weekend was not without its minor logistical hiccups, but once they were smoothed over, the amazing spectacle took root. The art installations that covered the beach made concertgoers’ eyeballs pop. The freedom of walking around the venue with a drink in hand was liberating, compared to the “beer garden” set up that so many fests have to reckon with. Beachgoers beat the scorching temperatures by frolicking in the lake all afternoon as live music from the nearby stages provided the rapturous soundtrack. The festival’s entire visual palette was entrancing. And most importantly, the musical sets were some of the best I’ve ever seen.

The Space Lady. Photos by Debi Del Grande

I made it in just in time to catch NYC chillwave pioneers Small Black deliver their signature warped synths and celestial melodies. Performing as a trio, the 100% Electronica signees kicked off the set with “Postcard,” the heavenly track off last year’s comeback album Cheap Dreams. A rousing lo-fi dance party ensued over the next 45 minutes, as the band raced through hits like “Tampa,” “Canoe” and “No Stranger.” Singer Josh Kolenik bid the crowd farewell before imploring them to go check out “maybe my favorite musician of all time” The Space Lady, the legendary proto synth outsider legend who is in the middle of her final tour. With that recommendation, I obliged, and was treated to one of the most pure and moving live performances I’ve ever witnessed.

The Space Lady, aka Susan Dietrich, is a purveyor of what we know to be “outsider” music. DIY to the core, cutting edge avant, and pushing synth music to its most minimalistic and wondrous, The Space Lady has been a fixture since the late ’70s, and she is currently on her final tour as a musician. Over on the intimate Sanctuary stage, she galvanized the packed crowd with kaleidoscopic covers of Patti Smith, Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom,” as well as “Synthesize Me,” her signature track written by her former partner Joel, which actually brought tears to my eyes. There was an old-soul purity to everything Dietrich did on that stage, so searing and authentic, that I couldn’t help but be totally moved. In between songs, she told stories about performing on the streets of San Francisco during the hippie movement, and living underground while Joel hid from authorities after dodging the Vietnam War draft.

Her history as a musician, combined with the incredible spectacle she conjured, made her set one of the most powerful I’ve ever seen. She shouted out her grandson – her “Space Man”-ager – and left the crowd on a starry note to a rousing standing ovation. Thank you, Small Black singer, for this amazing recommendation. I’m so thankful to have witnessed it.

L.A. Witch. Photo by Rachel Bennett

As the golden hour took hold, and the sun began to set behind the distant mountains, leaving a glistening reflection on Lake Perris’ surface, so did the rambunctious calm-before-the-storm vibes. LA Witch put on a rollicking old school garage psych set on the comfy Beach stage, while Australian marauders the Psychedelic Porn Crumpets had the crowd wilding out during their frenetic set. I bided my time with a beer and some sandwiches from my car before heading in to see one of my favorite all-time musicians, Sky Ferreira.

Psychedelic Porn Crumpets. Photo by Stevre Morissette

Unfortunately for all those diehards camped out on the Moon stage, Sky had apparently been involved in a car accident on the way to the festival (she seemed to be okay, thankfully!). Thus, she wound up being over 30 minutes late for her set. This was a bit of a bummer, given how elusive she is and how infrequently she performs. However, Sky did the best she could with the rest of the time she had, slinking onto the stage in a trench coat in full Femme Fatale-mode and delivering a tight six-song set. Thankfully, her sound was perfect this go-around, and she raced through hits from her classic album Night Time, My Time, including “Boys,” “24 Hours,” “I Blame Myself” and “Heavy Metal Heart,” as well as new track “Don’t Forget” and an incredible brand new unreleased one that sounded a bit like Primal Scream. Sky is nothing if not an enigma, and if anything, this set definitely added to the mystique. Nonetheless, I still can’t wait for that new album…that is, if it ever comes out.

Men I Trust. Photos by Eric Tra

After a dinner break, I moseyed over to the Beach stage and caught about 20 minutes of Duster, the veteran slowcore band currently in the midst of a revitalization thanks to their amazing new album Together. They rocked the beach stage to a rumbling simmer, pulling in softly dissonant melodies that careened and corroded in all sorts of meditative ways.

But the best act of the night, hands down, came from Montreal dream pop titans Men I Trust. There’s a cerebral power and intimacy to Men I Trust that sucks you into their breezy and smoky lounge pop stylings – sophisticated and light but still emotionally devastating. Frontwoman Emmanuelle Proulx put on an absolutely smoldering vocal performance that was impossibly dreamy and ethereal. The rest of the band had the crowd in the palm of their hands as they churned out hit singles “Tailwhip,” “Seven,” and “Lauren” as well as newer cuts off last year’s Untourable Album, including “Sugar” and “Serenade of Water.” Men I Trust are the platonic ideal of a David Lynch fave, and their performance at Desert Daze teleported you to the dark, vapory confines of the Roadhouse in Twin Peaks.

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. Photo by Travis Trautt
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. Photo by Pooneh Ghana

The final headlining slot on Friday belonged to none other than King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, who might as well be the prototypical Desert Daze band. They’ve headlined the event multiple times before, capitalizing on their status as the premier psychedelic rock band of our times. Mixing garage, psych, krautrock, prog, R&B, punk, metal, and everything else you could think of, Stu Mackenzie and company performed tracks off of their whopping 23 albums, including heavier bombastic stuff like “Gaia” and “Planet B,” more mellow hits like “Magenta Mountain,” and the live debut of Ice, Death, Planets, Mushrooms and Lava track “Iron Lung.”

The set was interrupted midway through in order to locate a missing 11-year old girl who had wandered away from her parents. She was found minutes later, much to the mercy of many in the crowd who were tripping. “Thank God, I almost had a full mental breakdown!” said one dude next to me who was on one. Later in the show, Stu crowdsurfed all the way to the lake and back as the band laid down a tight and thrashy performance from beginning to end. King Gizzard are the most reliable act to topline a psychedelic festival these days, and although they’ve been omnipresent these last few years, they really never ever get old. Right now, they’re the undisputed champions of psych rock, and they’ve got three more albums dropping this month. A bunch of maniacs they are.

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. Photo by Pooneh Ghana

My Saturday was decidedly more relaxed than Friday. My group and I arrived early to swim in the lake, and it was unbelievably refreshing. Floating with an adult beverage in hand, I was blown away at the atmosphere of Lake Perris. Being able to access a beautiful swimming hole at a music festival is a perk you really won’t find anywhere else, and it was addicting to take in the vibes of everyone else floating about. A lifeguard on a surfboard paddled between groups and kept things safe, and the music to the east (Wet Satin) and to the west (Lady Wray) had the power to replenish. Everyone around me was gushing about the festival. “Desert Daze is the best festival in all the land,” one guy declared nearby. I couldn’t agree more, my dude.

Photo by Luis Arellanes

After that much-needed R&R break, my group ran the gauntlet of afternoon shows. Soul Glo brought the hardcore heat, ripping through scorching tunes off their critically acclaimed album Diaspora Problems, one of my favorite albums of 2022 so far. The Philadelphia group are one of the more unique bands pushing the hardcore sphere in futuristic new directions, and the band padded their songs with an extra dastardly flair. It’s been a while since I attended Sound & Fury fest, but the group’s vocal screams could rival even those of Gulch and God’s Hate.

I saw Black Country, New Road for the second time in two weeks. The sprawling baroque art-rock band had their lead singer recently depart, but they only seemed more free and untethered by it. The band performed a set of entirely unreleased new material, and demonstrated their new band dynamic by splitting the vocal duties amongst four different singers. It was a refreshing change of pace for a band who have already demonstrated their shapeshifting abilities to the fullest. Violins, guitars, pianos, and rhythmic percussion all collided into a beautiful sonic mess. The future continues to be incredibly bright for one of the most forward-thinking bands around.

The British post-punk bullet train chugged along with a raucous performance from London’s Shame, who already have a reputation for being a God-tier live band. Singer Charlie Steen had the crowd following his every maneuver, leaping into the rubble and crowdsurfing as bassist Josh Finerty sprinted back and forth across the stage like an actual crack addict. They performed a litany of tracks off last year’s thrilling Drunk Tank Pink as well as their debut Songs Of Praise, but the biggest audience reaction came from Steen announcing that they had a brand new album already finished and awaiting release. They followed up that tidbit by playing multiple songs off it, sending the crowd into a moshing frenzy. Shame is a band that sends it everytime.

Frankie and the Witch Fingers. Photo by Steve Morisette
Frankie and the Witch Fingers. Photo by Lexi Bonin

My final daytime set came from Frankie and the Witch Fingers, the Los Angeles garage-psych marauders who have slowly but surely risen the ranks of the psychedelic scene. Their set at 5 p.m. on the Block stage might have been their most high profile gig to date, and the band did not disappoint in ratcheting up the energy to 11 and sending the crowd into a pit of moshing, stage-diving and crowdsurfing. The band led off with a series of brand new unreleased tracks – some of the best stuff I’ve ever heard from them – before reeling it back with tracks off ZAM like “Pleasure” and “Realization,” Monsters Eating People Eating Monsters hits “Cave Head” and “Sweet Freak,” and a throttling cover of The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”

Afterwards, I briefly met up with Frankie guitarist Josh Menashe, who gushed about their set and the crowd reaction they received. Opportunities like one this can make a band’s day or even their year, and the members of Frankie were incredibly proud to once again be a part of a festival that has brought them so many memories and goodwill throughout the years. Desert Daze has the ability to launch careers or help them onto a better trajectory, and you can look directly at Frankie and the Witch Fingers as evidence of that.

Kikagaku Moyo. Photos by Luis Arellanes

After dinner and drinks back at my friend’s van, we ushered in the night with a groovy house set at the Sanctuary from Al Lover, filling in for Ellka, who could not make it last minute. Thankfully, Al Lover is as lively and versatile a DJ as they come, and he had the Sanctuary area dancing and rocking for the next hour and change.

We moved over to the Beach stage to catch what ended up being one of the best sets of the weekend from Nation of Language, the new kings of indie synthpop. The trio was magnificent from beginning to end, somehow conjuring the classic sounds of ’80s new wave and transporting them to a cosmic sonic future. “Automobile” is one of my favorite songs of the past several years, and I just about screamed when they started playing it. An equal mix of songs from both their albums and an impeccable live presence was just what the doctor ordered. In that moment, I marveled at the breadth and scope of the musical programming of Desert Daze. Just perfect curation through and through.

We pried ourselves away from Nation a few minutes early in order to catch a little bit of one of the fest’s most high profile bands, Kikagaku Moyo. The Japanese psych group is one of the scene’s most popular and acclaimed acts, but this was the last chance any of us had to see them, as they had planned an “indefinite hiatus” after this tour. I know very little of their material, but I was blown away at how the five members performed the tracks with such a telepathic groove. As a main stage warm-up for Tame Impala, this was exactly what the crowd wanted to hear.

The Armed. Photo by Bobby Rivero

However, I found myself distracted by the gravitational pull of The Armed, one of the most peculiar (and strong) bands on the lineup. Although they were almost 30 minutes late, the post hardcore behemoths (they also are a bodybuilding collective) came out, guns holstered, and ready to blow people’s minds. They definitely knew the assignment, busting out erratic renditions of tracks off their amazing breakthrough 2021 album Ultrapop. The beauty of The Armed is pinpointing the anchoring melody amidst a bevy of instruments that all seem to be playing a different song at once, and that EUREKA! moment hit me like a ton of bricks during single “An Iteration.” Although we couldn’t stay long, we got enough of a musical fix, and an understanding to never pick a fight with a member of The Armed. Seriously, those guys are huge.

Tame Impala. Photo by Eric Tra

My time at Desert Daze culminated with one of the most special shows I’ve ever had the privilege of witnessing: Tame Impala performing their all-time classic album Lonerism (and just a week shy of its 10th birthday). If you know me, you know how much I love and adore Lonerism. It’s one of my favorite albums of all time. You also might know that I’ve never totally cared for the music Tame Impala made after it; so them performing this album singlehandedly brought me back into the Tame fold. On Saturday night, Kevin Parker’s crew performed a set so immaculate I thought I might be dreaming. The lights, the sounds, the band’s technical precision, and Kevin Parker’s understated benevolence and humor made this performance one for the ages.

The largest crowd of the entire weekend squealed during the opening warped notes of “Gotta Be Above It.” We danced to our hearts’ content during the soaring breakdowns of “Apocalypse Dreams.” We signaled the heavens during “Why Won’t They Talk To Me,” and belted every single lyric of “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards.” I tussled with a sea of lasers during the ripping anthem “Elephant,” and let the vibes reverberate through me during the heady final track “Sun’s Coming Up” (which they performed for the first time ever). Midway through the set, Parker offered a mea culpa on behalf of the thunderstorm that halted their DD set back in 2022, before expressing his admiration for the festival and offering heartfelt words on what if feels like to revisit the album that “changed my life forever.” A collective feeling of ecstasy and gratitude washed over the crowd from front-to-back – a cathartic experience like no other.

A brief excursion to watch Telefon Tel Aviv – a set of “Big Room IDM,” as my friend branded it – brought my epic Desert Daze weekend to a close. And with that, “the best festival in all the land” was in the books. And let me just say it: I can’t wait until next year. Until then, you can scroll through below for a few more highlights!

Tame Impala. Photo by Eric Tra
Kikagaku Moyo. Photo by Luis Arellanes
The Armed. Photo by Bobby Rivero
Men I Trust. Photo by Lloyd Mongo
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. Photo by Conner Schumacher

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. Photo by Pooneh Ghana
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. Photo by Bobby Rivero