Some festivals whisk you away and offer an escape from regular life through the music. And other festivals swallow you whole in the experience, spitting you out in a dimension of higher vibrational frequency to show you what it really feels like to be alive and create your own reality.
Five days after going to Coachella solely for its musical merits, I swing in the opposite direction for the ideal fest experience of Desert Hearts Festival. I’ve always preferred the more experience-driven fests, and this 5,000-person gathering on the sacred land of the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation (about 70 miles northeast of downtown San Diego) generates a communal experience light years beyond other small festivals. The feeling of Mikey Lion, Lee Reynolds, Marbs and Porky’s flagship event is so profound, many attendees genuinely, affectionately refer to this weekend as “coming home.”
Some people say that about Electric Forest, but that’s a much grander event of up to 45,000 people. The Desert Hearts audience radiates with the kind of love and magic of Forest on a far more intimate level. Many attendees are Burning Man veterans, so the crowd skews a little older/more mature and definitively more seasoned and self-actualized. At least a dozen theme camps bring their own group charm and hijinks, including gratis bars, lovely hang-out spots, remarkable art/experience/performance installations and more. The resplendently colorful, LED-lined pineapple art car stationed at the theme camp directly back from the singular stage area never fails to dazzle me at nighttime.
A major part of my personal festival philosophy revolves around the corollary of getting out of a fest what you put into it, and that resonates with attendees here on a wider scale/in a higher density than anywhere else I’ve been (they clearly all internalized this lesson long ago). One does not simply come to Desert Hearts with last-minute preparation and lackluster attire; everyone brings their A game with the most eccentric, outlandishly ravishing, beautifully sparkle-laden, vibrantly stimulating costume/accessory/clothing concoctions imaginable. The cutting edge of sensational festival fashion starts here.
Looking out across the crowd of wacky characters intoxicates with a sense of expressing yourself to the fullest – being unapologetically EXTRA in ways that encourage others to also shine their light as bright as possible for all to soak up the inspiring glow. The outward displays of glamour reflect inner confidence, kindness, and an outpouring of love flowing through all the souls who’ve journeyed to this magnificent celebration.
“House, Techno, Love… We Are All Desert Hearts” is the mantra of this empowering movement that exemplifies the transformative potential an (evolved) electronic music festival can have on a person. The idea that everyone contributes to the vibe in an important way, synergistically blooming into a living whole transcending separation of DJ and audience, becomes immediately tangible upon first stepping onto the dancefloor. The stage pulsates like an electrifying conduit of the tenacious energy surging in this zone for 78 hours straight, as each DJ plays two-hour sets (with a few b2b exceptions) one after another from noon Friday until 6 p.m. Monday.
This “One Stage, One Vibe” way of operating, as a continuous tech house marathon no less, really does connect everyone on the same wavelength. Even at other small festivals with only one active stage at a time, the variations in musical genres and moods between performers appeal to people differently, and there are distinct beginnings and ends to sets. At Desert Hearts Festival, it’s like one neverending wave of music, weaving in and out of a variety of house and techno styles but generally maintaining a trajectory under the tech house umbrella.
There are more DJs on the lineup I only know vaguely/in name than those whose music I’m actually familiar with, but in all honesty, it doesn’t matter because they’re part of or friends of the Desert Hearts Family, and that’s a guarantee of quality. Despite one’s house and techno preferences, none of the DJs deliver anything less than a solid, enjoyable set, and all the others range from great to stellar. The lineup releases only a few weeks prior to the event, so excitement is driven primarily by the vibes and experience attendees can reliably expect rather than individual DJs – like anticipating seeing everyone at the extended family holiday gathering instead of planning to just hang out with certain cousins there.
Outside of the Desert Hearts staples and one’s other must-see choices, the typical itinerary also involves spending most of the day and night at the stage until weighing decisions such as, “This chill and relaxed DJ sounds like a good opportunity to explore/get some rest,” or “I can’t go to bed yet, these beats are TOO GROOVY!” Thankfully, the music is broadcast live on a radio frequency so you can listen to whatever you’re missing if back at camp and parked with your car.
Welcome to Wonderland
Coming in Friday evening I find myself low on sleep, run-down with a cold yet buzzing with anticipation. The parking situation has fallen prey to miscommunication and a bit of disarray, but while waiting I introduce myself as Speed Raver to the couple in the yellow FJ Cruiser ahead of me, befriending and lifting each other’s spirits up amidst the confusion until we get sorted out.
Dirtybird makes a featured appearance this first night as Will Clarke warms up the enlarging crowd and the midnight special guest of Justin Martin officially kicks off the party with a bouncing set of rowdy tech house vivacity. Axel Boman cools things down with soothing, tribally-infused house, so I go for a nap before the 4 a.m. dream-space techno of Tara Brooks, but my body demands a full recharge instead.
So it goes at a marathon event. Returning in the daylight of Rybo’s noon grooves, on the main path before the stage I’m invited into the living room-esque Heartspace area for a meditative hugs workshop. I’m not a particularly touchy-feely guy, but part of why I’ve come to Desert Hearts Festival is to embrace the love that’s so prominent here and further open up my heart, so this begins my Saturday on a wonderful note. Following the instructions of aligning heart-to-heart and holding the hug for three deep breaths in and out, my partner Charlotte and I both feel the calm warmth wash over us in a visceral exchange.
This initiates an instant familiarity and trust that easily develops into a friendship as we wander around the stage, elated by the playground-like atmosphere. We get dizzy on the sit-and-spin device on one end, then marvel at the swirling elevated view of the area from the pirouetting, wood and metal top-like installation we’ve climbed upon in the opposite corner. An artist’s magnificent painting of an octopus soaring through pink-hued clouds instills in us untold joy, while a sublimely decorated bedroom installation lying 90 degrees on its side rotates our perspectives to the sky – because everything here knocks over the status quo and imaginatively reframes it.
As soon as we walk towards the center of the dancefloor, Andrew and Maddy, the couple I met in the car line the night before, recognize and greet me with hugs. I’m in awe of this place already, and Andrew confirms how special these vibes are. He relates his journey of going to every festival under the sun when younger, explains his old rave persona of Electric Jellyfish, how he attended one of the early Desert Hearts fests and has come back every year because no other festival is on this level. He only goes to this and Burning Man anymore – a resounding endorsement telling me to take this experience in to the fullest.
Fashion, Wine and Surprises All the Time
At two o’clock the music festival world’s equivalent of the Met Gala – the glorious Desert Hearts Fashion Show – begins as Lubelski takes over the decks and pumps a revving catwalk soundtrack fitting for the eye-popping outfits and strutting dance moves. Groups of the boldest, most creatively dressed (and often scantily-clad) fashionistas lusciously werk it good for a crowd zestfully eating up every pose. The hour-long tradition encapsulates the exuberant spirit of Desert Hearts with stylish visual lightning, highlighting the fabulous freaks and calling all crazy characters to convene early before the big Saturday showcase of the main crew.
It’s the most thrilling opportunity of the weekend for photographers as well, and they can get just as ridiculous as everyone else. One photog in classic dad-wear sporting a large, old-school, straight-to-VHS camcorder, and another who’s bewildering passersby casting out the line of his fishing pole with a dirty tan dildo on the hook – each of them with a DSLR hanging on their sides – prove among the funniest gags I witness here. I also meet an older photographer with a rig unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Turns out that’s because he custom-built it and is shooting 3D photos, which look cool in a standard side-by-side mode, yet uniquely splendorous in a 3D viewer. Unparalleled surprises lie around every corner.
The next turn I make a table of neon-bright theme campers offer me a goofy slap bracelet, a reusable plastic cup with Desert Hearts printed on it and pour me some wine. Whatever you pack in for this festival you also pack out, as everyone takes care of their trash and intentionally pick up after themselves. Nearby I talk with an artist imbuing death with new life by carving intricate designs into animal skulls. Behind her station I step into the Museum of Lee, where poster boards filled with charming pictures of “Papa” Lee Reynolds and insightful captions chart the boisterous life of the delightfully inspiring patriarch of the Desert Hearts Family like a homemade scrapbook.
Wrapping my head around the concept of the theme camp open bars stationed along the edges of the crowd, I gratefully order a real drink and stumble upon an artist’s display of stunning psychedelic collage work. The breakdown explanation of his process draws me in, and before I know it he expands into illuminating deep universal truths that echo in his work yet fascinate cerebrally and resonate spiritually – the kind of conversation I live for. A blue-painted genie then crosses my path and I wonder what wish will be fulfilled next?
The Wine & Cheese theme camp has begun their namesake shindig in the back section of the crowd, where multiple tables of cheese cubes, salami, crackers and of course boxed wine entice attendees in a sort of social hour. Joyce Muniz musically curates with a pleasing array of diverse tech house tunes, wasting no time seizing the crowd with her infectious track “Me And Da Beat”.
While snacking, drinking and chatting away, I connect with several other music festival journalists, officially becoming friends with one I had known on Facebook for nearly a year. And in the trippy art gallery hang-out space, I lament that the salami’s all gone – at which point the Aladdin’s Creed bohemian I’m talking to answers my wish with a crisp strip from the bag of emergency bacon he pulls out.
A Family Affair
A midday mellow buzz transitions into a rising house blowout as label boss Mikey Lion builds the vibe up for the main Desert Hearts members’ all-night stretch while the sun starts to hide. Progressing further into the techno side, Mikey’s set peaks as a Lionese Dragon toted about by five people winds through the animated crowd. Younger brother Porky follows suit during the sunset, roving through tech house peppered with old-school tastes, funky flavor and discotek influence.
The temperature drops from ideal warmth to fully nippy chills in this time, necessitating a jaunt back to camp for a full costume change. The hot to cold variation each day adds nearly twice as much visual variety to an already kaleidoscopic vision of all-star party people throughout the weekend, including fur coats a-plenty. I relish the opportunity to drastically switch it up from light to dark, decking my limbs out in LED strips as well as my mythical new totem for its rip-roaring debut. I return glowing in the night, fully transformed into Speed Raver and wielding a luminous “Halo” energy sword that gets the kind of attention and kudos I’ve been doling out to other festing costume innovations I’ve noticed all day.
An outstanding set at last year’s festival and a meteoric breakthrough with his “Gucci Baggy EP” led Shaded into the primetime 10 p.m. Saturday slot, and this is the most crowded the dancefloor feels the entire weekend. He slings his own groovalicious techno tunes the whole set, whirling the beat around, up and down, a perfect match for the jaw-dropping spectacle from the slew of impressive fire-spinners – each utilizing a different tool for their blazing craft. In the corner behind them, the fire-breathing MechaGator adds further sizzle by spewing flames into the air. The final performer, brandishing two lengthy fire whips, snaps her wrists to jolt the rapt audience with roaring fire-cracks.
The kinetic energy zooms on into Lee Reynolds’ midnight set of house music paradise, devious rolling techno rhythms and spunky jams. My earlier visit to the Museum of Lee deepens my appreciation of his mischievous mixing mastery that sways the crowd into even stronger vibrational connection, both sonically speaking and on a human level. Papa Lee always spreads the love and brings the family together.
Of the core crew, Marbs’ reverberating dark techno sound typically appeals to my tastes most directly, so his four-hour b2b set alongside the fiendish space-travel techno of Evan Casey has set-of-the-weekend hype behind it. With a rumbling intensity, they grab hold of the crowd and we all blast off on the dancefloor spaceship. The iconic disco-ball heart hangs from the front of the stage gleaming with the reflections of deep space constellations as we all strap in for a journey into the dark and dangerous unknown. Thumping past the rings of Saturn, occasional transmissions of starry-eyed harmonies overscore propulsive basslines with a feeling of weightlessness.
I slip out for a spacewalk in the gallery where an alien trader named Razio has brought along his rare and precious collection of illustrious gemstones excavated from Outer Rim planet expeditions. He kindly shares the wonder of these priceless treasures with a few others and myself, and I’ve never admired nor felt the special properties of crystals so much as in this moment. Following Razio’s detailed presentation and accompanying stories behind the gems, I thank him and beam back up to the spaceship for the finale escape through a dimensional wormhole. I find my way back to earth supremely satisfied and hop in my cryo-chamber for much-needed rest.
Vibe in Stride
I turn on my radio Sunday morning for a far-out, self-aware revive from Memo Rex, then Jacky’s dynamic shot of fierce house gets me up and moving, back to the playing field. Doc Martin manages to uplift whatever feelings of weariness remain in the crowd from the previous night’s extravagant festivities, spinning a refined brand of his Sublevel tech house that restores everyone’s vibes to dreamy balance and emboldens their dance flow in the open afternoon spacing.
I reunite with some of the friends I’ve made and eagerly discover impressive new characters, like the chick skillfully skating around on the fire-performance platform juggling plungers, and the guy wearing more than 20 white stuffed animals as a scarf. Watching the blackjack table that only bets in strange items heightens the wacky and weird awareness that we’re all mad in this beautifully bizarre wonderland.
The Desert Hearts panel in the Heartspace speaks to the righteous accomplishment of putting on such a pure community event, and the new social paradigm it builds. The experience here really is proof that we can reshape the world around us into something better. Lessons learned, work put in and growth internalized from this festival utopia can be shared and applied in the real world to impact others and engender powerful change.
The Heartspace, Soul Palace and Healing Sanctuary have been hosting intriguing activities and workshops all weekend, and at last I find the latter two in a camping area not too far from the stage. Rodriguez Jr. sounds great in the distance, but the Sinesthesia Sound & Sensory Meditation is opening minds to otherworldly portals and rejuvenating the senses in the Healing Sanctuary. So I lay down inside, close my eyes and tune in as crystal singing bowls and reflective gongs are used to mystically fill the tent with powerfully resonant frequencies.
Eventually I drift off to another plane of consciousness and wake refreshingly grounded, ready to smoothly hit the last night full speed ahead. Archie Hamilton slides through sunset with funky electro-house and then a new set of fire badasses emerge as Berliner Andreas Henneberg climbs through energizing tech house combos, one punchy layer striking on top of the next. While the fire tools don’t vary as much this evening, a fair amount of people had to leave the festival early, and I take advantage of the extra room to charge into my stride.
On my way back to the dancefloor as Speed Raver, I happen upon a high-quality, full-suited astronaut who parted the techno crowd at the Yuma stage of Coachella the previous weekend. I mention seeing him there and he tells me of his own spacewalk, being attached to an overhead wire and hoisted above the DoLaB stage crowd. Respect, Spaceman. You fit the iconography there, but your high-effort fest vibes are at home here.
Midnight glory ripples out from the Parisian Popof, commanding the crowd with an edgy underground house and techno set that springs right into the scorching sound and slapping energy of headliner DJ Tennis. His feisty techno and undercurrents of burning nu-disco house pull me to the very front, where I plug into the first waves of his sound and unleash my power on the final front of this festival. Tennis serves wild ping-pong beats and I ultimately line up directly under the disco heart, nearly ascending my physical body in a vigorous volley with him.
By 4 a.m. it’s been drizzling for a while, and only the hardy survive past here. Tennis lit such a savage desert fire I could go home happy now, but I stick around for Dave Dinger in the hotspot between the speakers and find myself moving with delirious bliss to his pristinely potent slaying of electro house. Anyone can go onto the stage area as long as it’s not overfull, so at the urging of my latest dancefloor buddy we go up there, Dave lets me know he loves my energy and I spend about 15 minutes stupendously grooving at the front next to him. Mission accomplished. After 5:30 I call it a night, walking back in the rain that clouds the upcoming sunrise.
Gray Skies, Full Hearts
By noon I awake to dispiriting cold, continual rain and a lack of neighbors. Many have gone ahead and taken the bleak weather as a sign to leave early, but Andrew told me the Desert Hearts Crew closing out from 2-6 p.m. Monday is always the best set of the fest. I slowly get ready, drive to the campgrounds nearer the stage, and seeing how the rain isn’t too bad, I summon up the strength to go check out the beginning of this storied family finale. Within a few minutes, I’ve resolved to stick around till the end.
Despite the conditions, the vibes are riding high, and the music raises the experience into sublime territory. From a handful of ‘60s classics including “The Sound of Silence,” running the gamut to a Maceo Plex banger, the crew spans a massive variety of terrific selections that coalesce with each other in a more compelling, meaningful way. Multiple other Desert Hearts Family members step in for a bit too, highlighting the true familial dynamic of this group.
I’ve enthusiastically been snaking my way throughout the stage zones all weekend, instead of finding a spot and staying there. However, today the crowd is particularly sparse and intimately connected, so as I’m roving through, encounters with familiar faces leave more lasting impressions. I often find the most fulfilling gratification at festivals in the human interactions and the synergies people bring upon the dancefloor over the actual music. That’s true here more than ever, which isn’t knocking the music, just noting the unmatched vibrancy, love and depth of the attendees.
Once again a squad carrying the Lionese Dragon reminds us the Desert Hearts community is bigger than all of us, but the spirit runs through each of us. Mikey, Lee, Marbs and Porky all sincerely thank the crowd once they harmoniously finish the set, although it’s the message from operational head Perseption that really drives it all home. Rather than always worrying about patching holes in the boat, we should put more intentional thought and energy into what it looks and feels like when things are right.
Desert Hearts looks and feels way more right than any other small festival I’ve encountered, but more importantly, the community and how the people treat one another looks and feels right beyond words.
*Featured image via Jess Bernstein*