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It's no Coachella, but this Joshua Tree festival may be the music model of the future

This weekend, a new kind of music festival will draw thousands of rock fans out to the Coachella Valley, hoping to re-create the mind-expanding possibilities that a weekend-long concert might have had in the ’60s.

Yes, some folks will also be heading to Desert Trip for round two of the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and other classic rock titans.

But the much smaller, much weirder Desert Daze festival might be a model for how Southern California festival culture may shift in the coming years. The four-year-old event has its biggest and strongest lineup yet (Television, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Primus) and the enthusiastic backing of local promoter institution Spaceland Presents and Knitting Factory Entertainment.

But this year the fest has also had enough tough breaks to test anyone’s faith in the rock and roll cosmos – the death of a headliner and disputes over its venue.

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Growing pains, yes. But also the sign that something new might be on the horizon.

“We’re all going to see really innovative moves in festivals in the next few years,” said Desert Daze founder Phil Pirrone.”These days there’s something every week from March to November, it’s so saturated. As the years go on, more and more people want to have an alternative.”

For a fest that started as scruffy Coachella counter-programming, Desert Daze has now entered the big leagues (or whatever counts as the big leagues for a 2,000-capacity show of very outsider rock). Pirrone initially made his reputation booking sets under the aegis of Moon Block Party.

When Spaceland and Knitting Factory announced a merger in September, each cited Desert Daze as the vanguard of a new festival culture that could come to define the company. Instead of trying to carve a slice of the mass-market festival scene, promoters would instead go deeper, exploring fringe scenes with devoted crowds and putting them in striking new venues.

“Growing [Desert Daze] from two to five thousand people is more what we want to do than compete with Coachella,” said Mitchell Frank of Spaceland Presents, in a September interview. “More handcrafted and handpicked.”

The lineup is certainly attuned to a particular sensibility, if not any single sound.

From the demented funk of Primus, to black-metal revisionists Deafheaven, ’70s punk progenitors Television and the horror-flick synth quartet (and “Stranger Things” alums) SURVIVE, everything is edgy but nothing is alike. There are also scores of worthy, urgent local acts — La Luz, Feels and L.A. Witch among them — that make a strong case for psych-rock’s vitality.

“We love Desert Daze. It was one of the biggest shows we’d played when we first started and the crowds are great, the people who make that trek are really there for the music,” said Irita Pai of L.A. Witch, who is playing the fest for the third time. 

“It’s this little community where we get to play with all our friends. Because it’s so isolated, it’s such an escape and you have all this freedom,” added singer Sade Sanchez.

Pirrone agreed that audiences are craving something more personal — and the bottoming-out of the mainstream fest market is proof. With attendance at venerable festivals like Bonnaroo and Sasquatch down this year, he argues that the something-for-everyone fest model isn’t working like it used to. A smaller, weirder event might be the safer bet.  

“I don’t want to go to a festival where the lineup is like walking through a rehearsal space from hell,” Pirrone said. “How are you supposed to have a cosmic experience when you’re 3,000 feet from the stage watching it on a TV screen?”

But for a small concert in the desert dedicated to niche, spacey sounds, Desert Daze has already been through festival hell.

First came the death of Alan Vega, the founder of the incalculably influential New York band Suicide. The duo was slated to headline Desert Daze for the band’s first L.A.-area show in 16 years.

Vega’s death in July instantly turned the set from a must-see return into an ad hoc memorial for another beloved rocker lost in 2016. “We were just stunned and sad,” Pirrone said. “We didn’t even want to try and replace them on the lineup. There is no replacement for Suicide.”  

Then came a dispute with some neighbors of the Institute for Mentalphysics, the Joshua Tree venue hosting Desert Daze. The locale features dramatic architecture from Frank Lloyd Wright and son Lloyd Wright, as well as majestic desert views. Some were concerned about the noise and environmental impact this growing rock fest might bring.

The tumult has already left organizers wondering where they’ll end up next year. After protests from neighbors, the venue has suggested it may be done with hosting concerts after Desert Daze.

“I completely understand the concerns, and if we were some faceless festival coming in, I’d be alarmed too,” Pirrone said. “My hope is that they’ll all be pleasantly surprised. I fell in love with my wife at [nearby venue] Pappy and Harriet’s. We’re connected to this desert too, and we want to make sure everything is in harmony.”

Even if they have to move, however, the Desert Daze model is clearly ascendant. FYF Fest, once a scrappy punk-inspired upstart, is now close to Coachella-scale. Its heirs like Burgerama and Beach Goth look to be on a similar trajectory, and while Pirrone has no interest in scaling up too dramatically, he sees this year as a turning point for new events in the same vein.  

But growth isn’t necessarily the point. It’s proving that small and strange can beat big and broad, and be more meaningful for everyone in the end.

“The people that come here are so peaceful and open-minded, and when they all get together and feel something, it has to have an effect on the world,” he said. “In the old days, festivals were about tribes getting together to eat food no one had tasted and play music no one had ever heard before. I like the idea that Desert Daze can come from that same intention.”

For breaking music news, follow @augustbrown on Twitter.

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