There's been a lot of doom and gloom in the press lately regarding the future of rock & roll and its central instrument, the electric guitar. “Don't Give Up on the Guitar; Fender Is Begging You” read a Bloomberg headline last year, describing the guitar maker's attempts to revive flagging sales. How flagging? According to a widely cited June 2017 article in The Washington Post, electric guitar sales have dropped by nearly a third over the past decade. Fender, Gibson and Guitar Center are all heavily in debt, according to the Post, and attempts to juice the market with gimmicks like self-tuning guitars so far have failed.
Go on streaming music services like Spotify, where millennials dominate the audience base, and things seem even more dire. On the most recent weekly Spotify chart of most-streamed tracks (by U.S. listeners), you have to go all the way down to No. 21 to find a rock artist — and that group, Maroon 5, have so fully sublimated their sound to the beats-and-synths-driven pop music of today that it's a stretch to even call them a rock band anymore. (Listening to the track, “What Lovers Do,” you wonder if the band's jazz-trained lead guitarist, James Valentine, was even in the building when it was recorded.)
The Spotify chart's number-one song, ironically, is called “Rockstar” — but it's by a hip-hop artist, Post Malone. It's easy to feel, at this point in history, like hip-hop and electronic music have permanently stolen rock's thunder, and the rock stars of tomorrow will all DJs and rappers, not guitar players.
But at Desert Daze, none of that matters. At this admittedly small but steadily growing psych-rock-themed festival in Joshua Tree, no one cares how many guitar solos are on the Spotify Top 200, or how many Stratocasters Fender sold last year. All they care about is the art form of rock & roll, and how to celebrate its past while also forging its future — preferably with as much volume and distortion as possible.
Throughout the festival's three days of music, it was possible to hear bands from multiple generations cranking out thrillingly vital guitar-based music in a variety of styles. There was the crawling, theatrical doom metal of Japanese trio Boris and the more fleet-fingered, Sabbath-y take on the genre offered up the next night by another power trio, Sleep. There were the freeform psychedelic jams of JJUUJJUU, fronted by Desert Daze's founder Phil Pirrone, and the tightly coiled riff-fests of Deap Vally, featuring Pirrone's wife and Desert Daze co-organizer Julie Edwards on drums. There was gorgeous shoegaze and dream-pop from Tijuana quartet Mint Field and Echo Park's own Winter, who finished their set with a catchy new guitar workout called “Jaded,” which could almost be read as a rebuke to all those articles warning of rock's impending demise.
The sounds at these shows were often nostalgic, echoing the grungy noise of '90s alternative rock, the jangly '60 garage-rock and psychedelia of Lenny Kaye's influential Nuggets compilation, and all points in between. But the performances themselves, for the most part, were anything but. Whether through vivid, finely detailed songwriting, as Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile explored in their lovely Friday night headlining set, or through sheer kinetic force, as Ty Segall and his five-piece band deployed on the same stage earlier in the evening, the best guitar-based acts find new wrinkles in the instrument's familiar vocabulary. Just because you've heard a fuzz-tone solo before doesn't mean that a guitarist as masterful as Segall can't delight you with his blistering version of one.
Even Desert Daze's “legacy” acts performed sets that were hardly museum pieces. Anyone expecting John Cale's set to be a walk through familiar Velvet Underground hits was sorely disappointed; instead, Cale indulged his most avant-garde impulses, even turning a cover of “Heartbreak Hotel” into an abstract expressionist canvas of smeared keyboards and ragged splotches of guitar. And Iggy Pop's triumphant Saturday night headlining set sidestepped nostalgia through sheer brute force, as the 70-but-seemingly-ageless icon shimmied, stage dove and hurled his mic stand around like a javelin while his crack band breathed new life into his catalog of punk anthems.
The weekend wasn't entirely devoted to rock & roll. Desert Daze's definition of psychedelia is broad enough to include the jazz-based jams of Badbadnotgood and Tortoise, the cheeky electro-pop of Jesika Von Rabbit and even the spacey minimalism of legendary composer Terry Riley, who performed a series of ambient instrumentals with his son Gyan on guitar. And aesthetically, the festival wisely borrows from such decidedly non-rock-centric events as Burning Man, decorating the sparse desert landscape of Joshua Tree with surreal art installations and providing such additional activities as film screenings, guest lectures and yoga classes (albeit ones with a black metal soundtrack). Taken altogether, it makes Desert Daze feel less like a traditional rock festival and more like a kindred spirit to such so-called transformational festivals as Lucidity and Lightning in a Bottle — just one in which black jeans outnumber yoga pants.
“Isn't it a beautiful thing that we are gathered here together under the stars in the name of rock & roll?” -Jesse Hughes
Iggy's one-for-the-ages headlining set aside, the weekend's greatest affirmation of rock's continued relevance came from Eagles of Death Metal, the desert boogie-rock band whose colorful frontman, Jesse “Boots Electric” Hughes, treats every show like a rock & roll sermon, even punctuating virtually everything he says with, “Can I get an amen?” Coming from any other performer, such quasi-religious posturing might come off as corny, but since Hughes and his bandmates survived a terrorist attack on their concert at the Bataclan Theater in Paris in 2015 that killed 89 of their fans, it seems almost heroic.
“Isn't it a beautiful thing that we are gathered here together under the stars in the name of rock & roll?” Hughes exclaimed at one point (and I'm paraphrasing here, because I was too busy rocking out to take detailed notes). With that, Eagles of Death Metal launched into a cover of David Bowie's “Moonage Daydream,” which ended with a solo by guitarist Dave Catching that, in its sheer, visceral passion and joy, obliterated any notion that electric guitars or rock & roll will ever lose their relevance.
Maybe rock no longer dominates mainstream culture the way it once did. Maybe the kids who once bought electric guitars are now all buying Ableton and MPCs. But that's OK. At events like Desert Daze, rock is still there, biding its time, waiting for another generation to rediscover its ragged glory.