I know I'm supposed to like Drinks, the band fronted by Cate Le Bon and Tim Presley that's currently rocking out on the Block Stage at the Desert Daze festival in Joshua Tree. But I'm not really feeling them, so I decide to wander over to the Moon Stage to stake out an early spot for Boris, the Japanese heavy-rock trio I've been following for years but never seen. Along the way I stop and buy a beer, poke my head in the Stories pop-up bookstore, and make a mental note of where the bathrooms and food trucks are for future reference.
I do all this with zero debate or discussion. There's no lingering in Stories because someone in my group can't stop turning the pages of the Iggy Pop coffee table book. There's no weighing the relative merits of John Maus versus Boris, the two artists who are about to be performing at the same time. I'm not stuck loitering around the Porta-potties because everyone in my crew except me has to take a leak.
I have no crew. I'm flying solo, and it's awesome.
When I was younger, I found the thought of going to concerts and festivals alone so mortifying that I would rather skip seeing a favorite band than go by myself. I struggled with severe social anxiety, so I used to find standing alone in a roomful of strangers about as terrifying as swimming in shark-infested waters. “What kind of loser goes to a concert by himself?” I imagined everyone around me was thinking. “Let's ignore this band we all paid good money to see and silently judge him instead.”
But as I've gotten older, through a combination of proper medication and no longer giving a shit what other people think, I've overcome my anxiety and learned to love the joys of attending mass gatherings as a party of one. Especially when that mass gathering is a music festival.
When you're at a festival by yourself, you have total freedom to do whatever you want at any given moment. Don't like the band you're currently watching? Great — just leave! No arguing about where to go next required. Want to get closer to the stage? When you're lone-wolfing it, snaking through a typical festival crowd to a closer vantage point is much easier, and feels way less douchey, than when you've got six people in tow. Tired? You can bail at anytime. Compared with how most of us attend festivals when we're younger, rolling in crews so deep that every move requires as much coordination as a military maneuver, going solo can feel downright liberating.
Technology has made this easier, of course. When I first started going to concerts, there were no cellphones, which meant that if you were alone, the downtime between bands could only be filled by striking up conversations with strangers or nervously downing way too many beers (I generally opted for the latter). Even when cellphones became commonplace, they were often useless at large festivals in the middle of nowhere like Coachella, where service was once totally nonexistent. (I know it still feels that way sometimes, but trust me, it used to be way worse.) So keeping yourself occupied when there was no band to watch and no one to talk to presented more of a challenge. Now, if you get bored, you can fire up Twitter or play Words With Friends. It also makes peeling off from your group and doing a temporary solo run a lot easier than it used to be; at Desert Daze, people on their phones asking, “Where are you guys?” are as plentiful as vape pens.
But even with a dead (or lost) cellphone, doing a festival by yourself doesn't have to be a lonely experience. In fact, I've found it often to be quite the opposite, especially at a comparatively intimate festival like Desert Daze where everyone seems to know everyone. In the beer line, I struck up a conversation with a guy who was camping on-site, who gave me tips should I decide to go that route next year (apparently the trees way in the back are the prime real estate — morning shade, plus they're close to the showers). At Sleep, I rocked out with a guy from Seattle who had made the trip despite being on crutches. I gave directions to the Porta-potties and got a compliment on my hat from the nice woman at the yerba mate stall. Though my anxiety-ridden younger self had difficulty believing it, it turns out that most folks at live music events are friendly and happy to chat with strangers. Live music has a way of bringing that out of people.
At the end of the day, what I like best about doing music festivals alone is that it really lets me focus on the music. I can put in my earplugs, tune out the din of conversations around me, and lose myself in whatever's happening onstage. Sometimes it's nice to feel no obligation to talk to anyone when one of your favorite bands is really getting deep into it. Listening to live music is a communal experience, but it can also be an intensely personal one. There were several times during Canadian jazz-funk quartet Badbadnotgood's Friday night set when I looked around and realized there were completely different people standing on either side of me than had been there last I noticed. A particularly transportive sax or piano solo had put me in such a trance that my surroundings had melted away.
Like anything else, solitude has its limits. So when I bumped into some friends on Desert Daze's second night, I was happy to see them, and I'm sure we'll spend some more time together today. But I know that some of my favorite memories of this festival will be those moments when I was alone in the crowd, surrendering all my senses to great performers and their music.