For years, I was outspoken against camping music festivals. I didn’t quite get it – why would anyone give up the opportunity for a hot shower and warm bed in favor of braving the elements, separated from the howling winds, swirling dust, and hard ground with nothing but a tent? And then I went to Desert Hearts.
To call Desert Hearts a transformational festival is selling it short by a mile. Since its inception three years ago, the festival has garnered a near cult-like following within the Southern California burner community, offering a nearly unmatched blend of art, design, and beauty, all underlined by 100 hours of visceral, pulsating house and techno.
This year, the Desert Hearts crew – Mikey Lion, Deep Jesus, Pork Chop, Lee Reynolds, and Marbs – celebrated the third anniversary of their bi-annual festival, and they held nothing back. By expanding their festival into Thursday, they were able to offer a weekend’s worth of house and techno that most would consider enough for a lifetime. The lineup was the biggest and deepest it’s ever been, led by world-class additions like dirtybird’s boss, Claude VonStroke, and the SF label’s femme fatale, J. Phlip, in addition to international heavyweights like Olivier Giacomotto, Andreas Henneberg, and Eddie Richards, while the Desert Hearts crew spent most of Saturday showing off what they’ve got.
In the days leading up to the festival, I have to admit, I was a little bit hesitant about the prospect of camping on the outskirts of the festival, kept awake in my sleeping bag by the same, unending four-on-the-floor rhythm, but once Friday came and I was winding my way through the back roads behind Oceanside on my way to the relatively lawless Los Coyotes Indian Reservation, my nervous hesitancy turned into growing excitement.
As I made my way onto the festival grounds towards the single stage, adorned with a towering disco ball heart spinning in the middle, my ears were greeted with the familiar sounds of a mix of banging tech-house and space-y, burner soundscapes that were quick to grab your attention and keep hold of it long into the wee hours of the night. Walking around Desert Hearts was like a trip into the deepest depths of your imagination – festival-goers clad in fur solely greeted each other with hugs, others huddled together in one of the two Burning Man themed camps – Pile Palace and Shangri-Lawless – and even more were grooving on the dance floor, lost to the beats and rhythms delivered by the crisp Funktion 1 soundsystem.
Friday night slowly turned into Saturday morning with the help of an extended three hour set by Olivier Giacomotto, who threw down a performance for the ages, as temperatures dipped well into the 30s, leaving festival-goers scrambling for warmth. Some found solace deep in the crowd, while others spent the night huddled together in Pile Palace or by a burning trash can with shadows flickering against the backdrop of the stage.
Saturday was dominated by the Desert Hearts crew, as its head honcho, Mikey Lion, took the stage at 2 pm, getting the entire dance floor into another dimension of groove with his trademark brand of tech-house. Mikey Lion’s brother, and fellow Desert Heart crew member, Pork Chop, followed that up with my set of the weekend, turning the dance floor into a rowdy affair. As night quickly dawned and the temperatures fell, the crowd was losing some steam – until the legend Andreas Henneberg took the stage and commanded the crowd like a seasoned veteran. He effortlessly danced between jacking tech house, heady techno, and groovy deep house with ease, delivering dance floor bomb after bomb without remorse. As the weather worsened, the crowd continued to thin, until Deep Jesus, the last of the Desert Hearts crew to play, delivered a rousing sunrise set to those that remained awake and alive.
Though the musical programming at Desert Hearts isn’t as diverse as a festival like Woogie Weekend, Lightning in a Bottle, or Symbiosis, it’s the people that make Desert Hearts so god damn special. Strangers greeted each other with big, warm embraces, and everyone there not only felt like family but was also treated like family – even those you had never met. Saturday was highlighted by a wine and cheese party that broke out on the dance floor – yes, that’s right, wine and cheese. A couple of ambitious festival-goers found it within themselves to throw a party complete with boxed wine, grapes, cheese, crackers, and costumes for anyone and everyone on the dance floor. Now find me another festival where you’ve seen that happen.
Now, Desert Hearts is over, it’s well into the week, but nothing has been on my mind but the undulating pulse that commanded the dance floor all weekend. At its surface, Desert Hearts is just another music festival, but deep down, it finds something deeper inside of you and brings the best out of all of us. Desert Hearts, you’ve officially won me over. I’ll see you next spring.
Photos by Jamie Rosenberg