Music festivals require planning. Duh. No-brainer. Surviving a festival demands absolute commitment, hours of careful planning, and attention to minute details. There is transportation to be arranged, expenses to be calculated, and provisions to be carefully rationed.
I decided to set out for Las Vegas for the third annual Vegoose Festival with none of the above.
First let me say: Please don’t try this at home. The details of my weekend are, for the most part, far too profane to enumerate in this fine ink. I’m no connoisseur when it comes to the music festival circuit, but I have been to Coachella on three separate occasions, and the survival techniques learned there have proved invaluable, and should probably land me a guest spot on the Discovery Channel’s Man vs. Wild.
Secondly I’ll add that it was easily the greatest weekend of my life.
For the two-day festival, which takes place in the loving and compassionate wasteland of Sin City, I had with me only the bare necessities: iPod, Advil, an extra shirt, some Adderall, and a pack of Marlboros. With the bag on my back and the socks on my feet, I began the mad journey from Berkeley, driving alongside a strange character I met via Craigslist rideshare. With California burning to the ground behind us, we fled to the desert.
Vegoose occurs on Halloween weekend, making it a dress-up affair. The depravity of the Entertainment Capital of the World is already remarkable in and of itself, but Halloween takes the weirdness to newer, unimaginable heights. Everywhere, costumed freaks dance like they’re part of some terrible masquerade. ‘There are daggers in the smiles of men,’ I thought upon my Saturday morning arrival.
As for me, I was wearing a costume, but you couldn’t see it the way you could see everyone else’s. I was wearing my costume on the inside, where I wrote on my heart the name of the only man to have rolled the dice and beaten the odds. He burned Vegas and left, living - for a while - to tell about it. This Halloween, I was Hunter S. Thompson.
This was my ultimate impetus to keep on going, keep on living; that, and the eye-bulging, awe-inspiring vivacity of this year’s lineup. Rage Against the Machine, Daft Punk, Thievery Corporation, Muse, Queens of the Stone Age, Iggy & the Stooges; these were just some of the names that kept me going.
Come Saturday morning, the festival yawned and slowly came to life. I vacillated for a while between Lupe Fiasco, a Bay area-bred Kanye incarnate, and Gogol Bordello, a disheveled band of self-described “gypsy punks.” Blonde Redhead caught my eye for a while with their intense psychedelia that reminded me immediately of a young Sonic Youth, especially with the Kim Gordon costume that vocalist Kazu Makino chose to don.
However, the festival didn’t really start until Sen Dog and B Real of Cypress Hill said it did. There was clearly an old-school rap motif that ran throughout the weekend, and included such names as Public Enemy, Ghostface Killah, and these boys, who grew up alongside Rage and shared the same bilingual aptitude for blending rock and rap. Smoke peeled off the crowd in geysers during the classic “Hits From the Bong,” and even I was throwing up gang signs for “How I Could Just Kill a Man.” Much to my delight, they closed with the thundering power chords of “Rock Superstar,” clearing the way for Queens of the Stone Age to take the stage.
The desert heat was no problem for Josh Homme and friends, who made a name for themselves playing impromptu shows in the middle of Palm Desert to small crowds of bikers and truckers. I feel no shame in admitting that I have a giant man-crush on Josh Homme - especially when he’s singing “Make it Wit Chu,” - which he had formerly introduced as a “song about fuckin’,” but now declares is a “love song.” They had a great set, but, with no time to spare, I was off to see Thievery Corporation.
I’d often wondered what Thievery Corporation was like live. I pictured feeling the cool Arabian Desert air, punctuated by winding sitars and world-beat grooves. I pictured beautiful gypsy dancers, and strangers dancing with each other in captivation. And I learned Saturday that I was right on the money.
One of the most powerful moments of the weekend was watching an ornately dressed Arabian girl dancing like silk to “Facing East” and “Lebanese Blonde,” somehow enhancing the sounds of a full percussion section, brass section, and live sitarist. And at the center of it all was Rob Garza and Eric Hilton on deejay duty. Beautiful.
With night one drawing to an end, it was up to Daft Punk to tie the bow on a great day of music. I met dozens of people that weekend that had traversed states - and even countries - just to see Daft Punk play their last North American show. I’m not amazed by their music, but, to me, it’s mystery these two Parisian dudes have created about themselves that’s more amazing than anything.
Daft Punk are obsessed with robots, and, more specifically, how to rock like robots. They sit atop a giant pyramid constructed of LED lights, suited up in awesome robot outfits, mixing and matching various elements of their songs with a vibe that’s half-rockstar, half-DJ. I think it’s also fair to say that they have one of the best light shows on Earth. Their encore put a knob-tweaking, circuit-bending, robot-rocking end to day one.
Burned out and half-retarded from lack of sleep, I greeted day two with open arms. And Ghostface Killah and the Rhythm Roots All Stars greeted me back with a great early-afternoon set. The Rhythm Roots All Stars are a ten-piece South American outfit devoted entirely to the rhythm - leaving the rhyme in the capable hands of Ghostface Killah. The former Wu-Tang incumbent seemed to prove that live instrumentals are a must for any rapper who wants to convey soul. With the overabundance of “digital rappers” these days, his set was an important reminder of just how important instrumentals are to making good hip-hop.
Next on my list was Ghostland Observatory, whom I felt owed me a damn good show after I dished out 13 bucks for their CD. Ghostland Observatory is a relatively new duo from Austin, Texas fronted by a guy named Aaron Behrens who seems to fancy himself a cowboy reincarnate of the late, great Jim Morrison. Their music is, for lack of a better description, power chords over some ghetto synth beats. That said, the guys of Ghostland put on a great show, and I’m glad to have come out of this whole mess with a new band to keep my eye on.
I soon found myself caught where every festival-freak fears of being: torn between two amazing, simultaneously-booked bands. I can, however, say that I made the right choice in neglecting Muse to see UNKLE. I was front and center for these British psychedelic rockers who, onstage, are immediately redolent of Massive Attack. Besides, there’s nothing sexier than watching James Lavelle lean on a mic stand and sing, “God knows you lonely souls.” I couldn’t help but think that, maybe, he was singing about me; by far one of the best sets of the weekend.
But when UNKLE’s set was said and done, grave matters lay at hand. Seeing Rage Against the Machine is something that any fan approaches with trepidation, regardless of how much you actually identify with the music. I had seen Zack de la Rocha’s reawakening at Coachella, and had lasted only four songs in the before having to crowd surf out. But this time, I was in it ‘til the bitter end.
When the lights on the main stage died, leaving the screaming thousands in darkness, the push began.
It was a beautiful kind of dance the crowd did; first one way, then the other, scrambling to find its collective footing. “Bulls on Parade” came and went. At some point, “Calm Like a Bomb” happened.
I wanted to scream the words, but I couldn’t find the breath. Everywhere, everyone fought against some invisible authority, some force that we perceived with our minds to be taking away our freedom.
We waved our invisible guns in the air for “Tire Me.” At one point, de la Rocha launched into a Saul Williams-esque poetry freestyle. I noticed, however, that the singer was strangely more reserved than at Coachella. He spent much time in the back, firing off verses with the same intensity, but choosing rather to watch the effects of his words on the crowd than take part in the savage ritual. None of us would admit it, but we could all see that Zack was slowing down, getting older.
It was over with “Freedom.” The lights came back on, the guards told us to leave, but most of us remained. We struggled to recollect ourselves, but also to process the information we had just seen. Eventually, I stumbled back to the press area. With a big stupid grin on my face, I sat down to get my thoughts in order.
Rage was a brilliant conclusion to my weekend. It was time to leave. I began to pack my things, until I realized that, oh yeah, I’m in the middle of the fucking desert, and I have no way home. Alone, deserted, and out of luck in a city that wanted to rob me blind and scare me deaf, I weighed my options.
With a calculus midterm in approximately eight hours, I had impossible roads to travel. The matter of my escape from the belly of the beast is a shameless saga all of its own, and one that I’m not proud of.