04.27.13 — 11:25PM GMT — Saturday — Holiday Inn, Camden
It was difficult — even last night — not to look forward to today. I won’t say I was trying extra hard not to get hit by a bus on my way out of the hotel and down the block for day two of the 2013 London Desertfest, but if I had been, I certainly would’ve had reason. Strictly speaking, it was my most straightforward of the three days here. Virtually no running back and forth, just one venue change and that was it for the duration. Even before I saw any bands, today felt like a luxury, and sure enough I was able to kind of nestle my way into the groove of the evening and just let it carry me along as it went. This would turn out to be precisely the right strategy.
On a sheer cause and effect level — I went here and this happened — the results are mostly inarguable. I’ll note that there were a lot of bands who played today who I didn’t see. Some whose music I don’t know, some whose music I know and very much enjoy. Rather than lay out each option for each time slot and justify my decisions one at a time, please just know that I’ve put no lack of consideration into how I’m spending my days here, and that the choices I’ve made for what to see have not been easy.
Alright, let’s go:
The first thing was to get a heaping dose of native Londoner sludge, and for that I headed down to The Underworld to catch Gurt, stopping only for coffee and a blueberry muffin along the way. It was sort of half-slushing on the way — semi-frozen balls of unpleasantness falling from the sky — so I just assumed whatever pagan seabeast is in charge of the weather around here was making it appropriate for the onslaught that was coming. I have dug several of Gurt‘s releases, most recently the Collection tape (more here), but ultimately, that would do little to prepare me for seeing them live, since they proved all around to be a more diverse band than I’d previously given them credit for being, working in influences of post-Superjoint Ritual thickened punk along with their standard Eyehategod — or if we’d like to keep it local, Iron Monkey — fuckall, frontman Gareth Kelly‘s screams all the more vicious and throat-searing from the stage. The trend in terms of vocals has swung the other way to the cleaner, melodic end, but I still like to see a screamer who can really scream and keep it up for the duration of a set without losing power, and Kelly did that, making a highlight of “Fucknose” in the process. I also hadn’t given them credit for their sense of satire. “Dudes with Beards with Cats” was right on, and “You ain’t from around these Parts?” was presented as having an agenda that I hadn’t perceived originally — perhaps because I couldn’t understand the lyrics, perhaps because I’m clueless. Either way. Gurt brought up Diesel King vocalist Mark O’Regan for the finale, “Soapfeast,” the Church of Misery boogie of which was one more example of Gurt being better than I knew. Lesson learned.
It was hard to me to look at frontman Chris of Brighton four-piece Turbowolf and not think of a young Bobby Liebling of Pentagram. The superficial factors were there — moustache, mane, frilly shirt, tight pants and so on — but I doubt if many on the Trail of Dead tour that Turbowolf just wrapped had the same issue. There was also about as little in common with the bands as there could be and still have both of them play the same fest, Turbowolf opening at the Electric Ballroom — a new venue for Desertfest as of this year — playing a speed rock that bordered on punk but never really gave up its classic ethic. I wondered watching them if theirs is the kind of sound that has grown out of the next generation past the likes of Turbonegro and The Hellacopters, though I barely had time to get a mental process underway before Turbowolf were on to the next upbeat, catchy rager. They weren’t really my thing (who likes fast tempo and engaging music, anyway? Oh wait, everyone.), but they sure had the crowd on their side and it was easy to see why. While the rest of the band locked in their next ultra-tight, professional delivery, Chris tossed unopened cans of beer into the audience, from whence they did not return. If the room wasn’t theirs before, and it was, that was bound to help their cause, and though it was still pretty early, Turbowolf worked the larger space easily around its collective finger, stopping only to make sure everyone was getting in on the party.
House of Broken Promises
Though they’d apparently come right from their flight into town from the Berlin Desertfest, it was clear by the time Indio, California, trio House of Broken Promises dug into the start-stop stomp of “Obey the Snake” from their 2009 Using the Useless debut full-length (review here) that they were really just waiting for the strippers to show up. New bassist/vocalist Joe Mora fit right in with the band’s crotch-thrusting dude rock, though even if he’s not singing, guitarist/beard magnate Arthur Seay is doing most of the frontman work. Master of the guitar-face and the beard-bang, Seay is nonetheless a more than solid player, and for all the antics, he, Mora and drummer/backing vocalist Mike Cancino were as tight musically as they were uproarious and working to get the crowd into it. That didn’t take much, incidentally. House of Broken Promises may play what to my ears sounds like a very American take on heavy rock, but the Desertfest crowd knows how to dig into catchy songs delivered with quality heavy and quality energy alike, which is just what they got at Electric Ballroom, plus some old biker movie video backdrop courtesy of Mindzap Visuals. I think of some of the places I’ve seen these guys play — the Trash Bar in Brooklyn comes to mind, also the Brighton in NJ — but they seemed much more suited to the bigger stage, the bigger room than to either of those haunts. While I don’t think I would go as far as to call them desert rock — that would come later when Cancino and Seay returned as half of Unida — the three-piece definitely left a boot print in the Electric Ballroom, closing out their set with “The Hurt (Paid My Dues),” which had arms raised and lyrics sung along from the very start. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when they get a follow-up to Using the Useless together, what effect Mora‘s joining might have on their songwriting process or overall sound, but for today, they were dead-on. Rarely can I say the same for myself when I’ve just come from the airport.
If you’ve lived for more than 25 seconds, you know that life long. And if you’ve lived for more than 25 seconds, chances are something has happened to you over the course of your life that you didn’t expect would ever happen. Tonight, I saw Lowrider, the Swedish double-guitar four-piece who released in their day only one full-length album — 2000’s Ode to Io, on MeteorCity — and two splits, with Nebula and Sparzanza, played fewer than 50 shows, and disintegrated, to become in the years subsequent one of the single most pivotal blueprints for European riffing. Yeah, Dozer (wait for it…) came up concurrently, releasing their debut also in 2000, but what Ode to Io offered was a fealty to desert rock really just as the thing was beginning to exist outside of the desert itself. These bands showed not only that it could be done, but gave landmark examples of how to do it. I don’t know where people had come from, if they drove here, got on a plane, train, boat, whatever, but I have to believe that it was the chance to see bands like Lowrider, Dozer and Unida that brought them to Desertfest 2013. And though I don’t really know how a group of individuals could come out onto a stage and live up to that kind of impossible narrative, guitarist Niclas Stålfors, bassist/vocalist Peder Bergstrand, lead guitarist/vocalist Ola Hellquist and drummer Andreas Eriksson did precisely that. Most of what they played came from Ode to Io, as one would hope and expect, but they gave some time as well to the Nebula split, picking up “Lameneshma,” “Shivaree” and “Ol’ Mule Pepe” for anyone who might be looking for a deeper cut out after the mega-hooks of “Flat Earth” or “Caravan,” the latter which rang out as an immediate clarion as if to say, “Yes, this is really happening.” They were visibly glad to be on the stage together at the Electric Ballroom, the tone was right on — having nerded out so many times over for “Texas Pt. 1 & 2,” it was great to hear it announced from stage as the first song they ever wrote — and coming out of it, I have to say that if these dudes had any desire whatsoever to go back and write a new album, nothing I heard from them tonight would stand as argument against doing so. The material — minimum 13 years old — sounded vital and fresh, and when they were done, Bergstrand (who is also in I are Droid), took a picture of the crowd and said he didn’t want to wait another 10 years to do it again. Hell dude, me neither. I never thought I’d get to do it this once, so really, anything on top of tonight is gravy.
Dozer are a big part of the reason why I’m here. Not just here in London for Desertfest, but here, in front of this laptop, writing like I do more or less every day. That’s not hyperbole, it’s just fact. When I first started getting into this kind of music in college, it was acts like Dozer who fueled my curiosity to know more about it. The Swedish outfit announced an indefinite hiatus in 2009, and have been little heard from since — though as early as last summer, guitarist Tommi Holappa was dropping hints of a reunion at Desertfest — so to find them back at it with the lineup of Holappa, guitarist/vocalist Fredrik Nordin, bassist Johan Rockner and drummer Olle Mårthans was special, and for me, something that will mark out this Desertfest among all the fests I’ve seen and any and all I might see. This was the one where I finally saw Dozer. I knew some of what to expect from Holappa‘s thrashing madness on stage from seeing him at Desertfest last year with side-project Greenleaf (another personal highlight), but wow. Opening with “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Exoskeleton Pt. 2,” they stormed through their hour-long set, making the most of their time with cuts from across their five albums like “Rising” from 2002’s Call it Conspiracy, “The Flood” from 2008’s Beyond Colossal (their last album to date), and “From Fire Fell,” “Big Sky Theory,” “Drawing Dead,” “Born a Legend” and “Days of Future Past” from 2005’s Through the Eyes of Heathens, the last of which Nordin singled out as his favorite song Dozer had ever written. It’s a strong candidate, with a memorable melody line and dynamic changes within an overarching moodiness that was not in the slightest lost in a live setting, the guitarist tempering his approach to the music and using a few effects here and there as well for echo and warble. His falsetto, shouts and straight-ahead melodic singing were right on, and with Holappa‘s headbanging his way back and forth on the stage, Rockner‘s quiet but steady low end on the other wise and Mårthans‘ positively huge drum sound — the kind of kick you feel in your chest — seeing Dozer was everything I could’ve asked it to be and more. They even jammed! Of course, they could’ve played twice as long and I wouldn’t have complained, but a track like “Headed for the Sun” from 1999’s Coming Down the Mountain EP split with Unida (wait for it…) only underscored for me how much they need to do an early works compilation, like, yesterday. They wrapped with “Rings of Saturn” — the bonus track from the vinyl version of 2001’s Madre de Dios — and the opener of their 2000 debut, In the Tail of a Comet, “Supersoul,” which felt like home from the first note. I don’t know if this is the last time I’ll get to see Dozer play or not — I hope not — but for tonight, I’m just thankful that I got to see them this once at Desertfest. Really. When they were done, I felt like I’d accomplished something.
And if a night like this is going to have an epilogue, a 90-minute headlining set from Cali desert rockers Unida is a good one to have. In a lot of ways, Unida sort of sum up what seems to me to be the whole mentality of this fest. They’re a band who, just when they should’ve hit it big with a major label album produced by a major producer, it all came apart on them, and so what you had tonight was people singing along to tracks from a record that never came out. Without the passion for this music at the heart of this festival, there’s no way a band like Unida would resurface for a headliner spot. Vocalist John Garcia has Vista Chino at work on a new album, and guitarist Athur Seay and drummer Mike Cancino had already done a set in House of Broken Promises — the band was rounded out by Arthur‘s nephew, Owen Seay, on bass — so what made it happen? Money? I’m sure they got paid to be here, but money’s what makes you get up and go to work in the morning. What makes you spend months hammering out a set of songs to get up and deliver them in front of a couple thousand people most of whom (myself included) only caught onto your band after the fact? If it wasn’t passion, it would have to be madness. As he has been the several times I’ve seen him — in Kyuss-minded projects like Garcia Plays Kyuss and Kyuss Lives!, from which Vista Chino springs — Garcia was a relatively subdued frontman, collected on stage if prone to the occasional leg-jerk softshoe. Seay as well was calmer for the Unida set compared to House of Broken Promises, and since some of my favorite Unida tracks are the moodier, more sedate, I thought it worked well. Over the course of their time, they certainly worked in their share of rocking material, whether it was the ultra-catchy “Red” from 1998’s The Best of Wayne-Gro EP (which also served as their portion of the split with Dozer the next year) or the groovier “Vince Fontaine” from the unreleased For the Working Man. I was hoping they’d have some bootleg copies of that record on sale, but no such luck. The extended “Last Day” found the Seays and Cancino at some of their tightest, musically, and Garcia‘s voice was, as ever, crucial. “Thorn,” “Nervous” and “Human Tornado” were all met with rapturous welcome — they’d almost have to be — and after leaving the stage, Unida came back out and made a blasting two-song encore out of “Dwarf It” and “Black Woman” that answered back some of the quieter stretches of their set with full-fisted gut-punchery. Standing in the very back of the Electric Ballroom and watching the crowd go apeshit for them, I wondered if Unida might finally be getting the payoff they’ve been waiting for a decade to receive.
No time to think about it, really. They shuffled us out of the venue on the quick, and I decided to end the day with a check-in over at The Black Heart to see how things were shaking out there and pick up a copy of the new tape I’d heard Bong brought with them. No such luck on that one, and there didn’t seem to be much of a pathway to the stairs let alone up them to see the band, so I hightailed it back in the direction of the hotel, stopping to pick up some pizza along the way, since nothing says celebration quite like a pizza party for one.
Tomorrow is the last day of Desertfest 2013, with more running around than I had today, but still a decent amount of full sets I’ll get to watch. This trip is winding down, but we’re not done yet.
Thanks for reading. More pics after the jump.