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Road Trip

The Joshua Tree Music Festival is a blend of music, arts, and community spirit

By Tom Reardon, May 2019 Issue.

Depending on how fast you drive, Joshua Tree National Park is about four and a half hours from Phoenix.

That’s four episodes of Game of Thrones or just an hour and change longer than the new Avengers movie. It’s an easy drive, too.

I point this out because if you weren’t already planning on going, the 17th annual Spring Joshua Tree Music Festival (JTMF) is happening from May 16 to May 19 and it promises to be a pretty darn good time. It is the brainchild of Barnett English, a music and arts fan and supporter who is also something of an entrepreneur.

I asked English why people from Arizona (and anywhere, really) should go:

“It’d be the neighborly thing to do! Our fest is unique … you’ll witness a lineup for artists on the rise, an eclectic mix, unlike other fests. Size does matter. At larger festivals, you miss out on the connections made at smaller fests like (ours). As our world gets more digital, we need community more than ever.  Our fests have grown organically, by one person bringing their family and friends, and so on … it really is a solid, loving community that has grown here,” says Barnett English, who founded the festival in 2003.

Muralist Bret Philpot at work.

Joshua Tree Music Festival is a biannual event (there is a fall version, too, in October) and it takes place on the border of Joshua Tree National Park at the Joshua Tree Lake Campgrounds. There are two stages and tons of food, art, and according to the website, “the boundary between performer and patron is blurred” so it is also incredibly inclusive. Families of all ages, sizes, and inclination are encouraged to attend, and the lineup is one of the more diverse you will find.

Bands and solo artists from all over the world will be playing the Spring festival with acts coming in from Canada, Germany, Iran, Japan, and Senegal to join a host of performers from all over the U.S.

Some of the notable acts to check out would be Berlin’s Oliver Koletzki, Canada’s Moontricks, Los Angeles, California’s Vintage Trouble, and Boulder, Colorado’s Dynohunter, but these are just a few of the acts worth checking out as you dance your days and nights away under the desert sun and stars.

In addition to the music, there is a considerable art contingent (somewhere around 40 different artists and collaborations are scheduled to be displaying or creating interactive art) heading to Joshua Tree.

Tyson Ayers will have his one of his Soundcave exhibits where the building itself is full of finely tuned strings that festival-goers can play, pluck, or bang to their heart’s content. For Ayers, who is doing his third JTMF, the opportunity to share one of his Soundcave exhibits is very important.

Beats & Rhymes; photo by Carly Valentine.

“So, it is a sound cave, which is an immersive environment built out of broken pianos which will surround an audience member with over a thousand or 2000 piano strings. So, every sound somebody makes will get captured in sympathetic resonance and echo back at them, which is a really beautiful and natural phenomenon of our world that people don’t notice much,” shared Ayers, who will perform in the Soundcave on Sunday, May 19 at sunset. Check out his genuinely amazing work at soundcave.org if you want to learn more.

Muralist Bret Philpot will be working at the festival for the 10th year painting live next to the Copper Mountain stage. Philpot’s work is wonderful and worth checking out on his website, bretphilpot.com. He had this to say about being part of the festival: “For the last 10 Spring Fest’s, I have painted live for three days, in the same location, next to one of the stages. One of the things I look forward to most is the energy and vibration I get from the people and the music. An inspiration I take with me that reverberates long after the fest is over. JTMF is family to me. The love is a pure conduit of goodness,” says Philpot.

English fell in love with Joshua Tree National Park and its surrounding area after first visiting in 2002 and has been selling his coffee (JavaGogo) at music festivals all over North America since 1994. A true fan and supporter of music and the arts, English decided to put his money and time where his mouth is after sharing with some friends that Joshua Tree would be a great place for a music festival after his first visit there. 

Now, 17 years later, it’s hard for English to fathom where the time has gone as he looks at his experience with the festival.

“After the shock of ‘where did all the time go’ there are so (heavy emphasis on the “so” as in “sooooooo”) many great memories, life-changing moments, and friends made.  While I’m super proud of the fact that we’ve had so many festivals (there have been 29 total festivals so far put on by English and his team as this fall will be the 14th annual version of the Fall Joshua Tree Music Festival), I wholeheartedly believe that we are just getting started, and that the best is yet to come.  There is always room for improvement, new musical artists to witness, more play-shops to introduce, etc.,” shares English.

English and his team at the Joshua Tree Music Festival are dedicated to showcasing up-and-coming talent. One of the most intriguing acts for this May’s festival is Earth Arrow from Los Angeles. The octet is a powerful combination of soul, funk, and hip hop that is extremely danceable yet features some of the best socially conscious lyrics we’ve heard in a long time. Their song “Naturally” tackles gender identity while exclaiming that we are “living in a police state” is well worth a listen.

Earth Arrow vocalists Sema and Chelsea Monet, who were recently married and definitely have that honeymoon vibes in their voices were kind enough to share a bit about why they are excited to perform at their second Joshua Tree Music Festival event.

Earth Arrow; photo by Amandala Photography.

“I’m looking forward to the drum circles because I didn’t get a chance to do a lot of that last time (in October 2018) and we were a little bit nervous (last year). It was our first festival we ever played as a band. So, I think everybody was trying to focus. I just didn’t realize how much stuff was going on, and I want to see a lot more bands (this year),” says Monet.

If you’re ready for a road trip, maybe we can all see them together.