The wait is finally over and the London DesertFest 2013 is well and truly upon us! Three days of sludge, doom, stoner and psyche music are about to commence faster than you can say “mine’s a pint” as rock and roll takes back Camden from the sweaty palms of the silly hipsters for good! Last year’s bash was a sold-out success and this year the Electric Ballroom has been acquired to host proceedings on the Saturday and Sunday of the monster feast of riffs, beards and beers. The atmosphere around the place is unparalleled and it’s fascinating to see the obscure band tees, the nigh-on destroyed leather jackets and the most artistic beards Europe has to offer…and I’ve only got as far as the wristband queue! TheSleepingShaman.com scribe Pete Green is in attendance throughout the weekend, so if you see a pint-sized, beard-stroking, head-nodding Midlander with his eyes on the stage and his hands on a pint, do come and say Hi!
The Vans Store on Camden High Street is a strange place to begin a festival, but it’s a tight, intimate setting perfect for the soothing charm of Trippy Wicked Accoustic. The St. Albans sludgers’ Frontman Pete Holland picks up his ukulele as drummer Chris West mans the acoustic guitar as the duo flit between acoustic version of their own tunes like ‘Southern’ and ‘Clothes on my Floor’ as well as amusing cover versions of the like of Sleep (‘Dragonaut’), Church of Misery (‘Killafornia’) and Crowbar (‘The Lasting Dose’). The crowd chuckle along at what’s likely to be the best ukulele metal of the weekend.
Crystal Head are just perfect for the Jazz Café – DesertFest’s most newly acquired venue. Silhouetted by their trademark white spotlights, the three-piece are a clean sonic vision as frontman Tom Cameron haunts the crowd with his mournful and misanthropic vocals. Drummer Dean Deal sets his stall out for title of ‘Best Beard of the Weekend’ whilst his skin-bashing is both calculated and thunderous at the same time. The likes of ‘Perfect Weirdo’ and ‘Freeloader’ bring a QOTSA-meets-Russian Circles vibe to Day1 and I couldn’t help but notice a huge growth in confidence since their performance in the Underworld last year.
Fast-track to 30minutes later and as always Groan are on simply ridiculous form. “We’re gunna do a Black Sabbath rip-off… Cus that’s what we do!” screams frontman Mazzereth as the beefed-up five-piece gurn and posture their way through a blistering 25-minute set. A messy sound set-up does them no favours, but it barely matters as the 67% true doom clan blast on regardless. New drummer Zel Kaute has a knack of turning every band she plays in into a hardcore punk crater-pit and Groan Mk.3 quickly becomes no exception to this rule. You simply can’t argue with the fun times dished out by the likes of ‘Magic Man’ or ‘Gods of Fire’ and even the most kvlt onlookers are nodding their hooded heads merrily away.
Over at the Underworld, French psyche masters Mars Red Sky somewhat disappoint me. There’s a big crowd drawn in by their slowly building swirls of cosmic space dust flying in from nebulae far and distant before the trio re-gather them via their sonic gravity into a riff-cradling black hole. The band seem humbled but confess early on to having a bunch of new songs, most of which seem a little untried and tested. That said the rhythm section remain solid and brooding throughout and diminutive frontman Julien Pras certainly has an interesting take on his approach to vocals. But all that can’t stop me thinking that their performance is somewhat sloppy, loose and ill-thought out.
Over at the Black Heart pub, Prosperina are ripping the beer-spattered wooden floorboards apart with their high octane sludge n’ roll. Emotive, Taint-edged grooves seep from every pore as the trio rope in the influences of Baroness and Torche to fit into their mould of driving, progressive metal. The bullish ‘Trees Have Eyes’ is a terrific climax to a fan-winning set; so much so that I immediately head downstairs and buy a copy of their stunning debut album ‘Faith In Sleep’.
Very soon the upstairs of the Black Heart is packed to the rafters as local heroes Trippy Wicked and the Cosmic Children of the Knight take to the stage with grins bigger than the kimchi burgers being served up downstairs adorning their faces. The applause before they’ve even begun is rousing and the likes of the devastatingly sludgy ‘Evil’, the, err, trippy ‘Southern’ and the anthemic ‘Want Another Drink’ smash around the room like a bull shopping for glassware. Choosing to resurrect their heavy-handed cover version of Seasick Steve’s ‘Things Go Up’ is a bold move, but one that pays off dividends as the crowd lap up its weighty grooves and folky charm. Not a soul leaves the room before ‘Hillbilly Moonshine’ closes proceedings and the St Albans trio leave to a heroes’ farewell.
There’s no doubt about it: Yawning Man are a class act. The legendary Mario Lalli’s sensual bass grooves ebb and flow over Gary Arce’s classical and timeless guitar twangs as they shift from each instrumental movement to the next. A series of glorious snow-topped crescendos fill the Underworld as these giants of the desert simply own their powerful and psychedelic waves of mysterious splendour quite like no other. Arce becomes a magician behind his six-strings, capturing the imagination of the audience from the floor to the balcony, whilst ex-Kyuss drummer Alfredo Hernandez remains a master player with a unique take on the art of stoner rock percussion. As soon as the set finishes, Arce hops right out into the audience – thanking people, shares jokes and shaking as many hands as he can, before heading to the merch stand to do more of the same. The humbleness shown by musicians in this wonderful scene is always unparalleled and it’s fantastic to see that level of interaction shown by a true desert rock hero.
“Well, if this is desert rock then I’m all for it! What is desert rock anyway?” laughs the re-emerging Mario Lalli into the lead microphone as headliners Fatso Jetson bound onto the Underworld stage. “You!” shouts back one member of the audience, and he’s absolutely spot on. Grooving straight on down with the simply gorgeous ‘Pleasure Bent’ and the bouncing poignancy of ‘Died in California’, Fatso are more than fitting legends to headline Day1. Lalli is the working man’s rocker through and through – openly announcing on stage that he works “in a music warehouse packing records to send right out to all you guys”. His soft Fedora hat and modest beard give him the air of a 1920s man-about-town and Fatso rock it hard like an old school R&B show in the parched American sun. This is barely even metal music territory, rather it’s quite simply timeless blues played by seasoned pros who don’t need fancy light systems or huge amps to sound fantastic at what they do. Mario and his son Dino Lalli’s solos wail and quiver rather than glow or grind, but the undeniable rhythms are everywhere and the whole room shakes as one to the boogie. The second half of the set shows off some more off-kilter proggy basslines from the band’s third Lalli – Mario’s brother Larry on bass, but it’s the barn-storming performance of drummer Tony Tornay that makes the crowd jump up and down like a band of frogs let loose in a trampoline showroom. The applause for Fatso Jetson and especially Mario as the pastor of the desert at the finale is simply huge and the family band leave the stage completely triumphant.
As I slink off back to my impossibly tiny hotel room for the night I hear rave reviews of Kadavar who played over at the Jazz Café and although it smarts to have not been able to catch the ever-retro German beardos in action, it was too difficult to miss one of the bands who gave a young Josh Homme and John Garcia such solid inspiration back in the early ‘90s. Speaking of Mr Garcia… roll on Day2!
Scribed by: Pete Green
Photos by: Gemma Shaw (www.gloomylightsphotography.co.uk)