Has the doom and stoner scene ever been in ruder health? Possibly not, judging from the quality of acts on show at the sixth edition of the London Desertfest. The three-day festival, held across a number of venues across Camden Town has riff-mongers of all shapes, sizes, and styles doing their best to shake the capital apart.
Opening proceedings at the Electric Ballroom is Pontiak. A nice way to ease into a long weekend, the three Virginia brothers play a nice, chilled brand of summery shoe-gaze rock, it’s a good way to warm up the fans for heavier things to come.
Over at the Underworld, it’s a toss-up between Blind River and Vodun for surprise package of the weekend. Playing in place of Death Alley, Blind River are a new UK southern rock/metal group featuring Harry Armstrong from the Earls of Mars on vocals as well as members of Pig Iron and Godsized. There’s plenty of classic 70s rock with bite on offer, and it’s all played with real energy and plenty of smiles on stage. Considering the band had no music online at that point, the band receive a rowdy reception from the crowd.
Vodun, meanwhile, are probably the most unusual group of the weekend. A frantic mix billed as a mix of psych, stoner, and Afro beats, it’s a messy yet beautiful spectacle. More wild and unwieldly live than on record, it’s hectic, barely coherent, but great. Vocalist Oya croons soulfully one second, but isn’t afraid to scream the roof down. The aesthetics – somewhere between tribal warpaint and the cover for David Lee Roth’s Eat ’Em and Smile – only add to the mix, while setting the cymbals on fire for the final song is a nice touch. The heaving crowd lap it up, with a mix of awe and confusion.
Meanwhile, Bask and Stoned Jesus seem tame by comparison. Neither are bad; both have some big riffs, and Stoned Jesus know how to blast off into some cosmic spacy jams. But neither get the blood pumping in the same way. Lowrider, despite their long absence also fail to get the juices going at the Ballroom. The Swedish stoners are clearly pleased to be here, and know how to get the crowd going, but the lack of originality that saw Dom Lawson label them the ‘Most Convincing Kyuss Clones’ hasn’t changed much in the intervening years. Good, but not great. Steak, however, are a good prospect live back at the Underworld. Frontman Kippa comes over like a cross between John Garcia and Eddie Vedder, and their simple but beefy (pun completely intended) take on rock is incredibly satisfying.
Speaking on John Garcia, probably the most anticipated – yet under-reported – set for the whole weekend was the return on Slo Burn. The first post-Kyuss project of frontman John Garcia only lasted a couple of years and put out just one EP, was labeled a mistake by Garcia himself while Josh Homme labeled them “lame”. But it’s hard to argue with the music; Amusing the Amazing [Malicious Vinyl] is some of Garcia’s best work in or out of Kyuss, continuing the desert rock blueprint but adding a harder edge.
All of the extended Amusing… EP makes an outing, plus a couple of new or previously unheard old numbers, which are slower and heavier than all the previously released material. The Ballroom is packed to the rafters, the mosh pit is massive, and the crowd sing along to every word. For the fans, this feels like something special; a chance to finally see a band central to 90s stoner rock live. Garcia, however, plays it cool, while the band are just happy to play their instruments. It doesn’t matter though, because ‘Pilot the Dune’ live was awesome.
Possibly one of the best individual days in Desertfest history.
Any cobwebs left over from the night before are blown away quickly by the slowly crushing jams of Brume. Their crushing, somnolent riffs are borderline eardrum-bursting, and frontwoman Susie – looking like an extra from a Tim Burton-styled period drama – gives an intense performance.
Although you wouldn’t guess it, California rockers Avon are named after the location rather than the Queens of the Stone Age track. Especially since they actually include it in their set list. And sound an awful lot like QOTSA. It’s all pretty uneventful.
Black Spiders, however, know how to rock. The stoner scene’s/UK’s answer to AC/DC? High octane rock and roll, played with real gusto, and a tongue solidly in cheek throughout? Sounds like a winner. Despite – or perhaps because – the band announced that they are going on ‘indefinite hiatus’, everyone on stage look like they’re giving it their all, and the audience responds in kind. Guitarists throw all kinds shapes, the audience are goaded to clap along at every given opportunity. And after frontman Pete ‘Spider’ Spiby reaffirms that this is the last time they’ll ever play in London, he insists the crowd bid adieu by shouting “Fuck off Black Spiders” over and over.
For the second time this festival, John Garcia takes to the stage. This time, however, he’s with his solo band rather than his Slo Burn cohorts. Garcia is rightly put on a pedestal by the fans; Desertfest would almost certainly be called something else if it wasn’t for him and his Kyuss bandmates, and who else can boast such a high-quality 1-2-3 like ‘Thumb’, ‘El Rodeo’ and ‘Green Machine’ from their back catalogue?
With a reunion still looking unlikely to materialise, Garcia is still the only place to hear those classics plus the likes of ‘Gardenia’. There’s some space for Hermano tracks plus some new solo material. Compared to his relatively subdued performance the night before, here he seems more at ease and like he’s having fun. Obviously, the fans go nuts every time the classics come out.
Tonight marks the first return of Norwegian punk rockers Turbonegro to London in five years. The band might be a little at odds with the majority of the rest of the line-up – and a million miles away from the likes of Sleep – but they know how to put on a good party. Much of the crowd from John Garcia clears out at this point, but there’s still plenty of sailor hats and ‘Turbojugend’ jackets on show.
Vocalist Tony Sylvester (AKA The Duke Of Nothing), sporting what are probably the shortest denim shorts this side of a Bon Scott performance, is a born showman. The rest of the band are just his play things with he can simulate oral sex on. Between infectiously fun numbers like ‘All My Friends are Dead’ and ‘Blow Me (Like the Wind)’ there are keyboard medleys featuring George Michael, AC/DC, and House of Pain. Good fun, even if it’s not the kind of music you expect from this weekend.
Finishing the night at the small and sweaty Devonshire Arms are Canadian outfit Cron Goblin. Their swampy, psychedelic boogie – not a million miles away from Orange Goblin – is just about right as a final tipple before bed.
WORDS BY DAN SWINHOE
PHOTOS BY FALK-HAGEN BERNSHAUSEN (with permission from Desertfest)