Desert Hearts: Festival, Spectacle, or Something Else?

Beaming faces, fantastic tunes, the silliest crowd we’ve ever seen, and some philosophical reflection on the nature of festivals…

This was our time at the Desert Hearts 10-Year Anniversary.

Having just finished a two-month run through Skyline, CRSSD, (a 25-hour Fabric show,) Yoon, and two weekends of Coachella, I left Desert Hearts feeling…restored? Rejuvenated, somehow? Like I’d just experienced something entirely new and yet in no way felt as ragged as I should after going to objectively too many festivals in 60 days?

CRSSD Spring 2022

Weird. How can I be this sleep-deprived and yet still so energized after doing ~the same old thing~ once again?

Well, because as it turns out, they’re really not the same thing at all despite the “festival” label that they share. Desert Hearts made it clear that some sort of distinction is needed, that something gets lost at some point on the way to 100,000. Because the ceaseless cohesion and connection that we experienced at this gathering of 6,000 could simply never be replicated at the spectacles of Indio or Golden Gate. How could they be in the same category?

Sure, you can find pockets of community sprinkled through the Lands End crowd, or you might come close when an afternoon act sets fire to the Gobi (shoutout L’Imperatrice!), but these are fleeting parts of the whole.

When the crowd is built on a shared ethos and history rather than just a name in a time slot, the whole flows so much better. The Desert Hearts dance floor provides all the safety and comfort of your living room, surrounded by your craziest cousins, sisters, and brothers, and in their home they are F R E E .

DH founder Lee Reynolds leading the charge – (Desert Hearts 2022, by Keiki-Lani Knudsen)

Never before have I seen a crowd so committed to not only getting down, but to getting silly. Everywhere you look, there’s a new self-contained performance or group running a bit: a mobile VIP dance square with its own wristbands and bouncers; hopper ball dancers (who will use their feet under no circumstances); a lone fisherman, meditatively casting & reeling in a fake fish from Lake Perris; group costumes to the nines complete with props and squeaky toys; rave babies named Carlos and stuffed horses named Kevin.

Eustice, not to be confused with Carlos (Desert Hearts 2022, by Kacie Dorame)

No one is there to bE sEeN or relentlessly strike poses for IG, or to be too cool or too industry to dance. And god damn can these people dance! 

Have you ever looked out at a festival crowd and realized that every single person in it is absolutely rocking? And then watched as that synchrony continues not just for a song, or for a set, but for 72 hours straight?

It’s a beautiful sight to behold.

Justin Martin sunrise set (Desert Hearts 2022, by Brian Ngo)

Possibly the best example of this, and our moment of the weekend, was Justin Martin’s surprise set. As the sun rose over Lake Perris on a clear and mild morning, the first ever special guest at Desert Hearts’ new home delivered a master class. He played classics, he played ID’s, he played his heart out as it quickly became clear that Justin Martin was the happiest person there. With a beaming captain behind the decks, a full dancefloor rocked, bounced, and got silly together through 8 AM like only DH can.

*chef’s kiss*

So Desert Hearts is different. Definitely from the mega-spectacles like Coachella or Lolla, with their infinite budgets and endless reach; but from the festivals, too, I think. 

“Festival”…after this it feels too impersonal, too widely overused to describe any general amalgamation of cultural pieces. Music next to art next to food and some people with drinks in between. Maybe with a recurring theme or niche subgenre that forms a throughline of loosely shared interests among the audience.

The magic of DH is that it’s created its own entirely unique identity, becoming a living, breathing representation of its community. They set out to build a family and a home for self-expression, and over the past 10 years have been so successful that comparing them to one of those other events you go to on weekends would be a waste of time. It truly is “One Stage, One Vibe,” One Body.

So next year, when the time comes, we won’t say that “we’re going to a festival this weekend.”

We’ll just say, “We’re going to Desert Hearts.” Period.

Desert Hearts 2022, by Juliana Bernstein

*Featured image by Brian Ngo