Three years ago, I took a music-themed trip to the California desert with my photographer friend Gaston Lacombe. We savored desert sunrises, enjoyed live music, talked to artists and befriended locals. And here’s the catch: We weren’t at Coachella.
The first Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival took place one weekend 20 years ago at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, Calif., 25 miles east of Palm Springs. The event has become so wildly successful that it expanded to two weekends in 2012 and spawned another festival, Stagecoach, in 2007. This year, Coachella will be held April 12-14 and April 19-21 (Stagecoach is April 26-28). But it’s not for music fans who favor small performances or who travel on a budget. If you managed to snag a weekend pass before they sold out in January, you’re out $429; if you sprang for a teepee and passes for two, you coughed up $2,458. For the rest of us — who take pleasure in exploring the periphery of big events and treasure intimate settings, there’s the High Desert.
Starting at Palm Springs, a resort city sprinkled with white light-encircled palm trees, Gaston and I drove about one hour (30 miles) north and straight into the mountains of the Mojave Desert. We first hit the town of Yucca Valley and explored from there: Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms and Wonder Valley to the east; Pioneertown and Landers to the north. The towns are dusty, Joshua trees look like they’ve escaped from a Dr. Seuss book, and the locals include scorpions and tumbleweeds. But an eclectic, bohemian and welcoming community of artists is drawn to the fragile terrain, wide vistas and tranquility, and has forged a good life in this giant sandbox.
Scott Wexton, a Detroit transplant and former touring musician who opened the record and comic book shop HooDoo in 2011 (where I bought an International Submarine Band album in white vinyl), recently told me that the variety of music in the High Desert — a.k.a. the Hi Desert, which includes the higher-elevation areas of the Mojave — has changed. “Ten to 15 years ago, it was fairly singular — largely Americana,” he said. “Now there’s a whole lot more. For a desert community, there’s a lot going on.”
Musicians in genres as diverse as blues and deathrock, punk and electropop have gravitated to the area, which also draws big-name entertainers who come to clear their heads, recharge their batteries and find inspiration and solace.
“In earlier years, Joshua Tree was a little more of an outpost, a little more adventurous,” said Ted Quinn, a leader in the arts community who moved to the High Desert in the 1990s and has hosted open-mic nights for 18 years at a variety of local venues. “Now, it’s better known, and there’s art and music here every night.”
When Gaston and I visited, we were working on an assignment about Gram Parsons, who founded the International Submarine Band and was known for blending rock, country and blues — what he then called cosmic American music and we now call alternative country. Parsons briefly joined the Byrds, formed the Flying Burrito Brothers and often visited Joshua Tree National Park, then a national monument with unpaved roads. In 1973, at the age of 26, Parsons died of a drug overdose in Room No. 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn, and his friends stole his body and partially cremated it in the park, near Cap Rock. His connection to Joshua Tree still draws visitors from all over the world.
Our first night, we checked into the inn, next to Parsons’s room, and hit open-mic night at Pappy & Harriet’s, a biker bar turned international indie music destination. New Yorkers Robyn Celia and Linda Krantz bought Pappy’s in 2003 and have booked artists such as Lucinda Williams, Kurt Vile, Cat Power, Sean Lennon and Rufus Wainwright, with occasional superstar surprise guests such as Paul McCartney and Robert Plant. Located about a half-hour away from Joshua Tree in Pioneertown (a faded strip of frontier-era facades built by Hollywood investors in the ’40s — and not much else), the bar has an outdoor arena and smaller indoor stage. Dinner reservations fill up weeks in advance, and even Monday open-mic nights are standing room only.
“People drive up this mountain road in the middle of nowhere and it’s a two-hour wait [for a dinner table], and they’re like, “What?” said Celia. On Pappy’s voice mail, she warns callers, “I’ve got to be upfront with you guys. The wait can be kind of ridiculous.”
Since 2012, the bar has also hosted Coachella side shows — performances by Coachella artists held at smaller regional venues between festival weekends. Tickets are usually released in mid-February and sell out quickly.
Palms Restaurant, a desert roadhouse in Wonder Valley, is even farther from civilization than Pappy’s. It’s known for its free-spirit vibe and avant-garde performances — such as Wonder Valley Experimental (March 30), a festival of experimental music; imagine pots and pans and concrete mixers as instruments.
“We get a mix of locals, tourists and people driving through on the way to Vegas,” said Kevin Bone, who books talent for the Palms and planned the Hi-Desert Hukilau Music Festival, April 19 and 20, to coincide with the second weekend of Coachella; the lineup includes Victoria Williams, Ben Vaughn and Rosa Pullman. “If you think about Burning Man, some people are willing to drive all the way out to the desert,” Bone said. “Those are the people who prefer that we’re in the middle of nowhere, prefer to see music under the stars.” He said patrons also like the free camping for festivals available on the Palms grounds and Sunday brunch with $2 Bloody Marys.
In Joshua Tree, Quinn hosts a popular open mic every Tuesday at the Joshua Tree Saloon, and a local songwriter-poet known as Rags and Bones plays a lunch set there Mondays and Fridays. Across the street, Pie for the People makes pizzas called the David Bowie and the Barry White. Joshua Tree Art Walk, on the second Saturday of the month, includes music at venues such as the Beatnik Lounge, Taylor Junction and Zannedelions, and Harrison House is a residency and performance space based in the late composer Lou Harrison’s straw bale desert retreat.
Landers Brew Co., about 16 miles north of Joshua Tree, is what singer-songwriter Joe City Garcia calls “one of the last real desert bars.” Located up a dirt road from the community of Landers, the bar (not a brewery) hosts Garcia’s Urban Desert Cabaret — a well-attended “residency” that features songwriters and composers — every Saturday.
The High Desert has a number of underground music venues such as Furstwurld, artist and collector Bobby Furst’s Quonset hut performance space. Ask around when you get to town, and a local will probably point you in the right direction. Do the same to find out about word-of-mouth house concerts and “generator parties,” so called because, as one local explained, “You plug into a generator in the middle of the desert and play music.”
The quintessential off-the-grid spot for musicians is the park itself. Parsons is largely credited with drawing some early singer-songwriters there, and since then, many artists have made pilgrimages to compose lyrics, play music and shoot album covers and videos. (Although the cover for U2’s 1987 album “The Joshua Tree” was shot elsewhere in the Mojave Desert.) “Here, it’s wide open,” Quinn told me. “It’s more conducive to hearing your own muse.”
Sometimes, the desert even offers music of its own. Gaston and I camped at the park our final night, next to a group of performers from Alberta, Canada. Burrowed into sleeping bags, we fell asleep to the folk music they were playing around the campfire. The shrill yips of a coyote roused me during the night. I woke to a pink sunrise and silence.
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29 Palms Inn
73950 Inn Ave., Twentynine Palms
Eclectic, family-owned property with live music nightly. Most rooms are 1930s adobe bungalows; rates include breakfast and yoga classes. Rooms from $150.
74744 Joe Davis Dr.,
Sister property to 29 Palms. Historic 12-room stone inn with small spa, with services like Reiki and energy-balancing. Breakfast served in dining room. Rooms from $175.
Joshua Tree Inn
61259 Twentynine Palms Hwy., Joshua Tree
Eleven-room inn is epicenter of Gram Parsons homage; his room No. 8 is often booked months in advance. Rooms from $115.
High Desert Motel
61310 Twentynine Palms Hwy., Joshua Tree
Across from Joshua Tree Saloon and next to Pie for the People. Rooms from $58 weekdays, $72 weekends.
Call ahead or check online for updated schedules. In addition to those listed below, the Joshua Tree area has underground venues in homes and other settings; ask a local for details. You can find more venues and a list of upcoming events in the online version of this article at washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/travel.
Pappy & Harriet’s: Pioneertown’s legendary biker bar and grill turned indie rock destination. Live music nightly (closed Tuesday and Wednesday), including open mic on Monday. Check the phone recording for event schedules
(760-365-5956). Shows are general admission and some have a cover charge; tickets don’t include a table for dinner (and vice-versa). Pappy’s expects to host Coachella and Stagecoach side shows, which sell out within days. pappyandharriets.com
Palms Restaurant: Desert roadhouse in Wonder Valley, an unincorporated area of Twentynine Palms. The Palms has an indoor and outdoor stage with free camping on the grounds for festivals. Friday open mic, 7 p.m., hosted by Grey Hill. April 13: San Francisco accordionist and performance artist Skyler Fell and Oregon Western-inspired folk duo Intuitive Compass, 7 p.m., cover TBD. facebook.com/palmswondervalley/
Joshua Tree Saloon: Watering hole and burger joint. Free live music most days. Monday and Friday: Local songwriter-poet Rags Rosenberg, a.k.a. Rags and Bones, plays a lunch set, 1 to 3 p.m.; Tuesday: Ted Quinn hosts open mic and jam session, 7 p.m.; Wednesday and Friday: karaoke, 7 p.m. Most weekends, the saloon hosts an outdoor yard party with live music and barbecue. Taco specials every Tuesday and Thursday. joshuatreesaloon.com
Harrison House Music, Arts & Ecology: A residency and performance space near Joshua Tree National Park, based in the late composer Lou Harrison’s straw bale desert retreat. Solo cellist Eric Byers performs March 13, 7 p.m., $20. louharrisonhouse.org
Landers Brew Co.: Bar (not a brewery, despite the name) in an old roadhouse in Landers, 16 miles north of Joshua Tree. Indoor and outdoor live music including soulful singer-songwriter Joe City Garcia’s Urban Desert Cabaret, a Saturday night residency. The weekly “UDC Rez” features visiting guest songwriters and composers, 8 p.m., free. Guests include Gabriel Hart, Megan Hutch (April 6), Rosa Pullman, Rags and Bones (April 13), Robert Garson (April 20) and Amilia K. Spicer, Kaz Murphy (April 27). urbandesertcabaret.com or facebook.com/landersbrew/
Furstwurld: Bobby Furst’s private art and performance compound just outside Joshua Tree National Park. Giant, steel Quonset hut-shaped, 60-seat theater with balcony seating. Hosts dozens of events a year, including music, performance art, film and poetry. April 6: Hammer of the Ozz, a Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath tribute band. April 13: Trees Speak, an experimental rock band and sound laboratory. Doors at 8 p.m., suggested donation $10 to $20. Email Furst at email@example.com.
Beatnik Lounge: Art and community space in Joshua Tree. Wednesday open mic, 7 p.m., hosted by songwriter Loren Downer (except the first Wednesday of every month, when the lounge serves a free vegan meal). April 18, catch a 12-piece local youth band jam at 4 p.m. “Teddy Talks” is a monthly Saturday series with local speakers; April 20, Ted Quinn and Victoria Williams will discuss the music scene in the High Desert. facebook.com/BeatnikLounge/
Frontier Cafe: Coffee shop and cafe in Yucca Valley, live music every Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday is open mic night at 7 p.m., hosted by songwriter Nigel Roman. “Skin” is a monthly Friday performance art and music series. cafefrontier.com
Gadi’s Bar & Grill: Live music venue with a large dance floor and outdoor patio in Yucca Valley. Karaoke on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 7 p.m.; live music every weekend. facebook.com/gadisbarandgrill/
29 Palms Inn: Historic inn with nightly live music at the poolside restaurant (open to non-guests), 6-9 p.m. Restaurant serves fresh-baked sourdough and produce from the innkeeper’s organic garden. Monthly music schedule posted at 29palmsinn.com/blog.php.
March 30: Wonder Valley Experimental 11, experimental music festival at the Palms Restaurant in Wonder Valley, 5 p.m. Lineup includes 21 performers (such as Nitro Donkey, The Brutal Poodle, Skunk Puppet), 20-minute sets. Free entrance and free camping the night of the event. http://phogmasheeen.blogspot.com/p/wonder-valley-experimental-festival.html
Incantations: A Sound Art Gathering is an annual Mojave Sound Art event inspired by Wonder Valley Experimental, also at the Palms that weekend, free. mojavesoundart.com
April 13: Joshua Tree Art Walk, held the second Saturday of each month, features monthly gallery art openings and live music. Venues include Beatnik Lounge, Taylor Junction and Zannedelions. joshuatree.guide/art-galleries
April 19-20: Hi-Desert Hukilau Music Festival represents the diversity of music found in the Joshua Tree area. Two stages of live music at Palms Restaurant in Wonder Valley, with outdoor barbecue and piña coladas. Lineup includes Victoria Williams, Ben Vaughn, Rosa Pullman, Sticky Doll, Hammer of the Ozz. Tickets $12 Friday (5 p.m. – midnight), $15 Saturday (4 p.m. – midnight); or $25 for both days. All tickets include free camping.
April 20: Earth Day Fair at the Hi-Desert Nature Museum in the Yucca Valley Community Center Complex, live music (bluegrass from Shadow Mountain and sacred/spiritual music from Amritakripa), 9 a.m. – 2 p.m., free. hidesertnaturemuseum.org/
April 27: Deathwave Fest, a deathrock goth, post-punk, darkwave music festival with 13 acts, including Gitane DeMone, formerly of Christian Death, Peg Leg Love, Blood Candy and local HooDoo record and comic shop owner Scott Wexton, a.k.a. the Voodoo Organist. Exact location in Pioneertown will be announced 48 hours before the event. 2 – 11:30 p.m., $20. deathwaverecords.com
May 4: Gumbo & Jam with Big Black and Friends, an evening of soul food and music at Harrison House Music, Arts & Ecology. Singer-songwriter-drummer Big Black will perform original songs, jamming with other musicians, and his gumbo will be served between sets. 6 p.m., $40, includes performance and dinner.
May 3-5: All Summer’s Eve Desert Rendezvous, a rock festival on multiple stages at the Palms Restaurant in Wonder Valley, starting at 3 p.m. both days. Ticket price TBD.
May 10-11: High Desert Soundings, experimental music festival at Palms Restaurant in Wonder Valley, starting at sunset both nights; $60 for the weekend, including camping ($40 for students). highdesertsoundings.us
May 9-13: Shakti Fest, celebrating yoga, Kirtan (sacred music), and meditation. Sacred music artist lineup includes MC Yogi, Saul David Raye, Amritakripa, Krishna’s Kirtan and Girish. At Joshua Tree Lake RV Park and Campground. Tickets for full festival $225 until Feb. 15, $150 for students, seniors and locals. bhaktifest.com/shaktifest/
May 16-19: Joshua Tree Music Festival, family-friendly, biannual festival (held every May and October) with a diverse lineup on two stages, showcasing up-and-coming artists (previous performers include the Avett Brothers, Trombone Shorty). At Joshua Tree Lake RV and Campground. Four-day pass, $190; single-day pass, $50-$90. joshuatreemusicfestival.com/