Desert Rocks began around a campfire six years ago. One hundred and fifty patrons, artists and musicians congregated near Moab under the banner of unadulterated self-expression.
According to John Ripley, co-founder of Desert Rocks, they didn’t start the festival to get rich or for notoriety. They did it to create a homegrown place to express themselves in a community of creative individuals and have fun.
Since then, the campfire has expanded rapidly. This year, an estimated 4,000 patrons, artists and musicians will be in attendance.
Several national touring acts are headlining the 2011 festival, including the steampunk/gypsy crew The MarchFourth Marching Band and jazzy hip-hop duo People Under the Stairs. But the entertainment isn’t limited to the two main stages. There is also the Sol Lun—a solar-powered saloon—with the Solar Saucer, a solar-powered DJ station, parked outside. Here, DJs will be spinning around the clock. There is a collective spirit of creativity extending throughout the campgrounds on the festival grounds where patrons walk around in costumes or on stilts, in some cases juggling fire, and in others dancing on art cars.
Attendees have a great sense of community and sharing. “Those who are up lift those who are down,” Ripley explains, “until the group happiness level rises well beyond that of everyday life.”
MarchFourth Marching Band (M4) should feel right at home in this crowd. M4 is a 20-person music and performance-art ensemble that takes self-expression to a new level. The band includes multiple horn players, drummers, an electric bassist, burlesque dancers, trapeze artists, unicyclists, fire dancers, acrobats on stilts and more.
Like Desert Rocks, M4 had its genesis around a campfire with like-minded people who wanted to express themselves, although their campfire was at Burning Man, and the like-minded people ultimately became very influential in modern music.
John Averill, bassist and bandleader of M4, reminisces fondly about those days.
“I used to run a theme camp at Burning Man in ’99-’00,” Averill explains, “back when Burning Man still felt kind of young and new.” Averill’s camp consisted of music and a variety show similar to what you might find at a circus—if the circus were in a Mad Max movie. “A group of people met each other during those years,” he says. “They were people who eventually became the Yard Dogs, Beats Antique, Bassnectar and MarchFourth.”
Averill and friends stretched the boundaries of musical and artistic expression, and unlikely musical and performance combinations were forged. Soon, there was an ever-growing group of people dedicated to combining things like burlesque with rock music, acrobatics with stilt dancing, musical theater with pole dancing, or circus sideshows with house music.
“What blows my mind,” Averill explains, “is that 10 years ago, we’d go out to the woods and camp with some really cool people. We’d make music by the fire and go our separate ways.” He never expected this hobby to become an occupation. “It’s fascinating that a lot of these people were really super-talented and now we’re all working really hard to chase this dream.”
Now, they’re selling out shows across the country. “At its core essence,” Averill says, “it really all came out of having a good time and just throwing a party.”
Desert Rocks and MarchFourth are akin in that they both exist solely for the experience and self-expression. This Memorial Day weekend, MarchFourth will be at the Desert Rocks’ campfire. What will happen when these two tremendous entities from humble beginning join forces is anyone’s guess.
One thing is certain, though, according to Ripley: “It cannot be described, only experienced.”
Desert Rocks Music Festival
Off of Highway 191, between mile markers 112 and 113
Weekend pass $115