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The desert did us dirty at this year’s Serenity Gathering.

With around-the-clock live art and opportunity for exploration in the stunning and stark Joshua Tree landscape, this communal coalescence hailed the spring equinox in proper fashion.

It began for us as we drove up to Big Wild’s soaring sunset set. Dumping our gear, racing to the scene, and stumbling into countless comrades on the way, our bodies melted into a dance floor already packed with the most colorful of characters and warmest of smiles. Fittingly, Desert Dwellers and their team of live performers set the tone for the rest of the weekend on the main stage later that evening, layering thick beats and stacking melodies over the incredible acrobatics and fire spinning taking place on stage. All eyes were transfixed and minds mesmerized. With deep aboriginal and oriental sounds, the Arizona duo gave us a glimpse into the life force of the desert and its many constituent cultures.

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Acroyoga, sound healing, and crafting drew in wanderers seeking sanctuary from the scorching Saturday sun. Beneath several geodesic domes and shade structures, workshops took a fluid approach and were often led by knowledgeable attendees eager to volunteer their talents. Santa Barbara super foods specialist Imlak’esh Organics provided the fuel for the day: a mixture of macca powder, golden berries, cocao nibs, kale, hemp seeds, and cashew clusters.

Oakland local and cousin of Ice Cube, Del the Funky Homosapien exhibited the power of hip hop music as a platform to both galvanize audience energy and deliver stirring messages of change and progress. A featured artist on the Gorillaz hit “Clint Eastwood” and performing it now in a Western setting, Del was able to ditch the mic by its closing chorus; the crowd echoed the hook thunderously.

Over at the Bridge Family stage, TV Broken 3rd Eye Open stretched our horizons with mind bending psychedelic jam music. We were so captivated by this fusion of jazz, funk, and rock elements that we could barely pull ourselves away in time for Shpongle.

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One half of the psychedelic trance meets world music duo, Simon Posford of Shpongle took us on a journey reminiscent of the transformational and disorienting experience at last Summer’s Symbiosis. With viscous bass elements, break beat plot twists, ethereal melodies, and sensuous samples, we surrendered to the experience. To be “shpongled,” we realized, is to be spat from a wormhole of oscillating emotions, sounds, and visions with your synapses sizzling — you’re stuck between craving more and relief.

Although significantly impacted by noise limitations, the late sets were hardly less exciting with several members of TV Broken leading a renegade experimental jam session at a moon-lit tent in the middle of the desert expanse. As stragglers converged at this remote hub, the synergy between the performers’ imaginative musicality and the crowd’s inspired absorption created a wrinkle in time. Maintaining the thread between world music, live performance, and deep electronic production, Govinda’s late night appearance was the perfect decompression from a long day. He sent us twirling through cosmic dreamscapes outlined by his piercing violin.

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Sunday was the Holy Grail. Stacked to the rim with epic performances all day long, we battened down the hatches and secured our belongings as we prepared to lose our collective minds.

The New Moon stage, equipped with an impressive array of Funktion One speakers and set out in the depths of the desert, was firing on all cylinders through sunset. Terrakroma started off early with house and trance so deep we forgot it was only one o’clock in the afternoon. A full force Moontribe takeover was in effect for the next five hours. Caretakers of the monthly Moontribe gathering that takes place in the Mohave desert to celebrate every full moon, Brad, Dela, and Treavor Moontribe blew us away with an afternoon of trance, drum and bass, and techno respectively. With the winds whipping through and feet stirring up clouds of sand and dirt, illusions and daydreams of Burning Man were commonly reported symptoms.

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In need of respite from this restless rager, we returned to camp to prepare for a full night of world-class electronic music. It came as a surprise when we learned we hadn’t missed much in our six-hour venture to the fringes of the festival. World music collective Nahko and Medicine for the People was three hours late in taking the main stage, indicting that Thriftworks, Random Rab, and Emancipator were all majorly delayed as well. This, combined with a lack of communication on the part of the stage crew, fueled an atmosphere of confusion, which endured through most of what was supposed to be a glorious night in California festival history. After Nahko finally took the stage and rounded out a warm but slightly underwhelming performance given the delay, Emancipator was given the last time slot on the main stage for the night (leaving only rumor and speculation about when or where bass music legend Thriftworks would play).

Like the powerful Oregon coast that is so clearly mused in his songs, Emancipator turned the tides and brought us together in what was a perfectly timed highlight of the weekend. The congregation was bursting with expressive dancers and endless connections where effortless transitions between original and sampled material facilitated the flow. Contact dancing — an improv-style of dance performed in contact with a partner — is one of the most magical elements of the transformational festival culture. Barriers among strangers and friends melted away to the warmth of intentional and reciprocal presence.

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Still unable to perform their music at desired levels, the artists proved that they were there for the fans and worked in a collaborative spirit to keep the show running. Random Rab’s heart opening Awoke (2015) was featured heavily in his toned-down set and spread from the stage like a translucent sun sail over the crowd as we mingled and swayed.

As always, Pumpkin (Nick Alvarado) proved the master of the party and was able pick up the energy with unmistakable remixes of Jackson 5, Talking Heads, Bob Darin, and Marvin Gaye. Tragically, this would also be the producer’s last festival performance.*

Thriftworks closed out the night with a show-must-go-on spirit, playing a show at the live stage approximately eight hours after his scheduled set. From smoldering slow burners, to deep trance cuts, to heavy hip hop samples; his was an ode to the glory of west coast bass music. Despite several attempts to close out the set, the energy transpiring from every pore on the dance floor inspired Atlas to maintain the bombardment. He departed just as the near-full moon was setting behind the mountains and the sky was beginning to brighten in anticipation of the new day. The faithful dispersed.

Looking back, Serenity was a whirlwind of emotion and activity, one of the first installments in a summer-long festival circuit manifesting on eve of spring break. We were rusty. We needed to break free from the anxieties and tensions that we carried there with us — residue paralleled by some of the festival’s technical and organizational difficulties. In many ways, these roadblocks were landmarks of the growth that was achieved and the cooperation that was spearheaded by the outstanding dedication of the volunteers and coordinators. Thanks to their outstanding efforts, the patience and flexibility of the artists, and the cooperative attitude of the attendees, setbacks that would have derailed other events were hurdled at and boundaries became as shapeless as the sand.

For this reason, Serenity was one of the most dysfunctionally transformational events that I have had the privilege to attend. When things did not follow as expected, we endured and sought stimulation in places we would not have been inclined to look otherwise. Some of the most powerful moments were the ones least expected. They pushed us to grow and opened doors for more in what is sure to be a paradigm-shifting season of festivals.

Article and photos by Conner Smith

*Nick Alvarado passed away in a car crash on his way to another festival in Texas this past weekend. Several memorials and tributes have already taken place to commemorate the friend he was to all of us, even those whom he didn’t know personally. The soundtrack to some of the most joyous memories of release and love forged and shared in these temporary spaces, he will be immensely missed.

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