Things Learned At: Desertfest London

With return performances from Sleep and Slo Burn and a commanding turn by Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs, Brian Coney selects the highlights from the sixth outing of London's premier riff cotillion (Photographs by Thania Rates and Falk Hagen)

Look far and wide forevermore and you’ll struggle to find a festival as thoroughly agreeable – and downright accomplished – as Desertfest. Taking place across six varyingly-sized Camden venues over one impossibly heavy weekend, this year’s sixth outing once more presents an eclectic, generation-spanning mélange of acts from the worlds of sludge, doom, stoner rock and psych.

Matt Baty might be the best frontman alive.

If there were an accolade for one person who gave it their all it would surely go to the mighty Matt Baty. As well as delivering a masterfully possessed performance covering for Neil Francis of Terminal Cheesecake at the Quietus stage on Friday night (and what a throttling set it is) he channels outright elemental fury fronting Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs on Sunday evening – not so much face-melting as face seared right off the skull, dripping puddles of sheer satisfaction on the Underworld floor. Best frontman alive? He must be right up there, surely.

Mutual respect reigns supreme.

It doesn’t take first-timers very long to recognise that Desertfest is one of those festivals that doesn’t exactly tempt your average assclown. This year is no exception to that golden rule: at every venue, on every day, we find ourselves surrounded by people united by the sheer love of the low-end and a mutual respect that can sometimes be lost at less niche, much larger music festivals. Better still, that sense of communal decency extended to across-the-board gender equality, from strong female representation on the bill, gender-neutral bathrooms and countless fleeting instances where not being a dick reigns supreme.

The Quietus stage was a revelation.

The jewel in Desertfest’s glistening crown is not confining itself when it comes to the vast pantheon of heavydom. And whilst this writer may well hold some small bias, the Quietus Stage at the relatively intimate Black Heart on Friday night presents an excess of extreme sounds from acts pushing the boundaries into uniquely pulverising territories. From Newcastle-Upon-Tyne’s finest Khünnt delivering one of the weekend’s most compelling performances to Zombi’s closing masterclass proving a flawless alternative to Slo Burn over at the Electric Ballroom, it made for a perfectly punishing celebration of some of our favourite acts. On which note: don’t ever pass up an opportunity to catch Khünnt.

The guy in the red jacket handing out flyers across from the Electric Ballroom just needs to stop.

If you know you know. That weird, aimless little waltz he does towards puzzled passers-by. I shiver just thinking about it.

Sleep remain totally untouchable.

As much as many had mentally prepared for something special, no one could have anticipated just how emphatic Sleep are when closing out the Sunday night at the Roundhouse. From opener ‘Holy Mountain’ to the closing half-hour assault of ‘From Beyond/Cultivator/Improved Morris’ AKA the end section of Dopesmoker, we are treated to a performance of borderline mythical proportions. Louder, heavier and more gratifying than any other act on the bill, Matt Pike, Al Cisneros and the powerhouse that is Jason Roeder tear it up and then some. It’s so fucking good, in fact, that I’m more than happy to proclaim the profoundly unutterable: it is the best show I have ever seen.

John Garcia is probably God.

Flanked by Matt Baty and Matt Pike in the fabled stakes, John Garcia does not fail to deliver the goods heading the long-awaited return of Slo Burn on Friday night. Better still, the John Garcia Band on Saturday sees the seminal vocalist nail a set bursting at the seams with several Kyuss classics including ‘Whitewater’, ‘Gardenia’ and the genre-defining ‘Green Machine’. It’s a hugely cathartic – evidently rather emotional – experience for those who didn’t get a chance to catch his old outfit first time around.

Wear suitable footwear, kids.

Not to be Oldman Mc Complainy here (I’m 29 – honest) but my feet are fucking killing me. Whilst the festival’s six venues are within a very walkable proximity, I almost find myself Googling “local pedicurists” a couple of times mid-festivity. As you’ll find yourself constantly zig-zagging across Camden Town to catch as many acts as possible, here’s one resounding piece of advice worth heeding if you’re hoping to attend next year (which you really should): wear trainers. Your hooves will thank you.

A lot can be learned from Desertfest.

As we all know, many established festivals start off with the very best of intentions before yielding to soul-sucking expansion and shite corporate sponsors. But it truly seems that Desertfest are resisting the urge to follow anything close to a path that would diminish its deliberately close-knit and affordable model. From organisers blending in with the fans to its cast of boundlessly decent bar staff, sound techs and stewards, Desertfest commands that sweet spot between world-beatingly impressive and self-effacing. Whilst things could change, one gets the impression it’s a festival that will stay true to its manifesto. If you’ve ever flirted with the idea of snapping up a ticket and throwing yourself into the haze but held off, make sure to do so next year – just in case.

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