The third annual Fort Desolation Fest was a destination festival, as promised. The event kicked off on June 8, and provided a perfect blend of awe-inspiring landscapes and fantastic music. Festival goers like me, could spend three days exploring the Capitol Reef National Park area and three nights kicking up the red dirt to the sounds of an incredible lineup of musical artists at Cougar Ridge Resort in Torrey.
The music started in the late afternoon with two active stages, the Progressive Stage where artists warmed up the crowd between headliners, and the main stage where the marque acts played. The music carried late into the night on a third “after-hours” stage that welcomed surprise guest performers for an intimate jam in the campsite area.
The organizers put together a 20-act program with a spectacular cast of performers from across the musical spectrum. No matter your musical taste, the festival had something for everyone. Here’s a rundown of my magical moments.
Best of the 2023 Fort Desolation Fest
This folk duo’s majestic harmonies radiated off the red rocks for a visual and auditory experience that left me feeling a deep, hypnotic bliss. Backed by a full band, their beautifully synchronous voices blended into10 finespun songs that left me wanting more. They opened with “Crazy World (Judgement Day),” a chilling song, reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel, but with a modernized, western flair. The kismet between music and landscape continued with “Young Man,” the title track from their latest album. Then it was time to kick-up some dust with “Revival,” and move into full hoedown mode, especially when Dan Reckard temporarily abandoned his piano for a sax solo. Stoking the crowd’s energy, Zack Chance and Jonathan Clay led us in a singalong with “California (Cast Iron Soul)” before transitioning to a soulful “Midnight Hour.” They finished with “Prospector’s Blues” from their 2021 EP Fireside With Louis L’Amour-A Collection of Songs Inspired By Tales From The American West.
Fun fact: Jamestown Revival’s first album, Utah, was recorded in a cabin in the Wasatch Mountains in 2014.
As I expected, this Indiana-based alternative rock and blues band delivered a high energy performance. They opened with “Las Vegas” and alternated nicely between fan favorites and deeper cuts. With a repertoire of catchy, easy to sing along tunes like “Honey Slider” and “Darlin,’” Houndmouth are the perfect festival band (of course they are pretty awesome indoors too). Fans of the show Succession may relate to the song, “Cousin Greg.” No, not that cousin Greg. Houndmouth wrote the song long before the series aired, but a fun coincidence (and good timing for the band), nonetheless. I also enjoyed “For No One” and “Comin’ Round Again.” They ended their awesome set with “Sedona” and the crowd joined in with the chorus “I remember, I remember when the neon used to burn so bright and pink. A Saturday night kind of pink.” Indeed, and it was only Friday.
I wondered if Morgan Wade, one of country music’s fastest rising stars, with plenty of twang in her voice, and backed by a major record label would be “cookie-cutter country.” Nope! She’s a different kind of country–Gen Z raw and certainly devoid of vapid and formulaic, country-kitsch. Her body art and grit put that stereotype to rest. Her songs touch upon struggles with depression and unmet expectations. She embodies the edginess of Miley Cyrus, but in a more authentic way and without the buckets of Hannah Montana money to fall back on. In fact, she sang Cyrus’s “Bad Karma” and it felt at home in her setlist.
She radiated with rebelliousness and irony in her Kiss concert t-shirt, camouflage pants and strumming a pink acoustic guitar. Her country twang, at times, seemed paradoxical to her dark, introspective ballads. On “The Night (Part 2)” she sang with a hip-hop inflection. She rocked it out with “Mend” and the wonderfully melodic “Take Me Away.” She electrified her performance both in guitar and tempo when she jumped in her time machine and started strumming a familiar tune with the opening line “Josie’s on a vacation far away.” She rocked out The Outfield’s 1986 hit “Your Love” and then blended it with Rick Springfield’s 1980 hit “Jesse’s Girl.” It was a beautiful, retro moment. Those songs somehow felt authentically hers despite the fact they hit the airwaves a decade and a half before she was born. She gave both tunes, with similar chord progressions, a new life. She should record and release them for a new generation. She finished up with her Billboard Hot Country Top 40 hit “Wilder Days.” I see nothing but blue sky and open roads ahead for this innovative new country artist.
Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals
Harper added the exclamation point on the festival as the final headliner. The multi-Grammy winner and genre-blender guided listeners on a journey through rock, blues, and soul gospel–sometimes within a single song. Opening with an acapella “Below Sea Level,” he then rose to what some have called his James Taylor-meets-Bob Marley moment with “Burn One Down,” his pro-marijuana anthem. From the occasional whiff of skunky herb in the night air, the song seemed to resonate with the crowd. Next, Harper took us from reggae to rock with “Glory and Consequences,” a ‘90s REM-styled jam, carrying the audience on a magic carpet ride. “Steal My Kisses” featured Innocent Criminal percussionist, Leon Mobley who switched between the back-of-the-stage bongo to the upfront beatbox (cajon) solo. Harper delivered an innovative and psychedelic, blues soliloquy with his lap steel guitar like he was channeling Jimi Hendrix. I didn’t think the instrument could do that!
Harper blended rock and soul on an amazing rendition of “Diamonds On The Inside.” Then he slowed the tempo for an unexpected cover of Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” that reminded me more of the Eddie Berman version, a slower, folkier cover of the Boss’s anthem. Either way, he nailed it. Our musical journey ended with some retro funk and soul on “Mama’s Trippin’.”
Pixie and The Partygrass Boys closed out the Ogden Music Festival on the prior Sunday and opened this festival on the following Thursday. Pitching on three days’ rest (I can’t resist a baseball metaphor), they brought their A-game to Torrey.
Other main stage openers, Parker Millsap and The Brothers Comatose, brought great energy and set the pace for their prospective nights. Pixie and The Partygrass Boys and The Brothers Comatose also did double-duty and jammed on the after-hours stage.
Between main stage set-ups, a troupe of performers played on the smaller, Progressive Skee Ball stage (Yes, Skee Ball). Set up on vendor’s row, the stage folded out of an airstream trailer, adorned with the familiar insurance company spokeswoman, Flo looking down on the action and a SkeeBall arcade where festival goers could win Progressive branded t-shirts and other swag. Despite the carnivalesque setup, the stage featured exceptional Utah artists. The standouts included Lee Rafugee, J Rad Cooley, The Medicine Company, and Paul Jacobsen (all Salt Lake City based). Ogden’s Cherry Thomas played a fine set too. The Medicine Company are hosting an album release show at The State Room on August 4th and Cherry Thomas will join them. I’m looking forward to hearing a longer set from these fine local artists.
I appreciated the amount of local talent the festival organizers featured this year. Maybe next year they could invite some area breweries, like Moab, Silver Reef Brewing, or Zion Brewery to join the party. I’d love to sample some of Southern Utah’s craft beers next time I’m red rockin’ it at Cougar Ridge.
What: Fort Desolation Fest
Where: Cougar Ridge Resort in Torrey, UT
When: June 8-10, 2023