When the Salt River Project dammed the reservoir that would become Apache Lake, it probably didn't predict the area would become host to one of the most unique music festivals in Arizona. While the Grand Canyon State is home to many giant rock and EDM fests, like Viva PHX and McDowell Mountain Music Festival, it also has hosted its share of intimate, community-based festivals like Sidepony Express Music Festival in Bisbee and Firefly Gathering outside Flagstaff.
Apache Lake Music Festival in Roosevelt falls strictly into the latter category. Hosted for six years at Apache Lake Marina and Resort in the arid Tonto National Forest, ALMF started as a "fuck you" to Coachella and other oversized, over-priced corporate fests, says co-producer Paul "PC" Cardone.
Unlike major festivals that almost grudgingly offer local bands a tiny stage off to the side (or don't book them at all), ALMF focuses strictly on homegrown music. By being tightly knit, it seems to have fostered a more commune-like attitude, where drinks and smokes are shared, camps overlap where bonfires meet, and drum circles bang away long into the night.
In fact, ALMF founder Brannon Kleinlein describes the vibe as more like "camping with your buddies" than that of Bonnaroo: "You're out in the wilderness. The stars are out like crazy. You're surrounded by canyon walls and a lake . . . We didn't really have the intention of it becoming a festival. It was more, 'Let's throw a camping party and bring bands that we know.'"
Speaking of bands, this year's lineup is more jam-band-focused than previous years' rosters, including acts like Spafford, Endoplasmic, Gelatinous Groove, and Freezer, a Phish cover band. But there also will be regular headliners such as Japhy's Descent, Banana Gun, and The Hourglass Cats, as well as acts new to the event, like Jerusafunk and Harrison Fjord.
ALMF was jointly founded by Cardone, 51, a veteran of the Tempe music scene for more than 30 years, and Kleinlein, 41, owner/operator of Last Exit Live. Together, they've grown the small lakeside camping party into a two-day festival that averages 1,500 attendees and about 35 local bands on its roster. But the owners say there are no aspirations for the festival to become much bigger than that. They have no goals to become nationally known or to receive brand sponsorship, of which it has next to none.
"We want it to grow. But we don't want it to grow too much," Kleinlein tells me when we meet at Last Exit. "We want it to stay intimate, and we want it to stay Arizona-based. We like that we're the small guy."
Kleinlein is originally from Illinois but moved to the Valley to study real estate at Arizona State University. For years, he visited Apache Lake and dreamed of hosting a large-scale concert in the area. The marina's owners, friends of his, were open to the idea, so Kleinlein finally set the wheels in motion for ALMF in 2009.
But he didn't want to overlap with another popular festival at the time, the annual Jeromatherapy, assembled by Cardone and hosted on "a chunk of dirt" out by Gold King Mine near (where else?) Jerome.
Jeromatherapy launched more than a decade ago in response to rumors that noted Jerome saloon the Spirit Room was to become a tapas bar, stoking local fears that the former mining town's arty vibe soon would resemble Sedona's hoity-toity spa culture.
"[Jerome was] not going to be as affordable or fun for us anymore when rich people just go and rent $200-a-night suites and spend $300 on dinner," Cardone says. "No more fun and going to the gold mine and causing trouble, you know?"
Cardone was so upset that he contacted a friend who owned some property, and the first Jeromatherapy was born. Initially, it was simply five kegs, five bands, and about 100 people, but it wouldn't take long to grow.
The many bands that would share a stage included Satellite (Cardone's band at the time), Dead Hot Workshop, Greyhound Soul, What Laura Says, Yellow Minute, Sugar Thieves, and Dry River Yacht Club.
"There was nothing out there [at Gold King Mine]," says Kleinlein, who often attended Jeromatherapy. "No electric. They would have to bring in generators, port-a-potties, and sound equipment. But it was a cool event and people enjoyed going up there."
It all ended when Cardone got arrested for what he says were "bullshit permit violations." He says the incident had something to do with a kid getting cut in a fight at an unrelated festival in the same area.
"Nobody died or anything," Cardone says. "[But] all of a sudden, [we were] on the county cops' radar."
It took longtime friends Kleinlein and Cardone a minute to realize they should collaborate. The first ALMF hosted about 300 people and 12 bands on a single night. Kleinlein says billing the event as the new Jeromatherapy helped bring in many people. The next ALMF would double its dates and stages (one indoors) after the inaugural ALMF was rained out during Black Carl's set, forcing everyone to seek cover in the resort's restaurant.
Cardone says the entire festival is volunteer-run. Staff and bands are paid in food and beer, donated by Four Peaks Brewing. All the bands are back-lined, Cardone says, so all the musicians have to do is pretty much show up with their instruments.
"You only spend $40 for two days. None of us have ever made dime one out of this thing," Cardone says. "It's pretty much, for lack of a better term, a nonprofit organization.
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"It's really, like, four elements. There's me, Brannon — he's number one — [production manager] Brian Stubblefield, the sound guy at his bar Last Exit, and [stage manager] Marsh Clothier. The four of us have done all of them. We book it, we haul the stuff, we set it up, we do everything."
Amazingly, the past six years haven't seen a single police incident, Cardone says, even though he has to hire the Sheriff's Office to patrol.
"[When] things look like it's going to stir up into something, all the people around are like, 'Hey, we don't behave like this here. We're here to have a fucking good time, and just smoke some weed and drink some beer, and fucking watch some cool bands,'" Cardone says. "It's sort of self-policing, so to have a festival for six years without one police report is pretty amazing.
"I don't think it will [change]," Cardone adds. "We have more RSVPs this year, but everybody knows the score. It's a fun lake party. We don't have time to bullshit with people."