When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in Phoenix, head to the desert. Desert raves have been an underground staple of the dance music scene since I can remember.
Once upon a time, underground parties were the only places you could listen to electronic music and engage in the culture. I have been to desert raves before, but my last had been about 10 years ago, before the floodgates of electronic music opened to the mainstream — so I was intrigued to see if anything had changed. My partner in crime for the evening (my boyfriend) had never been to a desert rave, although he's well-versed in dance music, having been brought up in warehouses and clubs in Chicago.
We had finally found a show worthy of the trek: Legendary producer/DJ Frankie Bones was coming to Arizona on October 22. He was headlining Bloodfest, an underground party which had moved from a warehouse in Phoenix to an undisclosed location in the middle of the desert.
We were both excited at the possibility of experiencing a culture that we feared might have gone extinct, back when the rave scene was hidden and protected, and going to see a DJ was about the music and the community you would experience, and not so much about being seen and trying to fit an image.
With that said, one of the exciting things about desert parties is that getting there makes for half the experience.
We left Chandler at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night. Here’s what happened.
On the day of the rave, we had to call a phone number that leads to a recorded voice message that gives you a set of directions to follow to the rave. We called and were greeted by the voice of a raver chick, let’s call her Judy, who first provided us with the rules: No glass bottles, and follow the speed limit on the way. Check! She also let us know that we needed exact change, $17 at the door (you can usually buy presale tickets at the Graffiti Shop in Tempe, but they had been out for a couple of days).
Judy continued to give us directions, which we find out aren’t directions to the rave, but directions to a map point where we will get the directions to the rave. This is usually a tactic used to throw off any cops who might be looking to break up an illegal party (a lot of desert raves are illegal), but I’m not sure if that was the reason for this, or to simply play into the “adventure” of finding the party.
It would be against the spirit of the event to reveal exactly where it was, but let's just say the avenue numbers were in the 300s. Once we exited the freeway, we were on a long flat road into black nothingness. We had to reset the odometer and track our mileage to a certain point until we got to a specific dirt road. We passed a few marked roads with names that referred to vultures and miners, passed a ranch and drove over cattle guards.
Once we approached the dirt road, it was time to take a leap of faith and turn off into the landscape of saguaros and brush. We were supposed to be looking for orange cones (which we didn’t see) and continued to blindly drive on a winding path for what felt like about 20 minutes until we saw someone. Eventually, we saw the taillights of another car somewhat in front of us that had been stopped by some waving glowsticks that appeared from behind some bushes. As we got closer, our headlights revealed a few blood-covered kids (not real blood). They came to our window and told us to just follow the car in front of us to the rave. Sounds legit.
We continued onto a rockier dirt road, drove around a fallen saguaro, and by this time, my boyfriend was beginning to question if we were going the right way. “This is
The dirt road led us to a main road. The car in front of us turned left and sped up. We followed. Then they slammed on their breaks and did a u-turn, drove about two miles and then veered right into another dirt road, back into the desert. On this path we could see more cars in front of us; one car started throwing glowsticks out the window to leave themselves a Hansel and Gretel-style trail out of wherever we were going — not a bad idea.
Once we passed a few zombie ravers we were reassured, and then it seemed like out of nowhere we heard the low bump of a bass line. We turned a corner, and we were there.
A group of people stood in the path, and a skeleton-man stopped us for the entry fee. Once we paid, he told us to just continue on and to park at the end of the lot, and to not back in. The parking lot was the final trek of our desert labyrinth experience, as it was unlit, and more of a DIY lot created off of a few different paths that intersected with each other.
Once we parked, it was time to follow the human train of glowing devil horns, glow sticks, popping beers, weed, and cigarette smoke towards the music.
We climbed up a cement structure (which we later learned was a wash) and finally arrived at the party right at midnight, as Frankie Bones was starting his set.
The crowd seemed to be from everywhere and represented all the different check boxes for stereotypes and demographics. There was an older woman in a jean jacket and maxi skirt dancing alone as she chain-smoked and drank from her gallon of water. Young girls dressed up as cops, nurses, and in tutus. Bros and Zonies with pot leaves on their hats, hippies in tie-dye and a Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax T-shirt. It looked like most people came with a small group of people. Everyone was mingling, some were dancing, others were painting and getting “married,” and some were rolling on the ground holding each other laughing and screaming. One group of friends was actually celebrating someone's birthday and presented their friend with a card filled with messages from each of them — and a blunt. The rave culture hadn’t changed much since I had last experienced it. The anti-culture of just being free was still there. There was literally no infrastructure, not even bathrooms, and no one searching you at the door. The camaraderie was positive and friendly. People said "excuse me" and "sorry" as they bumped into you in the crowd; people brought their dogs. Some folks were openly smoking and sharing weed and drugs, and it was all just positive. There really were no boundaries or limitations.
The music was a refreshing warehouse style that moved between house and tech and to harder styles, all while maintaining that gritty, older sound. Frankie Bones sampled newer tracks like Shiba San’s “OK” and put his spin on older staples like Green Velvet’s “Flash.”
At the end of his two-hour set, the crowd sang him “Happy Birthday,” as he had just turned 50 years old the previous weekend. He thanked the crowd, said that he had been doing underground shows since 1989, and that he liked to be a role model for people. He spelled out the rave culture acronym P.L.U.R.: peace, love, unity, and respect.
I’ve never been to a nightclub where a DJ told the crowd they wanted to be a role model. For someone as legendary as Frankie Bones, who could have probably been paid a lot more to play a venue like Maya, to play Arizona’s Bloodfest — where a bunch of freaks were stomping in fake blood, peeing in the desert, and partying — was pretty cool. Because he chose to support a community that meant something to him and stood for something more than just the partying.
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