Was a weekend of scorching desert heat in the middle of summer a worthwhile sacrifice to see cool motorcycles, watch bands playing rock and country music, and enjoy hours of non-stop festival fun?
23-Jul-2016: Southern California’s largest motorcycle show and concert event, The Lost Highway Festival, took place at San Manuel Amphitheater and Festival Grounds last weekend. With July temperatures close to 110 degrees, leaving Hollywood for a dry and shadeless San Bernardino desert, overpriced junk food and a toxic Sunday hangover seemed like a bad idea.
However, in only its second year, producers of this festival have thought of everything. The bathrooms were consistently clean, and Rockstar gave out chilly drinks all day for free, including ice-cold water. There were giant fan misters to help cool off between bitchin’ bands, tons of sweet motorcycles, eye candy, and shopping. And finally, the Lost Highway staff was organized and hospitable, making for a splendid time.
Lost Highway is only a one-day event, but camping sites were available for two nights with accommodations that exceeded expectations. Once visitors got through the tight security check, they were greeted with live music, free cold beer from PBR, and fresh, homemade tacos.
Orange County’s own Brett Young and cover band Hall Pass helped the audience get their drink on, but the mysterious desert night was ushered in by the rebellious rock-a-billy group, Bullets and Octane. These guys made those who promised to pace themselves forget there was still an entire day of festivities ahead of them. Late night corn hole games and Jell-O-shots were plentiful, followed the next morning by a complimentary breakfast of biscuits and gravy provided by Roadhouse Biker Church.
On Saturday, a high-octane band called Them Evils opened the festival grounds stage as winners of the Slidebar Battle of the Bands earlier this year. Hair flipping circles with amazing guitar riffs set the precedence for the day’s musical energy. Paul Cauthen followed in opposition with his deep baritone voice and unique cadence, throwing us back to the Johnny Cash era.
The Super Hooligan Races, sponsored by Indian Motorcycles on an RSD (Roland Sands Design) flat track, drew a significant, shirtless crowd. The race is a street-legal motorcycle competition with roots in SoCal as early as the 1930s. Testosterone driven and aggressive, some of the bikes can weigh up to 800 lbs with riders racing at high speeds around a tight turning oval track on whatever bike they choose to enter. Crashes, spills, and injuries are part of the game leaving one rider knocked unconscious. Fortunately, shortly after an ambulance arrived, the rider slowly got up and walked off the track with audience chants of “Get back on your bike!” Honestly, he probably should have taken the ambulance.
Chevy Metal’s cover of David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” was a big favorite as was Foghat‘s opener, “Fool For the City.” A warm afternoon breeze gave life to the giant Rockstar balloon causing it to dance to the beat. Fans began tailgating in the parking lot and the amphitheater (called The Outlaw Stage) on the other side of the grounds was quickly filling with country fans.
Justin Moore and his “Good Ole Boy” charm were a big hit, but his dueling guitar version of “Purple Rain,” as a tribute to Prince, set him apart from previous performers Colt Ford and Tyler Farr.
As the sun began to set, Palm Desert’s own Eagles of Death Metal rocked the festival stage with their outlandish silliness and childlike, eccentric attitudes. Lead singer and ordained minister, Jesse Hughes, was spotted a few times riding a golf cart through the campgrounds or a mini motorcycle behind the big stage with a contagious grin. The band performed with a different sort of joie de vivre than the others, maybe because they are still only seven months removed from the brutal Paris shooting at their concert where 130 people died. That would be quite the humbling perspective to bring to any show.
Rushing back to the Outlaw stage was no easy task as the festival had now tripled in attendance. It was shocking to see the crowd had transformed from Moore’s conservative country sweethearts into tattoo and converse clad dissidents in anticipation of Social Distortion, the festival’s maverick extraordinaire.
Opening their set with a bang, this battle-scarred, cowpunk fraternity sent their fans into a frenzy as they jumped over barriers trying to get closer to the stage. Social Distortion fiddle player, David Bagger, pushed the live sound forward in a way that gave the band a timeless touch, which is important since they began in 1978.
Lead singer Mike Ness can be just as vulnerable as he is awesome, making him the ultimate front man. “Rock and Roll saved my life. It almost took it too, but then saved it again,” he said before playing “Me and My Guitar.” The crowd, singing along to “Ball and Chain,” were surprisingly emotional. The slam dancing to their hard-driving version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” was equally as exciting as the motorcycle burnouts earlier that day.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (BRMC) played at the festival stage. The sooty entity made their way up through billowy smoke with their intoxicating, militant rhythm by drummer, Leah Shapiro. “Beat on the Devil’s Tattoo” was a perfect song for their dark lighting and seductive silhouettes. Their fan favorite, “Berlin,” was no frills, straight gun metal rock n’ roll. This band does what they do, with no heed given when it comes to approval or popularity, leaving them seeming disavowed and mysterious, a lost art with our current cultural situation.
The amphitheater now overflowed with curved bill baseball hats, cut-offs, and cowboy boots. A massive stage screen video showing Brantley Gilbert being released from prison, followed by a backstage prayer with the band, captured the packed arena’s attention. In the crowded silence, the stage exploded with light and confetti as the band appeared ghostlike in the glare.
Gilbert had a different performance strategy than BRMC, with a walk up similar to a UFC fighter. His beefcake build and hip-hop appearance screamed of “Magic Mike” and sent the girls into high-pitched squeals.
Gilbert loves his fans and his highlight was bringing Colt Ford out to sing a duet to “Dirt Road Anthem,” written by the pair, a song that became a best seller for Jason Aldean. The band was “dirty south” fun and Gilbert’s live charisma is dangerously contagious.
An easy walk back to the campgrounds got us to our comfy retreats faster than the masses of cars trying to exit the festival grounds. For some reason, the Team America anthem was rippling through different groups of people as they laughed and sang the profanities as loud as possible.
We snacked on chips, cold beer and boxed wine as we discussed all the things we couldn’t get to at the festival until our obliging neighbors called us over for carne asada and a game of can jam.
The next morning, we discovered that Los Angeles had been under a red sky all weekend from the Santa Clarita fires and people all the way in West Hollywood were feeling the heat and experiencing the falling ash. It turns out that a July festival in a shadeless desert was a pretty good idea after all.
All Photos by Matt Stasi.