For 72 hours, Taos and the Taos Mesa Brewing Mothership was the desert rock capital of the world, with a rarified population characterized by tattoos and long hair, Gibson SGs and rail pickups, and stacks of amplifiers.
Beginning Friday (Sept. 16) and running til midnight on Sunday, last weekend's Monolith on the Mesa music festival featured a lineup with deep roots in the stoner rock scene that originated in Southern California in the 1990s.
Organizer Roman Barham said Friday's sunset set by Maroi Lalli and the Rubber Snake Charmers, one of several desert rock super groups on the bill that featured the titular bass player, guitarist Brant Bjork, singer and bassist Nick Oliveri and drummer Ryan Güt, epitomized the festival's vibe.
"That was so cool, and then Mario pulls out that double-neck Rickenbacher and starts singing and they're just jamming and the sun's going down — I was like, 'woah,'" Barham said. "Then and there, that was the desert rock capital of the world."
Sean Wheeler, Rubber Snake Charmers' stream-of-consciousness singer, said playing Monolith with his bandmate "friends who all grew up together in the desert out there," in California, was "rad. It was beautiful. A great time; I'm super stoked. I'm trying to find someone to move me in on their couch or backyard here right now."
The Freeks, featuring former Fu Manchu drummer Ruben Romano — who also used to play with fellow Fu Manchu-drop out Eddie Glass in Nebula, who was also on last weekend's bill — pulled up to Taos Mesa Brewing about 45 minutes before they were set to go on stage. If Detroit punk pioneers MC5 came from the Southern California skate scene, they'd probably have sounded like The Freeks, which kicked out the jams with authority.
Singer Jason Huebner joined The Freeks relatively recently, marking his first foray into live rock and roll. The man's infectious good times vibe complemented the band's shredding sound, which is backed by one of the best hard rock drummers in the biz.
"I'm living my dream; I'm famous in New Mexico," 50-year-old Huebner said, thrilled to be interviewed. "I used to go see Fu Manchu shows and grew up with Ruben. I had a radio show and Ruben came down and did an interview, hung out with us; two years later he called me and said 'Do you want to sing for this band? I want to go back to drums where I belong.'"
The Freeks played one of the most impactful sets of the festival, along with Bjork and Oliveri's Stöner, while Mondo Generator might have been most-anticipated and Daikaiju's performance the most talked about.
Psychedelic surf rockers Daikaiju set a lot of stuff on fire (with lighter fluid) during their set, including their tour van. Masks, a crowdsurfing drummer and a hyped audience made it one of the most memorable performances of the weekend.
Rounded out by punk metal legends The Obsessed, the face-melting doom metal of Massachusetts-based Warhorse, New Mexico groups like Blue Heron and Red Mesa, among many other acts, the scene at Monolith this year represented puro Grade A-quality rock and roll in an unbeatable chill and scenic setting between the rim of the Taos Gorge and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Band members and fans from across the country, as well audience members who flew in from other countries, reconnected over inexpensive Taos Mesa Brewing — and Little Toad Creek Brewery and Distillery-crafted libations, barbeque and other vittles, and — it goes without saying — copious personal supplies of cannabis.
"We're all family on the road," said Lalli, standing behind Stöner's merch table. "I've been wanting to play this thing since Dano [Sanchez] and Roman started it up. And God bless Dano. Miss him this year, of course. But its been a beautiful experience this year; it's a beautiful spot and the people are super cool. We've been excited about this for a really long time."
Sanchez, who died of COVID-19 on Sept. 26, 2020, was memorialized in a psychedelic mural and marigold-covered ofrenda next to the main stage. Barham and Sanchez had organized a second Monolith on the Mesa for 2020, but the pandemic killed it.
"There was about 700 people when the first year happened, and the word had started spreading," Barham said. "There was so much momentum." A virtual festival was held online in 2021.
"The pandemic was hard on live music, and particularly hard on underground music," Barham said.
Barham said that, despite lower-than-anticipated attendance and ticket sales at this year's festival, he's confident the event made enough money to carry on next year. Crowd size peaked at around 200 people over the weekend.
"Merch is selling good, and I'm already starting to work on next year," Barham said, adding that organizing the festival without Sanchez was bittersweet experience.
"Dano was on it." Barham said. "He was very inspirational to me, and our smoking sessions were very inspirational; I'll always remember them. That's why I wanted to carry on Monolith. I know what our vision was for Monolith for the future. I want to continue to do that and do it in his honor. It was our dream. And now we're all living that."