Freak Folk Meets the Wild West At the Second Annual Manimal Festival

Daiana Feuer

"Has anyone seen my flute?!" Alex Ebert asks, casting frantic shadows upon a giant teepee. The lead singer of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros lost his wind instrument at the Manimal Fest afterparty/pow wow. Wide-eyed girls with dilated pupils and their grinning bearded companions sat Indian style, clapping to drums around a blazing fire. Early next morning, tall, sleepless Ebert would appear covered with dust and scrapes on Pioneertown's empty Mane St., accompanied by a pants-less Har Mar Superstar. Together they'll make one dislocated souvenir.

To get to that point, Har Mar and many others travelled 130 miles east of Hollywood following Los Angeles bands to Manimal Festival. On an October desert weekend outside Yucca Valley, CA, they roamed Pioneertown's cartoon wild west. In its second year, the two-day event showcases bands on Paul Beahan's record label, Manimal Vinyl, alongside musically bohemian peers. Manimal's experimental pop catalog -- which began most notably by releasing Bat For Lashes' Fur And Gold record two years ago -- lends a unified voice to freak folk and its close cousins, many which are collected on yearly tribute albums to Madonna, The Cure, and in 2010, David Bowie. Manimal's focus mainly follows two streams: The ethereal, spooky soloist tradition as TK by Rio En Medio, Corridor and Alexandra Hope. Meanwhile, Rainbow Arabia, Polyamorous Affair, We Are the World and Hecuba work the dance beat, taking pop to strange outer space.

Manimal Fest's first night at Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown Saloon ended with Laco$te's acrobatic member "X" smashing her head on the ceiling and locking horns with her band. After Pappy's used a sound problem to cut their mind-peeling set short, people went looking for the tee pee party. It was windy and cold. Fur-clad and peasant dressed gangs snuck through spooky town jail, holding their breath. The jail is part of Pioneertown, an 1870's-style frontier town built by Roy Rogers and Gene Autry circa 1946 as a live-in western film set -- saloon, jail, motel, parlor, stable, wooden fence and dirt. Now inhabited by a few eccentric characters and a cat with different color eyes, the once Cisco Kid backdrop survives as a ghost town-tourist attraction-biker bar periodically invaded by hippie-sters.
Throughout the festival, bands jam longer than usual; everything veers more psychedelic. We Are The World wore masks and ninja outfits that matched their kabuki goth dance routines. Country girl Amanda Jo Williams strummed A-minor for fifteen minutes straight. Her band stomped rhythmically around her backwoods muppet ballideering. Pizza alarmed bikers using the N-word à la Patti Smith while Weave paid neon jungle respect to Siouxsie Sioux. Big bands Fool's Gold and Ed Sharpe knitted wide tempos like tight fabrics, shaking, plucking and pounding exotic percussive instruments. Jonesin', dressed up for karaoke prom,  did jumping jacks around a boombox. Beating on his reverb-cued cello, Corridor doused the audience with electro-acoustic holy water. He's My Brother She's My Sister performed when hangovers peaked and the sky was so cold it turned white and yellow. Their tap-dancer braved the cold, clacking along to folk tales and unraveled sequins. The band's tussled hair gave their silhouettes the shape of burning candles.

The festival's climax had to be Hecuba. The outdoor stage closed so all people wedged inside were surrounding a fog machine. Hecuba's eyebrowless couple dress like prisoners and perform as if they're trapped in a musical Greek epic rendered by Samuel Beckett. At one point the walls disappeared and even the stars crammed in for standing room.

Subscribe to Get More