barnett english

‘We’re in the Hugging Business’

Coffee vendor-turned-concert promoter Barnett English moves on to the next Joshua Tree Music Festival.

Meredith Jordan Arts & Entertainment, Current PSL

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Because of COVID19, the communal atmosphere of the Joshua Tree Music Festival was too dangerous, says organizer Barnett English.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY NATE ABBOTT

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MUSIC

UPDATE:  The Joshua Tree Music Festival will offer a virtual concert, May 14-17,  in lieu of its live event being cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic . The action will take place completely online with live streams on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitch from a variety of contributors.

This is a completely free offering including music, yoga, workshops, kids activities and more. There will be opportunities for viewers to support the artists, presenters, and festival directly throughout the event.

For more information, visit joshuatreemusicfestival.com

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It’s mid-March, the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Barnett English is keeping a healthy distance. He’s sipping tea — a topic, like coffee, he knows a lot about — and talking about the history of the Joshua Tree Music Festival, as well as the likelihood he will cancel the event scheduled for May.

Last year, English’s quirky twice-a-year festival at Joshua Tree Lake Campground sold all 3,500 four-day passes for the first time in its 17-year history, although day passes remained.

Now, event cancellations, including the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which draws about 125,000 people, have the Coachella Valley and High Desert communities on edge, anxious and uncertain.

The economics of a gig economy are no good when there are no gigs, and English already feels it. The loss of Coachella, Stagecoach, and Santa Barbara’s Lucidity Festival has impacted his primary business, JavaGogo, an otherwise thriving mobile espresso café with smoothie options. He sets up at film festivals all over the country, traveling like an old-school carnival or circus company. Losing his local gigs puts 36 people out of work.

With the Joshua Tree event two months out, he has a couple of weeks to decide whether to go on with the show. People who operate events must be adaptable, he says. But he’s also realistic. “My brother asked me, ‘Is this going to affect your festival?’ I said, ‘Yes. We’re in the hugging business. It’s about getting people together, which is the antithesis of the coronavirus.’”

The festival is embracing of the 1960s for more reasons than hugging. It is an expressly communal experience that leaves people feeling connected.

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“The difference between my festival and most others is that I’d see you three or four times before it was over, and we’d talk” — Barnett English

Conversations run deeper, and people forge lasting friendships. “The difference between my festival and most others is that I’d see you three or four times before it was over, and we’d talk.” People come back year after year, and they bring their children. Last year, the first time they counted, 800 children were in attendance

It all traces back to a single coffee cart. English had set it up for about two years when he found his niche at the High Sierra Music Fest over Fourth of July weekend in 1995. (He has since returned to the event every year.) The 2002 Didgeridoo festival brought JavaGogo to Joshua Tree. English suggested the campground owners host their own music festival; they said he should do it. He held the first one six months later, adding the second, a fall event, three years later.

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The festival has two stages, 30 musical acts, and lots of diversions surrounding the 1-acre oval-shape lake. They include Kidsville and Playshops with sound healing and talks on nature and sustainability, as well as the Yoga & Healing Stage, 30 visual art installations, and a beer garden.

It takes 60 crew and 175 volunteers to pull it off. English doesn’t pay himself for the festival. “The whole crew gets paid, the machine roles,” English says. “I live off the coffee.”

Unless there’s a novel coronavirus, that is. A week after his initial interview with Palm Springs Life, he cancelled the spring event. “There was no way a gathering in May could happen and keep everyone’s health and welfare in check,” he says. Now, he’s working toward the fall festival, set for Oct. 8–11.