Contrary to popular belief, Black people do go camping. However, my last time attempting it was as a teenager, so I was game to try the experience at a music festival for the first time. Fortunately, I’d been invited to FORM Arcosanti, a small festival that takes place in the Arizona desert at an experimental town in the middle of nowhere. Getting way outside your comfort zone at the intersection of art, music, sustainability, and nature is the event’s forte, but for me, it was a chance to try sleeping on the ground, in a sleeping bag, in a tent — albeit in an environment I’d never tried before, with entertainment provided by a music and arts festival just a hike away. It was the best of both worlds, minus the Coachella crowds and shower lines.
Beyond the bare bones accommodations, though, the thing that makes the FORM experience really enjoyable and distinctive is the small number of the festival attendees. With fewer than 3,000 people on site, the crowd anxiety I sometimes get covering these sorts of events never materialized, even though intellectually I figured I had to be in more danger 400 miles away from home in the middle of nature than at, say, Camp Flog Gnaw, only a 30-minute Uber ride from my apartment. But there was too much to do to spend much time worrying about wildlife or sunstroke.
Arcosanti, the experimental town that provides the venue for this equally experimental and quirky festival, is a truly fascinating place, a structure carved out of the side of a steep hill (I got my steps in), with a clump of amphitheaters and halls forming something like a half architectural spectacle, half natural wonder. I could have spent the weekend just exploring the nooks and crannies of this odd “town” with its hippie-art-commune-meets-conservational-engineering-experiment vibe.
There was a job to do, too: Take in musical performances — and in that respect, FORM’s curation did truly shine. It would probably be terrifyingly easy for the festival’s organizers to just throw a bunch of money at the usual festival mainstays, have them come out and perform for the 2,000 or so people that fit in Arcosanti’s main amphitheater, and call it a day, but FORM went above and beyond to come up with curious combinations to stimulate the same sense of discovery that the venue itself does. Things may not have always been perfect from a logistical standpoint, including long lines for showers, toilet paper and paper towel shortages at the mobile restrooms, and sometimes disorganized performance set times. But for the most part, the festival ran as smoothly as possible, with the small number of attendees mitigating any potential trouble areas.
For instance, on the back-to-back nights I observed, I saw Florence + The Machine and Anderson .Paak both grace the stage, performing every bit as enthusiastically for that relatively tiny crowd as they would have for a packed arena. That sense of discovery was palpable, personally for me as I took in Florence Welsh’s ethereal stagecraft, not even realizing that she’d debuted a brand new song from Game Of Thrones, and peripherally as I was amused during .Paak’s set by an older gentleman on his phone who couldn’t stop expressing his awe at .Paak to the person on the other line as he performed songs from Oxnard and Ventura.
Beyond those “headlining” acts, I discovered a musical collective called Smoke Signals, consisting of spoken word poets, and a funk-soul band out of Miami called Shenzi, fronted by the delightful Desiree Bannister who took the crowd straight to church. Later on, George Watsky surprised me with a set of entirely of new poetry where I thought he might perform some of his better-known rap songs, and Channel Tres blew the crowd away with his infectious energy and breathless, sweaty choreography.
I wouldn’t have expected to meet anyone else from my hometown at an art enclave in the middle of the Arizona desert. Compton’s got a pretty small population that isn’t well-known for doing things like camping out at hippie art festivals, although Kendrick Lamar’s Coachella appearances may be the beginnings of a movement toward changing that reputation. As it turns out, Channel Tres, the dance-funk upstart who made the change from EDM a few years ago, wasn’t expecting it either.
Yet, there we were, both attending FORM Arcosanti festival this past weekend, both wildly out of our respective comfort zones. Of course, Tres was there to perform — and he did, epically — while I was there to cover the fest from a writer’s perspective. But FORM Arcosanti seems designed for those kinds of experiences, like the odd coincidence that led two Hub City kids to bump into each other in one of the most usual places.
And despite how great the curation is, the true value of FORM remains in the meaningful experiences the festival’s organizers hope to cultivate between musicians and fans. There are no overlapping sets at FORM, another benefit to its small size and careful curation, so when my fellow Comptonian brushed past me to find a good vantage for Anderson .Paak’s set, I stopped him to relay well-wishes from an old high school friend of mine who’d DM’d me after seeing a video I’d posted of Tres’ performance. My longtime buddy, it turns out, had been Tres’ mentor as a teen, and at the mention of our mutual connection’s name, his face lit up.
The odds of two men from the same small city, ten years removed in age, with the same mutual friend meeting at a tiny festival in the Arizona desert — I don’t know what that means, but it sure does feel meaningful.
Uproxx was hosted for this story by the FORM festival. FORM did not review or approve this story. You can learn more about the Uproxx Press Trip policy here.