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Childish Gambino’s Pharo show at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center brought something entirely new for the desert.

Vortex Immersion Media is the company responsible for bringing in, seting up, and coordinating the programming of the music, performance and images throughout the concert.

Childish Gambino’s Pharos show landed in Joshua Tree over Labor Day weekend, at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center. Complete with a 150-foot diameter and 60 foot high Dome, 12,500 fans and shrouded in mystery the concert broke barriers and pushed the bar in music, technology, and state-of-the-art animation.

Donald Glover, a two-time Grammy Award nominee, whose Rapper name is Childish Gambino, debuted music from his newest album. The performance, held in the large and temporary Dome was an immersive experience of audio and visuals. Microsoft created the design content; Mikael Gustafsson was responsible for the 3D modeling, and Alejandro Crawford and Brian Chasalow created the 3D animation. 

The massive Dome, looking like something that had just floated in from space was brought to the desert, set up, programmed, and coordinated by Ed Lantz and his company, Vortex Immersion Media.

The concert, designed with an overall thematic mix of Medicine Man and tribal witchdoctor themes, was performed in the Dome. Childish Gambino’s costume – glow-in-the-dark tribal war paint and a pink and yellow Hawaiian grass skirt with Rapunzel-like golden braids attached to his hair was vibrating while he danced and moved. Magical, tribal figures and skeletons bobbed around the Dome, reminiscent of old Disney, evoking a nostalgic version of Fantasia. 

Fans started linning up around 5:00 for the 9:00 show. Inside there were no seats. Everyone had a view of the performance.

An “Illumination Forest” installation shimmering with blue lighting, making Joshua Trees look like a magical winter wonderland was created by Sarah Landau and Elena Corchero. An outdoor amphitheater screened the first three episodes of Glover’s new FX series, Atlanta. Food trucks, merchandise vendors and DJ’s were assembled in the Retreat Center Amphitheater. 

Tickets sold out in six minutes following the late-June announcement. Faithful fans bought the $99.00 tickets for a glimpse into Donald Glover’s new world. 

Although much of what Glover planned for the concert was conveyed through social media, and it came and went quickly, one central idea remained – to introduce his audience to the beauty of nature. The tickets included overnight camping at the Retreat Center for fans over twenty-one.

A Billboard article written by Ashley Lyle stated, “Gambino’s production provides a glimpse into how fans might consume live music in the future — and the bar has been set high.”

Walkways and path were illuminated with special blue lighting making the grounds look like a winter wonderland

The music, a fusion of funk, soul, hip-hop, and blues, among other genres, was considerably different than anything Gambino had produced in the past. Drums, percussion, keys, bass, guitar and choir brought a somewhat angelic quality to some of the songs, but it did matter where you stood in the dome. Off to the side, near the massive speakers, the sound was cracking and staticky. It was impossible to understand the words. Walking around the dome to stand right up against the crowd and facing the stage was better, and the later songs with Glover’s lovely melodic voice were well worth moving positions to find the best acoustics.

Cameras were prohibited, leaving many photographers taking pictures from outside the event grounds.

Glover and his management team exerted an effort to equalize everyone. By controlling the ticket sales, there were no scalpers, and inside the dome, everyone stood, no one had preferred seats.

Penicia Sims proudly showing off her Childish Gambino T-Shirt.

Kenneth H Williams, Childish Gambino’s audio engineer, since 2014, said, “The Dome presented a lot of challenges. Because it is parabolic, stand in the center, there is a reverberation.”

Joshua Tree Residents reacted to the concert at the Retreat Center unfavorably. Victoria Gevoian, Executive Director of the Joshua Tree Retreat Center, said her decision to bring this event to the Morongo Basin was because of the spiritual nature of Glover’s new material and focus.

In addressing concerns of residents, Gevoian said, every concert and event is required to bring in water. Complaints about lighting were heeded and will be taken into consideration in the future. There were concerns about the noise, and Gevoian said there would only be two music concerts per year, and residents’ opinions and concerns are taken seriously. The Childish Gambino Pharos Concert was considered appropriate because of Glover’s spiritual intentions, and it is a vehicle introducing young people to meditation, yoga, and the natural landscape.

Childish Gambino fans camping overnight at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center

Twenty-three-year-old Hunter Beck from Arkansas and Woodland, California said, 

“This experience is making me want to come back and experience the desert.”

A pressing concern voiced about the concert was the clearing of desert plants from an area that is now a parking lot. Gevoian said this clearing, was a multi-purpose project and the first of three stages. The Retreat Center has been plagued by Black Mold. The first stage was to remove the infected brush and consolidate parking at the same time. The second stage is to place islands around the trees and replant. The third stage is to build a wall along Highway 62 to cut down on the noise factor coming from Highway 62 and coming from the Retreat Center. 

Twenty-three-year-old James Morgan from Woodland, California, north of Sacramento, said, “The technology boom has pulled us [his generation] away from each other and kept us from telling each other what is important – the truth about ourselves. Our generation has found we can connect with thousands of people but what do those connections mean if we are not authentic and real and honest. That is why,” he continued, “Donald Glover has done well because it (his music) is authentic and real; it’s exactly how he feels at the moment.”

Fans flew and drove to Joshua Tree from all over the country

Glover has the Pipe Piper touch to get all these young people to follow his ever-changing music and musical direction. Hunter said he believed, “What people will remember as much as the concert, is hanging around by these tents, watching people dance in this super transparent place in the middle of nature. I think people are going to have incredible stories in [and about] the desert.”

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