Oasis Music Festival’s inaugural event works to restore the Plaza Theatre and the desert’s local music scene

Photo+Courtesy+of+Holly+Hinman.+The+Milk+Carton+Kids+closing+their+show.

Photo Courtesy of Holly Hinman. The Milk Carton Kids closing their show.

Something special was brewing in downtown Palm Springs from May 11 through May 15, and that was the inaugural Oasis Music Festival, presented by Palm Springs Life with lead sponsor Agua Caliente Casinos. Oasis had a new and exciting premise: combine a series of multi-genre concerts over five days and host it inside California’s most renowned landmark venue: The Plaza Theatre on South Palm Canyon Drive. Originally built in 1936, the Plaza Theatre was used for film premieres and screenings, nationally broadcast radio theatre programs, and a wide variety of live performances.

Some of the names who appeared at the Plaza included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Greta Garbo, and many others. The building, however, had not hosted a performance since 2014, when the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies exited for good and was in need of repair.  During the planning period of Oasis, the City of Palm Springs launched a capital campaign to raise funds to restore the building to its former glory.  Then something remarkable happened:  The highly successful television and theatre producer David Lee, who co-created the series “Frasier,” came forward to kickstart the renovation project with a pledge of $5 million.  On October 20, 2021, Mr. Lee presented a ceremonial check outside the entrance to The Plaza. “I strongly believe in the preservation of historic American theatres,” said Lee in an interview with the Desert Sun.  “I’ve been impressed with the planning that has already gone into the admirable restoration project for the Plaza and saw an opportunity for me to assist in this impressive campaign.” The vice-chair of the city’s planning commission, J.R. Roberts, further expressed to the Desert Sun the committee’s gratitude, stating, “He wanted a way to give back.  The city of Palm Springs… we’re blessed he decided to bestow it on you.

Photo courtesy of Holly Hinman. The vivid lighting used to display the need of saving the Plaza Theatre.

As the project moved forward and the news of the special donation spread, Palm Springs Life’s CEO Frank Jones thought to reach out to the leading nightclubs, restaurants and hotels in town and encourage them to host their own musical events so that the town would come alive, for five days, bustling with music, uptown and down. Seventeen different venues participated in Oasis, primarily over the weekend. The genres ranged from rock, soul, jazz, swing, blues, folk, country, indie, Latin jazz and even bossa nova. “It was the biggest event we ever put on in Palm Springs,” said Jones, and for a first-time event, it surely holds potential.

I had the privilege to see two great acts live: Emily Rose and the Rounders, who opened for the folk group, The Milk Carton Kids. The Rounders are fairly new to the performing scene, but their sound resonates well with the audience. According to Spotify, the band was formed by a group of Los Angeles friends seeking healthy ways to nurse Emily Rose’s passed heartbreak through country music. Some stand-out songs that I’ve noted are ‘December,’ with an amazing guitar riff, and ‘One Drink.’ Emily prides herself on writing ‘Wildfire,’ a song majorly inspired by her grandmother’s prowess.

After their set met with a standing ovation, they sat in the back to watch the Milk Carton Kids, who stand tall in the folk scene with over one million Spotify subscribers. They booked the event most likely because Joey Ryan’s parents live in the Palm Springs area, a fairly close two-hour drive from Eagle Rock, Calif., where the group hails from. Let me tell you, not only is their musical performance great, they are so hilarious that I was tearing up alongside a wheezing audience. It’s funny how ironic it is: they’re a folk group known for “playing depressing songs,” as they tease, but then share stories to engage with the audience afterward, making it a truly intimate occasion. The Milk Carton Kids’ most popular song, ‘Michigan,’ feels absolutely transcending live. ‘Charlie’ came in a close second, a song the audience adored, written about a potential daughter. They’re like a 21st-century Simon and Garfunkel, but do not be fooled. Their poignant lyrics are best matched with their comedy routine and Kenneth’s guitar wizardry one wishes they could master.

Photo courtesy of Holly Hinman. Emily Rose and the Rounders performing ‘One Drink.’

Other ensembles that opened for the bigger acts over the weekend usually had some connection to the Coachella Valley. Giselle Woo, of Giselle Woo and the Night Owls, attended College of the Desert and formed her band here, and one of their hit songs, ‘Coachella Gold,’ takes pride in this. Courtney Chambers is an Americana musician who’s been playing since the early 2000s and is also a local artist, one of the several acts opening for the White Buffalo. Jazz and blues clubs scattered along the Palm Canyon stretch hosted acts, including Dee Dee Bridgewater and Bill Charlap. The desert is slowly restoring its music scene, and with the next Oasis festival planned for late January, we might get to see an even wider range of musicians that the Coachella Valley would warmly welcome.