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“Nowhere is water so beautiful as in the desert for nowhere else is it so scarce.”~ Edward Abbey, author of Desert Solitaire
Moab Music Festival
Since its inception 31 years ago, the Moab Music Festival has sought to combine the natural desert landscape of Utah with live music as they have hosted concerts on the banks of the Colorado River, performances in red rock grottos that could only be reached by boat, and on river rafts during multi-day raft trips that include the musicians and their custom waterproof instruments.
Now the Moab Music Festival is specifically focused on water as a theme for 2023 and 2024.
Having a theme like this expands their calendar and includes two world premiere concerts that are all about water: on Aug. 25, composer Timo Andres will share his commission, “Tooth and Claw” at Star Hall and on Sept. 3, percussionist Pius Cheung will debut his commissioned “Samsara” to be performed during an evening of water-themed music and stories. There is also a film screening of the documentary “River” during the festival dates.
When is the Moab Music Festival?
The Moab Music Festival takes place between Aug. 21 and Sept. 15, 2023.
This year, the festival also added concert dates outside of its usual run. There’s a week of water-themed musical shows in June titled “High Water.” In January, the festival’s “Winterlude” series includes a few indoor concerts.
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Musical White Water Rafting Adventure
Perhaps the cherry on top of the Moab Music Festival’s many offerings is the musical raft trips that bookend the annual event. There is one through Westwater Canyon and another on the San Juan River.
These three-day two-night adventures are an opportunity to have a completely different relationship to the music. You also get to know the musicians on another level as you camp, eat, and enjoy the surroundings together.
I had the opportunity to take the Westwater Canyon Musical Raft Trip one August and it was pure magic. I had previously attended the Grotto Concert, a Music Hike, and a concert on the lawn of Red Cliffs Lodge which is on the banks of the Colorado River just outside of Moab. The raft trip somehow combines all of these other concert experiences in three days of immersion into the landscape.
Like any whitewater raft trip, we had preparation meetings and packing lists to fill. Then, it was a long drive from Moab to near Loma, Colorado. This is a great chance to get to know the guides, musicians, and fellow rafters. Sheri Griffith River Expeditions is based in Moab and partners with the festival to provide the boats and experienced river guides for these trips.
Throughout the trip, the guides manage the rafts, any necessary stops on the banks, making lunch, and then setting up and breaking down on the river banks for meals each evening and morning.
Musicians by Land and by Water
Our musicians for this trip were Jay Campbell, an award-winning cellist based in New York who plays with JACK Quartet and other groups and Francisco Fullana, an award-winning Spanish violinist who is based in California and plays in concerts around the world.
During the Moab Music Festival, musicians will often perform at more than one event. One day they are on a Music Hike, and then it’s a few days on the rafts. When it comes time to get on the water, the musicians switch to carbon fiber versions of their instruments to avoid water damage to the fragile wood.
Concerts, Swimming, and Camping
Shortly after we floated off from the river’s put-in spot, there was a brief concert with Francisco playing the violin and Jay on the cello. Afterward, there was a chance for everyone to take turns swimming in the river.
Once the boats brought us to our first campsite, each of us—musicians and concertgoers alike—had to set up our individual tents somewhere on the banks surrounded by soaring sandstone cliffs. With the efficiency of a trained team, dinner was prepared by the guides.
Whoever had their tent ready helped build an elegant dinner table – complete with linens, wine, and leafy vases. Others helped set up camp chairs for an aprés-dinner concert in the sand.
Nestled just steps from the river’s edge, our experience was akin to attending two simultaneous concerts. The musical instruments provided melodies at the same time as the sounds of the water meeting the shore. Nearby rocks that stood high in places in the river’s natural flow made their own music.
Morning Serenades and Nature’s Amphitheater
In the morning we were gently awakened by live music by Jay and Francisco, while our coffee was being made. In the stillness of dawn, we each quietly broke down our own tents, rolled up our sleeping bags, and pointed out the rising sun moving across the rocks to one another.
We soon navigated the rafts downriver and to a muddy slope where we scrambled up and over train tracks. This was where the Rocky Mountaineer train had rumbled the night before en route from Glenwood Springs, Colorado to Moab.
We quickly crossed over the tracks and onto a primitive short footpath that led to a stunning natural amphitheater. It was beautifully carved by wind and rain over the eons. Jay and Francisco had arrived first and were rehearsing as we each found a comfortable spot in some shade to listen and watch as the bright blue sky blended with the curving patinaed rocks that surrounded our impromptu concert “hall.”
After our senses were fairly overwhelmed by a combination of desert heat and divine music, we practically drifted back down to the rafts for a lazy day of floating on the river to our next campsite.
Music, Laughter, and Adventure at the Moab Music Festival Campsites
Some light rain caught up with us by the time we reached our second and final campsite but we still had a delicious dinner at our long table by the river and sat laughing, talking, and drinking wine as the darkness settled in around us.
The conversations were not limited to music, though there were many questions for Jay and Francisco about what it is like to perform in these settings and their personal backgrounds.
Despite more sprinkles in the morning, Francisco woke us again with some live music and we packed up our gear. The programs for these raft concerts are announced on the boats and not beforehand so there is a certain serendipity to each musical moment on the trip.
Before setting out on the rafts on the last day, there was a safety talk about going through the whitewater rapids shortly after our departure from this site.
Climactic Whitewater Rapids Experience
As soon as we (and the instruments!) safely made it through the class IV rapids of Westwater Canyon, complete with stories of boating disasters for fun, Jay and Francisco played their final concert for us as we resumed a floating pace to our take-out spot.
While nature itself is awe-inspiring where the cliffs themselves seem to ebb and flow from alongside the Colorado River, bringing music to the environment creates another layer of feeling that is enveloping as each sense is being gently stimulated.
The water theme for the Moab Music Festival will continue in 2024.
If You Go:
- Know that a portion of each ticket price is tax deductible
- Have a plan for where to leave your vehicle and valuables while on the raft trip
- Carefully review the packing list for the boat trip so you have the essentials to be comfortable
Recommended Lodging in Moab for Before and After a Raft Trip:
Author Bio: Mindy Sink is a travel guidebook author and freelance travel writer based in Denver, Colorado. You can see her latest adventures and bylines on social media and her website, www.mindysink.com.