Festivals, even modest ones like Dia de los Deftones, have never been Michael Damico’s thing. Too many people, long lines, expensive tickets; these are typically exclusionary factors on their own. But when it comes to Deftones—the band, their sound and legacy—well, the band is more than worth the trouble for Damico, 45, of Southern California’s Inland Empire.
It’s been so long since Damico has seen Deftones perform he’s not sure when he last saw them. Life—as anyone old enough to remember the 90s can tell you—gets in the way. But these days are different, and this day in particular he is seizing firmly and presently.
In all fairness, the Dia de los Deftones festival does feel different than most. Gallagher Square, with less than three acres at its disposal, is a modest venue, especially considering the nine successful studio albums and 34 years since the band’s formation. Most musical performances here are held inside Petco Park, the home of the San Diego Padres baseball club, and that stage, usually situated in center field, is associated with names like Metallica or Elton John. The Deftones affair, on the other hand, is a humbler handful of acts, appearing on 2-3 stages, and crammed into about six hours. And unlike other fests, this one is curated by the members of Deftones, resulting in a left-of-the-dial lineup that is never, ever boring. Not to mention: No one at the fest today has seen a Dia de los Deftones since the Before Times, and as fans stream in, it appears that this little fest was not forgotten over these last few, terrible years.
For his small part in this, Damico has been a fan of the band since 1995. His love for their music was instantaneous, beginning when his best friend put their debut, Adrenaline, into a CD player and said, “I’d like to introduce you to your new favorite band.” This was maybe an odd choice at the time, as Damico’s tastes usually sat outside the heavier genres, but the whispering/shrieking vocals of Chino Moreno spoke to him. Fairly instantly, the band’s music gave him honest to goodness goosebumps.
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Damico’s renewed motivation to seize more days began last year, when he noticed some strange things happening to his body. Suddenly his sense of taste for some foods were distorted or simply gone. Even sweets tasted like ashes in his mouth. His sleep patterns shifted, the migraines began, and his fingernails grew brittle. While there are few forty-somethings with a completely stellar bill of health, he knew it wasn’t his age. And he was right, as doctors removed a tumor the size of a walnut from his brain earlier this year. The surgery was considered a success, but his doctors insisted he must begin radiation and chemotherapy treatments just in case those margins weren’t clean.
One of the things that cancer doctors tend to prescribe, outside of pharmaceuticals like Temozolomide, is a positive outlook. Part of staying the course in treatment is seeing the light beyond the discomfort, and living like you are, indeed, going to be just fine. This is vital, some say. Taking this under advisement, Damico is at the fest to see his favorite band for the first time in over two decades, and with any luck, discover something new.
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Like any middle-aged dad, he arrives at the festival bright and early, well before the first band, a shoegaze outfit called Cold Gawd, plays the first note of the day. The members of Cold Gawd, and just about all of the bands playing today, are probably decades younger than Damico. He doesn’t know any of the bands by name, but unlike other men of a certain age, he doesn’t fall victim to the “Kids Today…” crutch when Cold Gawd’s layered noise rubs him the wrong way. After all, there are far worse places to be.
Damico became a father at the tender age of twenty. The marriage to the mother did not go well, and following the birth of his first son, he would often feel tremendous guilt doing things that any other twenty-something would do. For a time, he had room for Deftones shows, but by the time his second son was born it felt only responsible to quietly work his grocery job and stop throwing money and time at bands, even ones he loved deeply. Today, he’ll tell you it was worth it. He loves his kids so damn much and watching the kids in these early bands reminds him of this.
There was the inevitable divorce around age 30, plus a layoff here, and a shit job there. He remarried and became a stepfather to two kids about the same age as his own. Eventually, after he went back to school for a degree in IT Infrastructure, he found a stable and mostly satisfying life. All except for the tumor, that is.
Perhaps trying to stay positive, Mike has mostly good things to say about each act at Dia de los Deftones. To his ears, for example, the songs of Provoker harbor elements of some of his favorites – early Depeche Mode and the dreamier versions of The Cure, which is more than alright with him.
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Dia de los Deftones 2022 is a bit truncated this year, and has only two stages, as opposed to the previous three, so there is a lot of time ping-ponging between stages, which isn’t all bad if you’re content watching from the back of the crowd, as a good portion of the older crowd is. You’ve got to hand it to the organizers of this event: the timing is airtight. You’ve got to move if you don’t want to miss much. At least Damico is getting his steps in.
The proceedings on the main stage (aka All Souls Stage) begin the day with Destroy Boys, a punk outfit from Deftones’ hometown of Sacramento. Damico marvels, as so many forty-somethings do when confronted with young people doing young things, and says of Destroy Boys: “It’s hard to argue with a band that knows how to hold a crowd in the palm of their hand.”
It would be fair to characterize Dia de los Deftones as an unpretentious event, not necessarily aimed at commerce but rather community. It’s a gathering with wide open arms, but is really only meant for the most faithful subset of fans, and is held in an unassuming venue, projected through the cultural lens of Día de los Muertos, with all of the trimmings that come with it. There are no glaring fingerprints of corporate sponsorship, no Clear Channel stations pushing bumper stickers, and best of all, it comes with a lineup that defies conventional wisdom. All of that to say that it feels like it belongs to the fans, above anyone else.
The breakout of the day seems to be Audrey Nuna, who, like previous early evening performers at this fest (Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion, in 2018 and 2019, respectively), seems poised for a mainstream breakthrough. Nuna takes the stage and shouts, “San Diego, are you ready to fuck some shit up?”
San Diego is more than ready, it turns out.
Nuna’s stage presence is beset by an unmitigated enthusiasm and is consistently, bewilderingly contagious. Even when a bar doesn’t hit as hard as she intends, there’s always another killer one coming, usually at a breakneck pace. Her stamina and breath control are dumbfounding. Toward the end of her set, Nuna repeatedly asks an already crowded audience to come closer to the stage. “I want to smell you!” she informs us before launching into a riotous, cathartic finale.
Damico, for his part, is floored, and is subscribing to her YouTube channel mid-set. “She earned at least one new fan tonight,” he says, glowing.
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Damico is diving into carne asada tacos as Phantogram launch into “Black Out Days,” which, like most of their music, could be foreboding and dark, but is corralled on the pop side of things. Their performance is either underwhelming or the tacos are overwhelming, as he barely regards the band. Although, there might be a good reason for this. His diet will change drastically when he starts treatment in December, so he’ll be damned if he’s not going to enjoy all the good food, especially decent Mexican food – in San Diego, of all places – whenever it’s available.
Later, at the Calaveras stage, Freddie Gibbs, the Grammy-nominated hip-hop phenom and Madlib collaborator from Gary, Indiana, is here to de-stroy. The oaky baritone from his albums is somewhat replaced here by a bellowing, roaring performance that lands somewhere between Killer Mike and Danny Brown. The set is interspersed with some impressive stretches of acapella rhymes, a few jokes, and more than one soliloquy (he and Destroy Boys share a similar distaste for police brutality). Gibbs’ energy isn’t quite what Audrey Nuna’s was, but he gets close, and for a guy who turned 40 this year, that ain’t bad.
At one point, Gibbs introduces his young son and a smile creeps onto Damico’s face. His kids are grown but he remembers when they were that small. It feels like yesterday, truth be told.
With the sun setting on the All Souls stage, it’s time for the world’s favorite groove-core band, Turnstile. I tell Damico that it’s been interesting watching Turnstile go from a quiet success among hardcore circles to the universal acclaim of last year’s GLOW ON. Turnstile lost a founding member in guitarist Brady Ebert earlier this year, but they don’t seem any worse for it. People come and go, and so it goes. Turnstile’s enthusiasm is a little lost on Damico, and it’s hard for him to focus on Turbnstile, as ebullient and infectious as they so obviously are. But the headliner is impending, and after more years than he can account for, the big moment is nearly here.
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Deftones are a seminal thing in the life and times of Michael Damico. He was there multiple times in the late 90s at various southern California venues, where he watched them transform from what some called aggro-rock at the time to a more layered and dynamic band. He was in line to buy limited edition copies of White Pony the day it was released back in the early days of summer in 2000. Along the way, he forgave them for the occasional artistic risk that didn’t work out. After all, they are a band that would continue to give him goosebumps, even after his show-going days had waned. Goosebumps, every time, without fail.
Following his diagnosis last October, Mike turned to their music for spiritual guidance. It’s difficult for him to explain all the baggage that comes with a cancer diagnosis. One day you’re glad to be alive, the next you’re not sure how to get out of bed. Somehow the confrontational aspects of Deftones’ music, the yearning in Moreno’s voice, and of course, the catharsis allowed Damico to channel some of the fear and anxiety out of his body, while reinforcing his will to face surgery, and all the implications that come with his looming treatment.
At a show in ‘97 at the Glass House in Pomona, California, Chino Moreno, after flirting with the idea all evening, jumped from a 10-foot speaker and into the welcoming embrace of the audience. Damico was one of those embracing the singer that night, doing what fans do, but maybe with a unique type of appreciation. It feels exactly the same tonight as it did back then. This is Deftones’ club, these are their people.
Any Deftones fan knows they aren’t in the business of disappointing fans, and tonight isn’t an exception. Setlists from the last two Dia de los Deftones are replete with deep cuts, covers, and debuts, regarded as tailor made for the “Goon Squad”. Tonight, as Damico looks on, they make multiple paths throughout their discography, touching on just about every album.
The set is a renewal for Damico, who has waited so many years to see them again. They’re playing some of the best stuff they’ve ever written. They played “Minus Blindfold,” for goodness sake, which, like Damico himself, is another artifact from ‘95. That’s not to mention performances of “Rocket Skates,” “Rx Queen,” and “Lotion.” This has been a damned good time.
Damico loves the Deftones, for everything they’ve given him.
Goosebumps, still, after all these years.