AARON MARTIN // If you made it to What the Festival 2015 this year you no doubt came home starry-eyed with memories of music and merriment… and not a little bit tired too.
For those of you that couldn’t attend to WTF this year, certain agents affiliated with Oregon Music News made the trek to get the inside scoop on one of Oregon’s finest music events along with several thousand of their fine festival friends from around the world.
Much like the snake oil slingin’ salesmen who brought their medicine shows to the dusty peoples of the bygone Wild West, modern festivals like WTF offer a myriad of cures to salve whatever ails the mind, the body, the spirit. “Snake oil salesman, you say? That’s not a very nice thing to say about What the Festival,” you might be thinking. In truth, it’s not really a jab. Sure, all those olde tyme cure-all peddlers were swindlers and hacks. True, their tonics and salves were naught but cheap placebo cures. Lack of scruples aside, though, these intriguing con artists of olde knew how to woo a crowd. They didn’t just sell dubious tonics at their medicine shows. They had sword swallowers. Fire dancers. Music. Theatre. Magic tricks. Etcetera. Indeed, they had a lot in common with the carnival, with vaudeville, and with modern, forward thinking festivals that work hard to combine a rich experience that’s one part musical, one part art, and five parts fine community. That’s the formula of What the Festival — all the theatre and magick without the con (or a minimum of it at least… say what you will about parking passes, the cost of a bowl of Tom Kha, boutique camping, and so on).
One of the most exciting things about What the Festival this year (yes of course besides all the beats!) was the strong presenc e of artists of the non-musical kind. Nomadic vendors on the festival circuit such as Buddhaful, Circle Couture, Anahata Designs, and Infinity Now offering a cornucopia of steampunk digs, raver stuffs, fairy garb, burner chic styles, wizard wear, poi toys, blinkies, and fifth world garments for the festival goer with a penchant for the finest unusual fashions and accessories.
And oh, the Illuminated Forest. Every music festival relies on visuals to create a vibe almost as much as they do on sound, but What the Festival takes it to a higher level with their annual outdoor art gallery that hosts dozens of artists and their creations every year. It was a pleasant surprise to see many more art pieces on display this year. According to art & experience liaison Eli Michael’s, What the Festival 2015 had in fact doubled its art presence over last year thanks to the hard work and insightful curation of Ghost Stag Productions’ Michael Millet and Narayani Matson. From the mosaic skin of the Cosmic Messenger pegasus/unicorn hybrid, to Casey Fitzpatrick’s whimsical forest dryads, to a sacred temple of sticks and stone twisting up to the sky, the Illuminated Forest swelled with artistic offerings you won’t see anywhere else. Even the familiar bamboo portals demarcating the entrance to the Illuminated Forest are beautiful. And the giant Silent Disco ball on the hill between the main stages wowed more than a few WTF newies (“look, it’s a moon!”).
Outside the Illuminated Forest were some new roaming additions to behold. There were the Kraken Gemini, two massive, phosphorescent squid totems requiring four, yes four people to parade around the festival. What the Festers were seen flocking, dancing, and otherwise worshiping these many-colored behemoths who were so tall you could see them undulating at the Effin Stage all the way at the Main Stage. And how they fit under the Silent Disco ball, it’s hard to say. But they did. And they danced. And it was glorious.
This year’s wealth of carefully curated art pieces in the Illuminated Forest and elsewhere is a sign that What the Festival continues to embrace the future of music festivals that aren’t content to simply provide music under sun and stars, but rather provide an experience that encompasses the gamut of human artistic expression.
Squids, and fairies, and hippies, oh my!
So what about the music?
Friday’s first beats began were courtesy of Schoolboy QT at WTF’s venerated Splash Stage, and things were notably off to a slow start – though at that point in the festival, most attendees were still sweating in their cars on the road or fumbling with their tent stakes… or fending off rattlesnakes and coyotes (not really). For those that had the time to chill it was Gladkill’s futuristic club beats and urban basslines that began to draw the people in. The early pool crowd swelled soon after as Wave Racer came on, a crowd favorite. His stuff may be a bit frenetic for the older crowd; indeed he hops from song to video-gamey song at a frenetic pace that belies his skill on the decks. was followed by the 90’s hip-hop stylings of Snakehips, an intriguing London duo who are relative newcomers to the music scene. Their recent hit “On and On,” featuring Aussie singer George Maple, has a sound that could be straight out of 1997, but somehow still flows seamlessly in a modern summer jam DJ set. Meanwhile, funk house master and PDX’s leading silent disco purveyor Joe Takimba rocked the Equinox stage against the backdrop of Mt. Hood as the sun dipped low. Fitting, no?
There’s a little jewel of a spot halfway down the Illuminated Forest path called Shinto-a-Go-Go where a certain little-known DJ named Sesqui plays a set every year. Last year his fever pitched, funky world beats were accompanied by a pair of tribal drummers. This year? He outdid himself, but not without a little help from some of the most talented dancers to take that stage. They hopped onstage in trios and duos, rotating into the mix one song at a time. A trio all done up in sumptuous Brazilian carnivale feathers – and not much else – tantalized the crowd with shakin’ hips agile feet. Another group wowed the crowd with a mix of break dance and latin moves to loads of applause.
Crowd favorite Keys and Krates rocked the main stage, followed by Griz. Griz falls into a category of the harder working artists hot on the scene today – it’s unknown if the man even sleeps:
Griz hasn’t had a chance to post any WTF material from his Friday night beatz ‘n’ brass set, but wait til you hear who he ran into:
Our sources are still verifying that intel, of course. What was verified was the presence of a brand new stage at What the Festival: the Dragon Stage. Yup, it’s a dragon, Chinese-style. Yup, it’s got a pagoda on its back. And stacks of speakers that can really bump. Nestled in a newly cleared vale at the bottom of the Illuminated Forest, the Dragon Stage was supposed to shoot flames during shows. That was the plan, at least. What the Festival’s art curators also invited other flame effects to the fest as well, including an LED-lined chandelier that – you guessed it – shoots fire! An Oregon Music News agent got to test out the Flamethrower Chandelier (yes it has it’s own Facebook page). As you can imagine, it was quite a rush pulling a chain that erupts flames several feet in the air. Sadly, those land management bureaucracy powers that be didn’t appreciate the care and safety that artist Ryan Rammage assured us went into the creation of his fire chandelier. Word is that the local fire marshal put the kybosh on both the Flamethrower Chandelier without consulting the artists as to its operation and safety procedures, although fire pits and cigarette smoking was still allowed. In fact What the Festival’s fire-shooting dragon effects were shut off too! Safety first? Maybe so, maybe no. Only a handful of Thursday’s festival goers got to enjoy the chandelier, and several who came back the next night with their friends found it on lockdown. The chandelier’s creature assures us that his work will make an appearance in the future at other festivals.
Fire politics aside, the Dragon Stage lineup was deeper and bass-heavier (albeit darker) thanks to Portland original Anna Langley weaving a seamlessly smooth house set with a maturity and poise that distinguished her from certain younger and more mainstream DJ’s at the fest. And the hand off between Anna Langley and Seattle’s Nordic Soul (Sean Horton) was so deftly executed as to be virtually unnoticeable. Nordic Soul, a seasoned DJ and president of Decibel music fest, was in his element delivering slick, choice tracks late into the night.
It was a notably hotter and windier Saturday, yet the turnout at the Splash Stage was even bigger than Friday thanks to another smashing lineup drawing the crowd. JPOD’s set channeled elements of reggae and even electroswing into an punchy, frolicky mix.
London’s Ambassadeurs‘ showed a penchant for soulful vocal loops and unique samples that kept the pool packed into the afternoon, while Daktyl brought some of the chunkiest, ground rumbling bass lines of the fest so far. One of the highlights of Saturday was Laurent Clerc, a.k.a. Little People. His was a sublime sunset set on the main stage as Clerc married some truly unexpectedly harmonious sonic flows, most notably his own “Start Shootin'” with a remix of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.” Those revelers who ventured quite a bit off the beaten path ended up in the clutches of the Saloon Ensemble, whose snarky/campy/crass aural hilarity ranged from dubiously romantic Burning Man love songs to rants about festival parking passes to an utterly amazing spin on Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” to which half the crowd sang along. Fort Knox Fivebrought some serious energy to a respectable turnout at the Dragon Stage, and Big Gigantic lived up to their XL crowd swelling reputation to finish out another night of beat-fueled revelry under the stars.
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The Splash Stage’s cool waters and cabana ambiance are a welcome respite for What-the-Festers from Oregon’s high desert sun, but the lure became irresistible when Thomas Jack’s Tropical Pool Party came on. WTF’s pool parties have arguably been the high mark each year, but of all the daytime sets – and there were some real hits out there – Thomas Jack and crew brought a clean, uplifting summer sound that rivaled even the chunky funky beats of 2014’s Dirty Bird Pool Party (courtesy of Detroit-based innovator Claude Von Stroke). Tropical vibes, saxophone riffs, and a real live fiddle added those little touches that distinguish Thomas Jack’s “tropical house” from similar styles. The size of the crowd may be the simplest barometer of success for a DJ, but the true measure is less quantifiable. It’s the energy. The vibe. The collective soul of so many brought together to dance and move and play along with the digital maestro on the decks. It isn’t easy to pick a favorite among the various talents that played What the Festival, but an artist’s ability to create such a vibe is a sign of an up-and-comer who is more than hype.
Many festivals seem to wind down on the last day, but 2015’s What the Festival attendees seemed to have finally settled into festival life by Sunday, especially with such serious attractions promising a long night ahead: Bass Coast cornerstone The Librarian’s impeccably curated set, Slow Magicclean and melodic as ever, and of course Odesza. WTF 2015 certainly was the year to marry digital sounds with live music – Griz’s saxaphone, Slow Magic’s drums, Thomas Jack’s fiddle, but Odesza was a real treat. Anyone who’s heard their albumIn Return knows what a truly lovely experience it is from track first to track last. It’s the sort of album that TIME Magazine said has a sound that “is unified under a groove, built on Odesza’s multi-layered melodies, spaced-out beats and cinematic charm.” Now imagine hearing that album live.
Yup, nothing more to say about that.
Some came to What the Festival for the music, others for the pool. Some came to stare at tree bark thru kaleidoscope glasses, still others came to worship the Kraken Gemini in all their bio-luminescent gorgeousness. There was so much to see and do at What the Festival that you literally couldn’t. Do it. All. It’s enough of an undertaking just to convey all of What the Festival’s festy splendor with naught but humble words and pictures! Good thing “doin’ it all” ain’t the point of What the Festival. Suffice to say they came, they danced, the went home happy.
And only one guy fell for the instant hair restoring tonic. Yeah, he was “that guy.”
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No, not *that* guy!
Hey, check out this superb What the Festival photo gallery courtesy of Sunyata Studios: WTF 2015 Photo Gallery