Besides the Sahara tent at Coachella, the closest I have ever come to attending an actual rave was a Sasha and Digweed show that my friend’s older brother took us to when we were 19. It was at some weird-ass place in San Francisco that I have never been back to and was most notable for the unreal looking Scottish chick that somehow joined us for our adventure and was kind enough to give us ecstasy induced massages. So Saturday’s HARD Summer Music Festival at the LA State Historic Park in Downtown was completely foreign territory to me and in the days that approached the 7th, a pronounced feeling of dread filled my days as I imagined hours of boredom spent listening to endless background music and top 40 remixes. What I failed to consider, and a major reason why the festival appeared to be the much-needed success the LA rave scene needed after Electric Daisy Carnival, was that the people who attend these things, who live for them, are just about the nicest people you will encounter in a public forum. To play Scrooge to thousands of doped-up teenagers is a lot harder than you would think.
Besides, there were plenty of police officers to rain the kids’ parade. As you may or may not know, at a recent LA rave called Electric Daisy Carnival, a 15-year-old girl died of a drug overdose, thus causing a push (or at least making more public the already existing push) from various groups to put an end to raves. Pretty much all my thoughts on this issue could be seen as insensitive to the deceased girl and her family, so I’ll keep them to myself, but yeah, pushing raves away from major venues and back to the fringes will probably not be better for the rave survival rate. And regardless of whether the raves’ opponents are right or wrong, there are absolutely no news stories about the fest on the morning after, so the police-state atmosphere seemed to work. But at what cost, as the resources spent to have 30 or 60 or so police officers just standing outside the event must draw from other areas that deserve protection, as well. They had ATVs. They had K-9 drug dogs. You had to remove your shoes and stand in the dirt. You couldn’t bring in cigarettes if they were opened. Luckily, even all the added security didn’t make it difficult to get in, as there was no line when I arrived before 6 p.m. (And a note to anyone who hid their drugs in their shoes, pockets or along their belt lines: you deserved to have your drug privileges revoked.)
Now, I rarely drink these days and pretty much never while I’m covering a show (“working”), yet I found myself heading straight for the ATM so I could leave there and go without a stop to the bar area. I felt like I was copping out of experiencing the event, but I would discover that at these large dance festivals, there is no wrong place to be. Sure some people might have favorite DJs, some people want to hear trance or dance hall or dubstep or whatever, but as long as you are having fun, it seems like you are raving correctly.
From the bar (Coors Light in one hand, pretty damn strong Margarita in the other) I took in Erol Alkin, who I would consider the measuring bar for the day. From all the DJ’s and artists I heard over the day, he would be the one artist I would pick out of an auditory lineup if someone were to ask my about my assumptions of what the majority of the music would sound like and what the attendees actually wanted to hear. It reminded me of the kind of music they would play at Babylon in Queer As Folk. While providing the required ambiance for the early evening but not really ever reaching out to me to become more than background music, I’m pretty sure the consensus was general approval for his set. I have the distinct thought, though, that the people would like most music that sounded slick and was danceable. What was disappointing was that Alkin does actually work in a wide range of genres and has even produced whole albums for The Long Blondes, Late of the Pier, and Mystery Jets. Not exactly the best indie out there, but it was enough to hope for something more than hearing La Roux’s “In For The Kill” as my first song of the day. (Not that it’s a bad song, but at Coachella ’09, I honestly heard it a minimum of five times a day, and actually only heard it twice at this event.)
I used this time to really focus on my people watching, and was troubled by the fact that, during the week, these are normal people. They have jobs, they go to school, and they walk amongst us undetected for the dance music enthusiasts that they are. But, when it is time to go dancing, they don’t fuck around. They represented a variety of races, styles, and sexual preferences, but bond over their need to let go in a complete manner, with the mental release and physical release working in harmony and both getting the attention they deserve. Around this time, I got a sudden and real fear that I was going to run into someone from the office decked out in hot pants and chewing gum, with the ambition and drive of someone with something to prove. I felt like this community must be like Fight Club, a weird recreation that people outside can’t comprehend and, as a result, assume it is automatically a detriment to our society.
Thus you get fishy incidents like last year’s HARD Summer Festival at the Forum, where police, in full on riot gear, descended upon the event and shut down the venue before it really got started. And what happens if you get these events kicked out of every big venue in the city? The kids aren’t going to stop taking drugs, they aren’t going to stop disobeying their parents and they sure as hell aren’t going to stop dressing ridiculously and dancing in groups. They will just do it in fields in the Inland Empire, far away from medical response teams on-site and trained security guards. I’m pretty sure forcing a mass exodus on a giant group of people before they have had a chance to come down from their drugs was not safer than letting the event go on as planned.
But none of these issues seemed to linger over the park. I was gradually becoming more comfortable, but was relying on my notebook to keep me occupied. I finally even made contact with a few of the attendees, chatting it up with a middle-age gay couple about how they needed more table space to place your drink down, then getting approached by a lady who wanted to trade me a sip of her beer for a cigarette. I gave her the smoke for free because I am a nice guy (read as I don’t care if it’s free booze, I’m not drinking out of a stranger’s beer.)
When photographer Jesse Bloch met up with me, I was already feeling better because of the booze and his enthusiasm got me in the mood to have a good time. Jesse’s first comment to me was about how intense the scene was and his smile said it all. It was a photographer’s dream to take pictures of this weirdness. Music continually played courtesy of Destructo, who served his role well between sets for the evening, with a nice mix of recognizable club music steadily coming from the PA and quiet, dramatic build ups to the evening’s bigger acts.
Next up was Diplo‘s first performance of the evening. As half of Major Lazer, he’s probably enthusiastic about the success they’re attaining, even though he’s been in the public eye for quite some time, what with his production work and remixes (most notably his collaborations with M.I.A.). Now he enjoys one of those rare positions in music where fans of virtually any genre can claim him as their own and even the people that don’t listen to him usually respect the work that he does, at least. Luckily for us, this ease at which he can now work has not brought about complacency in his live sets. Though he also brought the La Roux song, Diplo generally displayed a wide range of tastes with songs like “Bombs Over Baghdad” (given the full Diplo aesthetic) appearing side by side with his best known tracks, even with little Major Lazer taster portions. Then, in the latter half of his set, the artist announced he was “going to play something really different,” leading the way into an African-sounding number that very well might be The Very Best, somehow through in DJ Shadow and actually saw the set climax with a cool take on The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?”.
Diplo was energetic throughout the set, sticking mostly to his go-to’s of mentioning and emphasizing the word “Los Angeles” in every statement he made, as well as his comfort instruction of “let me see your hands” or the variation”get your hands up?” when it was more urgent. The most troubling thing about Diplo’s set was that I actually enjoyed it and tend to think that the people who are really into the kind of dance tunes HARD is known for would not enjoy Diplo’s more unique dance-hall flavoured tunes, but his success was evident all around me. Both the entire crowded bar area and the equally competitive drinking fountain still managed to seem like dance parties and all of them raised their hands when he said so.
The 20 or so minutes that were allowed for Crystal Castles to get set up was enough time to catch a glimpse of the Harder stage, which you wouldn’t even have known existed if you just used your ears, speaking to the excellent planning that HARD did. Virtually no bleed is something to commend, and is apparently really hard to accomplish for some other LA area festivals, despite the fact that they are often quite bigger. So when I reached the Harder stage, I was shocked to see a giant crowd over there, as well. But that might have to do with the fact that a local artist and much-hyped DJ Flying Lotus was playing. More so than at his record release party, the crowd didn’t really know what to do. There was some dancing on the outskirts, but it was more of the interpretive variety. Otherwise, it seemed like more of a relaxing diversion, which for the people that had been there for eight hours and were really appreciating the cool night air, it might have been the perfect set to take in. Also, I bet those unpredictable space-ship sounds are pretty great when you’re high out of your mind.
And this is where things got interesting…
In the front of the HARD Stage, the festival’s focal point, was a barrier with seats on the stage side of the metal fence and a sizable gap with had a healthy number of security guards manning. But even showing our photo pass wouldn’t allow us access, as there was no photo area provided to the media, unless you were one of the HARD photographers, who were allowed on stage and in the forbidden photo pit. I’m sure they would love to sell you a photo if you’re interested. And though this would never affect how I view a festival, which I feel was superbly run, it just seemed like a pretty bogus rule to try to monopolize the high quality photo market for their event.
But we are Consequence of Sound, we overcome. And luckily, these are the nicest people on earth, right? Right! But through a combination of my margarita charm, Jesse’s rugged good looks, people’s drug induced desire to please, and susceptibility to suggestion, not to mention the fact that a lot of people at these events don’t even look at the stage, we were able to get a spot with at least a fighting chance. Did this take away from the Crystal Castles set in the least? Nope, they completely kicked ass. Everything that I had heard about their live experience would be classified as mixed and that’s being nice. They are known for their audience interaction, which we got in spades, and their high energy, but criticism usually revolves around them sounding bad or having major attitude issues. But I can only review the show that we saw, and it’s a bummer if they can’t bring that in a daily basis, because they killed it at HARD Fest.
In fact, Alice Glass seemed eager to hang out in the crowd more than she wanted to be on stage. The tiny, ferocious singer crowd surfed while spitting out unintelligible lyrics and striking one epic pose after another, all just usually visible as a shadow in the fog clouds due to what seems to be an unhealthy relationship with their fog machine. Most entertaining was watching the two security guards who were in charge of keeping her safe. She would act like she was going to return to the stage and then bolt back into the crowd. How much was for the audience and how much was just fun for them is certainly a valid question to raise about the band, but when she lays down on top of the vocal monitors, you know she brought it for the night.
As far as the music goes, they sounded pretty great. Glass screams like a mental patient better than anyone and though our position did not allow us to verify this, there’s a guy in the group, as well. Who knew!? And though I feel a little lame calling out two of their most well-known songs, that kind of seems like what this kind of event is about. No one wants to hear that one jam that only they appreciate. Dancing is a group activity and what is best for the team is what we should commend. And while “Alice Practice” is their best song, where Glass’ asylum intensity seems to get in a wrestling match with a classic Atari video game system, and it did indeed get everyone freaking out, their single from their more recent self-titled album was probably more impressive. While Glass can certainly scream, lean on a monitor, plead while laying on the floor, and a number of other front-woman attributes, “Celestica” proved that she can drag herself off the stage and actually sing a difficult number quite well. So while a lot of people seem pretty ready to burn them as witches the next time they screw-up, it’s important to remember that they are young, they are getting better, and that they don’t seem to be going anywhere.
Right before Crystal Castle concluded, I indicated to Jesse that is was time to be assholes. My logic was that in a place where everyone was so nice, an asshole would rule. All we had to do was cut straight across the thickest section of audience so we can be front and center for Major Lazer. And why we might not have gotten all the way there, we got pretty close with relative ease. And since Crystal Castles had left me pretty pumped, I was curious to see what all this Major Lazer fuss was about. Sure, I knew the songs everyone knew, listened to the album a few times, and loved their videos, but I remained ignorant of what their show was actually about.
I still don’t know what Major Lazer’s show is about, but I know I had a near embarrassing amount of fun. The act begins simply enough, with two DJs, the more intense and friendly Diplo and Switch, who apparently can do his job with a cigarette in the other hand, which is rad. But I didn’t want to see them. I wanted to see obese women with crazy faces, a guy spin a necklace like a hula hoop, dancing that resembles sex by really coordinated people. Here’s what we did get:
- They tossed out tons of green foam lazers, similar to what the Clipper girls do to pump up the crowd. And while I totally wanted one and thought it was a fun idea, the fact is the Lakers don’t have to shoot t-shirts into the audience to get people excited. They are just so good that people get excited. The Clippers need the shirts.
- There was a clear reaction when one of the songs kicked in a dubstep beat. In fact, I heard the word “dubstep” audibly said from all directions.
- Skerrit Bwoy loves Hennessey. Like scary style.
-They busted out Ace of Base’s “All That She Wants”, joining The Mountain Goats as a brave soul to take on the perfection that is AoB.
- There was an attempt to get a shirt wave going that worked better than I ever would have imagined. Sure the girls on other people’s shoulders were just waiting for the chance to take off their shirt, but the participation from the rest of the crowd was remarkable and fun to watch.
- Besides Bwoy, the other stage regular was a female dancer who was talented and beautiful. But watching Major Lazer means you are watching Bwoy pretty much the whole time. There were also sporadic tutu wearing dancers and, of course, the Chinese New Year dragon people.
And I am only touching on the antics and chaos that happened, while Diplo and Switch seemed to have a jolly time watching the chaos ensue. But, as talented as these two DJ’s are, Skerrit Bwoy is the secret weapon. They may not need him to make a hit song, but their live show is him. And the band’s Wikipedia page does not even mention him. Seriously, whatever they are paying him is not enough. Who else could make an “everyone jump” request during “Jump” and see it not take off, then demand that they start again and get a thousand people to jump as high as they can. The show drew to its conclusion with Bwoy making like Eddie Vedder and giving the stage scaffolding a climb, then inviting a bunch of girls on to the stage. And while none of my wishlist items were really fulfilled, there was a ladder jump that was kind of like the sexy dances they make look so unappealing.
And that should have been the end of the story, but Major Lazer unfortunately offered one more song and then cut it off after a few seconds. I thought maybe they were too far overtime, but the sounds of megaphone sirens saw a couple of concerned HARD employees rushing in. Everything from there on out would just be speculation, though Bwoy seemed agitated, as a massive group of cops did a slow walk through the inaccessible photo-pit. Ultimately, no one appeared to be kicked out or rescued and Major Lazer was unfortunately stuck with a sudden ending rather than the finish they deserved. But I almost have already forgotten about that part of the show.
And while Soulwax may have seemed like a rather abrupt comedown, my friend pointed out that it is a more responsible way to end a show. Have the last band be a little more relaxed and let the atmosphere dictate how they leave. Jesse and I stayed to get an idea of what they were about and they left me pretty disinterested. Sure, it was nice to see some real instruments, but we had also just been living in chaos for an hour and didn’t want to go out of that zone with the older gentlemen in the ugly matching suits. But like I mentioned earlier, Soulwax is the kind of music that these people like. But as a guy who was just trying to see what the rave culture is up to and maybe check out a couple of event bands, I was regretting any of the minutes I took away from Soulwax to meander around the yard with Jesse and look for cool camera angles.
And as far as I know, I still haven’t heard any news of injuries or deaths. In all honesty, despite the annoyances, the event felt safe, well organized, and easy to navigate. The speakers were loud and when some lighting went out at the very top of the stage before Soulwax, they actually took the time to send a guy up to repair it. Likewise, the kids did their part, acting kind and courteous, looking out for each other and having a blast. And though I in no way encourage drug use or the lifestyle that this kind of show may promote, if it keeps you from being an asshole, then I would be willing to negotiate that stance.
Photography by Jesse Bloch
Gallery by Jesse Bloch