April 29-30, 2011 - Rockdale, Texas
There’s a new contender on the festival scene and there’s a rising tide of electronica love behind the Nocturnal Festival. As the name suggests, it’s an event designed for the night owl crowd. Music went from 4 pm until 4 am on both days at Apache Pass. It seems like an odd location at first, in the middle of nowhere about 45 miles northeast of Austin. But the remote location—aka “Downtown Texas”—allows for the music to go late and for a large festival grounds to be tricked out with all kinds of psychedelic eye candy for nocturnal adventurers.
The musical theme is heavily focused on the electronic music scene, with the majority of the acts being DJs or electronic duos. But the festival was also savvy enough to bring in a handful of groovy bands to help draw in the jam crowd as well. This created a great mutual crossover opportunity. There was a little paranoia in the air for some in the beginning, as the festival website made it sound almost like a giant narc trap. But entry wasn’t much different from most festivals, though it seemed an inordinate amount of gum and cigarettes were confiscated (only unopened packs were allowed.)
Upon entering the festival grounds, attendees discovered an Alice in Wonderland type of alternate reality. Music blared from four different stages and the eye candy was something to behold. This included not only the trippy festival décor, but also the attendees themselves, with the female sector dressed in particularly stylish and tantalizing fashion. It had to be one of the sexiest festival crowds of all time, with brightly colored and scantily clad outfits being the popular choice of the ladies. Nocturnal doesn’t really start happening until it gets dark, as the twilight seems to activate the party senses.
Beats Antique—8 pm
This rising Bay Area buzz band got things going with a hot 70-minute set at the main stage, lighting the fuse for the weekend party. The trio’s mix of electronica beats with Eastern sounds and melodies is an increasingly infectious flavor, earning the band and already devoted following in Austin with their recent ACL and SXSW appearances. The sexy belly dancing of Zoe Jakes was tailor made for Nocturnal, while bandmates David Satori and Tommy Cappel sparked the crowd time and again with their rocking beats and psychedelic sounds. The band and friends all donned animal masks at the end, helping to launch Nocturnal further into the alternate reality party land atmosphere.
This Disco Biscuits side project features bassist Marc Brownstein and keyboardist Aaron Magner, who were one of the headliners for last year’s Nocturnal Fest. But the band was plagued by technical difficulties that delayed the start of their set by 15-minutes, making some in the crowd rather restless. When the band failed to catch fire right out of the gate, many seemed tempted to check out some of the festival’s other action.
Eliot Lipp—9:30 pm
The Upside Down Room stage wasn’t really a room at all since it was outdoors, as were all four festival stages. But it quickly became acknowledged as a great spot to be, with a dazzling laser show in an area surrounded by more trees than the larger but mostly barren main stage area. Eliot Lipp was throwing down a funky DJ dance party that really sizzled in this atmosphere. Lipp’s use of vintage synth gear to blend hip-hop, house, funk and electro creates a groovy sound that goes beyond the standard repetitive house rhythms that were coming from the Queen’s Grounds stage most of the weekend. Lipp had played a great SXSW afternoon set the previous month at Madison House’s Breakfast Beats and Afternoon Treats day party, but his sound went to a higher level here with lasers shining through the trees in the night, making for a great Nocturnal treat.
STS9 were the perfect band for Nocturnal Festival, taking a love of electronic music and mixing it with fully organic band instrumentation. This formula has made STS9 one of the most unique bands in the world and Nocturnal was a great opportunity for the band to perhaps win some new fans from the techno rave scene. Bassist David Murphy was in particularly high spirits, with the band having just returned to the road the previous week following his successful operation for a cancerous tumor. Many fans feared this would sideline STS9 for at least six months if not more, but here they were sounding just as strong as at the Halloween shows they played in Austin last fall.
“Evasive Manuevers” pumped up the crowd with its pulsing beat and surging wave of trance-rock. The band threw down intense versions of classic fan favorites like “EHM” and “Inspire Strikes Back”, with “EHM” also featuring some fireworks in the sky to go along with the musical fireworks on the tribute to author John Perkins’ “Confessions of an Economic Hitman” expose of American imperialism. But the band also featured some great new material. “When the Dust Settles” utilized a strikingly trippy synth line with punchy bass and a tight beat that had everyone getting down. For those who were turned off by repetitive house beats at the Queens Ground stage, STS9 drummer Zach Velmer and percussionist Jeffree Lerner were the antidote. This dynamic duo always drives the music higher, showing how much electronic flavored music can evolve with live organic beats. “One Minute to Midnight” was another winner, with guitarist Hunter Brown’s sharp riffs leading the way on the vibrant new tune. It had a cinematic flavor, as if a team of revolutionaries were on the move to re-take the world for peace and harmony.
STS9 usually plays two sets, but were scheduled for only one here, so they let it all hang out with a high energy affair that seemed to create a higher level of unity consciousness with each successive groove. The band closed the set with a great combo of their older classic “What Is Love?” into the new “Scheme”. The former features some great counterpoint riffing between Murphy and Brown, while keyboardist David Phipps weaves synth psychedelia in the spaces between. “Scheme” started with a soundbite about humanity’s struggle to win freedom and then surged with another trippy synth line and killer drumming from Velmer, over which the band weaved a majestic and groovy sonic tapestry.
Having Bassnectar follow STS9 was great scheduling. Mr. Nectar—aka Lorin Ashton —has played bills with STS9 before and remixed some of their tracks. He threw down another of his patented dubstep jam sessions, drawing in a big crowd for a late night dance party. The glitchy “womp womp” bass was a prevalent sonic flavor throughout the weekend, but few practice it with the skill of Bassnectar. His crafty mix-ups of trippy synth lines, slamming beats and wicked dubstep bass drops have given Ashton the rep of a dubstep Jedi master. There were times when he started to sound a bit like a one-trick pony, and he didn’t throw in as many mash-ups with classic rock and alternative tunes as he often does. But the infectiously danceable sound was a perfect fit for Nocturnal Fest as all the hands in the air testified.
Influential UK electronica/trip-hop artist Dave Tipper closed out the night with a set under the lasers at the Upside Down Room stage. It was hard to tell exactly when it started, as there was no fanfare or introduction of any kind as the previous set just blended right into this one. But the sound coming from the stage just started getting groovier. It wasn’t quite as festive as Bassnectar’s set, as fewer were in attendance and the sound was a bit subtler. But there was a similar emphasis on psychedelic dance grooves. Tipper’s sonic flavor leans more to the inventive trip hop side of the spectrum than the now over-saturated dubstep genre, mixing in some ambient and breakbeat sounds. All of which provided a nice change up.
Big Gigantic—8:40 pm
This Colorado-based duo have been making a name for themselves over the past year, which included a spring 2010 tour with STS9 and a slick sophomore album in A Place Behind the Moon. Drummer Jeremy Salkin and synth-saxman Dominic Lalli mix up a sizzling psychedelic brew of nifty polyrhythms, pulsating electronica and some jazzy overtones with the saxophone. Some of the trippy analog synth sounds recall more vintage electronica sounds of the late ‘90s, providing a cool retro vibe to blend with their futuristic sound. Salkin’s killer drumming also provided Big Gigantic with organic beats that consistently propelled the grooves to a higher level. The hour-long set was a high energy affair all the way, getting Saturday night at Nocturnal going in the right direction.
Chase & Status—10 pm
Another duo followed Big Gigantic in the form of British electronic duo Chase & Status, who kept the party going with a mix of electronica, pop, hip-hop, high-speed techno and even some guitar rock flavor. Saul “Chase” Milton provided the guitar skills, while both he and Will “Status” Kennard mixed things up on keys and synths. They also had a drummer for their live show, which again elevated the sound. A major highlight occurred when the group segued into a dubstep-style jam on Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name O”, firing up the crowd with the “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” line. The alt-rock classic clearly still resonates, as most sang along.
Crystal Castles—11:20 pm
The sound shifted here as Crystal Castles out of Toronto dialed in more of an electronic pop flavor mixed with some sporadically crazy glitch outs.. The band also mixed in some ‘80s new wave flavor, which wasn’t for everyone, but mixing it with modern electronica created a unique vibe. The sound was an interesting change of pace at this point in the evening. Vocalist Alice Glass seemed to have a commanding presence, although her vocals were often hard to discern due to being overly drenched in reverb.
Ghostland Observatory—12:40 am
This appeared to be the main event, as the size of the crowd at the main stage swelled for a triumphant 90-minute set from two of Austin’s hottest musical heroes. Ghostland is a duo like many of the other acts at Nocturnal, but drummer/synthman Thomas Turner and singer/guitarist Aaron Behrens create a big sound. Funky beats, psychedelic synth riffs and a deep blues influence are used to create a unique psyche-electro-funk sound with lots of sonic space to help deepen the grooves. This is something more electronica artists would be wise to observe (as opposed to cramming every frequency on the sonic spectrum.) Ghostland is unique in this regard, creating a fresh sound “that not only heals their beat-driven hearts, but pleases their rock ‘n roll souls.”
Song after song shimmered with energy, as the duo kept the crowd rocking and dancing with a psychedelic funk that indeed elevated the soul. This was enhanced by the duo’s now legendary laser show. With the lasers synched into the funky beats, it was a multi-sensory experience of the highest order. There was also a pleasing amount of glow bling in the audience, elevating the psychedelia further still. The band’s retro-future psyche sound often recalled soundtracks from cult classic films like The Warriors or Escape From New York.
Behrens is also a dynamic frontman, adding a sort of tribal electro-shaman presence. He went deep on “Miracles” from the band’s new Codename: Rondo LP, singing “Miracles can happen… the future’s like the weather, there ain’t no guarantee… all the money in the world won’t save your soul.” The philosophical insights were of course accompanied by a very funky musical backdrop. Behrens also ripped off some great bluesy guitar riffs on tunes like “Midnight Voyage”, which also featured some great keys as Turner mixed sci-fi sounds with “Riders on the Storm”-style piano. The dynamic duo left no doubt they are one of the most unique acts in 21st century popular music.
Infected Mushroom—1:30 am
There was a 20 minute break in between Ghostland Observatory and Galactic’s festival closing set at the main stage. With only one free water station on the grounds, it was necessary to travel past the Queen’s Grounds stage to get some. This provided a pleasant surprise as something besides house music was finally coming from the pyramidal stage. Originally out of Israel and now based in Los Angeles, psychedelic trance rockers Infected Mushroom were keeping the party going with a trippy hard rocking re-mix of “The Pretender” from The Foo Fighters; yes indeed, electronic music and alt-rock can co-exist and it’s a great flavor. Longtime fans were probably not surprised, as the band has teamed with singers like Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell and Korn’s Jonathon Davis in the past.
It was somewhat shocking to see so many fans from the packed Ghostland set clear out before Galactic’s closing set at the main stage. Those who crave the rave must have been drawn to Pendulum or Kaskade, but they missed a treat. For acid jazz fans, this was the place to be. The New Orleans psychedelic funk masters flew in on a break from their busy Jazzfest schedule in New Orleans to throw down a typically hot late night set, with fans enjoying the extra elbow room. Having Galactic and STS9 on back to back nights also mirrored last fall’s Halloween weekend at Stubbs BBQ in Austin, where STS9 played on October 29-30 and Galactic on October 31.
“Cineramascope” from the band’s acclaimed Ya-Ka-May LP lit a fuse, with guitarist Jeff Rains tearing it up while saxman Ben Ellman and trombonist Corey Henry added jazzy flair. Drummer Stanton Moore and bassist Robert Mercurio laid down one wicked groove after another to help close out Nocturnal in high style. Henry also showed off his rapping skills on “From the Corner to the Block”, firing up all the party people to say “Hell yeah”. Galactic bases their sound in old school funk influences, but they have an uncanny knack for mixing in futuristic psyche flavor as well, making them a perfect choice to close out the festival.