Goldenvoice’s second annual electronic and pop music fest, Portola Festival, happened last weekend on an old industrial port at San Francisco’s Pier 80, and the event was delicious and exhausting. Music festivals often, at least for me, harken this primal, oppressive and indescribably claustrophobic emotion– a velvety feeling that only happens when I listen to music in a large crowd, a nearly tangible reminder of the flimsy barrier between life and death. Not in the Barbie movie do-you-guys-ever-think-about-dying sense, or even the there-is-so-much-pain-in- the-world-but-not-in-this room sense, but in the sense that, for the vast majority of human history, there was only one real case in which an individual was part of a mass of tens of thousands of people and that case was during wartime. War! Battle! For millennia, men flocked by the thousands to give their lives and sanities and limbs to some named, great power like a God or a King or a Country, and now, in the year two-thousand and twenty-three, I feel this exhaustive thrum of adrenaline–this corrosion of self– while I am united with tens of thousands of other bodies because of our dire mutual need to ingest bone-rattling drum and bass in a warehouse full of ex-frat brothers who work in venture capital, and God, does it feel so sickeningly enjoyable to feel that darkness take shape around me and to know that, at least for now, another 20$ Vodka Redbull will keep the feeling at bay.
And though I have noted that this strange vestige of battlefield anxiety stoked by large-scale crowds often reminds me acutely and without mercy of my and my loved ones own eventual demise, Goldenvoice did such a thorough job of populating the festival with joy that the feeling was, honestly, welcomed. A far cry from last year’s inarguably shaky inaugural weekend (if you’re not familiar, numerous crowd control issues led many festival goers to question whether there even would be a second coming after the demi-disastrous first year), Portola was hyper-organized and clean this year. Water was ubiquitous, cell service was surprisingly accessible, and the lineup was diverse and fun.
Naturally, big-name headliners like Skrillex and Eric Prydz drew deserved adoration, and iconic acts like Rina Sawayama, Thundercat, Polo and Pan, and Major Lazer put on great shows, but the real gems of Portola proved to be the names in the smaller print: Charlotte Adigéry and Bolis Pupul, harmonizing jubilantly in the heat of a rare, clear, afternoon sun. Tokischa, writhing onstage to a frenetic beat on the cusp of the night’s end. Overmono, filling the warehouse at midday with palpitating trancey-breakcore, grazing the skull and engorging the red blood cells. Jockstrap, playing extended, ethereal versions of already known and loved tracks. A surprise favorite: Jyoty, whose early 2000s mix snuck up on me whilst on the hunt for a little snack.
At Portola, united not under a God or a king or a country but instead united under some mutual affinity for electronic music, those Bay Area transplants or dance music freaks or college kids who saved their pennies or music journalists who just love DJs, lost themselves, at least for a weekend, as a units of a whole.