Ears Full of Hand Grenades: What The Festival

Vortex Music Magazine

What the Festival is small, but it offers many things the big festivals do not.


What the Festival is only a short jaunt from Portland, but you would barely recognize the scenery on the other side of the behemoth that is Mt. Hood. It’s a dust-filled field with unusual distinction. As you approach the gate to enter, you quickly realize that they were not kidding about those rules they sent you when you got your tickets. Don’t bring glass. Don’t bring illicit substances. Don’t try to hide people in duffle bags. The security at What the Festival is tight and thorough. They don’t catch everything though…

After getting through security, you’re on a quest for your camp site. My friends Erin and Anna and I arrived at the festival quite early on Friday thinking it would be difficult to get a spot in the camping area. It was actually quite easy, and we were even able to form a full circle of tents with some other friends.

Having recently gone to Sasquatch and now working my way into What the Festival, I quickly realized there is one advantage to What the Festival that makes it a lot easier to survive than Sasquatch. At What the Festival, the longest you have to walk to get from the campsite to the festival is about five minutes. At Sasquatch, it can take up to 20 minutes to navigate the narrow, winding and dusty trail that gets you into the festival. When you’re going to be partying from noon to early the next morning, it’s sure nice to be able to get back to the camp for some rest for refueling now and then.

The first thing we noticed walking into the festival area, besides a picturesque and somewhat terrifying Mt. Hood looming over us, was a loud and crushing bass coming from a pool party to our left. We went to investigate and watched a group, we never found out the name of, with a female singer and strong percussion at a stage with a wading pool that filled the dancing area in front of it. The scene was something akin to MTV spring break footage, and it was hard to decide if you were going to make fun of the people in the pool or join them. As levels of intoxication rose, along with the heat, it became obvious that we had to join them.

We checked out a few of the other DJs and the diverse scenery that is What the Festival and then discovered my favorite part of the festival. At What the Festival there is a forest filled with art pieces, fire pits, rope webs to sit on, tea gardens and so much more. We entered the forest cautiously and realized that the festival has another perk that many do not: places to hang out and enjoy yourself when you don’t feel like dancing in a crowd.

We walked past hanging sculptures, strange electronic light igloos, acoustic performances and yoga classes. At some point in the night we made it to a tea garden and enjoy free handmade beverages that were delivered by friendly, exoticly dressed women. When you’re constantly finding ways to alter your mind at such a festival, it becomes desirable to take it easy and have a genuine conversation now and then.

Toward the end of the night we went to see Washed Out. I had heard a couple of their songs on the radio and didn’t think much of their music, but Washed Out put on a pretty impressive performance. Their music was relaxed but danceable, and it seemed to put the crowd into a collective state of relaxation and delirium.

On the second day we spent a little time relaxing and getting intoxicated in the beginning of the day. Eventually we found ourselves back at the splash pool and enjoyed some cooling off as the day grew warmer. We went from one stage to the next peaking at performances and dancing for short bouts. Eventually Erin and Anna decided it was time for them to get a “friend marriage” at a strange jellyfish-looking art installation that was essentially an electric panel with flat and lit up tendrils coming down from it.

On the way I noticed Portland musician Luz Elena Mendoza was playing an acoustic set near the tea garden. I went to watch and we ended up discovering our group there. We left around the end of the performance and headed back to the jellyfish. I performed the marriage in a loud, English accent for some reason. Crowds of passers-by were drawn to the scene like ants to honey. We suspected many of them thought it was a real marriage as they cheered at the end of it and congratulated everyone. “Great speech,” one said to me, for my not-so-great speech.

We walked endlessly after that, going from coffee stand to fire pits to stages. At the LOL Stage we took off our shoes and danced on the soft carpet. Men with dreadlocks and dented faces clapped for us and tried make us part of their scene. There are many people at What the Festival who desperately want you to be part of their scene.

At the end of Saturday night we went to the silent disco. The silent disco is a circular area with a gigantic patchwork disco ball that looks like a puzzle above it. In the silent disco it is … silent. People are given earphones that are tuned to a radio station playing dance music. They dance under the shining puzzle disco ball and look like homeless people who have lost their minds. Erin and I could only take the spectacle for a while and ended up abandoning Anna there.

The final day of What the Festival was a wash, as the first two days had tired us too much and the girls had work the next day. We had consumed too many intoxicants, swayed with too many people, shuffled through too much pool water and climbed too many peaks. We tried to stay under the shade in the camp site on the hottest day of the weekend. More liquor. More naked people walk by. More everything.

In the end, we went to the splash stage one more time and left. The weekend was terrifying, ecstatic, comforting, somber, tiring, energetic, strange and familiar. There is no way to describe the microcosms you sink into over the course of such a weekend, for every person sinks into an amalgam of their own. If you ever go to such a thing, and I think you will, then just spin the cannon and see where it fires.

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