With the rabid audiences of U.S. electronic music festivals like Electric Zoo (NYC) and Ultra (Miami) growing exponentially more humongous each year, it was only a matter of time before dance music got its very own traveling festival (old-school Lollapalooza-style).
Enter Identity: a dance-centric, multi-stage, day-long event designed to bring international DJs and electronic artists to a town near you — from Noblesville, IN, to Albuquerque, NM, to George, WA and nearly 20 more stops.
In concept, pure genius — the lineups (which vary a bit by date) looked stellar, the promotion did a fine job of building excitement, and the kids just want to dance these days, right? With that, let's take a look at how the Nikon at Jones Beach Ampitheatre (Wantagh, NY) date went down on August 21.
Artists Three simultaneous stages showcased some of today's most popular dance acts across a wide range of subgenres, with the likes of Steve Aoki, Kaskade, Booka Shade, The Disco Biscuits, Avicii, Chuckie, and Nero being some of the most highly anticipated artists. One of the most noteworthy things about Identity was the preponderance of actual LIVE sets — something a lot of other electronic events or dance stages at larger festivals skimp on; yes, it can be trickier to pull off, but it also makes for such a better overall musical experience.
As most of us experience at festivals, there's always a scheduling conflict. At Identity I was faced with Hercules and Love Affair or Modeselektor, then Holy Ghost! vs. Booka Shade — so not fair. I managed to catch good chunks of all sets, but would have been nice to see these spread out a little better, and maybe not so early in the day (the plus, I guess, was not having any of these sets affected by weather).
Over on the main stage, Berlin's Modeselektor played to a sizeable crowd. Known for injecting bits of performance art into their glitchy, IDM-leaning, bass-heavy sets, they kicked things off by immediately inviting the entire audience to come up and join them. (Since I was also taking photos, logistics forced me to head elsewhere at this point, so not sure if the crowd actually got on stage or just came up into the pit.) When I returned to catch the end, a ton of people filling the lower half of the stadium were freaking out — the set was capped off by a finale in which one of the Modeselektor dudes pretended to hurl his keyboard into the crowd. Sorry I didn't get to see more this time, but highly recommend catching them next time they grace our shores.
Simultaneously, Hercules and Love Affair were heating things up for the disco-house contingent. As per his master plan, Hercules ringleader Andy Butler has assembled an almost all-new colorful cast of dancer/singers and musicians for the touring of his second (just-released) album, Blue Songs — the exception being his BFF, Kim Ann Foxman. (Rounding out the live lineup: Aerea Negrot, Shaun Wright, and Mark Pistel, best known for his work with Consolidated and Meat Beat Manifesto.) Performing in front of an eye-candy-riffic video screen (which mostly mixed tripped-out graphics and images of hot boys), the group stuck to mostly new songs (highlights = "My House" and "Painted Eyes") but did eventually throw in versions of nu-classics like "Blind" and "You Belong to Me." A veritable pansexual party on stage, the crew's celebratory spirit and enthusiasm perfectly accompanied the seductively sassy soundtrack. Good vibes all around.
Taking stage after Hercules, Holy Ghost! played both a "hometown" show as well as their last stop with the festival before heading out on their own headline tour. In just over a year of playing live as a full band, the boys have truly hit their stride: They look completely comfortable onstage, appear to be having a ton of fun (frontman Alex Frankel and guitarist Chris Maher's dueling percussion sessions were a definite highlight), and they're musically tighter than ever, transforming every tune into a warm, shiny, infectious disco-pop jam that refuses to let you stand still. Most of the new album got played, with standout tracks being "Static on the Wire," "Hold My Breath," and "I Will Come Back." Closing things out was the ode to drummer pal Jerry Fuchs (who died in an elevator accident in 2009) "Jam for Jerry" — though I've heard them play it live several times before, it seemed like they'd added a bunch of wow-worthy elements that really elevated such a highly personal song. (Am I the only one who kinda got shivers it was so good?)
Germany's Booka Shade were next on the main stage, rolling out in impressive, matching cube-like structures that lit up. Bouncing through a live set that featured fan favorites like "Mandarine Girl" and "Darko," they made sure to add some nods to their early days, throwing in tracks like "Frantic" from their first album. It's hard to imagine an electronic act that exhibits such a complementary mix of precision and exuberance as Walter and Arno display onstage — lithe, black-clad figures multitasking their way through a highly physical performance, smiling and giggling all the way. Certainly among the best showmen in dance music today, and the crowd seemed to wholeheartedly agree.
Transit and weather issues got me out of the festival early, though I hear Aoki's "sick" performance was a big hit, and that weather unfortunately prevented DJ Shadow from playing what would have been the main stage close-out. The artists I did manage to catch appeared to be having genuinely amazing times performing (even when the crowds might have been somewhat sparser than they're used to seeing at their own gigs) — always an awesome thing to see.
Venue Jones Beach is no easy trek from NYC. (My journey in particular exceeded two hours in each direction using a combination of subway/train/bus/walking.) Buses from the nearest train station to Jones Beach were scheduled to stop at 8 — not ideal for anyone without a car hoping to stay until the 11 p.m. end (would have been nice to see some effort made by organizers to arrange for shuttles back).
On the plus side, indoor bathrooms with flushing toilets and working sinks are always a welcome addition to the festival experience. The main stadium structure also had some handy built-in shelter from the elements, and the large grounds catered easily to the crowd size.
On the downside ... Nikon is basically the epitome of the ultra-corporate, money-over-attendees venue. Limited food items (unlike the majority of festivals in 2011, which generally offer everything from vegan desserts to Thai food to iced coffee, only the basics like pretzels, hot dogs, soft drinks, and pizza were available) came with ridiculously steep price tags ($4.50 for a bottle of water? $7 for a SLICE of pizza?). People who came expecting to party like a rockstar were faced with ... basically partying with a Rockstar (energy drink — complimentary and oh-so-heavily promoted), as alcohol was bizarrely nowhere to be sold for non-VIP ticketholders.
Security were also among the most misinformed, rude, and disrespectful I've encountered at a festival. In addition to several episodes of arguing about why press photographers need to access the photo pit ("I can't let photographers backstage — no exceptions." "But the photo pit is not backstage, it's actually in front of the stage ..."), the security team apparently turned VIP-ticketholders away from the mainstage front viewing area again and again (supposedly one of the few perks they were promised for paying several times the normal ticket price). Super helpful.
Organization For starters, holding a multi-stage event in a traditional venue meant positioning stages in more out-of-the-way spots — without maps distributed (or even posted online) on site, festivalgoers were forced to just follow the crowds and hold their breath they'd happen upon the correct stage. Set times were also off from what was printed/posted around the site, and staff were of little help in answering queries. Still not sure if this was the fault of the venue or the tour itself, but whatever the reason, a certain atmosphere of confusion (yes, even in a totally dry festival) persevered throughout the day.
For attendees who purchased an early-bird $20 ticket, the festival was a pretty sweet deal, yet overall still seemed much less organized and polished than the other festivals currently out there. Those looking for some in-between-set diversions were left with some crappy merch stands (mostly rave apparel and "I Love You But I Choose Techno/Dubstep/House" T-shirts) and a few good-cause sign-up tables.
The weather probably played the biggest role in affecting overall experience — sure, the organizers had no control over Mother Nature, but sucks to see a major draw like Shadow sit on the bench. (Sucks even more for Miami-show ticketholders, who just saw their Identity date postponed due to the Hurricane Irene threat.) Certain things, such as building sturdy dance tents, could also have made the experience a bit more tolerable in a downpour, but, again, can't really judge the festival on weather. In light of the recent stage-collapse fatalities in the news, good to see that no weather-related mishaps occurred.
Crowd The average attendees were very young. They were very tan. They displayed strong preferences for florescent apparel and flamboyant costumes. Most attendees could have fit in quite naturally on an episode of Jersey Shore. In addition to sporting what I like to call the "Pocahontas in Space" look (glitter, warrior facepaint, pigtails, headband), female Identity goers also favored another variation, described via an Identity fan's Facebook post (verbatim) as "grey fuzzy boots, pink fishnet, kandi, goggles, and a purple and black bra." Ahem.
So although the best laid plans don't always pan out, Identity clearly made a good effort. Hopefully we'll see its return in 2012, with some logistical improvements and superior, fan-friendly venues. Did you attend an Identity show this summer? If so, weigh in with your take below.