Oregon's What The Festival 2016 Shines as a Boutique Experiential Gathering

What the Festival 2016
Daniel Zetterstrom

What the Festival held on June 17-20, 2016 outside Portland, Ore.

"Let your freak flags fly, bitches!", shouts a sprightly millennial named Colt from Seattle, voice rasped from nonstop partying and sporting a mesh tank top, high rise shorts and eye glitter. Incessant trickling rain didn't seem to dampen his mood as he rotates an endless stock of bagged wine and plastic tequila bottles between his friends, whose main objective was understandably to postpone unloading their camping supplies in order to expedite the pre-party festivities. The actual festival didn't start until the following day but there was no doubt we would all become Colt and his comrades by the weekend's end -- quite possibly sooner.  

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As more than 130,000 international ravers flocked to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway nearly 1,000 miles away for the 20th anniversary of Electric Daisy Carnival (June 17-19), 7,500 hippies and bass heads alike unpacked their station wagons and Winnebagos to gather on the sprawling Wolf Run Ranch at the base of Mt. Hood in Dufur, Ore. for the fifth installment of What The Festival.

Drawing a crowd adorned in intricate wool ponchos, hyperchromatic leggings and exaggerated fur coats, this four-day, Burning Man-inspired camping experience relies just as much on its attendees as it does the music -- the latter intentionally staggered throughout various stages in order for patrons to interact with art installations, their surroundings and, more importantly, each other. An eclectic lineup ranging from Dirtybird head honcho Claude VonStroke and his labelmates J. Phlip and Ardalan to summer sorcerers Le Youth and Motez's is spread across six stages, each set custom tailored for different times of the day.

Daniel Zetterstrom

Volunteers work tirelessly around the clock to fight the periodic downpours -- the first time the festival has experienced rain in its half-decade history -- and make sure stage structures, food and merchandise vendors and elaborate art installations cooperate with the elements. Staff members scurry to receive the growing line of early arrivals who are ready for the Thursday night pre-party, accompanied by the sounds of trap-dubstep hybrids like Mr. Wu, Buku and Break Science. Given the many bass-heavy acts slated to perform over the weekend, a growing number of Claptone masks and a 'Bae Phlip' bomber jacket restore faith that house and techno are also on the musical horizon.

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The rest of the festival clamors inside on Friday morning to fall under the hypnosis of Takimba, whose smooth blend of chill house and uptempo set the mood at the Splash stage -- a design of three knee-deep swimming pools with dance bridges overlooking the hazy silhouetted mountains. Jai Wolf later takes to the stage for a crowd-commanding set that includes a sing-along moment for his smash remix of Kiiara's "Feels." A faint grey illuminates the cloudy sky and the rain ceases just in time for Penthouse Penthouse.

Meanwhile, New York-based funk band Lettuce, who kick off their cross-country 'Sounds Like A Party' tour next weekend, prove brass can be cooler than bass by serenading the WTF main stage crowd just before the highly-anticipated back-to-back with Ardalan and Claude VonStroke.

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Gold embellishments shimmer off the red and black fire-breathing dragon stage as marijuana smoke (recreational use is legal in Oregon) sweeps across a sea of Dirtybird debauchery. Ardalan kicks off the late night rave with a predictably infectious bounce house set atop a towering pagoda where the DJ booth is located. Suddenly, Claude intoxicatedly bear hugs him from behind and proceeds to dance with an inflatable flamingo until it's his turn to take over the decks. The crowd whistles and roars as he stumbles his way atop the turntables and waves his arms to incite the audience to scream even louder. This moment is certainly the booty-shaking house version of Project X.

Daniel Zetterstrom

Throughout the next two days, standout sets from tranquil house maestro JackLNDN, Aussie duo Hermitude, multi-instrumentalist Lido, Bonobo, Portland's own J. Phlip, G Jones and Louis The Child would emblazon the music palate of the Pacific Northwest festival market. 

Just as pertinent as the artist roster are the installation artists who essentially (and physically) lay down the festival's overall experience for its attendees. An interactive labyrinth known as the Illuminated Forest contains neon-lit cubes stacked in the shape of a square arena (which doubled as the Groove Cube stage) to a Plexiglas dome filled with three twenty-five pound bags of cotton for relaxing to an antique cash register with buttons that doubled as beat makers.

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While the erratic weather, speaker classes and site layout may be reminiscent of the west coast's ever-evolving transformational festival scene, the focus at What The Festival isn't so much on spirituality as it is the concept that constant human metamorphosis and the acceptance of others' differences is necessary.

Party-goers stumble back to their camp sites physically worn (yet mentally renewed) as the sun peeks over the forest trees to bid its farewell. Colt's tent unzips slowly and he pops out, fiery red hair disheveled from a weekend of memories. He asks with a distinct chuckle, "Does anybody want to help me finish this bottle of tequila?" Just for one moment longer, reality can wait.