Porter Robinson's Second Sky Festival Reflected His Boundary-Pushing Taste and Personal Evolution: Recap

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Priscilla Rodriguez
Porter Robinson performs at Second Sky festival on June 15, 2019 in Oakland, Calif. 

When was the last time you saw the headliner at a major festival play the first set of the day?

Such was the novelty of Porter Robinson opening his own Second Sky Festival under his alias Virtual Self. “Hey, everyone, welcome to Second Sky!” he told the still-forming noontime crowd at Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, a small plot of land on the Port of Oakland outskirts with a terrific, albeit foggy, view of San Francisco Bay. “The main reason I’m doing this is because there’s a ton of amazing artists I want to share with you.”

June 15-16 marked the inaugural edition of Second Sky, the festival Robinson founded in partnership with Goldenvoice. When Second Sky was announced in March, the new venture initially weathered controversy – it was first called Multiverse until activists complained the title copied a local music festival, prompting Robinson to change the name.

The issue didn't affect the excitement about Second Sky. Tickets for the festival sold out in less than an hour, prompting the team to add a second date with the same performers (minus G Jones, who was replaced on June 16 with an unannounced “special guest.”) Both days capped out at 15,000 attendees each.

When revelers reached Middle Harbor via commuter buses from the West Oakland BART station on Father’s Day, they were greeted by a lovely archway decorated with wisteria. There were other imaginative, “Instagrammable” touches, including massive wood letters spelling out the festival name, cushions made of clouds, and a long white fence that made the festival grounds appear a bit like a suburban backyard. Between sets, the stage’s video screens broadcast fan-made art, with images of anime characters and digital illustrations abound.

While nominally an EDM festival, Second Sky had a more intimate vibe than other prominent large-scale fests. The park itself was sizable, allowing attendees to sample from dozens of food and liquor vendors, a water refill station and other festival staples without getting stuck in the overcrowding bottleneck. (The Second Sky merch booth, selling hoodies, hats, water bottles and fanny packs, was packed throughout the day.) The single stage area itself felt comfy, even after thousands of attendees tucked in as the day wore on. Meanwhile, an initial late-morning fog eventually cleared to reveal a gloriously sunny afternoon.

Virtual Self kicked off the afternoon with a blend of electronic styles – shards of classic house and gabber, yearning trance melodies that gave dancers a chance to catch their breath, a bit of thumping drum ‘n’ bass and plenty of bass drops. He closed with his hit single, “Ghost Voices.”

Next was Nina Las Vegas, who announced that she "flew all the way from Sydney, Australia for this.” She arranged a consistently rhythmic set filled with percussive tracks, pumping techno and big-room staples like Pitbull’s “Give Me Everything.”

The day’s first curveball arrived from Wednesday Campanella, a rapper/singer whose indescribable music ranges from electro-pop to traditional Japanese music, and who has built a cult following via appearances at U.S. festivals like Tyler, the Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw. She entranced with imaginative stagecraft, dancing against a massive brown balloon that she eventually set aloft onto the audience while singing “Melos” and other tracks. 

Next was Anamanaguchi, a band whose use of live instruments lent husk and depth to their signature chiptune melodies. The group played unreleased tracks from its long-gestating next album, [USA]. “I’d like to thank my dad. Happy Father’s Day. I also want to thank my mom. Can’t forget my mom,” quipped guitarist Peter Berkman.

Another left-field selection was Chrome Sparks, who played alongside a drummer on chilled techno cuts like “O, My Perfection” and the chillwave-inflected “In2 Your Love.” Then came Kero Kero Bonito, a U.K. band with a singer, Sarah Midori Perry, who occasionally rapped in Japanese and English, and called their music “high-voltage rock.” If there was a theme throughout the afternoon, it was that nearly all of the music bore a strong influence from J-pop, anime and video-game culture; this was apparent in the denpa and anisong-style ethos that wafted throughout the day’s performances.

Nevertheless, after a long afternoon of Internet-mediated experimental pop – including a disappointing set of predictable remixes from Cashmere Cat – the mystery guest helped Second Sky refocus on crowd-pleasing electronic bangers. Porter Robinson took the stage to introduce a large, cuddly figure dressed as Dragon Ball Z icon Potaro, and then brought on Skrillex, who gleefully bashed the audience with hard bass clips that seemed to shift every eight to 16 bars, from house and techno to dubstep and rowdy rap like his own “Wild for the Night” with A$AP Rocky. “Where’s my Oakland dance crew?” he shouted as he drew the biggest cheers of the event thus far.

Madeon, a French producer who contrasted mainstage-style dance music with Ibiza-styled house and downtempo, set the stage for Robinson’s headlining performance. The Second Sky mastermind took the stage at a very reasonable 8:30 pm and dedicated much of his set to a complete re-airing of his 2014 breakthrough Worlds, a modern dance classic that not only certified his reputation as a major artist, but also marked a generational shift in EDM from bass drops to textured electronic music full of emotional power. Although much of Worlds is beat-less, the audience was nonetheless rapt, waving their hands in the air and swaying along to Robinson’s sonic journey and his winsome singing voice.

Mid-set, Robinson spoke briefly about why he had made Worlds. He acknowledged that it was partly due to frustration over initial perceptions of him – and how some critics dismissed him as just another Beatport jock – as well an attempt to create an animated world full of action and adventure that he could escape to. A half-decade later, reflecting on his past while playing for 15,000 fans at a festival of his own creation, Robinson seemed to be having a moment

“To 2014 me," he told the cheering audience, "all my dreams have come true.”