Disney parks bill themselves as “The Happiest Place on Earth” -- but that distinction, at least during this past weekend, actually goes to Second Sky Festival, the second iteration of Porter Robinson’s curated annual event which launched pre-quarantine in 2019. For about 12 hours on Sept. 18-19, the parking lot outside the Oakland Coliseum was transformed into a wonderland of joy and a safe space for all.
Full-grown adults released their most colorful selves with childlike abandon. We nommed on Porter-themed food bites and sipped from smoking, dark blue cocktails while keeping an eye out for the amorphous, penguin-like blue blob hopping about to take pictures. We also jammed to a stellar lineup of multi-genre talent -- including Robinson, Madeon, Jon Hopkins, Jai Wolf, Toro y Moi and more -- and after the sun set, many of us had a good cry.
The lineups (and the sets, more or less) were the same both days, and we’ve never been more excited to do the same thing twice. At the end of day one, Porter Robinson proclaimed it “the best day of my life,” and in the crowd, that sentiment also felt applicable.
Here are the 10 things that made Second Sky 2021 the actual Happiest Place on Earth.
1. The Return
After a year and a half spent huddled inside watching Second Sky’s online iteration, Secret Sky, via laptop or VR device, it was beyond magical to be back outside reveling in the sun. You could feel the excitement from the performers as much as from the fans, as this was the first time most of these artists had touched a stage in nearly two years.
There were a few technical difficulties here and there -- some delays for Wavedash and Jai Wolf -- but you could tell each artist was giving 110 percent while often smiling ear to ear, seemingly giddy to be back at it. “A year ago, I thought I’d never play again,” Madeon said near the end of his show, the debut of his new production titled Good Faith Forever. “This was everything it could have been.”
There may be no kinder fanbase on the planet than Porter Robinson fans. From the moment we arrived in line -- a bright and early 11 a.m. to see Robinson open the festival with his new progressive house/disco DJ alias Air2Earth -- we all sparkled with excitement, sharing compliments and stories about how many times we’ve seen Madeon or Virtual Self or manga favorite Attack on Titan.
Inside the grounds, no one pushed, shoved or fought. Instead, everyone smiled, hugged, danced and high-fived and followed each other on Instagram. We were gifted a PLUR bracelet for “being beautiful and having so much fun.” We belted “All My Friends” with the crowd of thousands. Even an employee of event production company Nassal, which designs the incredible scene activations, agreed: “We’ve had absolutely no problems, zero,” he said. “This is the nicest group of kids at an event I’ve ever seen.”
Speaking of Nassal, that’s the company that created The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studio parks, as well as Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Disney World and Disneyland. For Second Sky, Nassal created four major activation centers. There was a magical, cherry blossom-willow forest upon first arrival. You then made your way to the Tomb of the Ancient Kings, which looked like a temple ripped straight from Zelda video games with a giant stone statue of Potaro, Robinson’s lovable blue mascot. A giant tree stood in the center of the field, and at night, its large white flowers began to glow.
There was a blue crystal cavern shimmered with glittery butterflies to the far left of the stage, and there was a big “Second Sky” sign presented the perfect photo opp at the festival ground’s end. It never felt like you were partying in a parking lot, largely due to the 250,000-square-feet of astroturf Nassal laid throughout the grounds. The site felt comfortable, nurturing, green and safe enough for people to face plant on the ground and take pictures. (Check out this #NutureChallenge via Instagram.)
As head of the festival, Robinson didn't just curate the lineup. He also curated the menu. This year’s festie food options were some of the most delicious we’ve ever seen, provided by local Bay Area restaurants that each offered their own Robinson-inspired treat. There was "100% in the Bowl" poke from Bonito Bowl, Potaro-stamped bao from Bun Bao, Taiwanese Tacos in a Potaro-stamped Pocket from El Chino Grande, and Sky blue Omusubi rice balls from Sunny Blue.
True, the themed food items often ran out the fastest and lines got very long -- the line for Potaro Taro at Lilikoi Boba was so long, in fact, it felt intimidating just to look at. But another good thing about this festival is that there was only one stage, so you could see the performers and hear the music from 90 percent of the floorplan. It was a seriously smart design, if waiting in line was going to be part of the experience -- which, for better or worse, it was.
We already talked about how kind everyone was, but this festival got even more wholesome in that it was a family affair. Robinson’s mom and dad were at the event, sporting blue vests that announced “I’m Porter’s mom/dad, say hi!” They posed for photos with fans at the Robinson Malawi Fund booth. Money raised through this fund provides resources to children diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma in the African country. (Robinson's brother, Mark, was diagnosed with and has since recovered from Burkitt’s lymphoma.) At Second Sky 2019, the Robinsons raised enough money to pay for two year’s worth of chemotherapy for children in need. This year, they surpassed that goal by noon on Sunday.
Furthermore, knowing Robinson’s family was in the audience only made his headline performance that much more wholesome. ("We didn't even get him piano lessons," Porter's father told Billboard during Second Sky.) He shouted them out and thanked them during the set, had us all cheer for his mom, dad and brother, and we all gave a big and hearty “thank you” to his girlfriend Rika as well. The first day, when he sang “Blossom” in dedication to her, he had to stop to stifle a cry in the middle of it.
Second Sky was, in more ways than one, one of the most diverse festivals we’ve seen in a while. The crowd represented a wide range of ages, ethnicities and fashion senses, as well as a rainbow of gender identities and non-binary expressions. The music matched that breadth of life with an impressive array of sounds and moods. There were only nine acts on the lineup, two of them being the same person under a different name, and yet there was still a whole spectrum of sound.
We got bright and breezy trance nostalgia from Robinson’s Air2Earth DJ set, right into the bass-fueled electric mayhem of Wavedash’s World Famous Tour live performance. Knower brought quirky glitch pop madness, which melted into smooth jazz refrains from Jacob Collier. Grammy-winner Jon Hopkins dropped dark warehouse vibes with a mind-melting modular set, then Oakland local Toro y Moi brought a lively dose of chill funk dance grooves, both romantic and upbeat and dropped his Flume collab as a finale. Jai Wolf served an extremely euphoric synth-pop set. From there, Madeon and Porter just absolutely blew our minds.
The Lights During Madeon's Set
We’re not tech experts, but we’re pretty sure Madeon’s Good Faith Forever show is sitting at the absolute cutting edge of visual production technology. The refresh rate on these visuals is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. It’s pure psychedelic bliss, a brain-scrambling assault of neon rainbow explosions tempered with dark and vaguely occult imagery that feels pure and powerful all at once. (Also, Madeon has begun dressing like Michael Jackson -- two silver, glittering gloves, one black, large-brim hat, shimmering silver pants and at one point, a shimmering silver cape -- and we’re completely here for it.)
The French wunderkind is all grown up and cutting a striking figure in front of a monster of a light show, running in place between two gear rigs stacked with synthesizers and keyboards. He’s singing at the mic and striking poses, holding one fist in the air and making the crowd go wild. Big shout out to his architects, the six or so visual artists he holed up in an airbnb in Los Angeles for a few weeks to help him make this awe-inspiring show happen.
Yes, the actual moon. It came through in a big way, rising near the end of Madeon’s set just to the left of the stage, burning a bright yellow-orange in a nearly full sphere that inspired awe. We’re not sure how much Robinson and the crew had to pay that diva to participate, but it was worth every penny.
The Porter Set
You’d think letting off fireworks during the climax of your first song would be a little premature, but not when you’re Porter Robinson. Indeed, Robinson used fireworks like Gen Z uses emojis, and they were there to emphasize every climactic moment in every dang song. It never got old!
He worked through an incredibly emotional set with a masterful display of dynamic control. There were hushed moments when he crouched at the piano, his hair hanging in front of his face and all our breathing suspended, then he’d stand up and tease the first, instantly-recognizable note of “Sad Machine” on his MPC and send the entire crowd into a roaring frenzy. While the setlist was mostly culled from his sophomore album Nurture (a clear contender for the 2022 Grammys), there were plenty of throwback favorites as swell.
At one point, he grabbed his laptop and played a Google search for “Porter Robinson” on the screen, ending up at the song “Divinity,” which he then railed into. Halfway through, he “loaded webcam” and danced around with his laptop, showing a live feed of himself in front of the screaming crowd on the big screen. He even thanked the audience for staying with him “from the electro f--kboy Porter Robinson days” to now, giving us all “Language” for the first time in years.
It is not an exaggeration when we say we were a tear-strewn, happy-crying mess -- and that Second Sky had this same effect on many, many people in the crowd. The dam broke when Madeon ended his incredible, eye-searing, head-trip set with “Shelter,” and it didn’t stop the entirety of Porter’s hour-and-a-half set.
Looking around, you saw friends holding each other in group embraces, you saw and heard the heavy sobs of the biggest fans, screaming the lyrics “Look at the Sky” and “Musician” through tears. It was cathartic as heck, a real cleansing of the spirit, group therapy on astroturf. It’s an amazing thing to feel that safe and unashamed in such a large group of people, all while being so immaculately entertained. That almost certainly means Second Sky will be around for many years to come.