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Review: Portola shone a light on underground music, but lacked underground spirit

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Despite a mouthwatering line-up of dance music’s brightest, organisational issues and a profit-orientated outlook made this a festival to remember for all the wrong reasons

  • Words: Megan Townsend | Photos: Quinn Tucker, Priscilla Anna, Scott Hutchinson, Alive Coverage, Scotch
  • 20 October 2022

Below the mist-covered skyline of California’s most-northern metropolis, there’s an intelligible buzz around the new electronic festival coming to town. Street corners and bus stops are covered in pasted-up posters, local broadcasters such as NBC Bay Area are running profiles on the artists set to perform and local stores (even the dispensaries) are proudly displaying stacks of leaflets on their counters. Whenever unassuming locals hear my English accent, they quickly deduct: “Oh, so you’re here for Portola?”

There’s a lot to be excited about. The new two-dayer from Coachella promoter Golden Voice is set to combine the worlds of underground electronic, hyperpop and must-see names with a mouthwatering roster of global acts — the type you’d probably consider parting with an organ to see. In a veritable Avengers of festival line-ups, headliners Flume and The Chemical Brothers are set to be joined by Jamie xx, Kaytranada, Charli XCX, Fred again.., Bicep, Yaeji, PinkPantheress, Four Tet b2b Floating Points, Arca and (biggest understatement of the century here) many more. Taking place on the shores of San Fransisco Bay, the festival is set across four stages at Pier 80, a 60-acre cargo terminal in the South East of the city — a location that boasts skyline views, a 40,000 sqft warehouse and easy connectivity from the Bay Area for the tens of thousands of attendees set to descend upon it. For East Coast fans of electronic music, it’s a no-brainer, a festival circuit overwhelmed by the popularity of EDM and more commercial-centred dance music — it’s a chance to catch those talked-about acts on home turf.

Portola, reported to have been in the making for the past six years, is named after a series of Mardi Gras-esque festivals thrown at the turn of the century to help aid recovery from the devastating 1906 earthquake that killed more than 3,000 people and destroyed over 80% of the city. The Portola festivals were billed as a “rebirth” for San Francisco — featuring performances, fireworks, circus acts and music. It set off a tradition in “The Golden City” for free-to-attend street parties and gatherings. A fitting, thoughtful association if it pays off.

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It really does seem like it might upon arrival at the pier. It’s a gloriously sunny day, only accentuated by the faint boom felt underfoot. There’s a huge area cordoned off by local police around the site meaning it’s around a 15-minute walk from the road to the main gate — but it’s difficult to be irked by the journey when everyone surrounding me is in such high spirits.

Those attending seem to be a mixture of glowstick-sporting EDM fans, the Coachella-faithful adorned in glitter and fedoras, East Coast hype beasts, and the German techno-inclined donning chain chokers and fishnets. No one really seems to know what to expect… is this a rave? A concert? Something entirely different? “You need to understand, we never get this kind of thing here,” one attendee tells me, grinning widely as he fiddles in his pocket for a piece of paper emblazoned with his ticket. “That’s why everyone is so excited! Even for those lower-down the billing — we’d never be able to catch them outside of Boiler Room sets filmed in Europe or NYC.”

The Warehouse is the main attraction for the weekend — an opportunity to see some of the biggest acts on the line-up in a colossal, but simultaneously intimate setting. Huge LED screens adorn the walls on every side, with a staggering laser and light array. The outdoor Pier Stage lies at the centre of the site and is the setting for the majority of Portola’s headline acts — an enormous structure, reminiscent of the gigantic stages of Glastonbury, complete with masses of speaker stacks and a constant sea of bodies. The near-identical Ship Stage and Crane Stages, are set within tents at the west of the site — named so for the dock landmarks they are located beneath. The Ship Stage plays host to some of the more experimentally-inclined offerings: live sets from the likes of Caribou, Ross From Friends, Arca, Shygirl, and Yves Tumor — decorated with a mesmerising assortment of disco balls in every size imaginable. While the slightly bigger Crane Tent is clearly where the rave is at — designed to set all eyes on the decks up front.

Smiling ticket staff hand out locally-made fortune cookies at the gate as the masses file in, joining those getting their bearings below an imposing US military warship towering above The Warehouse — all soundtracked by a DJ set from The xx’s Romy — who has every hand aloft as she drops Jamie xxs remix of ‘On Hold’. It’s ticking all the boxes. That is until more people start to arrive.

A lack of crowd control and general overcrowding gradually grows through the day from being a mild annoyance to an inescapable hindrance on the overall experience. Upon exiting the festival, when we are able to get phone signal once again, social media is full of accounts of a “crowd control incident” at The Warehouse ahead of Fred again..’s highly-anticipated 5:PM set. Footage, that eventually ends up on TMZ, Pitchfork and local news channels, shows attendees scrambling to get into venue and out of the surge — climbing over fences and tearing down barriers to get in. Portola quickly addresses the reports, responding: “[The Incident] within the confines of the grounds and was quickly addressed and corrected. There were no reported injuries and the festival continued for another six hours without incident.”

I’m around The Warehouse 10 minutes before this incident takes place, deciding against trying to get in due to the growingly irate crowd gathering outside. Portola is right in saying that afterwards, The Warehouse is a vision of structure — with organised, barrier-separated lines steadily making their way in for Charli xcx, Jamie xx and later Bicep. There are clearly a few elements responsible incident — one potentially being that the festival has underestimated the current “Fred again.. mania” (Fred again-ia?) and hadn’t expected so many people to rush to the stage in time for his set.

Though from observation it seems like the situation had been a result of some form of mismanagement. The venue has three, clearly visible entrances — two at the side: one being used as an exit, and the other being the entrance affected by the surge. The third is at the rear and has been syphoned off for those with a VIP pass. The side entrance is right outside of the two main entrances to the venue and the entrance to the massive VIP area that sat alongside the Pier Stage — with a relatively thin path through into the expanse of the rest of the festival. The VIP entrance, at the rear of The Warehouse appears to be much bigger and is near-empty for the majority of the festival.

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Through the two days, it’s obvious that Portola is overcrowded — at least in the general attendance areas. In general, the festival is difficult to navigate due to a sea of crowd members heading in every direction with no clear signage or walkways between stages. The layout is odd, with a massive expanse in the southeast corner and everything else packed up against the west. Queues for toilets, bars and other amenities in these areas are endless, and by the end of day two most portaloos aren’t approachable due to overflowing. While the Pier stage, with its colossal screens and booming soundsystem is massive enough that at most vantage points on-site it’s possible to see and hear, the two smaller tent stages are difficult to get into unless you really pack in — or, again, you have a VIP pass to access through the side.

It really appears that upgrading to a VIP pass, a familiar concept for those who’ve attended Golden Voice’s other festivals — is the key to enjoying the festival. A fact Portola seems aware of, set among food and drink vendors are countless stalls selling ticket upgrades for weary attendees who have had enough of battling their way to see the music. Ahead of the festival, the team had posted a meme on Instagram of Paris Hilton’s now-infamous slogan vest — with the words edited to “Stop being GA” with the caption: “If you were looking for a sign to come to Portola or upgrade your ticket… here’s another one.”

VIP passes come in two categories — KIP (Kinda Important Person) who are given access to a separate entrance, seating, shaded areas and toilets. Whereas VIP passes also get you partitioned viewing areas at each stage so you can get close to the action. The split between VIP and GA becomes starker as the festival rolls on — inside the VIP areas there is set-dressing, the bars have smaller queues, and the toilets are usable. But it really feels like it comes at the expense of the rest of the festival — there’s little to do outside of the music in GA, potentially out of wanting to offer something unique to attendees who’ve shelled out for a better experience. There’s nowhere for people to unwind, have a chat and have a cigarette — there’s barely even any artwork, bar posters from sponsors Levis, White Claw and Stella Artois. One particularly funny example is from Twitter user mscogs, who writes: “At #portola waited 20 minutes in a food line before we realized there was no food at end…just a large poster of a quesadilla.”

This isn’t to say Portola is without any organisation triumphs. There is an expansive set of provisions for disabled attendees, with separate viewing areas for wheelchair-bound punters, a convenient accessible services hub and even an ASL interpreter for all performances if required. Upon exiting the festival, there are well-organised transport links — those ordering Ubers or Lyfts back into the city can head to a queue where they are assisted in getting a ride. For those opting for public transport — there are a fleet of free shuttle buses taking people to Bay Area Rapid Transport (BART) stations in an elegantly orchestrated manner, ensuring everyone can get home safe. The security staff, while at times seemingly overwhelmed by the number of people there, really are helpful — and do their best to guide people and answer any questions.

However, it’s the sound that ends up being one of the biggest hindrances to many of the performances of the weekend. Though the set-up is undeniably high-tech — sound bleeds constantly from the colossal Pier Stage into the too-near surrounding areas. The Warehouse, despite its own huge scale, is difficult to hear clearly unless you pack into the front; while the smaller “tent” stages are inaudible unless you’re standing beneath their metal structures. The soundsystem from the Pier, in fact, is so loud that after the festival Portola is forced to apologise to residents who reported being able to hear the booming music from across the bay.

Charli XCX is easily drowned out by the combination of sound bleeding from The Pier, and the soundsystem’s subs being too high for her voice to carry. From the crowd, you can only hear a muffled tone as she sings ‘New Shapes’ and ‘Beg For You’. Similarly, the rolling symbols and delicate synths of DJ NuWave’s remix of Keyshia Cole and P.Diddy’s ‘Last Night’ during Hot Since 82’s set are unintelligible beneath the booming bass. Kaytranada, who is playing on the Pier Stage, on the other hand, falls foul to the opposite problem — with his trademark, luscious combination of soul, funk and R&B jams feeling dwarfed by the scale of the stage he’s playing on.

Though the standout performances easily outweigh any hiccups. Caribou, AKA Dan Snaith, delivers an electrifying live show against the backdrop of the orange-tinged sunset — complete with a full band and effervescent vocals. Light bounces around the Ship Tent’s many disco balls as he lets out kaleidoscopic 2010 banger ‘Odessa‘. Jamie xx goes back to his hypnotising, full-throttle best for a rhythm-filled DJ set in The Warehouse — dropping a killer percussive edit of Ludacris’ ‘What’s Your Fantasy‘ before upping the tempo with his own newly-released track ‘Kill Dem‘, finishing things off with some peak-time silliness by way of iconic 1983 Italo disco hit, Righeira’s ‘Vamos a la playa‘. Peggy Gou similarly pulls out all the stops, delivering a darker, acid-filled offering that we’ve become accustomed to from the Gudu Records boss. A cheeky techno rework of Young Dolph’s ‘100 shots‘ is followed by the hard-as-nails BADSISTA remix of LSDXOXO’s ‘Mutant Exotic’.

Prospa, despite being scheduled to play at doors open, quickly draw in a huge crowd for their live set — dishing out a generous dose of rave euphoria with the emotionally-laden synths of ‘Ecstasy (Over & Over)‘, with the pair injecting some early-day energy with the pulsating chords and bolshy kick drums of ‘WANT NEED LOVE‘. Shygirl opens her set at Ship Tent with the ultimate UKG tribute — rapping the lyrics to ‘BB‘ over Wookie’s ‘Down On Me‘. She’s nearly drowned out by the excited crowd as she delivers her operatic-come-club-banger ‘Cleo‘, before slut-dropping her way through her slinky new single ‘Nike‘. Similarly Belfast’s very own Bicep close out The Warehouse on Saturday to a staggering crowd — taking them through the beloved and well-worn atmospheric tinges of ‘Glue‘, ‘Opal‘, ‘Apricots‘ and ‘Higher Level‘.

One of the most-talked-about sets of the weekend comes from Arca who, sporting multicoloured extensions and a fluffy pink bra, opens with a freakishly dissected Masters at Work edit, before spinning around on-stage to some frenzied reggaeton from Dominican rapper El Jefe’s ‘Curazao‘. While performing her ‘KiCK ii‘ track ‘Rakata‘ she brings out a giant saw and proceeds to cover herself in fake blood before launching into ‘KLK‘. The Sunday b2b between Floating Points and Four Tet similarly leaves the throngs of revellers crowding around the Crane Tent in a wide-eyed daze — floating through drops of Joy Orbison and Overmono’s ‘Blind Date’, Burial’s ‘Claustro‘ and easily the unofficial battle cry of Portola festival — Fred again.., Skrillex and Flowdan’s ‘Rumble‘.

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The problems with the festival leave a sour taste in my mouth upon exiting, but looking around me at the faces of the other attendees it doesn’t seem to have bothered them one bit. The general consensus on the shuttle home is that stellar performances and opportunities to see some of the most in-demand underground artists on the global scene outweighed any fuck ups. Portola make little comment on socials about the events on the weekend, bar some shots of disco balls — writing: “it’s not goodbye, it’s see you at the afters!” On the way home from Portola, I sit behind a couple who’d travelled from LA to San Fransisco for the event. They shared their gripes, and asked for mine — I say that I found the VIP experience quite alienating and unnecessary. While they nod in agreement but add: “But that is what it’s like here.” I realise quickly that a lot of the negatives from my time at Portola could be my prejudices from experiencing an unfamiliar festival setup.

It’s heartening to see so many people enthusiastically sway to acts whose origins lie in the underground. There is an undeniable warm feeling in my chest as I, on the other side of the world, watch swathes of people embracing each other to Bicep’s ‘Opal’. It’s difficult to wipe the grin off my face as Four Tet drops ‘LFO‘ to a sea of appreciative Californians hanging on for every squelchy acid riff. But even if the segregated, profit-orientated festival experience is the norm here, does this crowd not deserve to experience this music in a friendly setting?

The truth is, regardless of this festival’s selection of acts like ELKKA, Kelly Lee Owens, HAAi, and Danilo Plessow — all of whom have built their careers from tiny sets in basement bars — it couldn’t have been further removed from the energy from which these genres were conceived. Commercialising the experience within an inch of its life takes away all the spirit, the community — the shared joy of getting together. This music was created for coalescence, for casting off the shackles of the world. Some issues at Portola were clearly down to organisational errors, but I’m sure a lot of this can be easily fixed for its next edition. But if Portola wants to embody the underground — as its messaging ahead of the festival implied — it’s going to take an attitude shift. Ditching the VIP and adding some more seating would be a good start!

Megan Townsend is Mixmag’s Deputy Editor, follow her on Twitter

Written by: Tim Hopkins

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