Festival Review – What the Fest 2017

Aaron Sharpsteen / June 22, 2017

What the Festival

 Rezz at What the Festival. All photography by Aaron Sharpsteen

As the misty green rain forest of the gorge gave way to the brown rolling hills of the high desert, I knew I was going to spend time in a place I’ve never been before. Nestled on a site named Wolf Run Ranch, just outside of Dufur (I was told that this is pronounced with a bit of a twang, as in Due Fer, I’m due fer some beer right about now), was What the Festival, a self-proclaimed boutique festival experience.

Let’s get this out of the way now: I’m not an EDM fan. This isn’t to say that I’m virulently against it. I’m reminded of an email I got once when I pitched some coverage at an EDM event and the editor not only told me he wasn’t interested, but surmised that all I would find was drugged up people “fingering each other.” I don’t hate it that much. It is just something I haven’t exposed myself to. So going to a festival where the main attraction was electronic dance music, with some hip-hop and traditional instrumentation sprinkled in was a bit of a culture shock to me. Here are some things I’ve learned.

What the Festival The first thing is: make sure to read the suggested packing list. The first item listed under camping is earplugs. I completely ignored this suggestion to my own detriment, and the schedule had DJs dropping sets in the woods until at least 3 a.m. and sometimes longer every night. Unlike other festivals I have attended that have designated quiet camps, the music was loud and bass-heavy enough to be quite audible in my tent which was quite far away from the music section of the festival. I described the noise as a futuristic city being bombed over and over again by robots from the future, with an enthusiastic reaction from the inhabitants. BRRROOOMMMZZZ….Whoooo!  

What the Festival

Do not go easy on the suncreen either. I designated one day to simply wandering around the Splash Stage, one of two main day time stages, taking pictures of the wild costumes and enthusiastic dancers, and by the end of the night my arms and legs looked like candy canes. This was part of the learning process for the flow of the festival, which I eventually discovered contained multiple festivals in one. Here are the ones I counted:

During the day there were 3 general options: A beach party at the Splash stage, a fitness/yoga camp in the woods, or a bevy of self-help and inspirational talks in the woods as well.

At night there were also several different options: Bouncing back and forth between the two main stages to catch some bigger names, followed by either raving in one of the many late night venues or wandering around and taking in all of the art installations hanging in the Illuminated Forest.

Any mixture of those was highly encouraged as well. Want to have a beach party one day, rave the next night, and then recover with some yoga and art in the woods on the day after that? What the Fest has you covered. Don’t want to partake in any dancing at all and just want to chill in the woods for a couple days, listening to speakers and looking at artwork? You can do that. Want to go hard all day at the beach party, sleep it off for a couple hours, then party until 4 in the morning? Again, that is an option. I’d say the most impressive aspect of What the Festival was the flexibility and adaptability. Speaking as a self-confessed non-EDM fan, there is actually something for everyone there.


What the Festival This isn’t to say that music isn’t clearly the focus, or that I didn’t enjoy quite a bit of music over the weekend. I’d say my highlights were Wingtip, The Last Artful Dodgr, Falcons, and Gramatik on Friday, Diablo, Manoj, The Funk Hunters, Rezz, and Brasstracks on Saturday, and Mr. Wu, Giraffage, Reva Devito, Sofi Tucker, and Shiba San on Sunday. I was guided to many of those sets by very friendly and knowledgeable people who kept answering my insistent question: Who should I see today? I was not disappointed by any of their recommendations, and came away from the festival with a new found appreciation for genres that I had no experience with days before. 

  What the Festival

I think that last point is ultimately the best reason for new fans to try this festival out in the years to come, even if they are usually fans of more traditional and instrument oriented bands. If you can be open enough to the experience, it is actually quite fascinating to see how different people answer the basic question that this festival and many others ask: How can I get hundreds of people to party with me? Paying attention to breaks, drops, tempo fluctuation, sprinkling vocal samples so people can sing along, all of these elements and more combine, when done well, to have throngs of people moving all day and all night. And if that doesn’t speak to the inspiring power of music, I don’t know what does. 

Check out all my photos of the event over on Flickr

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