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Portola Music Festival In SF Had An Elite Venue And Massive Talent, But Also Left Room For Improvement

When the lineup for the inaugural Portola Music Festival in San Francisco dropped in May, nobody could believe the collection of talent that Goldenvoice had amassed for its new electronic music festival. Top to bottom, it was one of the most comprehensive lineups of the year — for any kind of music festival. It seemed like every buzzy act across a wide swath of electronic music and then some was captured on this bill, and fans across the country were jealous of what was coming to the Bay Area in September.

And the fact that it was happening on the historic 60-acre Pier 80 complex, the largest cargo terminal in San Francisco, made it even more intriguing. While most cargo traffic these days comes in across the Bay in Oakland, San Francisco’s old waterfront piers remain in a state of flux regarding their future use. So for Goldenvoice to secure the Pier 80 site to kick off Portola — from the notoriously slow-moving SF Port Authority no less — felt like a coup in and of itself.

The 400,000-square-foot Warehouse Stage greets you as soon as you walk through the festival gates. And 400,000 square feet is as big as it sounds. This might’ve been the largest warehouse I’d ever been in, with a second row of speakers midway down to relay the tunes all the way through. On Saturday night, Jamie XX showed yet again that he’s one of the best selectors in the world, jumping from soul to dub to jungle, progressive breaks and techno, telling a story with each record he spins. He closed his set with his own “Gosh” and “I Know There’s Going To Be (Good Times),” but the rustic vaulted ceilings of the warehouse bounced as much sound from the music as it did from the endless chatter from the crowd. Kelly Lee Owens’ Saturday set was much better suited for the area, with the way she constantly pushes the envelope vocally as her cascading intonations ricocheted off of the ceiling in heavenly fashion.

The Warehouse Stage was the same area that Charli XCX on Saturday and Fred Again.. on Sunday drew the largest crowds of the entire weekend. But this gave rise to Portola’s biggest sticking point that made the rounds on social media. The ingress into the Warehouse consisted of a series of wrap-around lines into a single entrance that felt like waiting for a ride at an amusement park or a crowded airport. When the festival announced that the stage was at capacity shortly after Charli began her set — a message that was sparsely delivered considering overloaded cell towers in the area couldn’t handle the influx in traffic and made cell service a luxury — many dozens of people waiting in line took matters into their own hands and hopped the barricades into the outdoor VIP section and into the warehouse; a rise of the festival proletariat, if you will.

Videos circulated on Twitter (filmed from the VIP section) where people scoffed at the sight and local and national media outlets picked up the story, some even likening it to the Astroworld tragedy. This felt like a click-hungry take on something that, while related to crowd control, was definitely not the same. Yes, Portola underestimated the draw of two of their acts on this otherwise enormous area. But there were no injuries, no arrests and the festival said it, “…was quickly addressed and corrected.” Insinuating that this was akin to Astroworld is disrespectful to people who suffered in Houston and whose lives were changed forever. This wasn’t even in the same galaxy.

Beyond the behemoth warehouse, the vast majority of the festival footprint lay ahead. The Pier Stage was the festival’s main area and had epic views of the San Francisco skyline, while people danced on a massive carpet strewn atop the pavement as the fog crept in each day. Here, headliners The Chemical Brothers kicked off their set with “Block Rockin’ Beats,” a track that hits as hard as it did 25 years ago. Their expansive visual display dominated the Portola landscape on Sunday night, like a big beat Big Brother following you around as the duo’s career-spanning set pounded away (even if the sound did bleed notably into other areas.) Earlier in the day at the Pier Stage, Toro y Moi at sunset was a welcome shift from a weekend’s worth of bass, and early in the evening, James Blake sucked me back in when I heard him playing 2010’s sublime “CMYK.”

Portola Music Fest
Alive Coverage

But the gems of the weekend were tucked away on the smaller Ship Stage, and especially on the farthest corner of Pier 80 where the Crane Stage low-key stole the show all weekend. Apart from an array of (pretty cool) disco balls that Portola used as its calling card, it felt like the festival cut corners on art and visuals all weekend. Instead, organizers relied on the industrial venue’s characteristics to do the heavy lifting. While it was a big missed opportunity to incorporate artwork and installations throughout the grounds, the Crane Stage was perfectly planned out. A giant container crane hovered over the tent that housed the music and inside, lighting rails and nine disco balls along the tent’s ceiling made for unforgettable audiovisual moments like Fatboy Slim mixing Underworld’s “Born Slippy” into his iconic “Praise You.” Peggy Gou’s Sunday set had the Crane Stage as packed with revelers and Gorgon City closed out Saturday night with a bang.

On the Ship Stage, a dance tent popped up in front of a gigantic old cargo ship (everything on Pier 80 is large, if you couldn’t already tell) and despite an incredibly inconsistent soundsystem, acts like Caribou, DJ Shadow, and Drama still managed to stand out. Shadow’s set was bursting at the seams, as he traversed the lineage of his most notable samples across his indelible productions (but yeah, the sound was lacking.) Drama gave one of the festival’s best performances, with singer Via Rosa and producer Na’el Shehade sounding like a stripped-down Basement Jaxx set that leaned towards R&B instead of house.

By all accounts, Portola was a spectacularly-curated affair. But it really felt like we were witnessing a proof of concept more than the finished product of what it could become. There are many kinks that need to be ironed out. Besides inadequate cell service and the sound quality issues that you’d expect in open-air tents, there is much that can be learned from the flow of the crowd in year one. VIP areas were too big for the amount of VIP ticket holders. At all stages, the GA areas were packed, with more than enough room to spare in the VIP zone. Some adjusting is in order.

The warehouse stage got to be a sh*tshow twice. There’s actually a second 400,000-square-foot warehouse on Pier 80 that perhaps could be used in the festival’s next iteration. Garbage cans were often overflowing and cups, aluminum, and plastic bottles were all over the grounds. SF’s Outside Lands has built an incredible relationship with Clean Vibes, an organization that has helped the festival maintain a tidy playground all weekend en route to achieving over 90% trash diversion rate. Portola would be wise to follow suit. And again, visual art needs to be stepped up. The disco balls were rad and the one disco chicken installation was fun. But more, more, more. In the warehouse, too. Maritime disco aesthetic anyone?

Arca Portola Music Fest
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But for all that didn’t necessarily meet the expectations production-wise, it’s truly the music that I’ll remember most about Portola Festival’s maiden voyage. Stumbling into Arca’s Saturday night set below the Ship Stage’s many disco balls was a magical trip. Playing on Author & Punisher’s industrial metal instruments, Arca delivered the most visceral and provocative set of the weekend. One of the instruments moves like a circular saw on rails and every time Arca pushed it to the end of the line, a frenetic thump would blast. My only regret was arriving midway through and missing part of the set, because good god did I want more. Then back on Crane, Four Tet + Floating Points closed out the weekend with a two-hour set. What a vibe and what a glorious, glorious rave. It was good to the last drop of Four Tet’s “Looking at Your Pager” sending us back to our respective abodes.

“I’ve been a DJ since 1984 and I truly love what I do,” DJ Shadow said to the crowd on Sunday afternoon. “It’s an honor to be able to do this for different audiences and different contexts.” He embodied the gratitude that the DJs showed all weekend for the fans and it was certainly reciprocated. Here’s hoping we’ll get a chance to do it again next year.