All aboard for the world’s biggest touring dance music festival
Words: Duncan Dick
Pictures: Andrew Rauner
“There are only two rules on the bus,” Identity’s Brooke McLean explains as she shows Mixmag around what will be our home for the next five nights and 1242 miles. “Sleep with your feet forward, and no solids in the bathroom.” The toilet thing is self-explanatory; the feet forward thing? It’s so that if the bus stops suddenly you won’t be brained against the wall at the foot of the bunk.
“Oh, and don’t worry if you have a coffin dream,” she adds; “it happens to everyone.”
The Identity festival is dance music’s equivalent of the Normandy landings. A month-long touring mega-party hitting 15 venues across 10,650 miles of the US and Canada with 28 artists involved and 58 crew, it’s a classic piece of American ambition, modelled on the epic cross country tours undertaken by rock bands (and crewed by the same guys). Five huge gleaming trucks carry the stages from town to town, while Mixmag’s mobile home is one of eight coaches in the convoy.
1. MANSFIELD, MASSACHUSSETtS: THE COMCAST CENTER
The first thing that hits you is the fashion. The general vibe is ‘Global Gathering 2003’, but with neon slogan T-shirts instead of furry boots: ‘SEX & DRUGS & DUBSTEP’; ‘LET’S FUCKING RAGE’ (‘rave’ has a bit of a stigma in the US, ‘rage’ however, is fine); ‘PARTY WITH SLUTS’ (on a young lad who looks more virginal than Joan of Arc). Like many of the Identity events, this is open to all ages, though 16 seems the minimum. The party actually started hours before the festival, out in a giant car park where the US tradition of tailgate parties is in full effect: the boot of a car open and filled with alcohol, sound-system blaring, mates sitting on cool boxes, the occasional lone girl dancing on a roof and games of cat and mouse with local cops.
The venue itself is set among gently rolling, landscaped hills – the main stage is a huge, fan-shaped 7000-person pavilion under an iron roof, while the Festival stage –carried on the back of the trucks from town to town, the main spine unfolding from its own trailer like Optimus Prime – is over the hill beyond a woody glade carpeted with pine needles for extra bounce, where local DJs are laying down the beats.
The second thing that hits you is the music. The line-up for IDentity is understandably inclined towards the sound making the most impact in the US right now: the mid-range, post-Skrillex ‘EDM dubstep’ – high energy, six-drops-a-minute stuff epitomised by the nightly headliner on the Festival stage, Excision. At first it’s a little overwhelming, but there are some standout performances amid the brostep. J Devil, for example, catches the eye on the Festival stage with a DJ set that quickly becomes more of a live PA as he introduces each tune, moshes like a demon at the drop, waist-length hair flying like a samurai sword, then sings the vocal on the track he made with Skrillex, ‘Feel Alive’. Afterwards we discover that his consummate stagecraft isn’t much of a surprise – in his day job, J Devil is Jonathan Davis, the lead vocalist of multi-platinum selling rock band Korn.
2. BRISTOW, VIRGINIA: JIFFY LUBE LIVE
It’s hot and humid here. While not exactly the Deep South, we’re still South of the Mason-Dixon line, the demarcation between Dixie and the Northern States. The Jiffy Lube main arena is another ampitheatre, set on the side of a steep hill, a picture-perfect meadow peeping above the top row of seats. From up there you can see the whole party; the Festival stage, perched on dusty gravel, where Stephan Jacobs is welcoming the the first ‘ragers’ with his own dark dubstep, the local stage at the foot of the hill going off to poppy electro, hundreds bouncing in unison to a highly caffeinated version of Gotye.
At the top of the hill a girl expertly twirls a hula hoop around her body: neck, waist, then each leg in turn. It’s strangely hypnotic – though maybe Mixmag didn’t get enough sleep on the bus last night. We spot our first pair of parachute trousers on a boy with a dummy in his mouth. After dark, Eric Prydz’s five-minute beatless intro of cascading chords and cosmic visuals is a real statement: proof that his melodic house, techno and electro can not only hold this crowd but lift it to a new level. His confidence is justified. ‘Welcome to my house’ drawls the creepy vocal, and the crowd make themselves at home. In one sense he’s the most under-ground artist here. But he’s also top of the bill in every possible way. The stunning visuals and light show are nearly at Chemical Brothers levels in their intricacy and sinister menace. One moment sums up why Prydz is the heartbeat of the tour: an a capella of Kings Of Tomorrow’s ‘Finally’. Unlike much of the ‘EDM dubstep’ on offer, which seems to have been born fully formed, he provides a link to 30 years of dance history.
3. WANTAGH, NEW YORK: JONES BEACH THEATRE
Spectacular. The stage is built on a jetty in the Long Island Sound, miles of water visible beyond. Over 14,000 sun-faded red seats make up the grandstand. Prior to opening, big evil-looking seagulls wheel above the production crew. One of them welcomes a bleary-eyed Mixmag with a well aimed, fishy-smelling gift.
This is a ‘dry venue’: no bars, no alcohol on sale whatsoever. As a consequence, the venue is slow to fill as the tailgaters make sure they are well lubricated. On the Rockstar stage in the shadow of the arena, Audrey Napoleon is laying down a techno- and electro-heavy set of her own productions that is one of the date’s highlights – even a middle-aged lady steward is bopping away. Perhaps it’s the proximity to the house stronghold of New York, but the music seems more euphoric and trancey.
Le Castlevania, another up-and-coming US artist, catches the ear with a fierce remix of Daft Punk’s ‘Around The World’ and the dayglo crowd forget the blustery rain to go apeshit. And then up steps the Gaslamp Killer. A scruffy, bearded anarchist of the decks, he mixes hip hop swing, frantic jungle and bass-laden psychedelia apparently at random. At first the crowd have no idea what’s going on, but they soon seem to adjust. Sans headphones, apparently operating by instinct alone, he triggers chaos via an iPad controller, battering out samples with a tapping finger then waggling it with two hands above his head as he drops everything from his mate Flying Lotus’s next single to the ‘Imperial March’ from Star Wars and Snoop Dogg’s ‘La Di Da Di’ while shouting things like ‘Ah kin feel you tuning into my vibration’ over the mic. ‘Best set I’ve seen so far!’ reckons Thijs from Noisia, pogoing away backstage.
GLK joins the Dutch pair as hype man as they open with their mix of ‘Raise Your Weapon’ accompanied by a great deal of Dance Valley-style skanking behind the decks. As darkness falls, Mixmag makes the trek up to the top of the huge grandstand to watch Eric Prydz’ set. Spotlights play on the low cloud cover like the climax of Close Encounters; it’s a breathtaking scene – and not just because of our altitude.
4. FESTIVAL PIER AT PENN’S LANDING, PENNSYLVANIA
The Festival Pier at Penn’s Landing is a flat concourse built on the Delaware River in the shadow of the huge Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Compared to the rural settings of Mansfield and Bristow it’s cramped, raw and intense. The stages are side by side tonight, which means a different set-up: each stage open for an hour at a time as we build up to Eric’s closing set to prevent the mother of all soundclashes. The crews seem pleased, some even grabbing some sleep when their stage goes ‘dark’. The pier is packed out, every square foot covered in hard-partying ‘ragers’. While the music may not be minimal, some of the clothing is; two leggy young girls are walking around wearing nothing but flip flops, denim hot pants and an ‘X’ of electrical tape on each nipple, like every father’s nightmare version of noughts and crosses. Tonight, 18-year-old Madeon excels on the main stage.
After a few hit-and-miss sets, the man the girls in the crew fondly refer to as ‘Le Petit Prince’ seems to have found his feet with a perfectly judged, chopped-up, bass-heavy set of driving electro. We catch up with Eric Prydz backstage, who tells us that he’s playing over 50 gigs in the US during the summer. “The demand from fans has been so big I just had to get my arse in gear,” says dance music’s favourite aviophobe. “I got on and off the plane for three days in a row.” Bus tours are definitely more his style, especially his pimped-out coach with its kingsize bed: “It’s like going on a road trip. Our driver ‘Randy Roadrage’ has driven everyone from the Skorpions to Ice T”, he tells us. Indeed, one of the best things about the IDentity tour is that it takes the scale and ambition of a classic rock tour and applies it to electronic music. Not everyone can handle it, though, says Jordan Henrion of Total Audio, who is responsible for the ‘backline’ (the monitors, mixers, decks etc) and is one of the few crew with a background in dance music. “Roger Daltrey’s [vocalist from vintage rockers The Who] monitor engineer was on the tour with us last year. He lasted three days.”
Mixmag’s four have gone by in a flash. We’ve bought a slogan vest, drunk a shitload of energy drinks and grown attached to our little coffin. As the convoy heads off into the distance (and another eight shows) we brace ourselves for normal life again. And a proper bathroom.