Review By Riley Saham Photos by Addie Briggs
As I approached Pier 80, the site of the second-ever Portola Music Festival on Saturday, September 30th, I was struck by its expansive waterfront views contrasting with the pier’s industrial architecture. This juxtaposition spoke to a deeper contradiction at the heart of the Portola Festival. Portola claims to highlight the underground club culture of San Francisco; however, due to their inflated ticket prices (around $450 for the two-day festival), it actually caters to the wealthier crowd that has begun to dominate the city in recent years. Just looking around the festival grounds, I found myself obsessively wondering who these people sold their soul to in order to attend this festival.
While the ethos of the festival was debatable, the quality of the performances and music was not. The first show I caught was a performance by The Dare, which captured the aesthetics of an early Tumblr grunge-era, and Harrison Patrick Smith is a definite contender for “sexy white boy of the month.” His stumbling-drunk demeanor gave him the stage presence of a less problematic Matty Healy. This heady act was only diminished by the fact that it was one of the earlier sets of the day, making any inebriated dancing feel a bit out of place.
Next, I moved to the warehouse stage to catch Overmono’s set. Having seen them earlier this year at 1015 Folsom, I was highly anticipating a repeat performance, and I was not disappointed. The warehouse stage was the most impressive one at Portola, located in a massive airplane hangar that took five minutes to walk from the entrance to the stage at the other end. This industrial sublime only heightened Overmono’s high-energy performance, illuminated by the setting sun behind their stage.
Following Overmono’s set, I moved over to the Pier stage to watch Nelly Furtado. As the sun set, the crowd’s energy swelled, and the excitement for Furtado’s performance was palpable. Her Y2K classics “Maneater” and “Promiscuous” had everyone singing along, enhanced slightly by the addition of electronic beats, making them feel both familiar and new at the same time.
After the sun had set, the industrial grunge of Pier 80 could be fully appreciated. This greatly complemented Maddy Maia’s DJ sets, interspersed between other artists’ performances at the Pier Stage. Her high-energy remixes were extremely clever and kept the energy going late into the night.
In between two of Maddy Maya’s sets, I caught Jai Paul’s performance; however, I found myself somewhat disappointed. The mixing made it incredibly difficult to hear his voice over the undeniably funky bassline. While the lounge-style music was well done, it would have been a better fit for earlier in the day.
As the night progressed, the sets became more and more elaborate. This was best captured in Eric Prydz’s performance of HOLO. The music consisted of house techno beats, but the true draw of the performance was the visuals. Ginormous humanoid 3D projections moved on the monitors behind the stage, transporting the audience into an extraterrestrial liminal space.
The whole day built up to the final, and my most anticipated, set of the night, Underworld. The duo, formed by Karl Hyde and Rick Smith, is best known for their contributions to the Trainspotting sSoundtrack, with their track “Slippy Nuxx.” I found myself deeply impressed by their seamless ability to mix live vocals into the blends of their songs. They played many of their most well-known songs, like “Cowboy” and “Long and Dark,” but mixed them into a single continuous set. This was all complemented by the light show, flashing colors along to the songs’ distinct beats. It had been a while since Underworld had performed in the U.S., and it was definitely worth the wait until the end of the night.
As the set wrapped up, I reflected on my weekend at Portola: encompassed by a deep sense of confliction , but which ultimately delivered an experience that transcended it. Portola is definitely here to stay, leaving an undeniable mark on the cultural landscape of San Francisco.