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A Portal to Salvation Before Societal Collapse | Okeechobee 2020

by Speed Raver

At Suwannee Hulaween 2018, I met an organizer of Okeechobee Music Festival who gave me the hot tip that the event was taking 2019 off, but would make a monumental comeback in 2020 as one of the dopest, most dynamic fests in the United States. So I’d eagerly been anticipating Soundslinger‘s four-day phenomenon in Sunshine Grove, Florida for nearly a year and a half by the time it arrived March 5, revitalized into a grander state through a partnership with Insomniac. A week after its conclusion, the mythological importance of this adventure in my own journey is clear as day as the lifestyle we music lovers take for granted disintegrates in front of us for the foreseeable future.

I already know I’ll be recounting tales to my children decades from now about this swan song of the Old Paradigm’s Festival Realm. This Okeechobee fueled an inner fulfillment and personal evolution of my true form Speed Raver that I feel blessed to have experienced, as that’s what will push me through the coronavirus epidemic’s shutdown of all we hold dear – until society reboots in the dawning of a new age.

Duel Master, Sword Forge and Soul Brothers

On the last night of Hulaween 2019, I befriended Nick, a Florida native and boisterous dork whose wide-eyed sense of play naturally fit with my phantasmagoric vision of the music festival landscape. We made a pact then to partner up and go all out together for Okee, allowing me to fly in and still camp in style thanks to his luxurious set-up and extra gear. Even better is the gracious gift this knightly nerd bestows upon me – a “Yu-Gi-Oh” duel disk, a treasure I’ve sought for years to complete my whimsical supersuit ensemble and unequivocally summon nostalgic childhood fantasy as festing reality for fellow geeks on the dancefloor. 

In return, I craft Nick a one-of-a-kind totem/weapon to slice through the mayhem of thick crowds and capture both their imagination and respect far more effectively than his lightsabers ever could. To accompany my bad-vibe-slayer Excalibur (my coruscating “Halo” energy sword imbued with full-spectrum plasma colors), I engineer him a “Halo 5” Prophet’s Bane energy sword in the ancient forge of a dying star, with blazing resplendence around its edges – which he christens Kundaechu. Once our home base is fully constructed and humidity has lowered from the setting of the sun, we mobilize with our space blades and enter into the Okeechobee Portal through the closest passage leading to the Grove. 

The electric grooves of Phantoms’ live performance at the Be stage (the main stage) initiate our campaign with smooth yet wavy rhythms that ease us into the magnetizing atmosphere, while the encompassing audience members welcome us with beguiled awe. Two swords prove more enthralling than one, instigating friendly battles until I receive a text directing us to the front left. A familiar illuminated outline stands out there and I go in for a joyous embrace with my soul brother Joey, aka Astroboy. I compliment the LED-strip improvements on his new spacesuit then congratulate him on his recent brave choice to follow his truth, forsaking film school and the NYC party scene to instead pursue his dream as a content creator in the Festival Realm.

Watch highlights of Phantoms’ set

Getting Lost, then Found at Frick Frack

I devise a plan with Astroboy for later, then Nick and I depart from his crew in search of Jungle 51, the house and techno stage in a jungle environment that I’m more excited for than any other element of Okeechobee. We pass a party at a mini-stage built around a black bus with “Hecha en Miami” adorning it in neon, trek down various trails, and ask a handful of passersby how to reach the jungle. Each of them responds with different answers and somehow we get so turned around we walk a lengthy circle back into and through the Grove, stopping between the Be and Now stages to soak up the visual majesty and psychedelic mania projection-mapped onto the enormous house stationed here. But our destination continues to elude us.

We do, however, come upon an inviting enclave of activity in the Chobewobee Village, shrouded by treetops with the Jive Joint stage at its entrance beckoning us to discover what unusual magnificence lies in-between the island trees. This is the Lost in Tea Lounge, a menagerie of extraordinary characters, artistically off-kilter structures and all manner of invigorating delights that stimulate our senses as we stroll through a rapturous hangout-zone and dreamscape of creativity. A mischievous grin spreads across my face as my favorite festival sideshow reveals itself at the rear: Frick Frack Blackjack, a game where cash is whack and novelty items reign supreme.

Glimpse the madness of Frick Frack Blackjack from behind the table

I raise my sword to greet the Grand Wizard of Shenanigans in the Festival Realm, Rawb Lane, who’s decked out like a jester in the Queen of Hearts’ court. He exits from behind the table and strums his giant metal spoon as we extend each other our respects. I ask for a retelling of one of the most ridiculous tales in Frick Frack lore, where Rawb rung in his birthday at the table during October’s Dirtybird Campout, just a few hours after I first met him. Frick Frack founder Robert Wilkinson steps in to narrate, describing the unfathomable winning streak Rawb went on that centered around a confetti cannon he wagered plus increased stakes each round in a race against time. As the clock struck midnight after 10 or so hands, Rawb celebrated in an explosion of confetti before scampering off with his winnings and leaving a hilarious mess.

This serves as Nick’s introduction to the silliest incarnation of blackjack around, and we proceed to grab the two open seats to play ourselves. He scavenged a charming trove of stellar stuff to bet from his truck earlier and starts off with a stress-relief squeeze toy of a Game Boy Color (soft as a cloud), matched by a relic from dealer Cash’s childhood, a Spider-Man and X-Men game cartridge for the Sega Genesis. I offer up a Winnie the Pooh mini-kaleidoscope and am met with a lovely little disco ball. Dealer and I both end up with 18, resulting in a push to the next round, though Nick loses and – obviously distraught – has to recoup the squishy Game Boy. 

trash panda raccoon pin
Rhizo Morphs Trash Panda pin

I recognize the intense determination in his face all too well. During college I seriously struggled with a gambling addiction for eight months, so I don’t go to real casinos anymore. But Frick Frack Blackjack satisfies the gambling bug in a far more entertaining, innocent, healthy and memorable way. Unable to agree with the dealer on a worthy match against his classic “Pokémon Yellow” Game Boy cartridge, Nick instead pulls out an iPod Shuffle and selects an adorable pin of a cartoony raccoon that says “Trash Panda” to play for. The dealer beats me this hand, but Nick wins the pin and his doughy soother back, prompting us to high-five in a rush of adrenaline like we hit the jackpot. Nick’s gleeful expression confirms he’s hooked.

Jungle Sneak Peak, Heavy Beach Beats, Melodic Aussie Sweet

Jungle 51 portal okeechobee 2020
Welcome to the Jungle 51 | Photo via Juliana Bernstein for Insomniac Events

A fellow gambler finally provides accurate directions to the jungle on our way out (“BEHIND the Ferris wheel!”). Advancing through its entrance marked in an alien language and under the archway tunnel of glowstick-like poles feels akin to traveling through a Stargate. Most Okeechobee Earthlings have yet to even uncover the Jungle 51 dimension, as it operates from 6 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. and the opening party is still raging on outside in the rest of the Portal. Shaun Reeves entices this interstellar spaceship across the rumbling eye of an electronic storm in a gas giant’s atmosphere, sparking our intrigue with an eerie taste of what awaits us later upon its arrival on the techno and house homeworlds.

Watch Caspa’s set from Okeechobee

In the meantime, we jettison out to Aquachobee, the open-air beach-party stage beside the lake, to wobble down to the impishly dirty sounds of Bassrush headliner Caspa. Old-school UK dubstep like Caspa, Rusko and Zomboy retains a far greater appeal for me than most of the dubstep permutations that followed, which swapped out more rhythmicality and raw texture of the OG style for in-your-face harshness. Once Nick and I begin snaking along the left side of Aquachobee, a sublime vibe settles over the scene that exemplifies the sense of enchantment this stage can curate thanks to the water and the sand, and how effectively the different stage environments engender such distinct experiences from one another.

Oh, how serene it is navigating forward at the edge of the shore, a tranquil breeze from the lake cooling our bodies while reflections shimmer on the water. Our swords illuminate our auras and attract constant awe, spawning friendly interactions from onlookers recalling how bad-ass they felt with the ultimate weapon in a seminal video game from our youth. Now we present them with the opportunity to wield that power in reality (and in more vibrant color). Their faces shine with wonder as they witness dreams of fantasy coming to life.

Up at the front, we relink with Astroboy and company, stomp around on the sandy ground, then join the massive crowd pilgrimage to Be stage for those sweet Australian boys of RÜFÜS DU SOL to stir our spirits and purify our energies. Eleven months ago I saw them live for the first time and the resonant depths of their music managed to soften my jaded edges. The winsome Baby Yoda totem next to our group reminds me of the resilience I have gained since then by opening up more to such heartfelt sentimentality, while the band’s ethereal harmonies lift me up and send chills throughout my whole body. I thank my lucky stars for all the magic swirling about, as “There’s no place I’d rather be.”

Watch highlights of RÜFÜS DU SOL’s performance

Roots of House and Techno Reverberate in the Trees of the Jungle

The deep, wonky bass of Huxley Anne B2B Ivy Lab lures Astroboy’s squad to the flame-throwing Incendia stage to close out their night. Nick and I return to Jungle 51 for a historic doubleheader of electronic music icons: Derrick May, one of the Belleville Three and a progenitor of Detroit techno, followed by Lil Louis, the Founding Father of House Music. By this point, the jungle spaceship radiates with its own extraterrestrial life force, as lasers light up the trees and reflections bounce off the disco balls in every possible direction. 

May’s brand of techno – dubbed hi-tek soul – relies on more minimal techno beats yet soars through soul-music vocals, disco-funk switch-ups, and layered drum machine/keyboard progressions. He propels the jungle into a techno-past resounding with Detroit spirit, exhibiting the technical skill of a lifelong innovator darting across eras and tempos with a vehement spice. After May’s revved-up finish, Nick and I require a rest in the illusory channels of the Lost in Tea Lounge in order to recover. Amidst its countless nooks and crannies, a doorway through a closet wardrobe leads to a secret parlor of endearing oddities like an antique rotary phone and a drawer of little gems. 

Outside the lounge, the Tea.V stage/installation stacks tube TVs and old technology to hypnotize through static wavelengths, satiating quiet curiosity so Lil Louis’ house music experiments draw me back to the jungle, where a space fruit smoothie refuels my empty tank. And by experiments, I mean a fierce smashing of house music expectations, jump to scintillating hyperspace-techno, and deliberate acid exploration ripping apart boundaries between the two of them.

One ballistic track presents the thesis of the set in clear terms. “Is it house? Or is it techno? There’s no difference. House music IS techno. Techno music IS house. SAME BEAT!” Lil Louis decimates the dancefloor and blows our minds apart in the trees. What a surprise that the house music patriarch is the one to light the fire for Jungle 51 to become Speed Raver’s ideal techno haven. We dance until our bodies run out of juice, then hike to camp as the last gasp of night gives way to the slow dawn of a blue morning sky.

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My Virtual Dance Party Weekend March 31, 2020 - 22:48

[…] Insomniac Rewind for 24/7 sets from EDC‘s (Las Vegas, Orlando, and Mexico), Hard Summer, and Okeechobee from 2015 to the present. I love reliving those groovy electronic dance music festival events. In […]

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