As my first festival this year and second one since moving to Austin, the second annual ILLfest on February 18th and 19th set the tone for the impending start of festival season. Spring weather typically launches the season in earnest the first weekend of March with Okeechobee and CRSSD, but you still get a handful of festivals in the off-months of December-February. Aside from the New Year’s Eve events, it’s fascinating to see what festivals concoct for themselves and their crowds during this time, generally receiving less attention and skewing toward smaller, boutique-style sensibilities.
I actually hadn’t heard of ILLfest until moving here so I had no expectations going in. The stellar lineup of bass, trap, house, hip-hop and other EDM artists delivered a wickedly fun weekend of music, though the production and layout were not so sick. A month before the event, ILLfest announced a switch of venue from the indoor Travis County Expo Center to the outdoor Circuit of the Americas racetrack, which changes the dynamic drastically. It ended up being uncomfortably frigid that weekend, putting a biting chill on the experience. I eventually saw a plethora of heat lamps and a tented area, but this was limited to VIP only. Anyone who’s raved in the blistering cold knows it’ll harsh your vibe. A few sections with heat lamps accessible to everyone would’ve made a notable difference.
As for the rest of the grounds, it unfortunately left much to be desired. The four stages were pretty standard designs: nothing too unique or eye-popping. That’s fine if the production is impressive and captivating, but instead it felt pretty pedestrian. Almost the entire perimeter of the festival was inhabited by art installations, including some live painting. Those are always one of my favorite parts of festivals, certainly a staple characterizing most of them, so I loved seeing that – especially the creativity of local artists. Towards the entrance was a bit of a food/shopping vendor row. Most of the food trucks were BBQ and/or Mexican with a nice little black-sheep addition of a vegan macaroon joint.
When you go to enough festivals, you start to recognize a lot of the shopping vendors. Many of them are wildly popular in the community. Noralina Freedom Designs is one such company I’ve come across many times now and got to see again here. Plenty of vendors were new to me, and most excitingly, they all were selling perlers. As a die hard kandi kid, I love seeing kandi culture still alive. The whole section was pretty limited, but that’s understandable for a small festival.
What was really disappointing was how fairly large and spread out the festival grounds were, but how it was almost entirely empty aside from the stages, outer art installations, and vendor row. You could really feel how it was designed for the Expo Center and moved to a space that was too big for it. A smaller venue with this kind of more minimal production would feel a lot more intimate, like Austin’s Seismic Dance Event 4.0 back in November.
I know I just layed it down a little hard on ILLfest, but it certainly wasnt a bad festival. Like I said, I still really enjoyed it. And the lineup was killer, which is generally the most important part of a festival, so I give them props for assembling all of those talented artists and for curating an experience catered to two of the biggest crowds in EDM – bass music and house music. They managed to get a stellar lineup for the after parties too. Liquid Stranger, Mersiv and Smoakland the first night, and Kaskade with his glorious Redux set, Phantoms, and Oats and Honey the second night. Both reflected the dominant genre of that festival day.
I have disliked the majority of festival after parties I’ve gone to; it almost always feels like I’m at some normie club and I don’t fit in at all. Sure, I’m wearing an astronaut suit with LEDs, ridiculous kandi and I’m doing the worm on the floor. But still, I feel uncomfortably out of place. Fortunately, both of ILLfest’s afters were absolutely legit. They were exactly what I want every after to be like, still a party but also a vibe to progressively decompress from the festival.
So Day One I rolled up to the festival with a few friends. I’ve gone to festivals with all sizes of groups from massive squads filled with people from basically every other damn state to smaller, more tight-knit groups. And while ultimately I love wandering off doing my own thing the most (the all too familiar “I’ll be right back guys”), it’s really relaxing and more intimate to go with the smaller groups.
We got there towards the end of Nick P’s set, who was a homie of the two guys in our group. Smoakland was on next, and apparently they were homies with Harry from that DJ duo as well. After seeing that and how many familiar people they kept running into in the crowd, it was pretty clear they knew a lot of people here in the Austin scene. It was really endearing to see that – I love knowing people who are genuinely friendly, outgoing, and have a lot of connections. Not because it’s a reflection of “popularity.” Hopefully we see through that and have outgrown it. What I’m talking about is the infinite value of authentic friendships and how genuine connections in life, not based off of quid pro quos and exploiting those connections, can get you farther than anything else in life.
That is why this community has been my home for three years now. I have never found so many genuine friendships, made so many beautiful connections, than in this community. And you seem to see it everywhere. I love how (most) people are so friendly and know so many others in the scene.
As Smoakland began, one look around and you knew you were at an underground bass set, as everyone was wearing artist merch jerseys like they’re some famous sports player. After being balls deep in EDM so long, it was refreshing to then catch rap/hip hop from Devin the Dude. What a big ol’ hoot seeing flow artists spin to some old-school, New York-esque hip hop vibes. Dirt Monkey surprised me with some wonky house at the main stage, and I got to see some of the most eccentric outfits you’d stereotypically expect at festivals.
Mersiv has already been on the radar of bass aficionados as the up-and-coming superstar of the scene, and his set truly exemplified how strongly he’s stepping into those shoes. As always, Liquid Stranger took me into another freaking dimension with out-of-this-world bombs of space bass. Valentino Khan turned up a raunchy, raucous party, and Kaskade closed out the fest with pure bliss and euphoria.
The headliner for Day One was RL Grime b2b Baauer, and it proved to be the dopest set all weekend. RL was my very first favorite EDM artist; I saw him at my first festival, Snowglobe 2018, and he specifically got me hooked into EDM and sucked me into the magic of this world. When I first got into raving, looking forward to my next festival was the only thing getting me through life. I would count down the days, spending all my time preparing for it – working on my astronaut suit, making tons of kandi, listening to all the new artists I’d never heard of and would be seeing. That was my holiday season. It was a whole journey, a ceremony that made the festival last all those months leading up to it and not just the days of the festival itself.
But in all honesty, after the pandemic disconnected me from the community for a long time, and after getting older and becoming much busier, I’ve lost out on that magic this past year. I don’t get hyped up and ready for festivals like I used to. It doesn’t even hit me until I’m actually at the event. So it didn’t even process for me that after all these years of raving, after all this time of not seeing him live, I was finally experiencing the artist who started it all for me – in an epic b2b, no less. When it finally hit me, I was submerged in the biggest wave of nostalgia I have felt in such a long time. It crept up slowly, then washed over me, evoking a galaxy of emotions within. I thought of where I was in life when I first started raving – the dark, traumatic period that it was, and how EDM saved my life as it has for so many people. Then I thought of how far I’ve come since then.
While the hype trap beats from that stage got me throwing down and dancing in a way that just doesn’t come out in other genres, it was the emotional songs like “I Wanna Know” and the ethereal, grand sound design of “Reims” that had me in tears. And if none of that was enough of a throwback, hearing Borgore blaring dubstep from the other stage threw me into a whiplash, unsure of what year it even was. For a second I thought I was at Ultra 2016 – even though I’ve literally never been to that festival and wasn’t even raving back then.
What I hope to leave whoever reads this with is this – no matter how fun, impressive, or exciting a festival may seem to be and end up being – or not being – always find a way, a reason, for it to be special. Just as special as that first festival experience we’ve all had. Because we’ve all had it – I mean, why else are we all here? But we tend to lose that special feeling as time goes on. Some more than others. But try to step back, reflect, and re-center yourself, so you can realize that no matter how much time has passed, it can always be just as special. It IS always just as special.