Last year’s inaugural Taos Vortex, the art and music festival produced by revolutionary art collective Meow Wolf, opened a whole new chapter of my life. While moving from a work stint in Lubbock, Texas, to Denver, Colorado, a defining weekend in the artistic hippie haven of Taos and southwestern art capital of Santa Fe gave me a whole crew of awesome New Mexico friends, an appreciation for the sublime beauty of the desert, and my most mind-blowing visual, storytelling, and sci-fi/metaphysical-and-spiritual-adjacent journey ever.
This past weekend’s Taos Vortex vastly improved and expanded with two full stages, a terrific and diverse assortment of over 35 performers across three days, more wonderful, interactive installations, and tiny festival vibes with an even stronger sense of community. That reflects Meow Wolf’s immense growth in the past 12 months, with the “Kaleidoscape” amusement park ride in Denver, a permanent exhibition – akin to Santa Fe’s 70+ room installation – opening early 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada, another in Denver in 2021, and ones in both Washinton, D.C., and Phoenix, Arizona, in 2022.
On its own, Taos Vortex ranks as one of the most blissfully friendly, widely appealing and vividly distinct small fests around. But including a trip 75 miles south to Meow Wolf’s world-renowned House of Eternal Return – its 20,000-square-foot, psychedelic fantasia – elevates the adventure to one of the most magical entertainment experiences you can have in the U.S. without the burden of massive crowds. Vortex attendees even receive free entry to this unparalleled, dazzlingly staggering and brain-bending ordeal, which involves a family with supernatural powers whose mysterious home unravels out of time and space through portals into breathtakingly fantastical, crazy-creative installations of surreal new dimensions.
The world-building of the trippy narrative and themes of creating your own reality enhance the higher-vibrational atmosphere that permeates the festival (there’s a mystical energy vortex in Taos from which the name derives). By going the day before the event, I explored the imaginative glory and endlessly detailed realm with others at the House who became instant festy friends upon running into them throughout the weekend.
Let’s Get Funking Weird, Fam
Taos is a small, peaceful city, and upon entering the camping area of downtown’s Kit Carson Park, it felt like an immediate homecoming as the Vortex fam from last year enthusiastically welcomed me back. I brought my new spiritual mentor, soul-family member and legacy raver, Felicia, with me, and kicked off the day at the rowdy brass house of Too Many Zooz. Funk pioneers George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelic evidenced the full age expanse of the audience afterward as little kids, grandparents and mid-range hippies alike swayed to their smooth jams.
I wasn’t particularly engaged by the iconic ensemble’s slower tempo and wandered over to the tennis court, where sensual, scantily clad goddesses prepared the red tent of the Pussy Power House. Opposite them, the ice cream truck setup of the Fungineers stirred up a wacky spectacle of cone-headed dancers flouncing around on the roof, a triceratops-costumed MC singing her hip-hop Jurassic-heart out, attendants giving away ice cream cones from the back, and ridiculous puppets rapping about French toast from the truck window. A hilariously out-there improvised song about breakfast pizza and other bewildering bits kept the compelling weirdness front and center. Claude VonStroke and his family even joined the small crowd to appreciate the peculiarity.
The quick jaunt from the main Spire Stage, through the midpoint of geometric art lights with bizarrely shaped inflatables on them, colorfully pleasing spires and the TreeNet hammocks (which resemble spider web trampolines), to the smaller Glade Stage, made splitting time between sets easy. So I witnessed a glimpse of what a madcap bonanza the George Clinton ensemble must’ve been to see in their heyday, as they invited a bunch of audience members onstage for a supremely spirited performance of their undying classics “Atomic Dog” and “Give Up the Funk”.
Bury Me at the Club
Friday’s extraordinary dance-mania at Glade Stage popped off with a sunset set of bewitchingly bassy grooves and the signature “fk a genre” dynamics of Mija. Homegirl was the first female DJ to ever knock my socks off and enter my favorite musical rotation, back in my full-force EDM transition in late 2015. In the couple of years since I last saw her, I’ve become obsessed with the world’s best female techno DJs – so getting down to Mija straight-up smashing the decks, better than ever, was a miraculously exhilarating delight.
Then Dirtybird co-founder and house music prince Justin Martin proved exactly why he had a residency at Meow Wolf last year with a banger-iffic set that stirred up such commotion on the dancefloor to cause ecstatic hysteria. Add to that the appearance of Colossal Collective’s enormous insect puppet – the top-hat-wearing, LED-resplendent, devoutly partying Barry Romantis – gesticulating in mesmerizing fashion at the back to the unreleased earworm ID “Bury Me at the Club”, and many transcended into a rave grave.
Felicia and I took a break at the TreeNet hammocks, uninterested in rapper Goldlink, but revived by a throwback conversation with two veterans of the underground regarding the pre-Internet culture and convoluted processes inherent to the rave scene in the ‘90s. Returning to Justin Martin, we let our “Bodies Do the Talking” until Dirtybird Bossman Claude VonStroke stepped up to the controls and swirled an intoxicating vibe of tech house-o-rama that signaled any freaks holding back to come out and play.
One such spirit – Judah, an artist from my crew, gone full trippy-creature-feature with his melted-face, DIY steampunk mask – slithered out of the Vortex to spookily surprise and mischievously run amok. A girl with dreads that I had conspiratorially delved into intricate details of narrative secrets and subtext with at the House of Eternal Return dual-wielded LED hula hoops with expert articulation. Most fascinatingly, I met another Alex who regaled me with his personal odyssey of receiving the key to Electric Forest and completing a legendary early iteration of that festival’s scavenger hunt.
I would’ve been remiss to not catch any of Swedish soul-pop singer Lykke Li, so Felicia and I followed her enrapturing voice back to the main stage for several poignant ballads – but Papa Claude just as soon called me back to boogie. So I flowed alongside friends new and old, shared insight with another Alex in the Bird ‘Burbs hangout space, and bounced with the beat as Claude blasted it up into the sky and closed the night on a high.
Insane Jungle and the Soothing Rumble
Back at camp, a sideways room installation next to our tents was taken over by a group from St. Louis. As a Kansas City native, the cracks at Missouri being the “Show-Me State” drew me into their banter and led me to meet yet another Alex. Felicia and I befriended two vibrant characters, Zuzu and Troy, on our way to the afterparty at the Taos Mesa Brewery Tap Room down the road from the park. Inside I found Liz – Judah’s vivacious mother and the rave mom for my whole camping group of New Mexico homies – and felt overjoyed to reconnect with this free spirit and guiding light.
The deep bass oomph and drum and bass zest of local DJ Kanizzle infected my body with enhanced inertia, although the most inspiring boon came from Liz, who planted herself as the head of the crowd and influenced the whole floor, dancing harder and wilder than anyone else. Midway back I recognized Callie, an open-minded late-bloomer to the scene I remembered from the previous year, and I urged her to chase the festival bug further while sharing how my own journey across the festival world has bolstered my self-actualization.
Kanizzle slapped the room into a frenzy for the last 30 or so minutes with serious jungle music, surging in maniacal waves. I hadn’t at all expected such a fierce treat to be showcased here, and I unleashed a primal form of dance magic with Felicia. Those who stuck around till the end ate the madness up and roared in triumph at the conclusion.
A turquoise geometric star, which Felicia had heard vibrated from within, sat in an open area of the camping zone near our spot, so we decided to walk up its steps and decompress inside with Zuzu and Troy upon our return. Sitting down and leaning against its walls, the low, rumbling buzz lulled us into states of relaxation the way chakra-balancing frequencies soothe the body and mind, and seemed like an intentional representation of the energetic hum associated with the Vortex in Taos. While debating getting up to grab a pillow and herd the fam into this phenomenon, one of them, Haley, appeared like a genie, air mattress and blankets in tow.
The others soon joined and we morphed into a cuddle puddle, tuning into the vibrational upgrade-frequency while establishing giggly new running jokes (I still utilize last year’s winner, “It’s yur boy, alive in the flesh”). Someone got a Face Full of Haley’s Hair in the initial positioning, so this quickly became a band name, with the album titled “Life’s a Prism”. As we all stared upwards into the spire top and she started flickering her flashlight up there, her DJ persona Haley VonStrobe was born. Most everyone eventually migrated under the nearby shelter around an entrancing LED-tube, color-changing double-helix installation, but two others and I just went to sleep in the neutron star Transportal, and I awoke in the morning to a new universe of possibility.
Art and Community
Callie hosted a brunch before noon, and I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived to see that many of my group already knew her as well. New Mexico is a big state spread across a lot of desert landscapes, but the art and music communities are quite tight-knit. This arose as a resonant theme in the tour that Meow Wolf’s art director of events, Sofie Cruse, led right after. Santa Fe has been a prominent art hub for over a century, but until recently, its art world mostly took shape in the exclusive, traditional scope of galleries and museums, and mainly felt geared toward rich retirees. Meow Wolf has disrupted that model, accessibly bringing art to the masses and providing a place for younger, more outside-the-box artists to create and make a living.
Sofie mentioned how the younger generation in New Mexico lacked sufficient music venues as well. Artists obviously appreciate how Meow Wolf has fulfilled this need with a one-of-a-kind space, and I’ve experienced firsthand the deep sense of community that has more fully taken root and blossomed as a result for New Mexican music fans. A prominent externalization of this community-gathering was represented in the back of the Glade Stage area, through the conceptually themed hangout structures: Prism Place, Bird ‘Burbs and Clam Corner. Costumed characters designed from these three themes roved throughout the park later on.
Sofie highlighted how Meow Wolf reuses material for art projects as much as possible, such as with the reflective roof of the main stage. The multicolored hanging colanders and slinkies demonstrated how simple items turned a center path in the park into the immersive Colander Alley/Slinky Lane. A curved, shaded tent/hall implemented wider, old-school airplane seats for a giant mouth-like spot to chill and comfortably view the stage. She elaborated on how virtually all (near-500) Meow Wolf employees are creators, as the double helix LEDs were made by an employee who works the House of Eternal Return’s gift shop. When introduced to the craftsman behind the Transportal, we learned he used to live in Taos and this was the star’s first return home in a decade.
Sofie classified Taos Vortex as more of an experiential festival than a music-driven festival – even with the excellent lineup of acts on the bill – before describing the safe space and empowering, engaging activities of sensuous “pleasure-stacking” the Pussy Power House provided. Back at camp, I was even more impressed with Taos Vortex and the operation of Meow Wolf than before. Inventive and interactive art installations are one of the elements I relish most in the festivals I go to; those here were far better than what the vast majority of other small fests – and plenty of bigger ones, too – bring to the table. But what struck even deeper than that was the quality of the people, and feelings of belonging and admiration for the individuality of each person that radiated throughout this whole environment.