Truth be told, living in a metropolis has much to offer, but the one thing we don’t get enough of is immersing ourselves in nature and “switching off.” There's nothing more invigorating than going off the grid, disconnecting from your electronic lifeline, and returning to your roots. Luckily for us, the San Francisco crew behind Sunset Sound System continue to nourish the electronic music community with a healthy dose of music, good people, and nature in one playfully-packed weekend called Sunset Campout.
The campout, as most long-running dedicated events go, had modest beginnings. Its father brand, Sunset Sound System, has been in operation since 1994, focusing on unique forward-thinking events in and around the Bay Area. The crew launched the first Sunset Campout in 1998 in a small town in Northern California called Willits, and since then the Campout has grown into an engrossing festival that moves forward every year. Now situated in Belden Town—a small town three hours north of SF—the campout offers its 1,500 attendees a beautiful boutique experience sprawled amongst a lush mountain landscape. With the Feather River carving through the canyon, festival-goers freshen up and float within its mineral-rich waters, creating a festival experience that is rarely felt or matched.
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To think of the campout purely as a festival, however, would be doing it a disservice. The venue, staff, music policy, and inclusiveness fall more in line with a small creative community rather than your standard festival. You’ll meet no judgements or outside pressure, just good people ready to give you their time, vibes, and personalities.
Camping areas run along the riverside and are sectioned by districts with labels such as 'Tenterloin' and 'Shanty Town.' Campers fill in the riverside banks on Thursday and Friday, with latecomers squeezing in where they can. You’ll realize upon approaching the designated camping zone that this is a way of life for most attendees. Sites sprawl throughout the forest, with elaborate communal areas attached—comfortable getaways for hosting friends and neighbors with music, food, and drinks. It’s rare that you will walk past an occupied site and not be offered something, whether that be drinks, food, or just a friendly chat. That unbiased, uplifting vibe is something that is felt throughout the three days of the campout and is an undeniable ace up the sleeve for the Sunset crew.
But where the campout excels the most is its music. Although every year there is a handful of exciting international artists, the majority of the lineup is filled with residents and artists from SF and its surrounding areas—which is a rare thing on the festival circuit these days. The programmed sets begin at noon each day on the Beach stage, running until 7pm when the music is then split across the Beach and Sunset stages; the last sets begin just before dawn and finish when the DJs and dancers decide they’ve had enough. This open-ended policy really lends itself to crowd immersion, giving the dancers as much say in those last few sets as the artists themselves.
Nestled in a corner of the winding Feather River, the Beach stage’s main attraction is its floaty pontoon, a multi-colored waterworld acting as an amphitheatre to the thoughtfully selected tunes. Alvaro Z. greeted the crowd Friday morning, easing the party-goers into the weekend with funk-filled rarities and smile-inducing vibes before Dirty Dave stepped up with his deep bag full of shimmering disco. The pair of selectors perfectly complimented each other and the gorgeous setting in which they played and were a fitting introduction for what was to come. For the rest of the weekend, the Beach stage provided the means for more than a handful of brilliant artists to strut their stuff. C Love’s hazy and artful live set stood out on Saturday, as did the Woolfy vs Projections live band. It must be said, however, that every artist on the bill really laid it down over the weekend.
As night starts to creep in, the action moves up the hill and the Sunset stage comes alive—it’s here that you’ll find the bigger acts playing moonlit sets with a hallucinogenic light show in tow. Reverting back to Sunset’s music policy, it must be noted how well the residents, and the artists they invite, play music that straddles the line between overtly weird and functionally danceable. This trend was personified in the one-two-three-four punch combo on Friday’s lineup that ran from Honey Soundsystem co-founder Bezier’s live set through to Sunset’s charismatic head, Solar. With Innervisions' Marcus Worgul and Parisian veteran Ivan Smagghe sandwiched between the pair of SF-based artists, the crowd were treated to over eight hours of some of the most out-there dance music you will likely hear at a festival.
At some point, rest must be slotted into the schedule. When you’re running on a time schedule far removed from day-to-day life and its obligations—and with the constant pull of the music—it’s easy to forget that regular chunks of sleep are needed to function properly. During the three days of the festival, over three people had fits—whether that was from lack of sleep, bad drugs, a combination of both, or something else altogether, is still to be known—and seeing these unfortunate events happen did bring to mind to the importance of thoughtfully planning successive day events with regular eating, sleeping, and educated partying. The way the Sunset medical crew and emergency services handled these situations shouldn’t be unstated: each time, they responded timely to safely calm the crowd and provide the care to the people in need.
As the festival runs through Saturday, you'll realise that there isn't a focus on one headliner or one slot; rather, the focus is put on the experience as a whole across its three main days. Because of this, a relaxed and considered vibe runs throughout, allowing the attendees to take the time to find their feet.
Saturday night's party went into high gear with the live electro stylings of Convextion (a.k.a E.R.P.), as the American delivered his dubby broken beats to a swelling crowd. This gave a great base for Âme's Kristian Beyer to take things up a notch with his selections before Red Axes summoned the sunrise. Around 6am, Idjut Boys wove together a set of off-kilter cuts to fittingly soundtrack the stumble back to the tents—or the after-party, for those inclined.
On Sunday, understandably, there was a noticeable speed drop across the entire campout. A handful of San Fransisco standouts provided the parting tunes—including Pillowtalk, Anthony Mansfield, and Sammy D and Shane One—as well as LA's Heidi and Lovefingers and Tako from Red Light Records.
In spite of the seemingly endless party, you leave Sunset Campout feeling invigorated and refreshed—albeit tired. It's a creatively charging weekend and one that satisfies not just musically but also therapeutically. The campout won't be for everyone, but if you're up for going off the grid for a weekend of classy dance music then you will find a lot to love at Sunset Campout.
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