There’s something special about Northern Nights. It’s not exactly tangible. It’s not something you can really explain. But there’s just something special about it, and everyone who goes knows it.
What was my personal favorite festival of 2014 came back even stronger this year, with perfectly executed improvements across the board. More people, but without getting the spot blown up. Better visuals. Bigger production. More lasers (oh sweet, sweet lasers). More stacks of Void sound. More shade structures. More renegades. More theme camps. More music. More art. More good vibes. Just so much more to experience in the same, compact amount of space. Northern Nights 2015 was an exercise in pure, unadulterated production value– an example of the organic growth of a young, ambitious music festival with a hard-hitting sound system and an eagerness to create something awesome. It was also a place that drew incredible positive energy from its attendees, and this energy brought people together to create one of the most enthusiastic and overall enjoyable festival atmospheres around. In Year 3, Northern Nights was at its best, and its best is everything a Northern California music festival should be.
For the uninitiated, Northern Nights takes place at Cook’s Valley Campground in Piercy, CA at the Humboldt/Mendocino border. In other words, it’s freaking beautiful. Rolling hills and mountainsides sprawling with redwoods surround the venue, which contains a redwood grove of its own. The Eel River is not only a beautiful piece of eye candy running through the site, but an integral part of this festival’s identity as festival-goers float in the river all day to an awesome live soundtrack. The actual festival grounds are quite small compared to other festivals, but the overall scale of the venue is rather grande. Being surrounded by a seemingly endless expanse of stunning Northern California nature while gazing up at the starlit sky made me feel like the little speck in the universe that I am. This venue is truly something special.
There were a few different camping options, the best one being under towering redwoods in the grove. To camp in a cool pocket of fresh air and natural shade is quite the luxury for a festival, and for the lucky people that got to camp here, it undoubtedly defines a large part of the festival experience. Grove or no grove, though, this particular festival experience is about as good as it gets for a plethora of reasons. Other camping areas were located along the Eel River and a grassy meadow next to the grove. Regardless of where you pitch your tent, this is an overall fantastic place to camp, and the fact that we get to throw a music festival here is just incredible.
Camping on the river? Pretty sweet. Even sweeter? The River Stage, one of the unique draws of this festival, and the primary source of daytime fun at Northern Nights. Void sound systems rattled the Eel River and its inhabitants, which this weekend primarily included festival-goers and their floatation devices. Sets by Autograf, Lane 8, Psy Fi, and more kept the landsharks grooving on the dancefloor while others floated the day away in the river. FACT: A swimming hole automatically makes a festival better. The River Stage really gives the daytime happenings at Northern Nights a vacation vibe. A hot day at a festival usually isn’t necessarily a relaxing experience, but it is quite easy to relax at Northern Nights. All of our troubles, as well as our bodies, floated away in the river. People came equipped with all sorts of floaties, and these floaties really added a lot of personality to the festival, whether it was a giant flamingo, a donut, a 12-person raft, a love-seat with a shade structure, a pizza, or a full-on set of inflatable sofas. People definitely brought their A-game as far as floaties go. Perhaps my favorite thing I saw in the river was a jousting tournament in which participants rode inflatable Orcas and were pulled toward each other with a rope. The ensuing battles were at times hilarious and vicious, but always entertaining. The fact that all of this is going on while top-notch bass, house, and hip-hop artists are performing makes the river shenanigans all the better. I also really enjoyed the Burning Man theme camp, Octopus Garden, who set up an awesome lounge near the river, tentacles emerging from the ground and all. Dancing to a reggae remix of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” in this beautiful camp was definitely a subtle highlight of the weekend.
River, check. Redwoods, check. Unique scenery that can only be found in Humboldt, check. This stunningly beautiful land plays a large part in what makes Northern Nights so special, but it’s important to note that the venue space has also been used in such a great way to create a small, easily navigable festival environment with excellent flow, plenty of space to explore, and tons of cool things to see and do. I constantly had to remind myself of how small this space really is for a festival. I’ve become conditioned to expect long, epic treks to and from camp, but any spot in the festival was never more than a couple minutes away no matter where you were. This allowed me to endlessly explore the site without worrying about what supplies I had on me and what I forgot to bring with me because everything was so close and camp was never far away, especially if you scored a spot in the grove. On that note, this small space still offered plenty to explore, including four official stages, theme camps, a couple of renegade stages, cool vendors, live art, installations, and more.
But let’s get into the music. This is a music festival, after all, and it’s obvious that Northern Nights takes this part of the experience seriously. With big, bad Void sound systems on each stage, everything is going to sound pretty great, rest assured. It certainly helps when such sound systems are being utilized by a unique lineup of high-caliber artists, featuring lots of bass music, house music, hip-hop, and plenty of other niche electronic acts (it’s 2015 after all– some of this stuff is getting hard to describe). In each of its three years, Northern Nights has booked impressive lineups that stray quite far from other run-of-the-mill West Coast festival lineups (I’m not saying West Coast festivals are run-of-the-mill by any means. The ones I go to certainly aren’t. But Northern Nights in particular always books a unique lineup that really can’t be replicated). This year, that lineup included Slow Magic, Gold Panda, The Polish Ambassador, RÜFÜS DU SOL, Goldfish, Shlohmo, and more taking over the awesome main stage with some fantastic sets for an intimate crowd in a gorgeous environment. Again, the River Stage kept the tunes bumping all day long with acts such as Lane 8, Autograf, Starship Connection, Psy Fi, Justin Jay, Luck & Lana, and more. Once again, HUSHconcerts set up a fantastic two-channel silent disco that kept the dance party going until sunrise each night. Silent discos are a staple of festivals by now, but the one HUSHconcerts sets up at Northern Nights is easily one of the best. Many of the acts you see on the lineup are billed to play at the silent disco, including Santa Cruz dubstep artist LabRat, San Francisco tech-house DJ Rachel Torro, and many more. I was also ecstatic to see free tea being served at the silent disco again this year. Game changer.
And alas, we had the lovely, intimate Grove Stage, tucked away in the middle of the redwood grove, which offered a place of sanctuary amongst all of the chaos (though it offered its own brand of chaos at times, too). The Grove was home to yoga and workshops during the day, comedy by the evening, and an awesome array of music and performance art by night and the after hours. The zen space featured a tea lounge, couches, candles, cushions, warm lighting, and cool interactive nooks and crannies, such as a stationary booth with pens, paper, stamps, notepads, etc. asking visitors to read one note and write one note. There was even an envelope filled with last year’s notes! Lots of cool, interactive, intimate stuff going on at The Grove. Performances each night included burlesque, electro-swing, acoustic sets, and plenty of other fun treats. One of the most memorable Grove sets of the weekend was a beautiful, haunting solo performance by the awesome Ayla Nereo.
The main stage was definitely a highlight of the festival for me. Usually, I’m personally not much of a main-stager– I generally tend to venture off the beaten path at a festival and explore, always on the move and always in search of something new, different, and intimate. But at Northern Nights, with a small space, an intimate crowd, a killer sound rig, and a fantastic lineup, the main stage often called my name. First off, again, that Void sound system was epic. The visual production was also an absolute sight to behold– some of the best lighting I’ve seen at a festival of this size. Watching lasers draw patterns into redwood trees is not an experience one should take for granted. Awesome. My favorite act of the weekend had to be RÜFÜS DU SOL, with a hard-to-describe, futuristic, live, housey sound. These Australians don’t come around these parts all that often, and they made their presence known with an epic set that had everybody dancing like happy aliens.
There was, however, one dark mark on the music programming that cannot be ignored. I can recall feeling this strange, specific, almost tangible negative energy coming from the main stage all throughout Saturday night once RÜFÜS finished playing. Something just felt off. I kept walking towards the main stage area, and then I kept turning around, hesitant to actually join the crowd. When I eventually found my spot in the crowd for Black Star, lo and behold, Black Star did not perform. Talib Kweli was there, sure, but he explained to the crowd that Mos Def was not. I don’t know what happened and why, and I’ll leave it at that. I will say, however, that I was pretty stunned to see Black Star on the Northern Nights lineup to begin with, and as such, I was not so stunned that Black Star wasn’t actually there. Props to Talib, one of hip-hop’s all-time greats, for coming out and still putting on a show. Black Star, the headliner, and a legendary act in the hip-hop scene, didn’t perform, and that was kind of a bummer, but the world kept on turning, and this amazing festival kept on buzzing. A friendly bartender at The Grove poured me and my friends some shots after-hours that night, we made a cheers to hip-hop, and we moved on with our lives. Our lives, by the way, just so happened to be pretty great considering we were at Northern Nights. I’m not sure what happened with Mos Def, but he was definitely missing out on one of California’s best parties, and in case you haven’t heard by now, California knows how to party.
Ok. Awesome music. Awesome people. Awesome venue. Awesome stuff to do. Quite frankly, that is standard fare for a West Coast festival. But again, there’s something special about Northern Nights. Camping under the redwoods, floating on the river, watching a unique collection of artists perform– there really aren’t many better ways to spend a weekend in California in July. But it’s the intimacy of this festival that is its most important feature to me. This festival is going to get bigger and better, but I can only hope that it remains intimate as well. So far, so good. It’s really powerful to connect with so many people in this environment. Every time I go to Northern Nights, I feel like I am leaving with a new family, and I know I’m not the only person that feels this way. The vibes are simply fantastic. In Year 3, Northern Nights has once again raised the bar in what we come to expect from a NorCal music festival. A perfect balance of chaos and bliss, of party and relaxation, of technology and nature. And all the while, it does a solid job of educating its party-goers about sustainable living and self-expression. Boy oh boy am I excited for the future of this festival, and you should be too.
Huge thanks to Peter, Andrew, and the rest of the NNMF production crew for having me out and for the tireless work they put in to create this incredible place for us to enjoy for one weekend each year. Thanks to Brendan and Hana for their hard work and for tending to all of us needy press folks. Thanks to the Green Team and the rest of the Co-Creators for volunteering their time to keep the place clean, safe, and functioning, and still having the energy to party with us. These festivals wouldn’t be possible without you guys. Thanks to each person who attended Northern Nights for being an integral part of the magic we created together. Make sure to tell your friends (but not all of them… just the cool ones) to join us on the river next year. Thanks to Trudy and Keith, the amazing family that owns this marvelous property, for allowing us to gather here and do something truly special each summer. Thank you, Northern Nights, for a fantastic Year 3. Can’t wait to see what we can build together next year.
All words & photos by Babak Haghighi