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MusicMusic ReviewPortola Fest 2023: What worked (and didn't) in year...

Portola Fest 2023: What worked (and didn’t) in year two of the dance music massive

Underworld rocked, Skrillex blasted, Nelly Furtado delighted, Black excellence reigned—but still a few kinks in the giant event

The second edition of Goldenvoice’s dance music-focused Portola Festival is in the books—and it was by all accounts a far smoother production than last year’s hot-and-cold maiden voyage. Festival honcho Danny Bell was candid with 48 Hills last week in outlining exactly how he and his team planned to fix the crowd control, sound, cell service, and layout issues that plagued year one, and those efforts were noticeable. 

We were at Pier 80 all weekend, basking in the glory of acts like Underworld and Little Simz on the outdoor stages and marvelously losing sense of time and space to Todd Terje and Overmono in the Warehouse. Make no mistake about it, this was a largely positive affair. But as Portola looks to cement itself as a yearly part of San Francisco’s cultural fabric, there are certainly new lessons to be gleaned from this year and plenty of room to grow. Here’s what stood out:

Nelly Furtado on the Pier Stage. Photo: Portola Festival/Alive Coverage

THE MUSIC

The conversation needs to start here. Find me an attendee who wasn’t satisfied with this lineup and I’ll show you a liar. For a second year in a row, Portola totally brought it with one of the most creative and downright excellent lineups of any festival nationwide. It didn’t really matter which of the four stages you were at, everything was going off all day. 

On Saturday, Young Fathers started things off for me with a bang on the main Pier Stage followed by Hot Chip. There was a moment when light, pleasant rainfall briefly fell from the sun-soaked sky during Hot Chip’s “Boy From School” that I won’t soon forget. There was a heavy concentration of acts from labels XL Recordings and Ninja Tune (Domino too) throughout the weekend, a masterstroke considering they all have impeccable rosters. Overmono’s collision of jungle and breakbeats and Jon Hopkins’ euphoric beats fired on all cylinders in the Warehouse, before SBTRKT played a full band set in the Ship Tent that totally hit. Ninja Tune even threw an afterparty across the street at the Midway where Little Dragon promptly dominated the main room. 

Nelly Furtado felt like a gamble amid all of the electronica, but it totally paid off. Her sunset legacy nostalgia set was well-received and felt like a different world after leaving the delightfully sweaty head-bobbing of the Warehouse. (She has in fact been responsible for a couple recent club bangers as well.) Blissed out vibes reigned supreme, with a distinct queerness among the gorgeous crowd packed with more dudes dressed like some iteration of Anderson .Paak than I could count. Furtado successfully broke up the monotony of the same ol’ same ol’ festival names, and it was a well-executed whim from Portola. 

The show-stealer on Saturday—and perhaps of the entire weekend—was Underworld. Pioneering British progressive house and techno duo Karl Hyde and Richard Smith are well into their 60s, and it just felt like they were out to prove something on the Crane Stage: Even though they’ve influenced an enormous number of the acts on the lineup, they could still put it down as solidly as any of them. “Born Slippy” and “Two Months Off” were an absolute thrill in a gripping set that showcased both propulsive vocals and transcendent dance floor thump. It was emotional. 

Sunday’s slate drove home just how diverse Portola’s bookings were. Black excellence was on display the moment I walked in with Belgian avant-pop vocalist Charlotte Adigery sacheting on the Pier Stage and Jayda G slaying her garage-house DJ set on the Crane Stage. Soon, Little Simz’s flat-out show-stopping rap took over for Adigery, which gave way to Thundercat’s future-funk and then Masego’s sexy (errr…saxy) R&B back on the Crane Sage. This was all before 6pm and it really drove home the story of how Black artists are the ones who pioneered dance music, hip-hop, pop, rock, and well… everything. Tokischa’s reggaeton rap and Carl Cox’s tech house added to the sentiment, book-ending the evening. And big ups to the amazing sign language interpreters at the foot of the stage for Simz, SBTRKT, and more. 

The disappointments were few, with the fluctuating volume on DJ Koze’s set in the Warehouse unfortunately deflating the energy in the room. But this felt fairly innocuous compared to the biggest hiccup of the weekend: Róisín Murphy. You see, two weeks before her album Hit Parade dropped early last month (produced by Koze, no less), a screenshot of Murphy on Facebook criticizing puberty blockers as some sort of ploy by big Pharma to take advantage of “mixed-up kids,” rattled her enormous queer and trans faction of fans. It was an out-of-character blow from an artist whose music has uplifted those very communities and was met with a half-hearted apology by Murphy that basically amounted to “let’s just forget this whole thing happened, OK?” It spoiled the release of an album that would surely go down as her crown jewel—and likely one of the year’s best—save for this occurrence. Even her label, Ninja Tune, reportedly stopped promoting the album in the weeks leading up to the release date. 

So Goldenvoice and Portola had a choice here. To perhaps take Murphy off of their festival bill in San Francisco—a city whose connection, history, and importance to the LGBTQ+ community goes without saying. But they didn’t. Choosing instead to just let it happen in hopes that things might just blow over? I watched the first couple of songs thinking that perhaps there’d be protestors. While there weren’t, San Franciscans found another way to protest: They just didn’t show up. Murphy’s Ship Tent set was far and away the most under-attended I saw all weekend; a total flop. Murphy twerked while turning away from the crowd and into a camera that projected her face on the screen for the entire 7+ minutes of “Can’t Replicate” to little fanfare, because there were maybe only a few hundred people there.

It was sad, and frankly, a fairly disgusting example of a “show must go on” rationale. I left to see Tokischa for a while, then walked back through the tail-end of Murphy’s set where she sang her otherwise iconic 1998 dance tune, “Sing It Back,” (from her Moloko project) except nobody was dancing. Was this really worth it for the festival? Did Goldenvoice (which also books the Regency, Warfield, and numerous other Bay Area parties) just let Murphy play to save face with booking agents or some other relationship? That’s what it felt like and it was the low point for the weekend. 

Raving inside the Ship Tent. Photo: Portola Festival/Alive Coverage

THE SOUND AND THE STAGES

Bell told 48 Hills that improving the sound at this year’s festival was a major priority. After a flurry of complaints from neighbors across the Bay in Alameda and parts of Oakland last year, Portola contracted all of their sound needs to one vendor (Rat Sound Systems; whom they worked with at Coachella), who not only helped mitigate some of these concerns (the Twitter chatter about sound across the Bay was comparatively minimal), but also fine-tuned the other stages. 

The Ship Tent looked to have padding and a thick-layered sheet on the concave ceiling, which dampened the sound well and kept it concentrated in the tent. The bleed from other stages was still present, but only if you focused on something besides what was on the stage. This wasn’t a problem during Kenny Beats’ stupendous performance on Sunday. A dance music DJ set that ventured into hip-hop, rock, baile funk, and more, Beats dropped the best track selection of the weekend. At one point, he mixed Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Heads Will Roll” into DJ Nardini and Jhona’s pompously Brazilian “Xerecation,” into Kendrick Lamar & Baby Keem’s “Family Ties,” that flowed seamlessly into, yes, Da Rude’s “Sandstorm.” El oh el… it was unreal. The dude clearly understood the assignment and this was an unfuckwithable set in every way.

Meanwhile, the Crane Stage shed its overhang this year and morphed into an outdoor set-up, almost as if it was now Main Stage B—and the sound was killer. With its positioning at the far end of the site, perhaps it led to more salty neighbors in Alameda—but again, the chatter on social media was minimal. The Pier Stage, was bombastic and rattled eardrums for headliners Skrillex and Eric Prydz. If the neighbors heard anything, it was this. So hey, live a little and enjoy the hum of a free Skrillex set wouldya, Alameda?

For all its glory, the Warehouse was still the most up and down atmosphere sound-wise. If you were up close (which it wasn’t hard to be), the bass was raw and the drums were crisp. But if you were back by the second set of speakers further away from the stage, it just didn’t pop the same way. Let’s elaborate on the Warehouse for a moment…

Flipping the orientation of the Warehouse around this year did away with any shred of the crowd control issues that temporarily plagued the fest last year. This was huge; problem solved. Visually, the Warehouse is incredible, like the biggest Warehouse you’ve ever been in and the lights and [Dr. Evil voice] frickin’ laser beams bounding off of disco balls galore are awesome. In a way, Portola really starts to make the most sense once you get into the Warehouse, with its concerted nod to both UK club and American underground rave culture. “That warehouse stage at Portola is mental. It’s like a triple-sized Yuma tent!” Chris Lake tweeted after his B2B set with Armand Van Helden, referring to the iconic Coachella dance tent. 

The hyperbole from a DJ stoked after stepping off stage here is not lost. The Portola Warehouse could get to that Yuma level someday, but it needs to be filled out with people and sound repeating further into the expansive stretch. There’s really no open space in the Yuma Tent (especially at night) and being the gargantuan building that it is, the Warehouse was more than half empty; it’s a challenge to fill up. Which brings us to this…

Sparkling in The Warehouse. Photo: Portola Festival/Alive Coverage

THE CROWD AND THE LAYOUT

Pier 80 has a huge footprint. Like…really big. There’s a second warehouse on the site that isn’t even in use for Portola Festival. In fact, there’s a lot of dead space that Portola didn’t really know what to do with, and it just sorta made it feel like perhaps it was a bit undersold? Bell told us they were tracking towards 30,000+ tickets sold per day like last year, but it just didn’t feel that way. Look, as an attendee, I’m not complaining—it’s better with more space, right? But it just magnified the glaring lack of aesthetics beyond just the stages and the shipyard machinery, cranes and ship surrounding it all. 

There was a new rave flyers and sticker art show this year that was awesome, but it was inside of a white tent that just looked stale. There were random tables and chairs to sit and eat at away from the concession stands, but they were just dropped atop the pavement with nothing surrounding them. There was a whole parking lot’s worth of space left open just beyond the Pier Stage (credit to the reusable R Cups which made it so that there weren’t a lot of disposable cups strewn about these vast areas).

A toll booth adjacent to the warehouse had a sponsorship activation on one end, but no art or visuals surrounding it. This felt like a missed opportunity to swag out a super unique feature of the venue in these toll booths. I get that selling sponsorships is a hustle, but where is the pull with local visual artists? Put down a small stage of local DJs there with live graffiti art in the background. Something…

There’s a back quadrant of the festival that had less-trafficked, but still stellar eateries (helllooo Gerard’s Paella!) and it just needed some love. More than that, it needed something to draw attendees over to that side of the festival. (Move a stage, or perhaps vacate the warehouse by the entrance and use this one instead, if that’s even possible?) Same goes for the new “Watering Hole” bar, which while promised by Bell as a, “Big circular bar and hang area for people to just sit and chill and relax in the back of the Pier Stage,” just didn’t feel like a place I wanted to do anything more at then maybe buy a beer and then go elsewhere. In the end, the best place to chill at Portola was in a crowd, in front of the artists playing music. 

Karl Hyde and Underworld had something to prove. Photo: Portola Festival/Alive Coverage

STAYING CONNECTED 

With cell COWs (cells on wheels; mobile reception towers) from all major carriers now implemented on site, I was hoping for immaculate cell service this year as opposed to last year’s zero. By 4:15pm on Saturday, my Verizon cell wasn’t getting service near the main stage. AT&T users reportedly fared better and once you tapped into the festival’s public wifi, you had a better chance of getting lucky than not around the site. Either way, it was much-improved from last year, but still made it hard to meet up with people. And when the festival schedule is on an app, it’s tough to load it up if you don’t have service.

Look, I’m not trying to be petty. But you gotta believe that if you’re a music festival in your second year trying to build this property into something that lasts, you want people posting from it throughout the day—en masse. It’s not about convenience and vanity as much as it’s crucial for marketing the festival. You  gotta make it easy for people to post clips and create that FOMO on IG and TikTok or wherever and capitalize on another year of an insane lineup of artists. 

At the end of the day, I want Portola to stick around. This was once again, an unbelievable collection of talent on the same bill. It’s truly an incredible playground for music lovers and this was a stylish, 21+ crowd that looked like a representation of how beautiful the people of San Francisco are. But lasting festival properties need to scale. The space is here for it at Pier 80 and the edges are slowly getting sharpened. The question remains whether Goldenvoice and Portola are willing to do everything in between to make it great for years to come?

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Adrian Spinelli
Adrian Spinelli
Adrian is a Brazilian-born, SF-based writer covering music, booze, festivals, and culture. Follow him on Twitter @AGSpinelli.

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