Every music festival should have a setting as gorgeous as San Diego's Waterfront Park, the impossibly idyllic backdrop for CRSSD, a new electronic music festival that took place over the weekend. With the sparkling waters of San Diego Bay on one side and the stately County Administration Center building on the other, everywhere you looked was a postcard — albeit one in which the foreground was filled with kids dancing their asses off to the likes of Pete Tong, James Murphy, Jamie Jones and Seth Troxler.
The lineup, which also featured an entire stage (hosted by KCRW's Jason Bentley) devoted to live acts including Chromeo, Empire of the Sun, STRFKR and the Jamie Jones/Lee Foss group Hot Natured, was refreshingly free of the big-name, mainstream EDM acts that have tended to dominate SoCal dance music festivals in recent years. That no doubt partially explained the festival's mellow, laidback vibe — headlining DJs like Maceo Plex, Lee Burridge and even rising tropical house star Bakermat tend to draw an older, less frenetic crowd.
But the other thing that made CRSSD feel less like a rave and more like a beachfront mini-Coachella was the dress code, which "heavily discouraged" such traditional "rave attire" as furry boots, pacifiers and excessive amounts of kandi, the plastic jewelry that's been part of the raver look for more than a decade. (Contrary to some earlier reports, the dress code was meant as a guideline, not an outright ban.)
Discouraging rave attire at a dance music festival might seem like turning away mohawks from Warped Tour. But the EDM scene has always had a somewhat uneasy relationship with its own fan base, some of whom are drawn less to the music and more to the drug culture and over-the-top (and overly revealing) fashion statements that have long accompanied dance music. CRSSD, a co-production of Goldenvoice and San Diego party promoters FNGRS CRSSD, even strived to distance itself from such terms as "rave" and "EDM" altogether, preferring to call itself simply a music festival, in a well-meaning attempt to put the focus back on, well, the music.
In practice, this meant that most attendees chose not to dress up at all, except for occasional flashes of face paint and the metallic temporary tattoos that are clearly going to be all the rage on this summer's festival circuit. But a few rose to the challenge of coming up with more creative ways to let their raver flags fly.
A few intrepid fans even snuck in — gasp — kandi! Actually, these girls told us security let them through without batting an eye. Apparently the CRSSD organizers weren't kidding when they said kandi was only discouraged in excessive quantities, not banned outright.
In general, everyone we spoke to at CRSSD felt pretty positive about the dress guidelines. Even among the dance music fans themselves, there seems to be a backlash brewing against furry boots and pacifiers, and a renewed appreciation for both stylish, tasteful festival attire and inventive spins on the played-out "raver uniforms" of the past several years. As one woman we spoke to said, regarding her peacock-like feathered mohawk and spangled skirt, "I feel sexier in this than I would in furry boots and a thong."
But enough about the fashion. The music was pretty great, too.
Saturday highlights included one of the first U.S. performances by tech-house DJ/producer Damian Lazarus' new group, The Ancient Moons (dressed in cult-like matching black robes and mixing live guitar and keyboards with deep house grooves), former LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy's throwback, disco-heavy set (played on vinyl, no less), and the always entertaining spectacle of Australian psychedelic synth-poppers Empire of the Sun, whose backup dancers and trippy visual projections were fittingly accompanied by the occasional plane soaring behind the stage as it landed at nearby San Diego International Airport. The only real disappointment of the day was Hot Natured, whose set was marred some of the weekend's only sound issues — the bass was muddy and the backup singers virtually inaudible.
Sunday's lineup was even stronger, getting off to a potent start early in the day with Dirtybird's J. Phlip dropping some funky G-house and tech-house on the smaller Palms stage and Dutch star Sander Kleinenberg rocking a more melodic, progressive set just around the corner at the slightly larger City Steps stage.
By sunset, the 15,000-person venue appeared once again to be at capacity, as the sun-kissed masses (seriously, even in mid-March, everyone in San Diego looks like they just came from the tanning salon) streamed eagerly between twilight sets by Flight Facilities, Simian Mobile Disco and Jamie Jones tag-teaming with Seth Troxler.
Sunday night ended with a main stage set by Chromeo, who have done a admirable job of retooling their signature '80s-influenced sound with some more modern EDM beats, even throwing in a few bass drops straight out of the electro-house playbook. But the future of dance music — and festivals like CRSSD — was probably unfolding on the Palms stage, where an overflow crowd gathered for killer back-to-back sets by Dirtybird's Justin Martin and Dutch house DJ Bakermat, the latter accompanied by live saxophone.
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Martin's and Bakermat's signature styles — G-house and tropical house, respectively — point the way towards a resurgence in dance music that's less reliant on breakdowns and bass drops and more about the kind of sustained grooves you can lose yourself in for hours. It was great to see so many people at CRSSD doing just that, no matter what they were wearing.