On Saturday night, during STS9's headlining set at Norcal's Symbiosis Gathering, two dreadlocked attendees, a man and a woman, danced naked together near the front of the crowd, both smiling widely. No one hassled them, laughed at them or asked them to put their clothes back on.
This scenario wouldn't likely happen at most other music festivals, but Symbiosis, which went down this past weekend at the Woodward Reservoir in Oakdale, CA, isn't like most other events. Similar in spirit to Lightning in a Bottle and Burning Man (the campgrounds, in fact, often looked like a refugee camp for still-decompressing Burners), Symbiosis had a groovy and ultra-loose vibe that might have been overwhelming for the uninitiated, but was well-suited to the several thousand Earthy/crunchy types in attendance.
Here's the best and worst of what we saw during the event:
Best: The music
With a full lineup of workshops, yoga, lectures and art, Symbiosis is a multi-faceted event, but music is the primary draw. All flavors of electronic music were represented, although sounds veered away from mainstream EDM and towards more experimental and obscure styles, with a lineup that included Emancipator, Random Rab, Hudson Mohawke, RL Grime and Polica. When we finally took off our dancing shoes at 4 a.m. on Sunday morning, the party was still going strong.
Best: The setting
Being in Northern California in late September was a refreshing reminder that once you've exited the SoCal weather vacuum, it's actually fall. The Woodward Reservoir was a pristine location for the event, with the stages spread out on the various juts of land that make up the park. The stars at night were epic as well. A rainstorm rolled in on Saturday afternoon, temporarily causing everyone to take cover in their cars and tents while the thunder and lightning raged, but even that cleared the dust in the air and made for a gorgeous sunset.
The reservoir itself not only provided a gorgeous watery backdrop, it was open for swimming too, providing an ideal (and much needed) swimming spot for everyone to clean up and refresh. By day it was also a great hangout location for everyone who had brought their floating mattresses.
Worst: Power-tripping volunteers
The organization of the event at times felt chaotic, with it taking hours for some people to pass through the car inspection area and volunteers who seemed to relish bossing around attendees just because they could. We got different instructions on how and where to park our car from every one of the five volunteers we asked about it.
Best: Healthy food and proper recycling
All of the food vendors were offering organic meals (the tom ka gai was a major hit), and a team of volunteers was spotted sorting trash into recycling and compost piles well after sunset.
Best: The art
Although the venue at times felt under-decorated, there were a few art installations (like this metal coyote brought in straight from Burning Man) that created a spirit of true whimsy.
Best: The Education
Lectures included an insightful (if disturbing) talk about fracking, a discussion about the future of the Earth from scientist Bruce Damer and discussions on permaculture, economics and community organizing. Renowned spoken word artist Saul Williams also performed on the main stage, delivering a rousing poetry slam just before STS9's headlining set.
While music festivals can often feel like pure hedonism, Symbiosis' effort to educate and enlighten attendees by day balanced out the evening's all-out party. Damer emphasized that it's “important for the fate of the planet to share in joyful, peak experiences with one another,” a notion that even made getting down on the dance floor feel like a good cause.
Worst: Trying to sleep
Having thousands of tents set up so close together made for slightly disturbed sleep, with our neighbors blasting dubstep until 3 a.m. and another camp running their generator all night.
Best: The spiritual aspect
While it might have been too hippiefied for some, a major draw of Symbiosis was its incorporation of spiritual elements and traditional ceremonies. The lineup included Native American sweat lodges, “fire ceremonies,” meditation and healing arts, all of which made the event feel more relevant than just a simple party.
Much beloved on the festival circuit, L.A.-based DJ Pumpkin played a Saturday evening sunset set that perfectly transitioned the crowd from day to night. There wasn't a more crowded dance floor all weekend.
Best: The freedom
Symbiosis really trusts its attendees. No one patted us down or checked our bags upon entry, attendees could bring in their own alcohol and we only saw two cops the entire weekend. Despite the loose atmosphere, the vibe of the crowd was mature, with plenty of women dancing topless without any guys trying to do this to them. How refreshing.