Without putting too fine a point on it, my time at this year’s Awakenings was probably the single greatest festival experience I’ve ever had. If you’ve never been, allow me a moment to clarify that grandiose statement, because, by the end I think you’ll agree it’s the standard by which all international festivals should hold themselves.
Over the course of two days, I think I saw every techno DJ in existence, or at least it felt like it. But rather than having endless arenas with a copycat sound, each area had a distinct character and the whole spectrum of what’s considered Techno was considered. From the incredible energy of Extrawelt, the deep tribal grooves of Apollonia or the flat out mentalism of PETDuo every base was covered.
I arrived fairly early after an uncomfortably squashed bus trip. The only negative, and mostly because the Dutch bus team hadn’t worked out how many people ought to be on a transport at once. Undeterred, I left the bus in the shadow of a giant gas container and some of the largest factories I’ve ever seen. This was a different part of Spaarnwoude (about 20 minutes outside of Amsterdam) that I’d been to 10 years before for Dance Valley, after passing through series of security measures, we snaked along the bike path that took us to the festival entrance some 1.5 kilometres away.
You may think it’s a bit cushy this press/guest list entrance malarky, but as someone who regularly does it, I can tell you it’s not always a bed of roses. Names get missed, wristbands disappear mysteriously and sometimes you don’t get in. I’d forgotten my ID, so I braced myself for the worst.
“Do you have your bank card?” was the response to my surprise, “YES!” I said triumphantly, “Thank you so much!” “No problem,” said the supermodel-like press agent, “Please remember it tomorrow.” And so in I went, through the security pat downs and on into the cauldron of Techno.
Instantly I was hit by the spectacle of Awakenings. Sure festivals are loud and in-your-face places, but not all of them have the majesty and production quality of Dutch festivals, and this one is the best I’ve seen so far. I particularly liked how all the signage was the same, it made it really easy to navigate the site – it’s the little touches the Dutchies do so well.
Area Z was my first port of call simply because it was the closest to the entrance I used. Jeff Rushin was winding down his opening set and I could see people starting to gather for the beginning of VRIL’s live set. I stayed a while, curious to hear what he would do and I wasn’t disappointed. Waves of synth chords filled the air as VRIL made an epic entrance… and then the beat kicked in. What a sound system!
Beaming smile in place I set about finding my next musical fix. Apollonia were due on the enormous outdoor stage W. Gargantuan and utterly over the top, it was drawing quite the crowd and as I sat down on the huge seating area facing the stage with my first beer, I was greeted by the deep harmonious sounds of the grooviest house I’ve heard in ages. Melodic and Chicagoan by design, it put the whole festival in a good mood.
I was keen to catch a few German artists I’d never seen, namely Henrik Schwarz and Robag Wruhme, but they were on two different stages at the same time, so instead I mooched around the rest of the festival to get my bearings and check out the sights and sounds.
Area Y was rammed, Stranger had just finished and Sam Paganini had taken the baton on; the music was already at a breakneck pace and the hardcore Techno fans were lapping it up. Later, Marcel Dettmann, Dave Clarke, Len Faki and Chris Liebling would lay waste to Spaarnwoude, but it was all a bit much for a House head like me. I was planning to move on over to Area V to catch the end of Schwarz and the start of Adriatique, but when I’d glanced down at my phone, there was a message from a mate who had arrived and I headed back to the north entrance to meet him.
Andrew runs a radio station in Luxembourg, we’d only really chatted over the internet before, so it was a little weird to meet in person. That anxiety didn’t stay long, we had so much in common and our views on the recent Brexit vote cemented our friendship instantaneously. Over a few beers and an incendiary Extrawelt live performance, we put the whole geopolitical system to rights, talked work and recalled our favourite rave stories.
Next up was a trip to the most secluded part of the festival for what turned out to be a real highlight for me – Rodhad vs Alex.Do followed by the excellent Karenn. Rodhad has been on my radar for some time, but I’d never seen him DJ live, his B2B with Alex.Do was one of the most accomplished things I’ve seen. It’s like they had a psychic connection; every record flowed perfectly from the last.
Next up were Karenn, the new collaboration project between UK artists Blawan and Pariah. Now, I’m not Blawan’s biggest fan I’ll freely admit that, but after hearing him with Pariah as Karenn, I’m a full convert. Such a grown up sound, it was utterly beguiling, but Sven Vath was starting soon.
Andrew and his buddies wanted to stay at Area B, so I bid them farewell, made sure my phone had charge and headed off to see Papa Sven. On the way to the toilets (amazingly clean and smelling fresh by the way), I bumped into an old Dutch pal, Jurriaan. We stopped and chatted for a moment. he was excited to tell me about his first gig in Berlin a week later. Invited to join him, I had to decline, I was due to interview David August that weekend. Shame really, I heard he did great.
So there I am, front and centre to catch Sven Vath, surrounded by people old enough to be my offspring; I rave alone. And boy what a show. Despite him having the Germany match playing on an iPad in the booth, his attention was completely on the job at hand and the sea of smiles in front of him. Hats off to one of the most consistent DJs on the circuit.
Fully absorbed in his performance I get another message from a new rave buddy – Lisa. She’s working for Be-At.TV today and wanted to catch up at Area A for Mind Against. I head over. Obviously, we miss each other, but the Mind Against performance is second to none and my Sven fascination is quelled for now. Finally, I see Lisa, or rather the back of her head as she walks off backstage… maybe later. I head off to catch the end of Loco Dice’s set on the mammoth area W stage.
The sun was beginning to think about setting and the sky had clouded over somewhat. This gave the light shows across the festival more importance, hopefully, it wouldn’t rain again today. Dice was electric. House rhythms carried the crowd anyway he wanted to go, and again I felt compelled to get to the front like the demented boy man I am! Elsewhere in the festival Fatima Hajji, Pan-Pot, Maceo Plex (who I saw briefly) Ben Klock and Kollectiv Turmstrasse kept their audiences entertained. So much to see all at once… I decided not to fight it and just go with the flow.
Another message, it was Andrew “Hey mate, we’re all over at Area C. Stephan Bodzin soon!!” We all love a bit of Bodzin! A perfect end to day one of my techno odyssey. Wearily, I head back to the bus and home. I arrive late, all the shops are closed, my phone’s died and I’m not sure I have any food in… Pub it is then. Damion and I stay until closing time. Sleep alludes me.
Day Two sees me joined by my partner in crime Damion, he’s fresh from a trip to the UK and keen to let his hair down. We head back to the festival a little later and the bus is fairly empty – seats! Having shown my UK driving license to the supermodel-like press agent and negotiated the security pat downs I was greeted by the sounds of Area Z again. Voices From The Lake were well into their live set and the whole festival was buzzing with a new energy.
We headed over to Area C for Joris Voorn & Friends, andhim were playing and the crowd had become enthused by the introduction of massive beachball’s and inflatable bananas being flung around the arena. We were meeting up with a few people today, but as with everyone’s festival experience, actually seeing them proved more tricky in execution than planning.
Aside from Andrew and the Luxembourg contingent, we were due to meet up with Jukebox boss, Alex Jukes and Dutch producer/label head Roy Malloy (and his lovely girlfriend). We eventually caught up with Andrew and headed over to catch Jeff Mills take over from a rapturous crowd following a B2B set by Dave Clarke and DJ Bone. Oh, how the Dutch LOVE Dave!
Now I’ve seen Jeff a few times, but this was the first occasion I’ve heard him use a 909 (last time he was 3-deck mixing vinyl). The level of sheen on his performance sets him light years ahead of the new school, he simply gets better and better each time. Thunderous beats rain down overdubbed by live 909 and Jeff’s uncanny ability to make 3 tracks sound like one. Before he finishes, we head back over to catch Joris Voorn and Kolsch.
Joris is in full flow, Kolsch and the rest of their entourage dance wildly, his Fedora seems glued on! Wave upon wave of melodic techno ensues drawing us ever closer to the DJ booth. Oh for just a handshake; a fist bump, our world would be complete! And onward we go… Kolsch is looking across at his friend with a mixture of brotherly praise and artistic insecurity.
It’s his turn soon and he’s going to need to dig deep to top Joris. As the snares and risers of the last track power from the breakdown, we collective pretend to play the drums and burst into life. God know what the track was called, I’ve long since hung up my trainspotters hat with the digital revolution, but whatever it was, it was magnificent. We needn’t have worried, Kolsch was amazing. The newly crowned BBC Radio 1 DJ kept us dancing until the final beat with his unique blend of deep melodic house.
So there you have it. Two days of music at an incredibly slickly run festival which became a blur to me, bookmarked by outstanding musical performances, meeting new friends and dancing under the stars. What was most surprising about the whole weekend’s festivities was the amazing crowd. Made up of nations as far afield as Malta, Portugal, Egypt, Britain and the rest of the EU, I even heard a few Americans. It showed in blindingly visceral detail how we CAN all co-exist with a common goal and a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic mindset.
Techno brought us together for a weekend unlike any other, and in the wake of Brexit and the whole UK political system going into meltdown, I vowed there and then I would stay in the Netherlands for as long as possible. You could keep you narrow-minded xenophobia and backwards lifestyle, I was Awakened and Spaarnwoude was my place of worship.
Photo Credits: Awakenings/Jeunique Mingles