By now, you’ve likely seen the iPhone videos of kids tumbling down mudslides and flash-flood rivers carrying camping gear away from dumbfounded revelers. As of Tuesday, farmers were still busy tractor-yanking cars out of a saturated Winston Farm, when festival promoter MCP Presents announced they’d be offering full refunds on Sunday’s rained-out lineup (other refunds are available for three- and two-day tickets as well). The afternoon thunderstorms stranded a portion of the event’s estimated 20,000 attendees in the onsite campgrounds and parking lots into Monday and Tuesday, turning the tent city into a first-world refugee camp, complete with Red Cross emergency assistance.
This has become the narrative surrounding the inaugural Hudson Project music festival, but it could have read a number of other ways. Held on the grounds of Woodstock ’94 and boasting an adventurous lineup of hip-hop, electronic and psych-rock acts, the event seemed to conceptually challenge the everything-goes mentality of the contemporary music-fest industry by reconnecting to the zeitgeist-defining legacy of that original hippie-era venture. More specifically, the fest sprung up as MCP’s replacement for Camp Bisco, the EDM-centric fest that took hiatus this year as its reputation had become as unsavory as its booking was popular. In a smart move, Hudson Project moved the livetronic jam bands like STS9, once Bisco’s bread and butter and the true pioneers of American EDM, to second-tier status, behind the scene’s blockbuster DJs (Bassnectar, Tipper, GriZ, etc.), hip-hop prophets (Kendrick Lamar, Action Bronson, Flatbush Zombies) and a smattering of indie-rock icons (the Flaming Lips, Modest Mouse). Most exciting to me was the space they’d allowed for electronic iconoclasts like Flying Lotus, Four Tet, Gold Panda and Jon Hopkins, whose club-level influence is international but have yet to penetrate American EDM’s more “turnt-up” sensibilities.
The trouble with any music fest—and its potential beauty—is that you can only work out so much on paper. The best events flirt with total logistical calamity while approximating a psychedelic wonderland. When it works, the festival is a marvel of subcontracting on the scale of a small city: administration working fluidly with parking, camping, shuttle, water, waste-removal, security, vending and production staff. And success is often the product of efficient, real-time response to unforeseen snags and enactment of contingency plans.
Even in the sunshine, Hudson Project was glitchy at best. A Thursday night traffic jam prevented arriving ticketholders from establishing camp until the early morning hours of Friday. Meanwhile, the shuttle system and redundant security checkpoints slowed Friday and Saturday arrivals to a crawl. Yet, the fest crowd is used to the schlep and, barring those who shelled out for “glamping” accommodations, they generally accept a degree of labor as the cost for a more immersive party. So, for the first couple days, spirits were high and the event delivered on its promise, becoming a dynamic container for the audience to define their collective experience in real time.
Costumes and bodypaint have become the norm at such events, but the art of the “rage pole” took a decidedly Gen-Y turn this year. Paraded by fans on long, improvised poles, nonsensical and nostalgic cut-out ’90s icons, such as Oprah, Urkle, Uncle Jessie and Jean Claude Van Damme, served as absurdist totems of postmodern recognition, psychic hyperlinks, and meat-space equivalents to the online avatars this generation has grown up under. Even while they can obstruct the light show, they serve as useful points of reference when trying to find a friend in the crowd—“I’m behind Nick Cage and left of the ‘confused girl’ meme.”
As for the music, things ran like clockwork. With two stages and three tents running nonstop, variety was an advantage while shortened set times were the drawn back. Friday found live house band the New Deal playing an uncharacteristically early set, along with pre-dusk acts like Modest Mouse, whose high-register guitar rock frankly felt out of place at the fest and sounded tinny in an environment of sub-bass. The Flaming Lips delivered an abbreviated and potent headlining string of hits that ended abruptly due to a medical situation happening in the front row for which Wayne Coyne stopped the set. As attention turned to the DJ tents, the larger Carnival space hosted dubstep brutalist Excision while the Range started the Catskill Cavern’s subtler (and muddier) offerings, culminating in MPC madman aarabMuzik. Flying Lotus closed things out with a late-night set that belied the complexity of his LA beat-scene origins, opting for heavy bangers and club hits, as well as a cameo from his rapper alter-ego Captain Murphy.
Horror-core rappers Flatbush Zombies and dance-rockers !!! woke up Saturday’s daytime audience before Bonobo helped the sun set with full-band arrangements of his mid-tempo electronica. While Big Gigantic and Conspirator served the needs of the dubstep-oriented Bassnectar set, the small tent ran a sparsely-attended lineup of the fest’s most sophisticated selectors: Tokimonsta, Jon Hopkins, Gold Panda and finally UK house legend Four Tet, who sprinkled free jazz, kirtan and soca into his patient, cathartic mix. It’s unclear how Moby, who attracted a larger crowd following Kendrick Lamar’s headlining stage set, has again risen to relevance among this considerably younger crowd, but fan chatter that night was favorable.
In recent years, California dubstep shaman Bassnectar has eclipsed the Disco Biscuits at their annual festival, but I didn’t fully realize how popular he’d become until the rain started falling on Sunday and the Bassheads took to social media. The tribe was livid that the centerpiece of its Hudson Project experience had been canceled, and it’s likely due to the #mudson backlash that promoters agreed to offer refunds. Good on them. Ultimately it’s the mood and influence of an event’s audience that write its story, the same way they dictate the festival’s logistical needs. The refund might just save the festival’s embattled storyline. Simply put, there should have been a better contingency plan for a weather situation like this, and frankly organizers (not to mention, fans) got lucky nobody died, since their instructions for riding out a thunderstorm were to find shelter in the cars that half the crowd needed an overstretched shuttle system to access. This kind of event is a gamble, but the Hudson Project’s core vision is a good one. Done right, this fest could be one of the best. I hope they get another chance next year.