I have been to over a dozen music festivals in my life but never have I experienced something like What The?! Festival. Perhaps because it was my first out of state festival, nestled at Wolf Run Ranch in Mt. Hood State Park in Dufur, Oregon, but there was definitely more to the magic than that.
I showed up to the festival alone, only knowing a few of my friends from Portland that were going to be there. Not really familiar with the layout, I walked up to a group of guys enjoying some Bloody Marys and grilling hot dogs at the community kitchen BBQ and asked them where the best place to camp was. Without hesitation, they said ‘With us!’ and with that, I was taken to “Booty Camp” where they offered me a Bloody Mary, breakfast and a comfortable spot to set up my tent. This kind of interaction was not uncommon for the rest of the weekend.
And that is exactly what stood out the most to me about this festival, the comradery amongst the attendees; nearly everyone I came across treated me like family. The reality was that most of these people had been coming to this festival for a few years already (if not from the beginning), and were local to Oregon. The attendance, capped at around 5,000 people, reinforced this essence of familiarity. Everybody was very welcoming and excited to add a newcomer to the family. And I certainly benefited from it!
Besides the pleasant sense of community, I was ultimately impressed by the high-end production quality. For such a small and relatively new festival, the level of production was organized, thoughtful, and incredibly creative all the way from the initial drive onto the site, to leaving the site, and everything in between. Their commitment to art and artful curation could be seen in all areas but showed up the strongest in the Illuminated Forest. It was one of the most impressive art setups I’d ever seen, an actual gallery scattered around a colorful and- quite literally- illuminated forest. You could wander through the woods in any direction and end up at a beautiful work of art. Everything I saw (although more of an experience) was original and powerful.
The attention to detail continued to the Waste Management operation at WTF. The first thing you saw, even before the box office and parking lot, were ‘Pack it in — Pack it Out’ signs and a couple of volunteers handing out trash bags to each car. I have worked Green Team at many festivals and have yet to see this kind of initiative shown so early in the attendees’ arrival process. After every set, Green Team volunteers swooped in and cleared the dance floor spotlessly, and then could be seen constantly picking up trash around the festival grounds. One of the festival’s main mantras was Leave No Trace +1, meaning clean up after yourself AND others if you see trash lying around. Affirmations work when repeated over and over again, that’s how we make a difference in our own lives and as a citizen of the world. WTF gets that.
WTF paid great respects to its home state as well- with nearly all the food and merchandise vendors local to Oregon, thus contributing to the state’s economy. The food on offer was organic, healthy and with enough variety to fit all cravings and desires. A festival’s values show clearly in who they approve as their vendors, and WTF showed they care about sustainability, nutrition and supporting their community.
Musically, the roof was getting blown off daily. The Splash Pool was the DJ driven daytime party and proved to be the best day stage I’ve ever been to, with juicy acts like Giraffage, The Funk Hunters, and a surprise set from Claude Von Stroke who was rocking a scuba mask and flamingo. Everyone flocked there during the day and got wet n’ wild in the pool, reminiscent of a badass summer camp experience. The Equinox Stage featured local Oregon bands each day, covering all genres of groove and melody. At sunset, we would all migrate to the Main and Effin Stages, and when they closed, everyone herded to the Illuminated Forest to wander amongst the color-changing trees, psychedelic art installations, and to catch late night sets at the two stages therein: the Dragon Stage (an epic fire breathing masterpiece) and the Groove Cube (an immersive light-show experience), both works of art within themselves.
Often festivals seem too spread out, with no reason to the madness of the schedule and the location of the stages, so trying to make the connection between the acts you want to attend leaves you exhausted. We understand that this can be hard for festivals to get right. With so many musical options to possibly be at in one day, the balancing of logistics can be a nightmare. But the WTF production team solved a lot of these issues by utilizing the ranch land in a very clever way: they created a schedule design that made it effortless to ‘go with the flow’. Like a sundial, attendees moved from the Splash Pool stage during the day, to the Main Stage at night, to the Illuminated Forest for the after-hours. This planned scheduling ‘flow’ created an energy that crested wave-like through the festival day after day, allowing the festies to gather, play, make new friends and move on together.
Another standout feature was the What The Festival aesthetic. The logo color scheme: purple and blue tones accented with pinks and oranges, was interwoven throughout the ground. You could find their “?!” logo and iconic wolf design everywhere- representing the Wolf Run Ranch it is hosted on- and most notably on the gorgeous souvenir water bottle made by Liberty Bottles out of Austin, TX. It was not uncommon to see the same wolf logo tattooed on the skin of some of the revelers, evidence of a committed and loyal following. That branding makes them unique and identifiable out of the 100’s of transformational festivals on the west coast of North America. Check out their website to see what I mean. It’s brilliant that they created this definitive aesthetic for themselves because it gives the attendees something tangible to resonate with and remember the festival by. We are tribal in nature after all.
Ultimately, if I were to describe my whole experience at What the?! Festival we’d be here for a while. But the most important factors that impacted me from the weekend was the strong community of regulars and the creativity and attention to detail put into the curation of the event. If you want to be part of a family that shares and helps each other have a wonderful experience, this is the festival for you. As festivals get larger and larger, that sense of close-knit association inadvertently dissipates. So, I’m really excited to see where this boutique festival is going to go. If it’s already killing it in its 5th year, the future can only promise more production value, more magnificent stages, more intricate interactive spaces, and even more commitment to world-class art, all the while keeping that family vibe. Don’t believe me? Go and check it out next year and you can be the judge. My feeling is, you will feel my praise was warranted.
On the drive in a sign read “WTF is Magic” and on the drive out, I was believing it.
by Valen Lambert @chagurl — Trash pirate and boogie bunny; “I’ll see you on the d-floor my friends”