You couldn’t ask for a better afternoon for a road trip into the woods of the Pacific Northwest. It is a Thursday in the middle of June. The sun is bright and hangs high in the sky. The wind is light and cool. As you make your way to your destination, the brisk air dances along your cheek and awakens each of your senses in a way that releases a pure energy from within. In response, you roll your car window down as far as it goes to hear the strong splashes and surges of the Hood River as it playfully races the stretching road before you. You arrive at the Oregon-Washington border and you take a turn. Your journey continues as you head south…
Whether they were aware of it or not, the festival experience began for 5,000+ visitors the moment they embarked on their journey into the wilderness to Wolf Run Ranch. For an intimate gathering like What the Festival, nestled 25 miles south of the Dallesport Junction within the cordillera of Mount Hood, nature is one of the key players. The idyllic surroundings provide the festival with a vibe and venue all its own.
Over the last six years, WTFest has made a real name for itself in Oregon, drawing its childlike playfulness, interactive community, and artistic expression from an all-day, all-night soundtrack powered by some of the best up-and-coming DJs of our time. Festival Snobs had the opportunity to attend this year’s event and immediately felt that playfulness upon our arrival.
Once on the premises, we came to a dirt road, and continued toward our parking spot. Unlike an arena or stadium show with a generic lot, parking at What the Festival was a journey onto itself. We met several checkpoints of volunteer staffers who guided us onward down the road toward our destination without ever giving us the full directions to our parking spot, thus building the excitement and anticipation of what would become our home for the extended weekend. Without a doubt, after navigating the woods and being met on site by so many uplifting guides, What the Festival creates a natural, positive energy right from the start-far better than any we have experienced before (including Coachella, Lightning in a Bottle, and Lollapalooza Chile to name a few).
Photo courtesy of Matte Hanna
Of course, we didn’t trek all the way to What the Festival just for the idyllic surroundings (no matter how stunning)… so what about the music and art?
Arts and Grounds
What the Festival’s grounds broke up into three main areas: Camping, The Illuminated Forest (which stretched along the hillside), and The Plateau (open space for vendors, food, the Main Stage, and the Splash Stage pools). Visual art and live artists were stationed throughout the grounds. Officially, over 75 different visual artists were creating at this year’s event. However, the Illuminated Forest is where this art was most abundant. A massive wooden nest, stretching and twisting into the treescape, was the place where you could chill anytime during the day and night. Live artists were speckled throughout the Forest, creating small and unique masterpieces to their hearts’ delight. A confetti-waterfall-chandelier hybrid bristled and flowed with each gust of wind, offering a fun and relaxing experience each time we walked through it on the trail. A shipping crate, reclaimed and repainted in the brightest of colors, was filled with equally vibrant furniture and table sets, providing a fun backdrop for photos and an awesome place to enjoy a snack. These pieces, and of course the most photographed installation, the iconic discoball on the Plateau, are just a small sampling of the amazing art that showcased at What the Festival. In the area of visual art, What the Festival has clearly set a very high standard for all other festivals to reach for.
Stages and Acts
Continuing on with the artscape, of the musical stages and theatres offered by What the Festival, two stood out as visual masterpieces: The Groove Cube and the Dragon Stage. Enter the Groove Cube after dark and be prepared to be wowed. Designed with stacked luminescent boxes glowing technicolor lights flashing to the beat of the DJ’s musical mantra, the audience was bathed in ever-changing lights which instantly made for an out-of-this-world immersive club feel in the middle of the forest. Matching the dancing lights and audience on the forest floor were high-intensity lasers and lights crisscrossing above your head and cascading onto the towering pines, creating a cube of light and music within the forest that you didn’t want to leave.
Not to be outdone, 300 paces farther into the forest the Dragon Stage was nestled into a natural amphitheatre at the base of the hillside. Guarding the stage was a massive Chinese-style dragon sculpture (approximately 60 feet long and 15 feet tall) breathing real fire into the night. Also rising into the sky was the DJ tower, a three-story pagoda that easily fit in with classic Chinese dynastic architecture. This stage was our personal favorite, with the dragon’s fiery breath and Desert Hearts‘ fiery beats providing the undying energy we needed to dance ‘til sunrise on Sunday.
Photo Courtesy of Ben Allen
Swim and Dance at Your Own Risk
During the day, the Splash Stage was a must-visit venue. While raging under the mid-day sun, you had three different pools to cool off in. One downfall of this stage: Leave your belongings at the perimeter of the pool at your own risk. We had a pair of sandals stolen, never to be returned.
Photo courtesy of Matte Hanna
As far as the individual artists and overall content at What the Festival, it was simply fantastic. The musical voice of Heather Christie at the Easy Speak Stage was captivating and inspiring. Seeing ZHU perform in person at the Main Stage was an experience. And participating in the groovy flow workshops was a really great time. While the quality of the content was-top notch, the quantity of content was underwhelming at times, leaving areas of What the Festival feeling empty. The festival grounds always had at least three active stages with music or a workshop alternative, but never more than five active stages with something happening. This meant throughout the entire weekend, roughly half of the stages were empty. Consistently having pockets of the festival feel like ghost towns was not something we have experienced at a festival before.
Setting Up Camp
Camping at What the Festival was also unlike our other festival experiences. After setting up our car camping site, we couldn’t help but notice all the space we had! The width of the car camping spaces at What the Festival is almost double compared to that of the spaces provided at Coachella. However, when comparing car camping to classic “tent camping” at WTFest, there was not a definitive advantage. Usually tent campers are separated from their vehicles by hour-long treks or even bus rides, while car campers are located next to the entrances and have direct access to their vehicles the whole weekend. Normally, the additional $100-200 cost to car camp is well worth it when split among friends. At What the Festival however, the car camping rows were sandwiched right between tent camping and general parking and the typical car camping advantages didn’t apply. If you were tent camping, your car was quite close, a minutes walk away, probably closer than the bathrooms. At WTFest, it would have been just as convenient to tent camp and cheaper to not have paid the extra $175 for car camping.
For 2017, What the Festival heavily invested in their smartphone app and encouraged all attendees to use the app to create a custom schedule with their favorite artists and locations. That being said, “encouraged” is a rather soft word in this instance. If you are a festival-goer who likes to unplug from the Internet during the weekend, your only other choice for viewing the festival schedule was to buy one of the official Festival Schedule Booklets. There were no exceptions. Even credentialed members of the press were required to buy these booklets, which in years past were complimentary to all attendees with the purchase of their festival ticket. If you didn’t want to purchase a booklet after paying $300+ for your general admission ticket, then you had to resort to the app. Of course, given the remote forest setting of What the Festival, poor reception, and an overloaded network with everyone in attendance on the app, it was difficult to utilize the application. We reached out to the festival organizers for their thoughts on this situation created at the event and their plans for next year, but we have yet to receive a response.
Photo courtesy of Matte Hanna
Final Thoughts on What the Festival 2017
To sum up What the Festival 2017, there were many fantastic highlights, from Heather Christie, to Sofi Tukker, to the wonderful festival volunteers and attendees, to the magnificent art pieces positioned throughout the grounds. If you are looking for a festival where you can dance your socks off and interact with unique art, WTFest should be on your radar. In just a few short years, What the Festival has surely created its own unique magic and with a few improvements WTFest can create an immersive experience to par with the more established festivals in its price bracket.