By presenting diverse lineups in an immersive summer camp setting since 2017, Elements Lakewood Music and Arts Festival has been edging towards becoming the premiere electronic music festival in the northeastern United States. This year on Memorial Day Weekend, they solidified that spot by taking their stage production, logistics, and guest offerings to the next level.
Lakewood was nominated in DJ Mag as one of the best boutique festivals in all of North America in 2018. We’re not sure what criteria make a festival boutique - the size of the audience or its socioeconomic status, the festival’s infrastructure, its budget, or its independence - but these accolades may have surprised those who attended Lakewood’s first two years. It’s been fantastic, sure, but best on the continent? Well, BangOn! NYC went above and beyond this year, taking care of patrons, focusing on the details, creating a ton of that old magic, and truly earning this continental distinction.
Lakewood stands out among small festivals for its ability to blend different musical subcultures. This is reflected in their bookings, which center on house and techno but range into dubstep, ambient and jam. The fest also plays to fans who prefer different levels of experience, by emphasizing glamping and tiered cabin packages in addition to regular old tent-pitching. Catering to these audiences all at once and balancing their different desires and patterns of behavior is no small task, but BangOn! pulls it off year after year. One fan reflected beside the lake about how Lakewood was deepening his understanding of the wider electronic music culture, enabling him to experience parts of that culture he was unfamiliar with and helping him to “connect some dots”, in his words.
Lakewood pulls an international contingent that’s attracted to the all-star house and techno lineup. Lakewood lineups are truly all-you-can-eat buffets for four-on-the-floor fans. The bass crowd continues to show out for niche bookings and late night takeovers by area crews. Most importantly, Lakewood draws on New York City’s massive electronic music scene. BangOn! truly brings the best of New York nightlife, in all its weirdness and wonder, out to rural Pennsylvania. When you see Lakewood’s resident “Funtender” and House of Yes mainstay Rawb Lane presiding over a crowd on top of a huge welded art installation in a Webster Hall t-shirt banging out the rhythm on the tower with a gigantic metal spoon, you know it’s some New York shit. Many of the same individuals and collectives that hold down Brooklyn parties contribute to Lakewood, and it shows.
These diverse audiences were spread across Lakewood’s diverse stages. More mainstream house fans could see acts like Disclosure and Dirtybird artists on the Fire Stage, sponsored this year by Dancing Astronaut. The production and pyrotechnics here, always on point, were even better this year thanks to fire-breathing dragon art car and a fresh Hennessey Sound Design system held down by Tiaga Sound and Lighting Group, a crew based in Washington State. Bass music was concentrated on the Earth Stage and in the Theater Stage lodge, both of which were equipped with LEDs controlled by Rhizome, which has provided world class visual production at Lakewood since the festival began. Regional crews Sermon, Good Looks Collective, The Rust Music and The Gradient Perspective threw down at the Theatre Stage each night.
Local house DJs spun during the day lakeside at the Water Stage. The Brooklyn nightclub House of Yes curated the stage this year and brought their inclusive freak party to the beach every afternoon. Techno and the more rarified side of house music is found on the Air Stage, Lakewood’s premiere stage and the focal point of the energy at the festival. The best sound on the grounds could be found in the vector of the Air Stage’s Funktion One rig, controlled masterfully by One Source Productions. Sponsored by Mixmag and tucked deep into the woods, the Air Stage is the most remote stage at the festival and the most immersive. It includes platforms built into the trees, decorated huts surrounding the dance floor, viewing platforms and VIP-esque chill spots that anyone can access, and the greatest decoration of all - lush Northeastern forestry.
Memories are made in many ways at this festival, from interactive art installations and gorgeous murals to tiny enclaves of relaxation, curated activities, and dedicated spaces for wellness and harm reduction. Heck, you could raise the jolly roger with your homies and cruise the lake on a pirate ship. Your correspondent found his zen in the middle of the placid lake. Here I discovered the elusive East Village cabins, which are on the opposite side of the lake away from the action, arrayed in rows atop an open lawn which rolls down to the shoreline. Kids were playing soccer in the field, one cabin had Brazilian and Spanish flags flowing in the breeze, and Tycho’s “A Walk” was wafting across the waters from the cabins. “This is what it’s all about,” I thought.
The real and unexpected solace I found here was powerful. Music festivals can be a unique paradox. Weekend warriors take time off work and leave behind tiring routines to attend them. Functionally, they’re a vacation, but in practice, they can be anything but relaxing. But alone on a paddle board soaking up the hot sun and swimming in the cold water, I found energy that helped me float for the rest of the weekend and beyond. Space to truly get away and unwind is one of Lakewood’s key assets.
Musically, too, it was hard to predict where the best vibes would come from. I found them at dawn on Saturday at the Air Stage where David Hohme spun an unscheduled 6:00-8:00am sunrise set following five mesmerizing hours with Seth Troxler then Damian Lazarus. Hohme captured the energy in the air and pumped it back out with deep, ethereal house. There’s certain melodies, certain series of notes, that unlock certain emotions in the human being. We’re programmed to enjoy these archetypal sounds. They create a sense of unity and oneness when they wash over us, and it’s often these melodies that people spend a lifetime on dancefloors chasing. Hohme hit these notes just right, creating a spiritual experience for the small group of dedicated attendees seeing the night through to its beautiful end.
The Belgian livetronica act Stavroz was the weekend’s biggest surprise. A band on the Air Stage? Unheard of! But sure enough, with guitars and synthesizers they put down dark and funky four-on-the-floor grooves garnished with trumpet solos, offering a twist on dance music that few attendees were expecting. Their energy was feverish, especially when they turned Daniel Norgren’s "Howling Around My Happy Home" into a full-blown house track with soulful guitar and pure, honest vocals. Another livetronica act offered fans an unorthodox presentation of groove at the Earth Stage; the 5AM Trio. With producer and multi-instrumentalist Tygris on bass guitar and turntables and ZONE Drums holding down the pocket, the Philadelphia-based group led by producer 5AM combined the psychedelic sound of glitch hop with the improvisational style of jazz and jam.
Attendance at Lakewood jumped this year, and the production team made key moves to enable this. They moved the Earth Stage into the forest from atop the hill near the entrance, which created more space up top for GA camping. Cabins are a key piece of the ecosystem at Lakewood, providing solid shelter and encouraging attendees to crew up. BangOn! moved artists off-site this year to a nearby lodge, which freed up more cabins for attendees. The parking and shuttle system was the festival’s achilles heel in 2017 and 2018, but this year it was a breeze.
Perhaps the key to Lakewood’s success is that it treats people right and encourages them to do the same to themselves and others. A safe, mellow atmosphere presides on the grounds, even during the most intense musical moments. The event promotes irreverence, new interactions and group activities. In addition to carving out more space in the northeastern festival market, Lakewood earned another distinction - the No. 1 Summer Camp for freaks, music heads and fun lovers.
Here’s one more detail worth sharing. Ella Mint’s Phonebooth Tiny Home was an art installation in the woods near the Air Stage featuring a phone booth decorated 1950s style with a white picket fence and garden plot to boot. Inside, there was a phone book hanging on the wall. Opening the phone book, I found it was actually a photo album full of smiling faces from the first two years of Elements Lakewood. Here’s to many more.