Serenity Gathering was a study in beautiful chaos. As attendees, our only duty is to have fun and bask in the glory of music, art, and the company of our festy-family. However, as a part of the media, it was also our job to keep an eye out for reasonable lack in organization or experience. Disorganization may have been rampant throughout the weekend, but it wasn’t for lack of effort on the crew’s part. They worked tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure the event was an absolutely magical experience for the 3000+ dreamers, creators, & music makers that descended upon the hills of the La Jolla Indian Reservation two weeks ago. Not even the longest running festivals are completely free of issues; throwing an event of this magnitude, especially as a “mom & pop”-style event, requires an insane amount of commitment and coordination.
And speaking of magnitude, WOW. For a festival that’s only in its second year of existence, Serenity Gathering stacked their lineup to absolutely incredible heights. Each phase revealed more and more highly anticipated artists and, best of all, diversity reigned supreme. With over 200 acts spread across four stages, the music was a menagerie of sounds from across the sonic spectrum. From hip hop and reggae to indie dance and any form of electronic genre you could name, the grounds echoed with beats, bass, and good vibrations. Even before the festival had opened its gates, we knew we were in for a wild ride.
Our journey began in Los Angeles; we departed for La Jolla on Thursday afternoon with high expectations, dancefloor-ready feet, and a trunk full of beer. As we neared our destination, the greatest of good omens greeted us: a vibrantly colorful rainbow that seemed to touch down on the very site we were headed toward. We let out a shout of ‘Serenity NOW!’ and charged to the campground entrance. It was here that we got our first taste of the apparent lack of organization behind the scenes. None of the staff checking in attendees seemed to know what list they were working from and it took several tries before our media & car-camping passes were acquired.
The organizational hiccups continued as we made our way into the camping areas. Since we hadn’t been given a map and it didn’t seem that there actually was designated car-camping, finding a campsite was largely a free-for-all; RVs, sedans, and SUVs all vied for space, cluttering the landscape. Fortunately, there was lots of room on the property and we eventually staked out a fairly cozy spot for ourselves on the hilltop. Setting up camp in the dark was no easy task, but our new neighbors and the nearby Sacred Spaces Healing Sanctuary were outputting plenty of good vibes to balance our aggravation. There was even music, as we’d inadvertently camped next to a renegade ‘stage’. When we finally got everything put together, we quickly knocked back a few beers and began exploring.
Once we made it off the hill and into the small valley that housed the main body of the festival, any reservations we had immediately flew out of our head. The breathtaking Serenity stage (which was co-curated by The Untz) stood at the head of everything and was rigged up with all manner of psychedelic trappings, including a state-of-the-art projection mapping rig. And the sound… oh, the SOUND. Funkworks came correct with two massive stacks of Funktion-1s, a system with bass heavy enough to rattle every molecule in your body while still retaining audiophile-level sound quality. The thought of a whole weekend’s worth of music being output through those beauties made us giddy with excitement. To further add to the audio-visual fusion, no less than 10 live painters were constantly crafting new pieces outside the nearby Sananda Art Gallery, which housed a whole collection of epic, mind-expanding paintings. The vendor village stretched down the path before us as well, but we only gave it a cursory glance that night – Stickybuds had taken over the main stage and quickly drew us in with his infectious fusion of funk, reggae, and drum & bass.
After his set ended, it was time for the main attraction: EOTO. This duo of incredibly talented musicians began as a side project of legendary jam-band, The String Cheese Incident, and their live sets are both a sight and sound to behold. Featuring a combination of drums, guitar, looper pedals, and Ableton Live, each EOTO set is completely improvised and 100% unique. Think about that for a second: a whole set of music not just being played live, but created right there in front of you. And with 2 ½ hours to play around with at Serenity Gathering, you can only imagine how hard they went. The highlight of night one was them breaking into an impromptu remix/cover of OT Genasis’ “CoCo”, with a little “No Flex Zone” thrown in for good measure. It was onto Manic Focus after their set came to a close and the Chicago bass-hustler definitely kept the good times rolling with his own blend of low-end poetry. Things didn’t slow down til the wee hours of the morning, and we ended the first night of Serenity with Santa Cruz midtempo master, LabRat.
After a few hours of restless sleep, we awoke to a clear & breezy Friday morning. The night before had turned unexpectedly chilly, but the cold quickly gave way to the scorching heat of midday. We equipped ourselves with plenty of sunscreen and a full Camelbak, then set out to find breakfast and get an idea of what the areas we hadn’t seen the previous night were looking like. On our way off the hilltop, we began to experience one of the best features of the gathering: the people. Crowd consciousness goes a long way towards determining how positive our experience at a music festival can be, and there was plenty of it on display that weekend. Everywhere we looked we saw familiar faces and loving strangers eager to make a new connections. Despite the disarray from the night before, smiles abounded and we could palpably feel the crowd’s energy all around us.
The positivity only increased once we reached the vendor village and began to take in the vast amount of stalls. First and foremost, the food vendors were next level; Imlak’esh Organics and other vegan friendly crews were whipping together superfood-fueled smoothies, bowls, and wraps while more carnivore-minded booths like Gringodillas and Flamin’ Salmon served up a variety of savory meats and simple pleasures (like a heaping helping of pulled pork laid over kettle cooked chips). Special mention goes to Ultimate Souvlaki, who stole our hearts all weekend with their lovingly crafted gyros. Almost everything edible at Serenity was organic, sustainably sourced, and certifiably delicious. As a friend of ours over at Beatmaps put it, “No one went hungry.”
After we grabbed some food, we continued to stroll down the path and take in the wares of dozens of psychedelic clothing, crystal, and accessory vendors. There was even a mobile hair salon in the mix. Eventually, the rows of stalls gave way to more campsites and a trickling creek as we made our way towards the New Moon stage at the edge of the property. The main body of the festival had been organized in a linear fashion: everything had been arranged along a winding path through the valley, with the Serenity stage at one end and the New Moon stage at the other. The Bridge Family & Frequinox stages were located in between the other two, along with plenty of art installations to keep the walk (which was definitely more of a hike) interesting. Our favorite was the Cactiferrum (Iron Cactus), a towering work of metal from Boko Fine Art. Already an intriguing structure in the light of day, it truly came alive at night, spitting fire from each of its branches in turn based on the fully responsive controls that were located at the base. And that was just one of several interactive art projects at the festival. Seeing so many opportunities for the attendees to leave a personal mark on the festival’s art was quite inspiring.
Once we finally reached the end of the trail, we took in some music and then headed back to camp. The trek had mostly served as a way to spend time, as none of the musical acts during the afternoon had really caught our attention. However, once the clock struck five, we were basically glued to the mainstage for the next six hours. Nortroniks, Goldrush, ChrisB., & Sugarpill all brought their A-game and laid down the crunksauce. Then, one of our ‘Must See’ artists took the stage: SteLouse. His infectiously smooth blend of hip-hop, R&B, and future bass tunes absolutely blew us away, immediately solidifying him as the performance of the weekend. Don’t think he didn’t have competition, though; Santa Cruz madman, G Jones, was up next and his set was pure, bass-fueled mania. After an hour of his intensely psychedelic and gut-wrenchingly heavy original music, we left the mainstage shenanigans to Buku and began the long walk out to the New Moon stage to catch some dubby, glitched out tunes from our friend AWRY, who had gone from playing a renegade stage at last year’s Serenity to being featured on the official bill this year.
While trekking out to the edge of the gathering, we noticed something we’d somehow overlooked earlier. While the path was well lit for the most part, there was little to no signage for directing a less than sober crowd. Given that the layout of the festival definitely didn’t match the guide we’d managed to get our hands on, it was easy for us to imagine that a significant chunk of the attendees were probably very confused as to where they were. It’s possible that some never even made it out to the end of the trail. Deciding there was nothing we could do except share our knowledge of the grounds with those who asked, we headed back to our campsite to restock on beer and… ahem, ‘mood enhancers’. Along the way, we couldn’t help but stop and party at the Blackbird, a renowned art car from Burning Man and the festival’s only official renegade stage. Who can say no to a stacked sound system rigged up to a 2-story bus, great music, and supremely good vibes?
Back at camp, we realized we were much more exhausted than we’d thought and only just made it back to the mainstage for Kicks n Licks. Though Mitis and several other talented performers had yet to appear, we were falling asleep on our feet. In short, our mind was telling us yes, but our bodies… our bodies were telling us no. Emphatically. So, we called it a night and attempted to escape the frigid cold by curling up in our tents.
The third day was all about rest & relaxation for us. The musical lineup was based around late-night, shanti dubs and deep, squelchy rhythms, so we had lots of time to play around with before the stages began calling our name. The daylight hours were spent kicking back at camp, cooling off in the creek, and getting to know the people camped nearby. For the most part, at least; once we found out JPOD the beat chef was serving up a sultry set on the New Moon Stage, we immediately dragged our now aching bodies out there and let the music wash over us.
Eventually, it was time to strap on our dancing shoes once again. We scarfed down a quick, food truck dinner and strolled over to the Serenity stage about halfway through Robotic Pirate Monkey’s set. Our energy supply was running low much quicker than we would have liked, so we made an executive decision to combine the dance floor vibes with our camp and set up some chairs along the edge of the crowd. For the next few performances, we simply chilled out and let the dancers become our visuals rather than the flashing lights of the stage. Flow artists were out in full force, with LED hoops shimmering in the crowd and a rock circle full of fire poi just outside of it. Flaming staffs, fans, and more whirled through the night, adding an almost mystical presence to the festivities. Eventually, our attention was pulled back to the stage as Ill-esha began dropping into her own style of live electronica. It was the perfect intro to Desert Dwellers, who brought low-end rhythms so deep it put us into a meditative trance.
We abandoned the music to stretch our legs for the next hour or so, but were literally falling over ourselves to get back once Mr. Bill took to the decks. Slamming into high-energy drum & bass from the get-go, he proceeded to steal the night with an eclectic set of bubbly originals and collaborations from his massive catalogue. We summoned what little energy we had left and gigged out until we were about to collapse. Not long into Thriftworks’ set we decided to turn in for the night and try reserve some energy for the final 24 hours of the festival.
We had our routine completely down at this point: wake up, find food, kick back. Despite our attempts to save up some vigor for the last day (alright, we didn’t actually try that hard), we were completely exhausted at this point. Maybe it was the hiking required to traverse from stages to camp and back again, maybe it was the lack of sleep, maybe we just weren’t taking the right drugs. And it seemed like we weren’t alone that last regard; we’d seen lots of people outside of their comfort zone substance-wise, and EMTs had been present more than a few times. Remember, friends, there’s nothing wrong with a little external enhancement, but make sure your sources are legit and be extra aware of your body’s needs while under the influence.
On a more positive note, there were plenty of people using their last day to contribute to the festival. A large group of volunteers and attendees had started a trash collection party under the rallying cry, “Bring us your trash, and we’ll get YOU trashed!”. Trading refuse for free beer was a very attractive offer, and before long, people started trickling over to the flats where the party was being held. Bags & bags of garbage and recyclables were slung over their shoulders, making everyone look like an eco-friendly (and very dusty) version of Santa Claus. It was a magnificent undertaking and very much appreciated, as the festival itself was slightly lacking in receptacles and had completely omitted a compost option.
As far as music went, nothing truly got underway until hours after the sunset. Several timeslots had been rearranged last minute and no one seemed to know what the official lineup for the night was anymore. Most disappointing of all was the complete absence French bass music phenom, CloZee, who had apparently gotten lost on the way to the venue. All was far from lost though; Pega5u5 and Hungarian producer AMB’s sets were filled with glitchy rhythms and goopy goodness, and the Blackbird bus was bumping for a solid chunk of the night. Best of all, the remains of the Headtron camp had set up a small renegade sound system and Trevor Kelly was going absolutely nuts on it. It was one of the best sets of the gathering and if you’re not familiar with this Bay Area beat smith, we highly suggest checking out his tunes. Eventually, the stage was shut down by event security and we hightailed it back to our nearby camp. Deciding to be responsible ragers, we stuck around for a power nap and then woke up around 6am to catch the one and only Space Jesus close out the main stage.
As his set came to a close and the sun rose higher in the sky, a bittersweet feeling washed over us; Serenity Gathering was over. While we were excited for the comforts of home and all good things must come to an end, riding back into our own realities seemed a daunting task that morning. Regardless, nobody likes to sit in festival traffic; since we were already awake, we broke down our campsite, loaded everything up, and were back on the road by 9am. Driving slowly to admire the beautiful scenery, we reflected on everything we’d experienced over the last four days. We’d heard plenty of groovy tunes, eaten a plethora of delicious food, and put holes in our dancing shoes. While organization and internal communication could definitely be improved upon, the event is still being established and has a tremendous amount of potential for the future. Keep Serenity Gathering on your radar for next year’s festival circuit, because it will definitely be on ours.