Thursday, March 5, Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival made its long-awaited comeback, now under the auspices of event promoter Insomniac. Sunshine Grove feels far removed from global crises such as coronavirus and the stock market, giving festivalgoers a sense of freedom that is sorely needed these days. In fact, the only thing on everyone's mind was the music, which kicked off in the evening and didn't stop till sunrise.
Here are the highlights from the first day of Okeechobee:
The first day of a music festival tends to emit a distinctive energy. Percolating excitement mixes with tentativeness as attendees adjust to the geography and vibe of the venue. In such a situation, the Canadian DJ Clarian is the perfect artist to kick things off. His versatile sets can land anywhere between techno à la Kraftwerk and dreamy-synth soundscapes, and he's known for his ability to read a room — or, rather, a field. Clarian performed at 9:30 p.m. on Jungle 51, one of the smaller stages at the festival. Set in a tropical enclave of palm trees, the stage looks like the control deck of a spaceship — a fitting backdrop for an artist who has often cited sci-fi films as a major inspiration. Two futuristic go-go dancers dressed in white from their wigs to their thigh-high boots performed a semi-in-sync choreography as Clarian eased into his set with his signature ambient beats, dreamy synth riffs, and reverberating vocals. “The truth is,” he said over the mike, “I don’t really go out that much.” The 150-strong crowd cheered, and Clarian let the beat drop into a heavy techno rhythm, maintaining that high energy for the duration of his set. — Olivia McAuley
Caspa has been making sonic waves on South London’s dance scene since the early 2000s. (A frontrunner in dubstep's rebirth, his label Dub Police includes grime heavyweights Rusko, L-Wiz, and N-Type.) His festival sets draw dub- and jungle-loving partygoers, which made him a good match for Aquachobee, a decidedly dubstep-centric stage. Caspa was preceded by the North London outfit Ivy Lab, whose bass-heavy set amped up the crowd, sprawled out across an enormous sand-covered expanse facing the stage. Caspa opened with a remix of “Hothead,” inducing head-throbbing peaks and valleys, and then edged the crowd to near hysteria by playing 2010’s “Woo Boost,” followed by a remix of “When I Look at You” by Emalkay (another Dub Police artist) — two genre-defining tracks from way back when that remain fan favorites. Caspa closed with La Roux’s “In for the Kill” (previously remixed by Skrillex), instigating an all-out mosh pit, totems flailing dangerously with the momentum even after he left the stage while the crowd chanted his name. — Olivia McAuley
Among Miami club kids, it's common knowledge that you don't even consider going out till after midnight. You take a nap in the evening and emerge fresh and ready to throw down. This strategy is exceedingly difficult to employ at Okeechobee, however, between the bass throbbing from the nearest stage and the guy in the next tent blasting the Weeknd. That helps to explain the slow trickle of ravers filtering in from the bigger stages as Derrick May took the decks from Shaun Reeves about a half-hour after his scheduled set time of 1 a.m. (he would continue until after 3). May — who along with fellow Detroiters Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson can credibly lay claim to having invented techno — offered the small crowd a sleek and stylish assemblage of the genre he spearheaded: minimal cuts, exotic samples, absolute bangers flecked with piano for just a hint of wistfulness — even some tastefully mixed house classics. There were so many remarkable tracks, in fact, that the inability to use Shazam owing to a lack of internet access proved an ongoing frustration. May spoiled the audience with his soulful selections, totally unlike the bombastic EDM on offer elsewhere at Okeechobee (or, for that matter, the boilerplate techno offered in clubs nowadays). Techno may be somewhat overused in the current dance scene, but May demonstrates that in the hands of a master, it becomes limitless. Who needs sleep when the music is this good? — Douglas Markowitz
After Derrick May landed his set with a slowdown, Lil Louis took off. The legendary house DJ commenced with a message promising “nonstop service to Chicago” and demanding that passengers turn off their mobile devices. From there, he launched the Jungle 51 stage into a storm of turbulent, bass-heavy classic house and disco, filled with samples extolling romance, glamor, and the dirty, glorious virtues of the Chicago scene. House is often accused of self-aggrandizement, and Louis’ set was no exception. But sometimes you need to educate the people, especially at a festival such as Okeechobee. Lil Louis represents Chicago house in its raunchiest, grimiest, truest form. One can hardly mention his name without referencing “French Kiss,” which took the U.K. acid-house scene by storm in the late '80s and became an inspiration to Daft Punk thanks to its bold midtrack slowdown and a borderline-pornographic sample. His style is bold and raw, and he’s not above stopping the beat in its tracks for several bars to make a point with a vocal snippet. Plenty of couples seemed inspired to get closer, and the atmosphere was joyful — loved-up, even — as lights bounced off the many disco balls hanging in the trees. Here’s hoping it continues throughout the weekend. — Douglas Markowitz
Editor’s note: It must be stressed, emphatically, that Lil Louis can hear out of only one ear. The wee-hours Okeechobee set was the most relentless, honest DJ'ing this editor has ever seen, and it would not be an exaggeration to call it a stunning achievement in creative expression. He had to be literally dragged away from the decks at 6:30 a.m. He would not — and seemingly cannot — stop. — Zach Schlein
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Rüfüs Du Sol
Rüfüs Du Sol’s Thursday-night performance demonstrated that Okeechobee hasn’t missed a step despite its year off. The Australian electronic’s trio’s headlining set at the Be Stage drew an immense crowd worthy of the group’s sweeping songs. Following in the tradition of forebears such as Cut Copy, Rüfüs has built a dedicated following by blending the sonics of heady dance tunes with pop sensibilities. “You Were Right” was an early highlight; the song’s melancholy vocals and dazzling red laser visual accompaniment meshed well with the festival’s otherworldly after-dark vibes. Although drummer James Hunt was absent owing to an injury, replacement Luke Holland more than held his own. Vocalist Tyrone Lindqvist told the crowd: “We’ve been looking forward to this festival... and it doesn’t disappoint.” If the audience’s enthusiastic response was any indication, neither did Rüfüs. — Zach Schlein
Correction published March 7, 2020: The Rüfüs Du Sol blurb in this post has been updated with the correct spelling of Tyrone Lindqvist's name.