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​Mysteryland 2015 Recap: A Mix of Hippies, Middle-Room House, and Casual Racism in Upstate New York

In trying to cater to everyone, Mysteryland reminds me of a salad bar where you've gone overboard and asked for every topping—sometimes it's delicious, other times it's just weird.
May 26, 2015, 6:30am

I'm lying on cushions in a Native American-esque tepee with my feet dangerously close to the sweaty bush of a stranger's armpit. An Asian-American woman in a gold sequined tuxedo and painted-on moustache peers over me with a gong. "Find your inner wang," she instructs, and everyone bursts into ecstatic moans straight out of Lil Louis's "French Kiss." Any serenity created by this breathing exercise is instantly cut short when a subwoofer from a nearby stage starts farting out dubstep. As I crawl out of the teepee, I am offered a slice of watermelon by a grown man in a flower crown.

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None of this is anything out of the ordinary at Mysteryland, which returned to the grassy hills of Woodstock '69 in Bethel, New York for its second US edition, May 22-24. The Dutch festival from ID&T is fighting valiantly for its share of the American market, vying with Movement in Detroit, EDC in New York City, Lightning in a Bottle in California, Sasquatch in Washington state, CounterPoint Music Festival in Georgia, and Sunset Music Festival in Tampa to claim Memorial Day weekend as its own. As perhaps a result of this stiff competition, Mysteryland's stages often felt less than full, and several attendees confessed their relief over shorter bathroom lines and more dancing room. Still, organizers estimate attendance at 50,000—more than double last year's 20,000. In order to keep growing, the festival is playing up its connection to Woodstock's hippie culture—its most successful branding strategy so far.

Mysteryland's main stage was designed like the bowing heads of two horses (Photo courtesy of Jackie Lee for Mysteryland)

Mysteryland looks like an extravagant Burning Man party decorated by Lewis Carroll where the dress code is something like "futuristic gypsy." The festival's attention to detail shines through its tasteful décor: trees droop with chandeliers, life-sized lanterns line the walkways, and shirtless flamethrowers dance under a tent that spits fireballs into the sky. You already know there were artisanal flower crowns for sale.

The Incendia tent and its mesmerizing dome of fire

This neo-hippie lifestyle is the glue that holds together Mysteryland's extremely diverse lineup, which spans everything from radio-friendly EDM to European tech-house to Dutch hardstyle—and a random 45-minute set from the rapper Makonnen. In trying to offer something for everyone, the festival reminds me of filling your plate at a salad bar where you've gone a little overboard and asked for every single topping—sometimes it's fucking delicious, other times it's just weird.

Porter Robinson closed out Saturday night with a new live set

On the main stage, Porter Robinson's new live set on Saturday night was a hit, thanks to visuals referencing his album, Worlds, and the DJ's unexpected willingness to hop on the mic and actually sing. By comparison, Diplo's performance on Sunday—his first festival closing set in the United States— was uneven, as he plowed through genres with not much mixing, like he's throwing songs at a wall to see what sticks. Diplo's signature performative act, an on-stage twerking competition between girls picked from the audience, was a reliable crowd-pleaser. One of the chosen girls later deadpanned: "My ass was fully out. I did my parents proud."

Diplo played his first festival closing set ever in the USA

The side stages were dominated by European club music. There's a certain type of DJ, usually with an Ibiza residency, who occupies a not-quite-mainstream, not-quite-underground limbo that I love calling "middle-room house." Two kings of that scene, Maceo Plex and Richie Hawtin, rewarded campers who braved literally freezing temperatures for Friday night's opening party. Damian Lazarus, Martin Buttrich, Lee Burridge and the Martinez Brothers turned Verboten and THUMP's circus-themed stage into a mini version of the Brooklyn club. On Sunday, the Drumcode label delivered a steady assault of nosebleed techno, with Nicole Moudaber stealing the show from label honcho Adam Beyer and his wife Ida Engberg.

Maya Jane Coles' set at The Beatport Stage was a standout, although fans remarked that her 6:30PM slot was bizarrely early. (Photo via Andrew Rauner/@AJR_photos for Mysteryland)

Elsewhere, the hip-hop and trap-heavy Boat stage was like a different universe—one where Bro Safari is king, Doctor P is an honorary guest, the currency is wax pens… and Makonnen is an invading alien. The rapper wore a bandana obscuring most of his face and was dwarfed by a stage designed for DJs, not live acts. Cycling through his hits at record speed, Makonnen's 45-minute set somehow managed to end early. Towards the end, he reflected the crowd's flagging energy, at one point even calling them out: "I was just at CounterPoint, and they made more noise than you."

A DJ dressed as a geisha at Sin Salida's stage (Photo via Julian Cassady for Mysteryland)

Tiredness aside, the one stage that leaves a particularly bitter taste is hosted by Sin Salida, a theatrical troupe from the Netherlands that tours with Mysteryland. I first heard about them through another festivalgoer, who asked me in hushed tones if I've seen the "Asian stage." The festival's website describes it like this: "Step into a Japanese land filled with geisha girls, sake, and maybe even some koi." What that really means: a cringe-worthy celebration of orientalist stereotypes. OK, the stage's theme is actually "Owari No Nai" ("no exit" in Japanese), but when I show up, all I see are white people dancing in kimonos and geisha faces, twirling umbrellas and mock-giggling. Somehow, I am the only Asian person in the sea of beaming Caucasian faces—to say nothing of the dearth of Asian artists on the lineup. This is what the DJ looked like:

Photo by the author

Despite some missteps, the second year of Mysteryland suggests that the festival will be a feisty contender in the boxing ring of dueling dance music festivals—and it has a coterie of established New York promoters like Verboten, BangOn!, and Webster Hall in its corner. Still, what makes this festival special isn't the deep house yoga sessions, the casual exoticism of Native American and Asian cultures, or the inspirational speakers earnestly saying things like "life is a jar, so open up the jar." (In fact, it's dope in spite of those things.)

What really makes Mysteryland stand out from its competitors is the way locals in the community have embraced it. This open-mindedness infiltrates every level of the festival culture. Greying couples in tie-dye shirts flash peace signs as you drive by, taxi drivers remind you to wear extra layers, and security guards share dad jokes while you're waiting in line. (Last year, a woman who lives near the camping grounds even offered me her house to sleep in.) When asked if the music going till 2 AM was a nuisance, a nearby resident replied, "No way! It's like a free concert in my backyard!"

That's the kind of attitude that doesn't grow on artisanal flower crowns.

Michelle Lhooq is THUMP's features editor. She opens the jar of life on Twitter.