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Harvest Festival Recap: Housing the Resilient Hippie Philosophy

Never a dull year for both returning ravers and newcomers.
September 16, 2014, 9:51pm
Photo by Colin Green

Harvest Festival is not your typical contemporary EDM festival. For one thing, you're definitely not going to see any beer company sponsor logos plastered on the stages. In fact, you won't even find a bar selling any booze, although chances are you'll be offered at least one free can of beer from a generous stranger's pocket over the course to the weekend. Attaining a license to sell alcohol at an event like Harvest Festival would drastically change the nature that makes it its own. So you won't find anyone here who's wounded by the absence of overpriced Sapporo's.

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The annual camping and techno party has been blasting northern Ontario with bass for 16 years now, since growing out of the legendary AlienInflux parties of the mid-90s, making it one of the few remaining connections between the current era of underground dance music and the original rave scene. But while a good chunk of the attendees that come out every year have definitely been partying for over two decades, there are increasing numbers of younger electronic music fans coming out and the event continues to grow each year.

Alongside the first-generation ravers and the next wave of party kids, Harvest also attracts a significant number of hippies, so you have to be prepared to encounter a lot of white people with dreads. You'll also spot a lot of types who seem like they probably go to Burning Man and in most cases they likely do. There are lots of weird trippy art installations; many of them being projects that paying customers bring to the site along with their tents and sleeping bags. Others make cooking massive amounts of bacon and giving it away to strangers their annual art project, which was definitely more enjoyable than the station with a 'magic button' that randomly gave you either an electric shock, or shot of a blast of fire into the air.

Photo by Colin Green

Given the time of year that it takes place, cold weather is always a factor at Harvest, but most years the rain has held off. Unfortunately, this may have been the rainiest Harvest ever, and large numbers of campers had their belongings soaked during Friday night's torrential downpour. Strangely, few seemed to be bothered much by destroyed cell phones or soggy long underwear. Similar to Burning Man, the battle against the elements is part of the experience, and seems to help strangers bond over the shared challenges.

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Photo by Rick Toxic

Shortly before the weekend, a windstorm had destroyed the outer shell of one of the bigger tents, leaving a ghostly skeleton structure where the psy-trance stage was supposed to be. Perhaps this revealed Mother Nature's inherent dislike of the genre (kidding… kind of). Thankfully they had enough time to replace it by renting a big wedding tent, but the change did force the circus to relocate to the techno and house tent.

The combination of the intense weather and the flood of newbie partiers made it the messiest Harvest I've ever been to. The veterans are usually pretty good about leaving no trace behind, but when conditions are this raw, even they get lazier than normal. The festival is largely staffed by volunteers working for free tickets, so there's a lot of peer pressure to behave yourself. This seems to work as a better form of crowd control than if they hired the enormous teams of security and paid duty cops that cover grounds at larger dance festivals. Plus, there's something about signing a legal waiver upon entry that helps remind you that you're ultimately always responsible for your own safety and comfort.

The music at Harvest has never been based around the superstar DJs of the moment, but rather a combination of respected locals and a carefully selected handful of experienced international talent. Detroit techno legend Stacey Pullen was particularly memorable this year, as was Chicago house hero Gene Farris. But just as many partiers were gushing the next morning about sets by locals like Ali Black or the Box of Kittens crew.

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With three main DJ tents, as well as a fourth tent featuring food and quieter beats, there's constantly bass echoing throughout the hills of the surreal giant sculpture garden that currently hosts the festival. Known as Midlothian Castle, the grounds are full of large 'screaming head' sculptures created by artist Peter Camani, adding an extra layer of weirdness alongside the Harvest-specific decorations and installations.

Unlike your typical outdoor corporate EDM festivals that shut down at 11 PM due to city noise restrictions, the beats go all night at Harvest, and there's enough bass to literally shake the earth hundreds of metres away from the stages. This does not make sleeping easy.

Nevertheless, it's always worth waking up early enough to catch Osunlade's epic closing set in the downtempo Pyramid, which has become an annual highlight. Moving gracefully from jazz to disco to house to funk to Afrobeat (and even throwing in some surprise classic rock moments), he channeled that eclectic old school NYC vibe from morning until afternoon. It was the perfect chaser to a weekend of pounding beats.

Leaving was difficult, not just because we didn't want to stop listening to Osunlade's marathon of soulful music, but also because the rain had turned the parking lot field into a mud pit. Car after car got stuck, and some had to be pulled out by work horses. The truck that cleans and services the portapotties also got stuck and had to be towed out with a tractor, as did a few RVs. Thankfully the chaos was just another opportunity for that generous hippy-raver philosophy to shine, as burnt out strangers helped stuff hay under tires and push vehicles as their smiling faces got sprayed with mud.

Photo by Rick Toxic

You can follow Ben on Twitter: @BenjaminBoles

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