Solange, Skrillex, and Utopia in a Futuristic Desert City
At FORM: Arcosanti, a festival held Paolo Soleri's legendary Arizona experiment, Skrillex and Solange shared a bill with underground experimental acts. There were hippies and hope and no bad trips.
The amphitheater at Arcosanti is built to hold about 1500 people, but tonight there are only a dozen or so people hanging around watching Hundred Waters soundcheck and enjoying the cool, dry nighttime desert air. We're all here, mostly working in some capacity, at FORM: Arcosanti, a festival that Hundred Waters has been putting on for the past couple years in a semi-inhabited, futuristic-looking experimental city perched incongruously on the lip of a canyon in the Arizona high desert.
My job here is to figure out the kind of crowd comes out an odd festival that mixes a few mainstream-friendly stars like Skrillex and Solange with a fairly lengthy roster of more experimental underground artists, where attendees have to apply for the opportunity to attend and "patron" packages run into four figures for a weekend. In short, I'm here as one of Noisey's resident old guys to get to know the wave of young West Coast bohemians who are bringing back some of the utopian ideals the California hippie movement left behind when it flamed out a few years before I was born. I'm also here, under editor's orders, to do some drugs.
But that work doesn't start until tomorrow. Tonight all we really have to do is sit here and enjoy the breathtakingly pretty music that's coming from the stage in between tweaks to the monitor mix.
Last night at sound check I made some new friends: a guy named Garret who runs a recording studio in a renovated church in downtown Detroit with an open-door policy that encourages collaboration between artists, his girlfriend Ellen who's a mural artist, and his sister Olivia, who's a rep for the festival's official beer vendor. I just ran into them at the cafeteria and now I'm on the balcony outside hitting Olivia's weed pen and taking in the mindblowing view of the canyon spreading out in front of me. Olivia's here for work, but Garret and Ellen were both drawn to the festival by its utopian slant, which isn't too far off from what they're trying to do with their own work.
A group of guys dressed in hipster nerd raver wear are out there talking about buying property in rural Oregon, with one of the selling points being that it comes with water rights on a nearby river, which will apparently come in handy once the shit starts to go down.
Arcosanti was built to be a fully functioning, if modestly sized, arcology–a single structure containing everything a city needs to offer its residents. These needs include commerce.
There's a market set up in an area called the Vault, offering practical items (LED headlights, sunglasses, toothbrushes), incredibly tasteful festival merchandise (performers aren't allowed to sell merch), and free Soylent. The organizers have offset the capitalism by setting up a freeform hangout/chillout area full of beds and cushions. I'm sitting on a bean bag chair. Newly arrived attendees–including a pair of dudes in matching outfits of safari hats, shorts, and outdoorsy shoes–nap around me. The pair of dudes look like they do 2C1 and either got into jam bands through Animal Collective or the other way around. They wake up from their naps almost simultaneously. Both continue to lie on their backs, silent and motionless and staring straight up, for several minutes. It's spectacularly spooky, especially since there's a hand-shaped chair between them that totally blocks their view of each other.
Artists and some of the organizers are staying in some of the residential apartments scattered throughout the Arcosanti grounds. For regular people there's a camping area slowly turning into a sprawling tent city. For the more privileged there's a "glamping" area– which people unironically refer to as "the glamping area"–decked out with teepee-like tents, memory foam mattresses, far across the site from the regular camping area. I'm in the regular camping area but in a middle-level-VIP section that's separated from the basic campers by yellow caution tape. I feel like I should feel at least slightly bad about this but I don't. I also don't feel bad about having snagged what's obviously the best tent in the semi-VIP area, directly under a tree with another tent blocking most of the morning light. For once I was the early worm and I'm savoring this small, selfish victory.
I just saw a guy walking around wearing a clown nose as part of his outfit.
Chicago rapper Noname, who was one of the people I was most excited to see here, had to cancel her set, and a few other issues seem to have messed the schedule up as well. As a result I haven't actually seen any live music besides the very last song of the set of a guy whose name I didn't catch who was playing some pretty piano with a violin accompanist. I don't know how much music anyone here has seen. From the happy looks on everyone's face I can't tell how much any of them care.
I spot my first couple wearing matching Birkenstocks. They won't be the last.
"Can I play y'all a song?"
Kelela is playing a stripped down set with a DJ and a keyboardist in the main amphitheater filled with probably a little under a thousand people–pretty close to the total number of people who've showed up so far. It's odd and intimate and pretty much exactly the kind of musical experience I came here for. The crowd watching is the dedicated enough to go as nuts when she announces that she's playing a new song as when she plays her hits. "Better," a new is a stark but buoyant breakup song about healing with an ex, an enlightened lyrical subject that feels right at home at a festival where New Age vibes hang heavy in the air. Hearing the unreleased music together out in the middle of nowhere gives us all a feeling of having a shared secret.
A local astronomy club has set up huge, terrifyingly expensive-looking telescopes all across the roof of a building that offers an excellent view of the main stage. Each telescope is pointed at a different astronomical feature: Jupiter, globular clusters, the Sombrero Galaxy, which I think is one of the most beautiful things in the universe, and one of the astronomy club members agrees. After Garret and I share a joint I end up in a long, stoned (presumably only on my end) conversation with a former NASA scientist whose job there was to study the extent of the biological contaminants the Apollo missions left on the moon, which is one of the most poignant NASA-related things I've ever heard.
Solange's set is like if Diana Ross had decided to quit the music business in 1976 and start her own Afrofuturistic cult, and it's as every bit as incredible that sounds. The whole band is dressed head to toe in red, and the whole band has choreographed dance moves throughout the whole set. The guitarist and bassist have their own choreography independent of the rest of the group. Watching the two of them them doing synchronized steps while their playing's locked in about as tight as two humans are capable of is impressive and also a little endearing. Everyone on stage looks like they're having an even better time than anyone in the crowd.
As you can probably guess from the words "boutique festival," the crowd here is predominantly white, although there's a larger contingent of people of color than I expected. When Solange plays "F.U.B.U.," with its plentiful use of the n-word and the repetition of the line "this shit is for us" its hard not to consider our little community's racial composition, especially after Solange steps down off the stage walks out into the pockets of black kids in the crowd, and sings the song directly at them. It's a uniquely powerful moment in a set that's packed full of uniquely powerful moments. I don't remember seeing a concert that blew my mind this much since Kanye's Saint Pablo tour, and Solange doesn't even have a spaceship for a stage.
There are two stages outside the actual Arcosanti structure that require a hike down into the canyon down a path that I can't believe any legitimate insurance company would approve of: twisting paths full of switchbacks hacked roughly into the steeply sloping canyon grade that are almost completely unlit, and plastered with warning signs about the area's abundant rattlesnake population.
I catch S U R V I V E on the larger Canyon stage, and I'm let down that they don't have any projections on stage since they're basically a movie soundtrack band playing for a crowd with a taste for psychedelics. Then I head over to the ambient-themed Envelop stage, where the PA is set up in a ring with the speakers pointing in, giving the people who post up there an immersive 3D sonic experience that's legitimately pretty trippy trippy.
Walking up from the canyon stage I hear from one of the private apartments a bunch of girls singing along to Crime Mob's "Stilettos (Pumps)." I think it might be Solange's room, or at least I hope it is.
I had braced myself for the campsite to be an all night after party, and brought along heavy duty foam earplugs, expecting to hear a hundred competing Bluetooth speakers pumping out EDM, but it seems like pretty much everyone's already in bed and the place is dead quiet. I fall asleep in my tent under the tree to the sounds of nature.
The desert sun that comes blasting over the nearby mountains right around 6am means that people get up much earlier than you might expect at a camp-out music festival. I manage to miss the morning meditation and yoga classes but after a rinse in the makeshift shower stalls—situated directly below a high-traffic trail and offering only a nominal amount of privacy—I make my way over to "Saint Heron's House and Soul Cleanse Jam," with a pit stop along the way for breakfast. It's very on brand for the festival that the line for free kombucha is much longer than any of the lines at the booze tents.
More people than I expected show up for a demonstration at the workshop where Arcosanti's residents make the bronze bells that the community here is known for. The highlight of the experience is when two blond ponytailed dudes in leather aprons pull a red-hot container of molten bronze out of the furnace that they hold between them on two long handles. They proceed carefully but purposefully down a row of bell molds, pouring the liquid metal in wordless coordination. The only sounds come from the person in charge of clearing away the excess metal with a shovel-like implement banging the leftovers off her tool on the concrete veranda, and the wind moving through the canyon behind them. The liquid bronze shimmers and glows in a way that seems steeped in magic.
I stick around after everyone else leaves, until I hear soft waves of sound coming from further up in the Arcosanti hive. It turns out to be a set of ambient cello music–apparently part of the Saint Heron Cleanse–by a woman wearing a shear caftan and her hair in complex braids that look like two cosmic wheels bookending her head. I keep getting ambushed by breathtaking music that I've never heard before, and I love it.
I head to the store/chill out zone to catch up on news from the outside world and stumble onto a performance art piece already underway. About a dozen black men and women stand stock still in parade formation. Some are wearing black jumpsuits with black combat boots and black balaclavas, some are in street clothes. At the front of this array, three women in dresses resembling abstract sculpture, with their faces decorated with white paint and huge piles of hair braided together. After standing still for a few minutes, all but the ones dressed like riot cops in back walk slowly in formation through the parting crowd. It's surreal, serene, and only adds to the place's already heavy sci-fi vibes. The air is filled with the sound of bells ringing in the rising wind.
Nearly two hours later, the procession returns to where it started and the group arranges itself into a renaissance-inspired tableau centered around a woman in a red dress, now draped in a red veil. On one side, the riot cops are poised to strike. On the other, the streetwear kids standing erect raising black power fists into the air. The trio of Fates kneels beside her. It's a beautiful, powerful, stretch of minutes whose power is only slightly dampened by the yelping 90s-throwback emo coming from Hotelier's nearby performance.
I'm pleasantly surprised more people at Vieux Farka Touré's set than I expected. I'm also pleasantly surprised that there's far less tacky cultural appropriation than you might expect from a crowd with so many wealthy white bohemians in it. There's a little bit of African wax print fabric here and there, a lot of Indian mandala tapestries throughout the campsite, and some questionable box braids among the Burner contingent hanging around the festival's fridges, but so far I haven't seen anything that's made me roll my eyes.
One of the guys who runs the festival took me back to his room to smoke a bowl. He told me that Solange is camping onsite all weekend, which considering how quickly most top-bill artists at festivals haul ass out of there when they're done is kind of impressive. Then his girlfriend hooked me up with some shrooms. Now I'm hanging out barefoot in one of the couple tiny patches of grass on the site doing a little light yoga. I'm feeling a general upwelling of love for all humankind, so I think then mushrooms are starting to kick in.
Just as the mushroom high started coming on I ran into Jinni, a photographer from Austin who I met yesterday. She's infectiously bubbly and an almost compulsive chatter-upper of strangers, which makes her the perfect person to have around when you're mildly tripping like I am now.
A couple hours ago Jinni got us talking to a Marxist anarchist who works on an art space in New Mexico that has George R.R. Martin as it's patron, and his friend Jennabel who lives in some kind of idyllic looking house outside Santa Fe that's full of artists and poets. Since then we've accreted a crew through mostly random collisions. The astronomy club's back so we're all getting guided tours of the cosmos while toting cups filled nearly to the top with mescal.
One of Jennabel's friend's boyfriends shows up and he and I bond over the fact that he's shrooming too.
On the Apse stage a trio is playing ambient-ish house out of a VR platform. They're wearing goggles and dancing but it still has way too much of the contact embarrassment you get from watching someone stumble through a VR demo for it to be actually enjoyable, especially with my empathy amped up on psylocibin. They look like Kraftwerk and the Blue Man Group had a love child that grew up into a basement dwelling hikikomori. I bail on their set almost immediately.
Earlier in the day someone said that they'd recently heard two old men in a thrift store complaining about today's generation. The old guys were saying that the two worst things youngsters had introduced to the world were "cuteness and multitasking," which seems a lot more insightful than the usual "kids these days" rant. They might also be onto something. A lot of the audience for Skrillex's Canyon stage set is dressed in animal-themed onesies, and on the way back towards the arcology I notice that someone's tagged one of the fridges full of free Soylent with a message about how we are all "smol beans" who deserve a pat on the head. I think that I'd be rolling my eyes even if the mushrooms hadn't worn off.
The first thing I hear after waking up is my campsite neighbor happily exclaiming, "We're like homeless people!"
Elan Roseman thanks the crowd at the Envelop stage for their presence. He's running slightly behind schedule but it doesn't really matter since about a third of the couple dozen people in attendance are napping. The twinkly music that starts up–halfway between ambient and lullaby–doesn't seem to wake up many of them. Actually most of them seem to be sleeping even better now.
It's such a gentle and peaceful scene but it's hard to shake the resemblance to some kind of upscale grownup version of kindergarten naptime. If I was feeling less generous I might say that it's the musical equivalent of adult coloring books, but I ate the last little bit of my shrooms at breakfast so I'm feeling pretty positive about pretty much everything right now.
A didgeridoo player circulates the crowd, blowing low end directly into our personal space. It almost goes without saying that he's wearing Vibram toe shoes.
Phil Elverum takes the stage alone. "Happy Mother's Day," he announces. If it was anyone else it would seem like perfunctory stage banter, but coming from Elverum it's gutting. His new album, A Crow Looked at Me, documents his attempt to make sense out of his wife's senseless death last year. His set consists entirely of songs from that album, and the rawly emotional music is a splash of cold reality on the festival's mellow mood.
In its own way it's refreshing. To be honest, part of the reason I'm here, besides the opportunity to shroom in the desert and see Solange, is to escape, even if temporarily, a personal life that for the past few months has been full of pain and turmoil and uncertainty and a myriad of unpleasant emotions. Earlier this morning all of that personal stuff from outside world, intruded rudely on my retreat earlier in the day in email form, and although it's nowhere nearly as brutal as Elverum's, his grief focuses the pain that I'm feeling, and that feeling–as much as the heart rendingly beautiful music–is why the tears start welling up in my eyes, and why I don't fight them. They evaporate in the dry desert air before they can run down my cheeks.
It feels weird, almost wrong, to applaud between songs, like clapping at a funeral, but we all do anyhow. When he finishes his set the couple hundred people watching give him a standing ovation. Many of them embrace.
Someone told me that Paolo Soleri, the utopian architect behind Arcosanti, designed it to be occupied by 1500 people, and that this is the first time it's actually had 1500 people living there, and it turns out that Soleri's design–as ambitiously eccentric and full of oddball touches (like the Escher-like staircases that you encounter at every turn) as it is–actually works. It's not only a beautiful space, but the architecture, with its emphasis on shared public spaces and a layout that encourages chance encounters, has encouraged the crowd here to coalesce into a real community, with a real identity and real shared values. There's the unreal feeling that we're all living in one of Paolo Soleri's dreams.
Early on in the weekend one of the older full-time Arcosanti residents hanging around–most of them are greying hippies–complained to me about how the campsite had already damaged the fragile desert ecosystem, including the trampling of patches of succulents that will take decades to grow back. But one of the younger occupants, a guy named Devron who's sort of there to reach out to a new generation of utopians, points out how apparent the festival crowd's commitment is to living up to its ideals.
There's no trash anywhere, and people are actually taking the time to separate what they throw away into recyclables and compost. A lot of people are getting pretty fucked up, but I haven't seen anyone seriously fucked up. No bad trips, no people freaking out on some weird new chemical from China that someone passed off to them as molly. Not only have I not seen a single fight, I haven't even seen any arguing couples. The only time I've seen the scant security team actually interact with a festival goer is when one of them uses her flashlight to help someone find their friends in the crowded amphitheater.
There's a feeling in the air now that this is all winding down, this community beginning to unknit itself as we begin to feel our imminent reentry into the real world bearing down on us. There's a poignant last-day-of-camp vibe as people exchange numbers and mutual Instagram follows.
I run into Garret and Ellen and we smoke a joint before Thundercat. Ending the festival with the same people I started it out with is a tidy closing of a loop. We find a nook at the top of the amphitheater and blissed-outedly take in the set by Thundercat's trio, which I realize is basically the funkiest technical death metal of all time.
A representative from Arcosanti gives Hundred Waters probably the single most lengthy and impassioned introduction I've ever seen someone give at a concert. He talks about Paolo Soleri's work and philosophy, recites a lengthy passage from an Italo Calvino story, references the "universal language" of architecture and music. "Work is love made visible," he says, quoting Khalil Gibran, and adding his own observation: "We are love made visible."
If I'm being honest, I had some cynical intentions when I first signed up to cover the festival. It seemed like an easy target: the earnestness of its intentions, the $1150 glamping packages, my expectation that it would be full of Coachella-style trust fund bohemians who got their social justice philosophies off a t-shirt.
Instead I found that even in a world that feels like it's spinning inevitably and ever faster towards dystopia that it's actually possible to make a community that can work and get along and not fuck everything up. There is hope after all.
After Hundred Water's shatteringly gorgeous set I walk back to the rented SUV I haven't touched since we got here. The interior of the car is tacky and badly designed and crushingly mundane. I sit there for a minute staring out into the deep black desert night without a single thought in my head, savoring this last moment of peace. Then I hit the ignition and tear out of there onto the empty Arizona highway, speeding through the darkness at a hundred miles an hour, following a map back to the real world.
Miles Raymer is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.