On the DJ festival circuit, Tomorrowland is the enigmatic mecca of holy rave magic. Any raver worth his or her untz must make it there at least once, get muddy and praise the bpms. In honor of its tenth anniversary, Tomorrowland doubled itself for 2014, ostensibly to allow more people to attend. The first three day weekend of DJs and dancing kicked off this past Friday, July 18 through July 20 in the small town of Boom, Belgium. Though this is its tenth year, the world outside of Europe only first took notice of Tomorrowland in 2012, when its live stream telecast revealed a main stage so massive and fantastical, it made the world's ravers salivate. It also made SFX want to buy the fest's promoter, ID&T, and subsequently prompted Live Nation to realize it had hit the rave snooze button one too many times.
Tomorrowland is now a global franchise, with a version outside Atlanta (TomorrowWorld) and one next year launching near Sao Paolo, announced ceremoniously during David Guetta's Sunday night set. Tomorrowland's identity is connected to the physical Main Stage itself, consistently an unquestionably marvelous feat of production engineering.
This year's stage was a melange of early 20th Century rotating gears and a functioning water wheel, that splashed droplets into the front of the crowd while LED projection screens displayed a steampunk-inspired robot face who talked between DJs. It was astounding, for sure. It makes the neon of EDC look crass and basic and the scale of Ultra look overblown and unimaginative. What the stage lacks in cool (isn't steampunk so 2010?) it makes up for in achievement.
Musically, The Main Stage of Tomorrowland is genre-defining, filled with artists who play Main Stage dance music. Americans like Kaskade and Krewella got down, bringing their biggest tracks to win over the hungry, flag-waving crowd, most of whom knew the words to their hits. Both artists called out the internationalism of the audience in earnest though perhaps also in recognition that the Americans were not running this show. Case in point: Afrojack pressed pause on his 2014 global freefall to the pit of irrelevance with a set painfully reliant on tracks from his new album. If ever there were a willing audience for the material of a wannabe Armin Van Buuren, it is his Beneluxian brethren who pretended to sing along and then generously acted like it was the first time they ever heard "Pon de Floor."
It wasn't the only instance of bizarro at Tomorrow. In what world does it make sense for Skrillex to open for Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike? The world of ID&T, of course, who happen to manage the milquetoast duo. It's not a bad world to live in. There, one can be inspired by the English language motivational clichés that litter festival signage ("Live Your Dream" and "Today is a Gift"). These are the hallmarks of ID&T events they're vestiges of a culture frozen in early 90s hippie nostalgia that celebrated the promise of the first rave wave and the earnestness of witnessing a changing world best documented in the music video for 1990's "Right Here, Right Now," by Jesus Jones.
The world of Tomorrowland is a magical place where one can believe that there just happen to be choreographed fireworks ready for the moment when Alesso spontaneously plays "Calling (Lose My Mind)" on the Main Stage on Saturday night. Even as the crowd reveled in the soot and ash from those fireworks, perilously shot over their heads, Alesso was only a warm-up. The main act on Saturday (and the weekend) was Dutch Jesus and his Dutch Daddy; Hardwell and Tiësto, separately and together.
Untouched by the plague of a failed LP and Paris Hilton like his cousin Afrojack, unravaged by time and Armani t-shirts like his father, Tiësto, the blessed Hardwell is now as beloved in The Netherlands as Queen Beatrix and almost as legendary as the little Dutch boy who put his finger in that dam. When he yells "let's get fucking crazy," it's merely a formality because everyone has already gotten fucking crazy.
If Tiësto sired the blessed Hardwell in the land of Tomorrow, this celebration boldly featured a reenactment of that conception. From the bombast of the fireworks to the inferno of the beats, Tiësto showed the world again how he inseminated the animatronic body of the Main Stage and birthed his eternally fresh faced scion. When the blessed Hardwell joined him on stage for an awkward tag team, it was practically a manual stimulation by the younger as the seasoned DJ god sprayed his Dutch rave juice on the crowd who lapped it up like holy wine under the orgiastic spasms of fireworks needlessly convulsing above them.
Indeed, Tomorrowland has entrenched itself firmly as the rave haven for the Low Countries' best fist-pumpers. A bro paradise that eschews the oddities of Berlin and the savagery of Ibiza, it's people are largely white, male and shirtless. That's not a criticism, but it should be. For an organization that prides itself on open-mindedness and community to have limited its appeal to such a narrow demographic is a shortcoming if not a weakness. Have the promoters of ID&T ever been to Trouw? Have they been to London, for that matter? Do they realize that the world they're so eager to unite in ravedom is bigger and more diverse than the majority of their attendees?
With so much fanfare on the big stages the smaller side stages were an afterthought. On Saturday, Will Sparks tried to go off in the V Sessions vs Doorn Stage, a metal box styled and climatised like a jungle, but to understandably soggy results. Seth Troxler, meanwhile, ignored his own disdain for festivals and delivered a solid if predictable set on the Cocoon stage. The same locale hosted a Richie Hawtin-curated slate the next day, including a resplendently deep set from Ida Engberg. In what has to have been a trick played on SFX's Wall Street investors, the most unique physical space, a latticework bamboo dome shaped called "Tarantula" played host to the overtly drug-referenced Ketaloco stage on Saturday where Eats Everything and others played some ironically un-k-hole-like techno.
Is it fair that actual house god Derrick Carter played to a crowd of less than 100 people to close his own stage in the Tarantula on Sunday night? No, but those unwilling to play dance pop had to take what they could get. Hence, by the time Guetta and his tasteful chignon muscled their way into "Titanium," it was less about the quality of the music and more about the quantity of the alcohol.
Like the rest of Northern Europe, Belgium and ID&T are in denial about the impact of our warming planet and haven't made things like fans (let alone air conditioning) in places where they should be (like unventilated shuttle buses).
There are no dedicated water refill stations anywhere at Tomorrowland. Maybe when it's a balmy 75ºF this isn't so important, but with temps reaching a humid 90s this past weekend, it was ludicrous. Designated "fresh points," adjacent to the odious toilets, hosted tables with communal bottles of body spray (which, based on the general fragrance of the crowd, was a pale substitute for deodorant) and sinks, meant to double as hand washing and potable water stations. Gross. Would it have been so difficult for ID&T to take a tip from their SFX sister Made Event and give out free water like at Electric Zoo?
It's lovely that uniformed hosts greet ravers at the Brussels airport the Thursday before the festival with signs guiding them to free transport to the site (can anyone imagine Ultra doing that at Miami International?), but that can't be the last time fans needs are so thoughtfully considered.
Nothing can change the fact that this fest is located on what is essentially a manicured swamp in a public park. When the weather is nice, it's beautiful to traipse across bridges to get from stage to stage, body to body with fellow ravers, stumbling into side stage parties with Stafford Brothers or Rusko, but the inconvenient truth is that in another ten years, shit is only getting hotter and Tomorrowland only getting swampier.
For all its flaws and liabilities, Tomorrowland is actually a whole lot of fun. You don't have to like the awkward mess of Main Stage closing sets to enjoy jumping up and down with strangers to the sounds coming from it. You don't have to be a connoisseur to appreciate vibing under the sun with your friends and some beverages to an endless supply of DJ music in all of its forms.
Perhaps the most Tomorrowland moments of Tomorrowland happen off-stage, when strangers impulsively start a choreographed dance in the crowd or when ravers from Argentina, India or California find each other and high five at the site of their flags. Or at the Smirnoff-sponsored DJ house where in between or after sets by Zeds Dead and Pierce Fulton, random people would boldly take over the decks and throw down delightfully spontaneous and crowd-pleasing sets for people just happy to dance. It was spontaneous dance music egalitarianism, unencumbered by the heavy hand of a set time.
Kids these days are spoiled for choice when it comes to dance festivals. Those who buy the hype and make the trek to Belgium might be turned off by the fundamentals of the environment and the realities of the crowd. Still, anyone who closes their eyes and sways along to the beat will have an amazing time. With those eyes open, it's an experience they won't see anywhere else and well worth the trip.