Despite Growing Pains, Okeechobee 2018 Was a Sensory Delight

There were sunburns in the day, shivers in the night, and lots and lots of dust, but for four days, the party persevered. The third edition of the Okeechobee Music Festival, which took place March 1-4, was a rousing celebration of music and art, and by all accounts should be considered a resounding success.

The four-day camping festival in, you guessed it, Okeechobee, Fla., attracted attendees from all walks of life and from all over the country to come together over a long weekend at the onset of spring and revel in a bountiful harvest of music, art and good vibes.

In a stroke of luck for all involved, the weather for the duration of the weekend was absolutely beautiful. Clear blue skies abounded during the day, and there wasn’t a drop of rain from the moment the gates opened until the last camper exited. Only true Florida locals and those who arrived without warm clothes could complain about the chilly temperatures at night, which dipped into the 40s.

All photos by Parker Richards
All photos by Parker Richards

Okeechobee featured three main stages within “Sunshine Grove,” three more on the outskirts that focused on electronic music, and a handful of other, much smaller venues scattered throughout the grounds.

The main stage area, which featured the BE, HERE and NOW stages (get it?), hosted virtually all of the top-billed acts on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The Aquachobee Beach and Incendia stages, located directly on the beachfront of a small lake, featured electronic music that lasted into the wee hours of the morning. Jungle 51, a smaller, more intimate venue tucked within the trees, hosted DJs and was frequented by a convent of attendees who just wanted to dance the night away. The smallest stages, most of which were only made to accommodate a few hundred people, included performance spaces for local acts, a soapbox-esque area, and a massive, flame-shooting rooster. Yes, really. There was even a dedicated yoga area, Yogachobee, that hosted yoga classes each day. There were truly too many eye-catching art installations and fascinating corners of the grounds to catalog them all here.

As with last year’s festival, the logistical side of the event was impressive to say the least. Informational updates, maps and schedules were all readily available through the festival’s mobile app, a convenience that has quickly become a must-have for any major festival. Waits to get into port-o-potties never exceeded more than a few minutes, and septic trucks that roamed the perimeter throughout the weekend kept these bathrooms, normally the bane of any festival-goer (hold your breath and escape as quickly as possible), remarkably clean considering the circumstances. Quality food could be found all throughout the venues and even sporadically throughout the campsites. Food trucks from all throughout Florida were posted within eyesight of almost every stage, and water was readily available at refill stations throughout the campsite and venues.

BEStageDiscoBall

As an Okeechobee veteran, or Okeechobeeing, I couldn’t help but notice the changes that were made in the time between the festival’s second and third years. Of the differences between this year and last year’s festivals, the most noticeable and most positively received change was the vastly improved sound at the main stages. The biggest complaint about last year’s festival, both on-site and online, was the weak sound quality at the three main stages. Let’s be honest, if you’re going to book an act called “Bassnectar,” whose legions of loyal fans call themselves “Bassheads” (though I have long advocated for the fandom to call themselves “Nectarines”), you’d better be ready to break out the subwoofers. All of the subwoofers. And while Okeechobee may have fallen flat in that regard last year, the complaints of many attendees did not fall on deaf ears, and this year the sound was, well, deafening.

No festival is going to be perfect in its third year, and that certainly applies to Okeechobee, which is still working through some growing pains. Despite the vastly improved sound quality, the layout of the three main stages had one glaring error, and that’s the HERE stage. The smallest of the three main stages by far, and located directly in between the BE and NOW stages, the HERE stage suffered from the worst sound bleed I’ve ever heard at a music festival, and that includes the nearby SunFest, which has two stages that face each other directly. During one of the few sets I watched on the HERE stage, the sparsely attended but unabashedly fun Chicano Batman, noise from the BE and NOW stages intruded significantly into the mix. There were other questionable decisions made by the event’s organizers, including the perplexing decision to swap the NOW and BE stages from their positions last year, resulting in a “main” stage that felt significantly smaller than the secondary NOW Stage.

At first, I intended to catalogue the sets in my recap, to make a list of the best shows of the weekend. Ultimately, I realized that isn’t at all the point of Okeechobee. Nobody’s competing with one another, and there was no way to attend enough of the sets to get a good idea of how they compared. I’m certain there were thousands of attendees at the festival who did not see a single show that I saw over the course of the long weekend.

A quick rundown of the acts I attended:

  • Hippo Campus exceeded expectations and was a pleasant surprise early on Friday afternoon, drawing a decent crowd that bounced along to sunny tracks from its debut album,
  • Slightly Stoopid put on its standard, crowd-pleasing show, which featured a stellar cover of the Grateful Dead classic “Franklin’s Tower” as a highlight.
  • The Roots returned to Okeechobee for their second year in a row, performing in a PowWow with other artists, and put on a lively show with Snoop Dogg and Chaka Khan, despite the fact that advertised collaborator Joey Bada$$ was a no-show.

SnoopDogg

  • Khalid failed to impress during his much-hyped set on the main stage, though his band’s drummer was a bright spot, adding countless fills to keep things interesting.
  • Travis Scott, one of the most popular rappers currently active in music, performed despite having had oral surgery the day before his set, and appeared to spit blood and tear stitches over the course of his frantic, hard-hitting, hour-long set on the main stage.
  • Local Natives showed that they’re ready to play festival main stages with a tight and impressive set, even if they drew a relatively meager crowd to the BE stage on Sunday night.
Local Natives
Local Natives
  • Lil Dicky, the Philadelphia comedy-rapper who achieved fame on the back of viral successes and clever, lightning-speed verses, seemed to have more fun than any other artist of the weekend, finding time in his hour-long set to crowdsurf to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and give a lap dance to a fan from the front row.
  • The Flaming Lips provided everything that attendees of their mainstage set could have hoped for, including but not limited to: confetti, a massive inflatable Yoshimi, a giant balloon that spelled out “F— YEAH OKEECHOBEE,” and Wayne Coyne performing from inside his trademark “boy in the bubble” inflatable ball.
The Flaming Lips
The Flaming Lips
  • Arcade Fire was predictably self-important, taking the stage decked out in “Everything Now” clothes (did nobody tell them it’s not cool to wear your own merch?) with a massive, smoke-themed light show in tow. In a bright spot, frontman Win Butler spoke out about gun control and the recent shooting in Parkland, FL, and dedicated a rendition of “The Suburbs” to Stoneman Douglas as the screen behind him read “#NEVERAGAIN”

The festival didn’t feel quite as full as it did last year, but perhaps this was simply because of the sets I chose to attend throughout the weekend. Rock, indie and alternative sets were attended noticeably less than many of the electronic acts and DJs that were strewn throughout the schedule. Acts like Big Gigantic and Gramatik, who performed on the NOW stage, drew significantly larger crowds than established bands such as the Flaming Lips, Local Natives, and Arcade Fire did at the BE stage.

Arcade Fire
Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire’s Sunday night mainstage set, which was intended to be a stirring end to a four-day retreat, was embarrassingly empty. Arriving ten minutes before the set was slated to begin, I easily strolled up to within ten feet of the stage. This could be attributed to the group’s sinking popularity, the fact that they were stacked against Zeds Dead on the NOW stage, or simply because it was late on a Sunday and many attendees left early because they had work the next day. This was one of my biggest takeaways from the weekend: In this market and with a crowd this young, it’s the electronic acts that are selling tickets and drawing the biggest crowds, not rock bands.

Starting a new music festival, especially a camping festival in a quiet, sparsely populated area, is always going to be a difficult endeavor. Does anyone remember Langerado, the short-lived and similarly conceived camping festival at Big Cypress that petered out after a few years of stellar lineups? No? Exactly.

That being said, Okeechobee is a festival that’s just completed its third year, and the concern of wondering whether it will return seems to be unnecessary. After all, they were advertising opportunities to win tickets to OMF19 in exchange for trading in litter at the “Clean Vibes Trading Post.” That oozes confidence that the event’s organizers expect to be profitable and return next year.

Staff and volunteers were (mostly) friendly and helpful, and the vibes among attendees were overwhelmingly positive. Throughout the three full days I was there, I didn’t see a single confrontation among the crowd—an impressive feat for an event that likely hosted more than 30,000 people.

The true test of any camping festival is its potency as an immersive experience, and in this regard Okeechobee should receive high marks. It seems that after many attempts and failures in the past, Florida finally has the festival that it deserves, one that can flourish in its environment and provide a safe, engaging and enjoyable experience.