The happy dissonance between the comically large blue parapets and the rolling fields of corn and sunflowers was a perfect representation of the tone for the weekend.

After an hour or so of driving across Oklahoma’s dilapidated highway system, it was easy to forget that it was 2015. With only never-ending farms and small towns to accompany us, it didn’t feel like we were on our way to three days of music festival debauchery.  We navigated a maze of dirt roads until we were greeted by the sight of two grand Disney-esque castle towers, watching proudly over the fields.

Sandwiched between them was a stage with a winged-eye LED screen set up – the mainstage for the weekend, Motherland. The happy dissonance between the comically large blue parapets and the rolling fields of corn and sunflowers was a perfect representation of the tone for the weekend.

 

‘Motherland’, the mainstage for the weekend.

 

What’s special about camping festivals is really getting live the festival experience. Going back and forth from a hotel can break the blissful illusion. It can be hard to compete with the ever-growing laundry list of festivals on the coasts, so the ones in the Midwest and South can often be overlooked. They’re gentle reminders that no matter where you go, even deep in the back roads of the Bible Belt, there are like-minded and free-spirited people who love to revel in good music for a weekend.

Over the weekend I had the immense pleasure of meeting people who had driven from Arkansas, Alabama, Kansas, Missouri, Tennessee even people who had driven all the way down from New York. But mostly, the attendees represented a powerful intersection of counter-culture – from old-school Baby Boomer hippies all the way down to the molly-addled millennials, everyone was bonded by the disconnected feeling one becomes used to, living in the conservative Midwest. And for one weekend, to be able to celebrate a community that only gets to be itself a couple times a year.

 

Lucky VIP pass holders had access to some choice amenities, including clean showers and a private pool.

 

The festival area itself is a sight to behold all on it’s own. Situated inside the Tatanka Ranch, all of the six stages surround a beautiful lake. In the day, festival-ers cool off by playing in the enormous inflatable water toys provided by the good people of Backwoods. But in my opinion the lake came alive most at night, when the dark black water became a perfect mirror for the one-of-a-kind Oklahoma sunset and then only a couple hours later, for the eclectic light shows from each of the stages.

 

[Midwestern camping festivals are] gentle reminders that no matter where you go, even deep in the back roads of the Bible Belt, there are like-minded and free-spirited people who love to revel in good music for a weekend.”

The light-up tower, the lake, and an Oklahoma sunset.

 

On the far side of the lake was the Nirvana Woodlands, a quiet wooded area with art installations, glowing webs of neon strings and even laser projectors hidden in the branches. Anyone who’s been to the Electric Forest Festival or The Grove at Bonnaroo will be familiar with the concept. By the time my group at arrived, several people had already staked their claims, resulting in a maze of hammocks. Inside the Woodlands were the two smallest stages.

The first, called Kumbaya, sat on the edge of the Woodlands, catering mostly to singer-songwriters and local acts. Though it was the smallest stage, there was a collection of thick tree stumps that made for a really cool impromptu, natural seating area.

 

The neon-string webs of the Nirvana Woodlands.

 

The second stage, The Globe, was a postmodern take on the famous Shakespearean theater of the same name that sits on the Thames River in London. This Backwoods version sat deep in the woods, on the far edge of the lake, constructed out of corrugated metal and old-timey cinema bits, the interior decorated with empty picture frames and off-center portraits. But the most striking part was the wide open backstage, the proscenium framing a gorgeous view of the lit-up ferris wheel, it’s undulating reflection and the night sky. The Globe featured primarily folk and indie acts and managed to surprise me every night with the energy of the crowd.

 

Walking into ‘The Globe’ was like tripping through time.

 

Throughout the festival, it wasn’t uncommon to notice giant plumes of flame erupting from one specific side of the lake. This was the Diskoportal, a stage created from an old Burning Man centerpiece, brought all the way to Oklahoma and then upgraded with a fully immersive 360 degree stage set up. In the center was an enormous disco ball that opened up like a flower, revealing a flamethrower that would spurt straight up during sets. Surrounding the crowd were four pointed obelisks, each with it’s own speaker set up AND their own flamethrowers. Yes, you’re reading that right, there were a lot of flamethrowers. Most of the lineup featured here were drum and bass, heavy trap as well as some deep, deep house.

 

The Diskoportal showing off it’s Burning Man centerpiece.

 

The next stage was Elevate. The Tatanka Ranch features a really nice multi-purpose convention building complete with a full bar, serviced bathrooms and air conditioning. One of my favorite surprises of the weekend was having a clean accessible, cool resting area, with free water. Seriously, I only used a porta-potty once all weekend, unheard of for a camping festival. Amid the admittedly pretty awful Oklahoma summer heat,  a col and uncrowded bar to sit in between shows was a lifesaver.

While some of the decor made it hard to forget we were in a multipurpose room sometimes, especially when some of the bigger shows packed us shoulder to shoulder, the festival staff did a good job with the light and sound set up, ensuring that each set was still enjoyable and top-tier. The lineup here was primarily dubstep, trap and some house, definitely the most ‘club’-like atmosphere of the festival.

 

Most days of the year, this room is a quaint multi-purpose room on a family ranch.

 

My favorite stage was easily the Meadow, the first stage you saw coming into the festival area. Probably the most impressive light show system outside the mainstage, I found myself returning again and again throughout the weekend because the array of lasers and lights were visible from everywhere else on the ranch. The stage itself was a raised bridge between two great big trees, with the performing DJ on one side and the bridge open to everyone with a press pass to show off their dance skills for the rest of the crowd. There were also multiple laser projector set-ups shot straight into the trees, turning the plentiful foliage around us into beautiful, constantly moving, yet natural works of art. The lineup here was a little more hip-hop and R&B influenced EDM with some house, Melbourne bounce, future bass and chilled trap.

On the first night, we managed to catch the last shows, Washed Out right into Kodak To Graph and honestly– those shows set a standard of hype that wasn’t matched until the headline shows of the last day. These were sets made for outdoor shows, no one was sitting down, everyone was on their feet. I remember going to the front when there were 30 or so festivalers. Halfway through I turned around it had turned into a couple hundred, all jamming out.

 

A shot from the first evening showing the vendor stalls and stage art. If you look real close, you can see me in the red shorts and white tank at the bottom-left.

 

Which brings us to Motherland, the mainstage. I’ve already described the stage set-up but to truly grasp what the good people at Backwoods created, you have to get an image of the surrounding area. The mainstage sat on top of a large hill that sloped gently away into the shade of interspersed trees. Standing in the crowd up there, sailing synth melodies in the air, vivid pinks and orange of the Oklahoma sunset, surrounded by rolling hills; it was a classic festival experience.

The second night kicked off with Papadosio, their patent brand of livetronica, part electronic, part jam band, the perfect way to get the crowd in the groove. This segway-ed very well into Break Science, ramping up into some harder hitting breakbeats and hip-hop inspired electronic.

The finale of the night, foreshadowed ominously by the silhouette of a tentacled mushroom in the background of every show that day, was Infected Mushrooms, across the Atlantic from Haifa, Israel, a popular favorite for many of the festival go-ers I spoke to. Unfortunately, they didn’t entirely live up to the hype. Erez, the lead singer even apologized mid-set that he was too drunk to remember some of the lyrics. Fortunately however, the other half of the Mushrooms, Amit, was absolutely on point on the guitar, their electronica-infused cover of the Foo Fighters the saving grace of the set.

 

Standing in the crowd up there, sailing synth melodies in the air, vivid pinks and orange of the Oklahoma sunset, surrounded by rolling hills; it was a classic festival experience.”

The ‘Motherland’ stage during a day show.

 

The last day was stacked with talent, easily the big draw for the weekend. The first show to convince us to leave camp was Big Wild, from Venice Beach, CA. Part of the Foreign Family Collective, curated by ODESZA, Big Wild put on a veritable one man show. Just him, surrounded by a couple keyboards and a MacBook and it was still one of the most engaging performances of the weekend. It was grandiose and vibrant in a way that only Big Wild can do, and had people hype before the sun went down.

Then we went off to catch Liquid Stranger at Elevate who put on an absolutely mind bending show, taking full advantage of the acoustic advantages of an indoor space. (I reviewed his latest release, “Nomad: Vol. 2”, here.)

 

A shot from Porter Robinson’s immaculate set

 

Unfortunately we couldn’t stay for the whole set, to grab a good spot for Porter Robinson. I’d had several friends lucky enough to catch his tour for his album “Worlds” and heard nothing but rave reviews (no pun intended). I’d been a fan for a while but I’ll be honest, I was skeptical simply because everything I’d heard was too good to be true.

I was so wrong. Easily one of the best shows of the weekend, and hands down the most energetic. The young Chapel Hill, NC native’s pacing is immaculate, keeping the crowd thoroughly engaged through a careful balance of ethereal Legend of Zelda/fantasy interludes and some truly, utterly dirty drops. At the end of a long build up, the cheeky DJ pulled the old “uh oh, a glitch! Nope, just the delayed drop” and I’ve never seen a crowd so ecstatic to be fooled.

Not every EDM producer is better live, but I’d go as far as to say if you haven’t heard Porter live, you haven’t heard him at all. Though electronic music is hardly niche anymore, it’s not uncommon for the uninitiated to feel a little confused with such a deep and varied genre. Porter is the antithesis of this concept, his show being one of the most fun and accessible of the lineup. It was beyond cool to see more than just your standard bass head getting into it. I was entranced from start to to the firework finish.

 

The firework finale of Porter’s set.

 

Next up was ODESZA themselves, an easy crowd favorite for the weekend. Just like Porter, the live set they had is different from their stream offerings. In fact, they recently released a deluxe version of “In Return” including live and instrumental versions, if you want a taste. It’s really a treat to hear the instrumentation with the clarity and vibrancy of a live show.  I’d seen the Seattle duo once before at ‘Roo earlier this summer, and I while I was a little disappointed that they were relegated to such a small stage there, they still put on one of my favorite shows that weekend. I was beyond excited to see them get a full stage and LED set up like they’ve always deserved.

They gave us all the hits and more, playing some selections from their first album as well as their more recent Hayden James mix. If you’re an avid ODESZA fan, you might be aware of their ‘secret’ song that they only play to finish their live set. The majority of the set definitely has a vibey, low-key groove, most people jamming slowly in wide-eyed awe but the secret encore song is an absolute slapper. All the vibrant colors switch to harsh grayscale and strobes, out come the trap horns, and everyone goes ham.

 

People look on in slack-jawed wonder during ODESZA’s set.

 

All the way from Lawrence, KS, home of the illustrious Jayhawks, The Floozies took the stage to finish off this glorious weekend. With one brother on the drums and the other on the guitar, they led the crowd through almost an hour of their patent funk-infused electronica. This was one of those shows with an irresistible bounce, just straight-up, quality dance music. Highlights include a truly bombastic Space Jam remix, a gorgeous guitar solo and a sneak preview of new material. Throwing in some good humor and the perfect crowd energy, this was one of the most engaging and active shows of the weekend.

 

This was one of those shows with an irresistible bounce, just straight-up, quality dance music.

It’s comforting how similar festival-ers are no matter where you go.

 

Out in the Midwest, festival options can not only be a little sparse, but well hidden. I’m still in awe at how few people showed up this year despite the strength of the lineup. Don’t misunderstand, it was a festival and there were still a LOT of people, but unlike some of the bigger festivals, not once did I ever feel like the Ranch was crowded. It definitely made for some more intimate shows, despite the big stages and even bigger headliners.

Speaking to veteran Backwooders, one of the most common remarks was how this lowkey farmland festival had turned into one of the biggest production events of the year. With such a comfortable and cozy amount of people, it really felt like we were discovering something new. With growing hype and marketing, it won’t stay this way for long. If you’re in the area, I highly recommend Backwoods 2016. Getting to enjoy some of the biggest names in EDM in such an intimate and naturally beautiful setting is a once in a lifetime opportunity you can’t miss. Next year’s page is already up so you can check it out, here.

(Photo credit to the Official Backwoods Facebook Page and Jamie Seeds Photography.)