Music Festivals

Five Takeaways From Meow Wolf's First Denver Vortex Festival

Jess Bernstein, Courtesy of Meow Wolf
After spending six months moving a mountain range of scrapped cars from what used to be the Stadium Auto Parts scrap heap, the Junk Yard was finally ready to host its inaugural event this past weekend: Meow Wolf's Vortex. The festival hosted two stages filled with an eclectic array of musicians and street performers and showcased immersive, maximalist art by a bevy of local and national creators. 

Colorado has had a tumultuous relationship with festivals, with many not succeeding. Gatherings such as Grandoozy, Vertex, SnowBall and ARISE have all met their demises in the Centennial State.

But that didn't stop Meow Wolf from moving Vortex from Taos to Denver, and Live Nation talent buyer Brennan Bryarly went out on a limb to book an eclectic, risky lineup of artists that many people probably hadn’t heard of, relying on Meow Wolf’s aesthetic rather than musician hype to draw the crowds.

“It’s a pleasure to work with...Vortex [and] to use that platform to try and curate a lineup that's based on the quality of music, as opposed to what might be a traditional lineup that will sell tickets like in every other market,” Bryarly told us at the festival. “So to use the platform to be as effective as possible and represent as many different pockets of society was really special. This is the most eclectic crowd at any party I've ever thrown; it's all walks of life kind of coming together for the music.”

Here are five takeaways from the kaleidoscopic mania that was Vortex:

The Stages

When we entered the Junk Yard, at 2323 West Mulberry Place, on Saturday, the festival was already on its second day. Within moments, we encountered the Atriā Stage — Vortex’s DJ-centric platform designed and built by artist Jon Medina and his team. Medina said that the inspiration for Atriā was a deconstructed, weathered greenhouse that was supposed to induce the feeling that you were entering a portal when the light show interacted with it.

Medina also helped design the main Ara Stage, which was named after one of the first constellations ever recorded. Since this stage would host bands, the team had to suspend as much design in the air as possible so as not to interfere with the performances below. The design took inspiration from chromatic beetles and featured hanging pods that were laser-cut from plywood and wrapped in a cotton fabric harnessing a technicolor light display.
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Jess Bernstein, Courtesy of Meow Wolf

The Crowd

At 4 p.m. on Saturday, the lights had yet to be activated in any meaningful way. But who needs a light show when you have a cohort of raving goth teens busting out meme-level moves? While the thought of this might seem comical, these teens — decked out in gas masks, eyeliner and beaded, technicolor Predator dreads — were the only cool people at that entire stage, considering that they were the only people dancing to Baltra’s set of stripped-down, throttling, ethereal breakbeats.

When we asked these "New Rave" teens about their festival experiences, they weren't having it, which made them even more impressive in their dedication to dancing. But we did find out that they weren't there for the dance stage: They were there for the Saturday main-stage lineup specifically curated for the TikTok generation, with artists such as Bladee, Sad Night Dynamite and 100 gecs. Which brings us to our next observation...

Most Entertaining (and Terrible) Performance: 100 gecs

The sound of 100 gecs is as if you took pop punk, Euro trash rave music, trap and acoustic ballads and crushed them all through an autotuner. On paper, this sounds like the sort of music the CIA plays for terrorists. In practice, it was one of the most exciting concerts we’ve seen all year. It was like they were purposely trying to be terrible — and because of that, it was extraordinarily entertaining. This attitude was later reflected in 100 gecs' after-party DJ set inside Meow Wolf at its Perplexiplex venue, where the band played the worst pop music you could think of, only to break it up with washes of noise and schizotypal breakcore. At points you couldn't tell if it was a bad DJ transition or if they were just being obtuse. To us, it was incredible; however, this music could eventually be classified as a war crime.
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Jess Bernstein, Courtesy of Meow Wolf

Just Add Water

"Just add water" should be somewhere in an instruction manual on how to get local DJs to dance (maybe that's because the water destroys their USB sticks, which they're grasping onto in the crowd, hoping that the performing DJ has a heart attack and they can take over). Unfortunately, “just add water” comes with a caveat: $30,000 lights and DJ decks that are not immune to it.

With technology at stake, during a Saturday deluge, all of the stages had to be shut down and party-goers went to seek shelter in a venue devoid of it, except for in the VIP tent. In true Colorado weather fashion, the monsoon eventually ended. But not in time for Avalon Emerson to make it onto the decks, as she was concerned that her vinyl records would be damaged by the rain. With Emerson canceled, Dixon decided to play two slots instead.

The Team

The creative direction, the performers, the support staff, the sound, the vendors — everything was on point. We didn’t even see any flagrant douchebaggery among guests (except in the VIP tents). Perhaps Vortex creative director Sofie Cruse summed it up best: “The amount of enthusiasm from the guests has been really, truly just a gift. Everyone is bringing so much personal discretion and their own style, and really just having, like, a joyous time. I'm constantly wandering around looking at how people are interacting with the art or each other. And I've just seen so many really sweet moments.”

And when we asked the team members if they were pleased with the turnout, the answer was a resounding yes, with attendance higher than they'd anticipated.

Denver might finally have a festival that will last for years to come — a festival based on aesthetic rather than hype, and authenticity rather than roles.
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