Oaktopia Brings Heat, Rain & All The Music

The appeal of music festivals extends far beyond the sights and sounds, beyond the music, beyond the art, beyond the visual displays and embellished aesthetic of every venue and stage. It traverses the surface-level faculties and vests itself in the senses, the emotional resonance, and the intrinsic connection felt by each and every festivalgoer. Simply put, we’re all in attendance to do the same damn thing—have a good time and share what we love with others who feel the same.

Where do we even start? For three days, downtown Denton was transformed into a micro-music-mecca bursting with light, sound, art, and adventure. Despite technical difficulties (The Bearded Monk's stage debacle), some logistical confusion (can non-in-house press access the photo pit?), and insane weather extremes (you know what we're talking about), Oaktopia 2016 was a total blast.

Arts and Crafts
Oaktopian's got an opportunity to soak in some of the city’s best artists and makers over the weekend. Local artists Matthew Sallack and Katie Montgomery collaborated on an installation called The Living Machine, a mixed-media piece that passers-by could enjoy on their way to and from different acts. Across from this installation, several other artists set up live-painting stations on easels and wooden supports. Different works were displayed day by day. (There was even some live-ceramics action, as we noticed a large clay pot being given life one afternoon.)

Originally, the Elks Lodge had agreed to let festival vendors hock their wares on their property; however, this plan fell through and forced organizers to get creative. Vendors were temporarily moved to the parking lot near Oak Street Draft House until Saturday, when the okay was given to set up on Oak Street in front of the main stages. The mixup was a disappointment to several makers—lots of festival attendees weren’t aware that the vendors were out and about until the second day of the festival—but Saturday’s remapping helped boost vendor sales and morale significantly.

Film, Jokes, and More
Any good music festival needs more than just music, and Oaktopia delivered. Attendees looking for a break from the madness were treated to Granatum’s Short Film Showcase, which featured nearly 10 original works from local filmmakers and directors, as well as the Denton Black Film Festival Showcase. Those looking for a laugh had plenty of opportunity for just that, thanks to E Third’s Joketopia—three and a half full hours of local comedy goodness. Those of us who were able to keep the partying at a minimum managed to get up to the PAAC on Saturday morning for three hours of Industry Panels, moderated by Dr. Michael Seman. The general takeaway from these panels was that success in the music industry isn’t won by talent alone, but also by developing a core set of professional skills including networking, relationships, and organization.

The VIP Experience
For one of our authors, volunteering as a bartender in the VIP tent wasn’t such a bad gig. VIP bartenders enjoyed a nice, cushiony overlook of the UNT Stage, a couple of beers to sip on, dealt with (mostly) friendly and personable patrons, and worked close to musicians coming on and off of the main stage (which was enough to activate all repressed fanboy instincts.) Festivalgoers with VIP passes were entitled to several free beers a day, backstage access, free meals at LSA, elevated seating for the main outdoor stages, and the VIP bar and lounge itself. The VIP festers we spoke to thought these were some pretty solid perks.

Local Highlights
kicked off Thursday’s festivities at Dan’s Silverleaf with an uncharacteristically energetic performance. After coming off stage to walk amongst the crowd, Eric Michener (possibly moved by the spirit of Oaktopia itself) managed a very impressive backward somersault which knocked over a keyboard, unplugged a guitar amp, and disconnected a microphone. Setting everything back up didn’t take very long, and once Michener was re-situated he had some grateful words for the crowd: “Thank you for joining me in this meltdown.” As always, the music was excellent and the crowd was treated to stories about aspiring lighting techs, baseball, and pizza parlor food fights. Cozy Hawks followed shortly after with their sunny, upbeat pop (and even got some people dancing.) Guitarist and singer Adam Bertholdi’s string broke during the band’s first song, so Michener offered his guitar instead—this change lent the band’s surfy songs a slightly more pop-punk feel that we really enjoyed. Biographies played their transcendent post-rock to a totally packed room at the end of the night. Little details made the whole show feel intimate and even cozy: the band’s signature light work warmed the room, lead singer Chance Maggard wore socks onstage, and keyboardist Katie Slusarski’s vocals gave one song a distinct lullaby feel.

On Friday the energy turned up several notches. Meditation Mafia rocked The Labb—literally—to the point that it seemed like surrounding businesses’ awnings could be shaken from their storefronts. The eight-person rap group slammed a small stage, dancing and rhyming their asses off. It was a bombastic, unmatched performance with enough bass to rattle your chest. Fun Button’s set was clean and pristine, characterized by delay-filled melodies, catchy hooks, and more than a fair share of Montucky Cold Snacks. They filled the ears of a pretty substantial crowd with a palpable blend of enlivening indie rock that rejuvenated a physically exhausted audience. Pearl Earl got Andy’s bursting at the seams with their fuzzy power pop, playing favorites like “Karaoke Superstar” (featuring Cari Elizondo of Sunbuzzed as a special guest!) Between bandmate dance-offs, coordinated shouts, and the crowd’s overwhelming approval, there were some serious Girl Power vibes in the room. Dome Dwellers were helped out by Raena McRuin handing out 3D glasses to audience members to complement their proprietary light show, giving the set an otherworldly and dreamy feeling: a perfect way to wind down Friday night.

Despite hangovers and heat exhaustion, Saturday was a packed day for the festival. Nicole Atkins and her band of Denton all-stars set the evening on fire, playing tunes that ranged from alt-country to ballads to straight-up psychedelic pandemonium. At times, she channeled Janis Joplin’s wild operatics; for a moment or two one might have mistaken her for Jenny Lewis. With a laugh she dedicated “The Worst Hangover” to her fellow festival musicians. Fans of sludge and stoner metal found Orcanaut’s set to be a refreshing break from the usual fare, not to mention an opportunity for a second wind: a mosh pit grew out of the audience (there was even some crowd surfing.) Although the crowd was a bit thin, the band’s guttural energy made the room full. Over at Sprockets, Sunbuzzed served up some ghostly melodies in an equally spooky atmosphere. The building’s lights were dimmed and a projector looped psychedelic visuals for the bulk of the evening. Amid all of the witchy, gorgeous sound, singer Lo Ramirez knelt on the floor to finish the band’s last song. And Mother Tongues’ chilled-out psych made for a great cap to the venue’s lineup—the set was dreamy and pretty calm, at least until the final song, which culminated in a meticulous guitar solo and a devastating crescendo.

Main-Stage Madness
The long-anticipated Petty Fest did not disappoint. Festivalgoers were treated to the sounds of The Cabin Down Below Band, comprised of more than 20 local and internationally-known musicians. Nashville musicians Nikki Lane, Robert Ellis, and Cory Chisel were present despite the fact that Nashville’s AmericanaFest ran this entire week—what a score for Denton! Classics like “Won’t Back Down,” “Wildflowers,” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” filled the air; the band’s rendition of “American Girl” was so close to Petty’s own version that it was tough to believe the musician himself wasn’t onstage. The band sang “Happy Birthday” to Danny Masterson; Granddaddy’s Jason Lytle stepped in to sing a couple of songs; Norah Jones brought the set to a lovely end.

Wavves hit the UNT Stage on Friday to a sweaty, good-sized crowd. The weather was perfect for their surf-tinged repertoire and the set went off without a hitch. There must have been something in the air, because Danny Masterson wasn’t the only one with an Oaktopia birthday—lead singer Nathan Williams announced that it was bassist Stephen Pope's as well. (He also introduced Norah Jones' piano as a special guest.)

Dr. Dog’s set was perhaps the most wholesome, comforting, and free of sin. The music itself and the general atmosphere resonating from the show felt as charming and whole-hearted as you could get, as if the audience were baptized in warm, synth-filled waves and pulsing leads. As the sun slowly crept below the horizon, fluorescent lights of blue and purple bathed the crowd in a euphoric haze, coupled with the minimalist and precise performance that Dr. Dog delivered.

After dark, Beirut wowed Dentonites with their brassy Balkan folk-rock. Zach Condon and his compatriots looked tired—as Condon noted, their Oaktopia set was the final stop on a long tour—but genuinely happy. Beirut’s signature horns and accordion gave the night a legitimately magical feel, as did one festivalgoer who decided to bring a bubble wand to blow bubbles for the rest of the audience. The band played “The Peacock” to a massive swell of cheers from the crowd, and it was tough to ignore a gorgeous moment of irony: Condon singing the song’s final lines, “He’s the only one who knows the words,” as hundreds of people sang every word right along with him.

Denton darling Norah Jones played to a huge crowd to close out Friday’s main stage acts. She played classics like “Come Away With Me” and “Don’t Know Why,” as well as a couple of gems from her upcoming album Day Breaks. As always, her unique brand of jazzy pop was at once soothing and rousing; the audience made plenty of appreciative noise. Her band was comprised mostly of musicians from Petty Fest’s Cabin Down Below Band and made for another star-studded set to draw the second festival evening to a close.

Mates of State fans arrived at the stage promptly at three on Saturday to catch the duo’s innovative indie rock. The set included tracks from Re-Arrange Us and You’re Going To Make It as well as slightly older albums like Team Boo. Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel—still married, still gifted as all hell, and still really adorable while playing together—exchanged smiles and laughs throughout their set as audience members shouted song requests and praise. At one point Gardner joked that they’d picked all the wrong songs, but the cheers from the crowd proved otherwise.

Party animal Andrew WK burst onto the West Stage to a roaring crowd of party-people. Favorites like “Ready To Die” and “She Is Beautiful” opened up the set, followed quickly by a tossed-tee-shirt giveaway (because, as WK noted, at parties there should always be gifts.) The bombastic, high-flying nature of the set was persistent throughout, filling everybody in attendance with the unmistakable urge to fucking rage. Andrew W.K.’s endearing message of positivity and friendship was delivered in an explosive package of lively, invigorating party rock that encouraged the audience to dance, mosh, and live free of inhibition, even if just for 45 minutes. Denton may never get that sweaty again, but we’re already prepared to throw another party with Andrew WK ASAP (which we learned actually means “as soon as partying.”)

The Unexpected Denton Monsoon of 2016 made the start of Best Coast’s set a little rocky, but the band managed to work past the downpour and put on a killer show: lots of songs from the EP Fade Away, as well as a blend of newer tracks. Although singer Bethany Consentino appeared a little agitated, her strong vocals kept one of the weekend’s bigger crowds grooving to Best Coast’s lo-fi jams. Before diving into the last song of the night, Consentino made a plea to the Denton audience to vote in the November election—she noted that she couldn’t (and wouldn’t) tell people who to vote for, but she did advise against voting for a certain red-headed reality TV star. This suggestion was met with serious audience approval.

Following the infamous Soaktopia affair, Rae Sremmurd’s set bounced everyone right back into festival mode and served as the perfect send-off for the festival’s main acts. Sporting bass-heavy production with cavernous, echoing synth-leads, Rae Sremmurd’s irrepressible brand of hip hop set the night ablaze with a robust fury, forcing everyone off their feet and into the fray. Beginning with an unapologetic and well-received request to chant “Fuck Donald Trump,” the set sparked an awesome wave of exuberant celebration that forced out the last of everyone’s wavering weekend energy. Smoke clouds billowed wistfully above every bouncing head as Swae Lee and Slim Jimmy haphazardly danced around stage, bringing a vibrant, triumphant end to the festivities of the weekend.

A small-town festival like Oaktopia brings out the joyous, effervescent nature in all of us and negates the nagging negativity found in the routine and mundane. It’s a time for taking care of oneself in a self-healing sense—a time to remember that the callous elements of life are frivolous and fleeting, and that art is always there as a medium for escape and catharsis. From Andrew WK reminding us to “always find a reason to party” and to “never stray far from joy,” to O.T. Genasis asking the crowd to “make some noise if you love yourself,” it became abundantly clear this weekend that the themes of irradiating positivity and wholesome togetherness were ubiquitous. Each sweat-drenched body and smiling face became reassuring symbols, reinforcing these notions and making all of us feel at home in this lovely, little town.

Until next time, Oaktopia. Thanks for all the memories, the sweat, the beer, and the joy. We can't wait for Oaktopia 2017.

Thursday Photos. For high-res images, please visit our Flickr album.

Friday Photos. For high-res images, please visit our Flickr album.

Saturday Photos. For high-res images, please visit our Flickr album.

Header image photo design by Kristen Watson.
Photos from Kristen Watson, Emily Cline, Mateo Granados, and Brittany Keeton.

Video Dir by Brittany Keeton, Shot & Edited by Joseph Medina & Hayden Zaiser