Emerald Cup 2019 Photo Recap

Con Brio at the Sunshine Stage. Photo by Kristina Islas.

Winter festivals are SO NECESSARY!

I started going to music festivals in 2012. I dipped my toes in Outside Lands and the now-retired (sniff) Treasure Island Music Festival. Then I graduated to camping festivals – think Northern Nights, Lightning In A Bottle, Guitarfish, or Enchanted Forest.

One thing none of these California festivals do is dare to put on a show in these deep dark Winter months. The weather is fickle. Rain is likely. Ticketholders aren’t likely to brave the elements. No one would feel all that psyched to camp next to any of the beautiful California lakes and rivers these festivals are stationed on, only to find that the water’s way too cold in December to swim. It would certainly make the River Stage at Northern Nights a whole different experience.

So for outdoor festival-goers in CA, Winter is a huge bummer. With the exception of the quirkier invite-only events hidden in forests, there’s nothing major to attend. We’re left dreaming of dancing under laser-lit trees next year. We sulk in the back of black-box venues thinking “man, this DJ would be so much better without all these drunk city bros here.”

Enter Emerald Cup, which has stubbornly clung to its unique slot in the quiet December days just before the holidays for 16 years now. And no, it’s not a destination festival in Spain. It’s right in the heart of Northern California at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, and it features three main stages, one of which is co-presented by the Northern Nights organizers themselves.

Khushi performing at the Redwood Stage, presented by Northern Nights. Photo by Kristina Islas.

Emerald Cup bills itself as “the longest-running cannabis contest, celebration & farmer’s market in the world.” That makes it sound like a weed convention with some fruit for sale, a cross between Saturday at the Embarcadero and an expo at Cow Palace. But its slogan is out of date. This is a full-blown music festival, minus the enormous crowds, remote location, and camping. This year’s 16th anniversary featured EDM acts and rock groups that have headlined much bigger festivals; exhibits from some of the west coast’s most beloved psychedelic artists; not to mention food, food, food. I dare you to name a vendor from Northern Nights that wasn’t present here as well. And every stage had a cocktail bar nearby that featured hot spiked ciders, Irish coffees, and cocoa with shots of Baileys (nice touch).

Wine country is never very warm in the Winter. This year is exceptionally chilly – I think it sank into the low 40s by 4:00pm each day of the fest. The fairground grass was wet with mud puddles from heavy December rains. Clouds rolled across the sky all day long. But the sun still came out. And the organizers of EC put on a party that flew in the face of this thoroughly unromantic weather. Using the eccentric zig-zag of various-sized buildings and fields that populate the fairgrounds, they hacked together an event that was hybrid indoors/outdoors. The larger aircraft-hangar-sized structures were utilized to showcase weed vendors, the air rich with the smoke of high-end cannabis for sale. Makeshift pop-up gardens between the buildings showcased sustainable and responsible growers. The roads and parking lots between stages were loaded up with craft beer bars under tents. One field that looked like it was normally used for dog shows and horse rides had a DJ spinning deep bass house to the rhythm of shifting LED lights, while fire spinners danced along animal tracks.

Ambient, chill vibes from Emancipator on the Sunshine Stage. Photo by Kristina Islas.

For a sun worshipper like myself, this was one of the oddest, darkest festivals I’ve been to. I loved every minute of it. The mood was stubborn fuck-Winter jubilance, mixed with the inevitable mellowness of an audience high on premium-quality THC. The average age of the crowd was incalculable – somewhere between 23 and…Willie Nelson? The music stages were under-attended, presumably because the festival is so heavily billed as a weed thing. Yet the acts were top-shelf. I’ve never gotten so close to some of my favorite bands and DJs before. A major highlight was the performance of the always-bumpin’, never-stop-movin’ crew from Con Brio. Ziek, frontman and clone-of-early-Michael-Jackson, sang every note in the scale and did splits on banks of monitors set up so close to the barricade that you could see the sweat beading on his face.

The Emerald Stage at 2019’s Emerald Cup. Photo by Kristina Islas.

Early evening on Sunday, multi-festival-headliner The Polish Ambassador spun his genre-defying catalog, which now spans well over 10 albums. He even brought a backup band along with his sometimes-collaborator and folk-superstar/singer Ayla Nereo, who is basically an ethereal wood nymph in sparkly gold leggings. He started his set to an audience of nobody. And while a humble group of curious stoners filed into this intimate side-stage performance, my photographer and I just danced our butts off in the front row, marveling at how the last time we saw him was behind a crowd of thousands. From far away, he looks like a golden idol of a man. But up close, he looks like your favorite friend’s dad who secretly DJs sophisticated electronic world music on Tuesdays after the PTA meeting.

The Polish Ambassador at the Sunshine Stage. Photo by Kristina Islas.

Chali 2na of Jurassic 5 fame put on another showstopper Sunday. Then he appeared on the artist’s row a couple hours later crafting a massive spray-painting of a frog in repose, chatting it up with us and other folks from the press, and taking selfies. Santigold was there as well. She headlined on Sunday to a crowd that finally decided to show up in force at the very end of the night. (Side note: why was so much of the best stuff on Sunday? The lineup seemed lopsided.) Her new wave-y electro is like Little Dragon on cocaine. It’s eccentric and unexpected and ever-changing. Unless I dreamt it, I believe her backup dancers were doing crazy-fast hip hop moves while wearing 1950s cheerleader-sweaters. Delightfully confusing.

Chali 2na at the Emerald Stage. Photo by Kristina Islas.

All in all, Emerald Cup is magic. If you’ve ever wanted to see your favorite rock and EDM acts up close and personal, or find them and talk to them after the show without paying for meet-and-greets, this is your jam. If you love marijuana, obviously, this is also your jam. You can browse and buy from a hundred different vendors. Or, you can just wait 5 seconds for someone to offer you a free joint. Ironically, I don’t smoke weed. I like the smell and the taste, but it rarely gets me all that high. But the raw passion and excitement for legal pot – from the organizers, the vendors, and the audience – was infectious. It gave the event a special, urgent spirit.

A lab-coated associate boasts “the cleanest, most potent and flavorful consumption experience” at the Puffco booth. Photo by Kristina Islas.

Thanks, EC, for saving my December. I’ll see you in 2020. Now, what the hell am I gonna do with January…

About the author

Jason is the founder of energetic electropop group Great Highway. He produces music for his and other groups, performs several times per year in the Bay Area, and he's a 2-time cancer survivor. His latest project is Moonlust, an electronic music duo with photographer & electric harpist Starla Islas.