The Grove Stage. Photo by Eyecatcher.
Northern Nights Music Festival 2022 was quintessential, unfiltered, undiluted, and 100% Northern California
On the surface, Northern Nights looks like a typical electronic music festival. Big-name acts like CloZee and Claude VonStroke lined this year’s poster. Their social media accounts are filled with pictures of 1,000 lasers shooting into the night sky. Video footage shows thousands of sweaty 20-somethings dancing in a sea of bodies. You might think it’s just the ‘other’ Lightning In A Bottle or even Coachella-lite. But it’s miles away from any of that. Not only is it my favorite festival, but it’s also the very heart and soul of Northern California, captured in a single weekend. Here are 5 reasons why.
1. It’s Huge. Massive. However, it Feels Small and Intimate
This year’s Northern Nights had something like 6 different stages, with live music going from early afternoon to sunrise. That’s a lot of DJs and bands. But somehow, it never FEELS so big. Cook’s Valley Campground, the annual site of the festival, is just a slice of river with a beach for dancing; a wide open grass field for the main stage; a grove of enormous redwoods where a secondary stage lights up; and some outlying hills and valleys full of semi-secret treasures to discover. You can walk it end to end in about 30 minutes. There are no long Coachella-esque slogs from stage to stage in the hot sun. In one afternoon, we went from a low-key immersive sound healing ceremony with about 50 people to a wild main stage psych-rock / hip hop dance party put on by the fiercely energetic Free Creatures. The walk in between was about 5 minutes, and there was comfy tree-lined shade through half of it.
Free Creatures. Photo by Eyecatcher.
Free Creatures themselves are emblematic of the vibe. Their set feels epic, but their connection to the audience is intense. You feel like part of the show. They rile you into rapping or singing along while shooting waves of intense charisma. The husband-and-wife duo that front the band are supremely charming. She sings in sultry jazzy rich tones while playing electric stand-up bass!!! He harmonizes adorably with her and provides the backbeats and rap breaks. You walk away feeling like you’re not sure what happened as if you got high even though you didn’t smoke anything. And that’s exactly how first-time visitors to NorCal tend to feel.
2. Super-Secretly Innovative and Original
The River Stage, a set built on a beach along a wide knot in the beautiful Eel River, is regularly featured in all the marketing materials. But what’s often overlooked is how original the site is as a place to see your favorite music. Other festivals like to put stages conveniently NEAR a body of water. But those stages usually face the opposite direction, and stay a healthy distance from the water’s edge. So you’re forced with a choice between swimming or dancing.
Northern Nights is one of the only festivals daring enough to plop an enormous sound system down mere feet from the edge of the water. They blast EDM straight into the river itself. So while you’re floating on tubes or splashing around, you’ve got that deep bass thrumming through you the whole time. The only thing I can compare it to is visiting Hungary a few years back and hanging out in the famous spa parties that happen late at night in the bath houses of Budapest. It’s wild, fresh, a completely different kind of experience.
The River Stage Photo by Eyecatcher.
We caught too many amazing acts at the river to mention. But a highlight was the SNBRN set, a total melting pot of disco, indie dance, retro, remixed pop, and hip hop, it was so many genres swimming together in one fluid current. He’s the only DJ I know that can pull off a house remix of Kiss Me by Sixpence None the Richer, and make it sound new and up-to-date.
3. Never Predictable
Speaking of innovative and original, a show-stealer this year was wubby, quasi-comedic, queer, deep bass DJ Wreckno. I know that’s a lot of qualifiers, but there’s no way to easily summarize this force of nature. From rapping about how Sprite tastes better at McDonald’s, to pumping out high-energy collab tracks featuring GRiZ, Wreckno’s set was unstoppable. Pole dancers, costume changes, rap-a-longs with the crowd…the energy and crowd work was relentless.
Wreckno at the Bunker Stage, Photo by Eyecatcher.
It’s worth mentioning that they did two sets: one at the river, and then, hours later, one just after the official headliner CloZee. That 2nd set was LATE, but it was super well-attended because CloZee herself, massively successful as she is, ended her set in front of 5,000 people by saying “Thanks, everyone! Now I’m headed to the Bunker Stage to see Wreckno!” (Word is, CloZee was really there too, somewhere…) It was one of the kindest handoffs I’ve ever seen from a superstar to a rising up-and-comer. And speaking of nice…
4. It’s Just So Friendly
Every act that swings through the festival, everyone who works there, and everyone who buys a ticket is just crazy nice. It’s the kind of vibe that Burners insist you can only achieve on the playa. But people from Northern California know it’s just a part of living here.
Locals who play the festival gush with graciousness and adoration for the fans. Oakland-based trumpet player and world-music-infused EDM producer Balkan Bump was there, both for a solo set and later accompanying CloZee. To mark the occasion, he brought along special mixes of his songs just for the one night (including vocal tracks mentioning Northern Nights itself). You could tell he was putting in 150%. And not just him, but also his amazing new band, including a sitar player and a flautist. They worked super hard for the crowd, and in between, shouted love letters to Northern Nights, to Humboldt County, and to everyone that came to see.
Balkan Bump at the Grove Stage, Photo by Eyecatcher.
surprise appearance at CloZee’s set, Photo by Eyecatcher.
Our own Balanced Breakfast founder and San Francisco DJ Stefan Aronsen played the main stage during the Silent Disco. In the hours leading up to his performance, we saw him shaking hands, talking up groups of strangers, and buying drinks for new friends who promised to catch his set. But if you caught him for a rare moment on his own in between socializing, you could tell he was mad nervous, and ultra excited to be part of the event, feeling privileged and blessed. He thanked every friend he saw in the front row. He created a special one-time set just like Balkan Bump, mixing old TV commercials for 90’s pop compilations in between jams. He was extra engaging and wildly funny. It was one of the most original, enthusiastic DJ sets I’ve ever seen.
DJ Stefan Aronsen, Main Stage., Photo by Eyecatcher.
5. and, it Never Stops Feeling Local
Northern Nights seems to book bigger acts every year, and after two years of being off due to the pandemic, they brought extra-big players to the stage this year in the form of David Starfire, Troyboi, Claude VonStroke, and CloZee of course. But no matter how big it gets, there’s always that familial feel to the whole thing. It’s kind of like any business: the culture starts from the top down. I was lucky enough to meet and make friends with one of the bookers and founders, a DJ who goes by Whitlock. If you run across this dude, you instantly want to grab a beer with him. He’s real, genuine, down-to-Earth, miles away from the typical music booker. He’s from Chico, now Oakland-based, loves local music, and he’s always up for a chat.
Despite being a self-described introvert, he puts on a super-energetic live show, with a focus on contemporary melodic house. He positioned himself as the perfect lead-in for a long evening of main stage acts. There was a lot of thought and care put into the set order, building to a gradual crescendo just before the first live band of the day. There was great crowd work, and there was all that graciousness and adoration for the audience I mentioned earlier. You’d never know he was a co-manager for one of the most successful festivals on the West coast.
DJ Whitlock, Photo by Eyecatcher.
So that’s Northern Nights in a nutshell. If you’ve never been, you have to go next year. Go because you like electronic music, or because you like live rock bands and hip hop. Go because you love camping under redwood trees, and on the banks of gorgeous rivers. Go to get a local, friendly vibe from everyone you meet. Or just go because you want to fall in love with Northern California, in just one weekend.
Some of the friendly faces of Northern Nights, Photo by Eyecatcher.
Claude Vonstroke • Troyboi • Clozee • Elderbrook • Two Feet Snbrn • Of The Trees • Balkan Bump • David Starfire • Equanimous • Ford. • J. Worra • Khushi Modern Biology • Orion • Smoakland Soohan • Westend • Wreckno • Akriza • Am Prs&Nd • Atzios • Anthny.jacobs • Bakr • Boiz House • C3lo • Cassidy Blaze Chocolate Sushi • Chopsjunkie • Copperton, Deejay Juan G • Deejay Theory • Derek Watts • Dials Discopill • Dj Joe-E • Dj Stefan Aronsen • Drmwvr • Dualocoded • El Cool J • Esch Frankie Di Franco & Friends • Free Creatures • Hippy Trap • Isotope • Jimmy Hits • Jsun Paul • Kayatta Kwovadus • Kyra Joseph • Lacy Redhead • Little John • Maia • Marjo Lak • Malarkey • Meduso Michael Milano • Naiad • Nem X Vvyld • Object Heavy • Papa Lu • Pruminati • Riffa • Ryan Navaroli Simon Surreal • Squidcat • Sr Themvemnt • Stan Jericho • Subsuelo • Suds • Tecni • The Middle Agent Touch • Treemeista • Tropical! Crew • Whitenoize • Whitlock • Wyram • Zack Darling • Zera • Rcml Uirticia Muiiali. A Blake Reagan • Cvltiv8r • Dmise Max Ehrman Eon75 • Felicia Gabaldon • Katie Rose Rainbowmaker Knok • Musashi Thoth • Pengoo & Marc Wagenseil • Pyramid Guy