Going HARD on Halloween weekend

Joseph Pham/HIGHLANDER
Joseph Pham/HIGHLANDER

For the second straight year, Live Nation subsidiary HARD events brought their annual Day of the Dead music festival back to the Pomona Fairplex — though this time with a much different look and feel.

After the tragic deaths of two women at last August’s HARD Summer, the brand’s flagship festival, a bevy of operational changes quickly ensued for Day of the Dead, including an increase of the age restriction from 18-and-up to 21-and-up, decreased venue capacity, hours of operation and heightened security measures. Upon walking through the entrance gates, one of the most apparent differences between this festival and others past was the lack of an outdoor main stage. Instead, all five stages were erected in buildings of various size inside the venue.

Despite the changes, the noticeably-smaller crowd efficaciously captured the Halloween spirit and arrived ready to take in all HARD had to offer, donning costumes ranging from show headliners Deadmau5 and Skrillex, to the all-too-typical Native American headdress that walks a fine line between being tributary and bastardizing a centuries-old culture.

Saturday

Entering the first warehouse leading to the mainstage titled the “Hard: Haunted Mansion, I joined a group of about 200 people who were closely huddled to see the first performer. Taking a sip from the camelback I was wearing, I began to slowly see crew members prepare the stage. One of the audience members dressed as Rick Sanchez from Rick and Morty, stayed true to his costume and scarfed down his drink right next to me as the lights began to flash down and a white “AW” appeared on the mainstage.

A small blonde girl in a white T-shirt and an upside down cross on her forehead appeared on the raised stage and television screens behind her. A short cinematic song began to play as she greeted the audience with “Let’s fucking dance,” in an Australian accent. Despite her small stature and relative distance from me on the stage, I obeyed, because I’m still pretty sure Alison Wonderland would kick my ass harder than the setlist she performed if I didn’t.

While it’s difficult to describe her music beyond trap infused with “insert genre here,” Wonderland definitely kept the audience turnt, from playing her hits such as “U Don’t Know,” before dropping the heavier songs into sped up versions of popular hits such as The Weeknd’s “Often.”

The crowd ate it up, dancing along as Wonderland seemed to keep pushing us harder the deeper she got into her set. Between sampling modern rap, house and trap hits, I kept questioning why the world chose Iggy to represent the convict island, instead of the small blonde force behind the turntables. After playing her most popular hit “I Want U,” and closing out the show, I ventured off into the next stage entitled the “Ghouls Graveyard.”

Settling into an even tinier crowd, I was quickly able to make it to the front of Djemba Djemba, known across the underground for his unique brand of drum and bass. While a little empty, the crowd was definitely dedicated to his brand of music hopping along ferociously through the DJ’s transitions as he remained relatively silent throughout the set.

While the underground artists such as Djemba Djemba drew a smaller crowd throughout the night (more about that once I get to Flying Lotus later) they definitely remain dedicated. While there were a few setbacks (in terms of the number of friends you can invite) by having a 21-plus rave, the crowd is a lot more mature and loyal.

After exiting the stage easily through the dank smell of the warehouse (Ghoul’s Graveyard, to my surprise, was the only one like this) I wandered around the Fairplex to fill up the CamelBak and take a break before I saw Future. By this point the number of people across the entire Fairplex definitely increased, tripling in the past couple of hours. Heading back to the Haunted Mansion after my break, the warehouse was now packed with a large audience waiting for the rapper from Atlanta to perform.

Future has definitely been keeping busy these past couple of years, dropping five mixtapes and one album in 2015 alone. Upon his introduction, a parody of the presidential seal with “Future” written across the borders in white and black awaited the audience.

Unfortunately the performance wasn’t as regal as I had anticipated. As Future yelled throughout most of his set through his various mixtapes to the popular hit with Drake “Jumpman,” I was sharply reminded of how difficult it is for some rappers to perform live, especially one who heavily relies on auto-tune for his career. Despite its mediocrity the aforementioned “Jumpman,” was a highlight, even without Drake.

After meeting up with my housemates who finally arrived, we went to the Underground stage where Armand Van Helden became the man of the rave. Having a career that goes back to the early 1990’s, the audience ripped up the dance floor as his mixture of funk and acid house kept us going the entire time. Looking back at my snapchat from the night, the phrase “Dance just fucking dance,” summed up the experience perfectly.

After Van Helden my group went off to see Nero perform, as the warehouse was now virtually packed with over a thousand bodies awaiting the trio. Taking a place among a white pyramid across the stage, the singer Alana Watson remained the only one visible throughout the entire performance as the DJs appeared through silhouettes until they revealed themselves at the end.

Filled with trippy visuals as the background and pyramid changed, the crowd remained amped as they played through most of their “Between II Worlds,” album. Opening with “Satisfy,” the band prepared the audience for their unique blend of alternative electro house blending electronic rock into the set as well. The cohesiveness of their set along with the atmosphere made Nero feel like a rock band, proving that electronic groups and DJ’s do far more than just press buttons at their turntables. Closing out with “The Thrill,” Nero definitely amped up the pressure I put on the closing act to perform well.

One of the major gripes I had with HARD was that they scheduled Flying Lotus (FlyLo), Pete Tong and Deadmau5 as finishers. While it was a difficult choice, I went with FlyLo and I’m pretty sure I reached nirvana after seeing his closing performance.

Joseph Pham/HIGHLANDER
Joseph Pham/HIGHLANDER

Decked out in his “fly” halloween mask and a Captain Murphy flight suit, FlyLo made sure that his visuals and music choices fit the Halloween horror theme. Reaching the front of a small audience of maybe 300 at most, I got closer to the middle as he played through his trippy set of experimental electronic music. Blending hip hop, jazz, ambient and chiptune music into his set, the small crowd went wild as his visuals ranging from outer space to a cartoon about a gothic tragedy, kept his mix animated.

Between playing his experimental electro jazz tracks off of “Cosmogramma” and “You’re Dead,” including popular hits such as a remix of Travis Scott’s “Antidote,” FlyLo also rapped as Captain Murphy during the latter half of the set. Going through songs such as “The Killing Joke” and “Children of the Atom” as Captain Murphy, the loyal audience was greeted with a diverse and all around stunning performance as FlyLo closed out the show with about 50 people remaining for an encore.

In retrospect, I was honestly glad that the cruel HARD event planners chose to schedule Deadmau5 and FlyLo at the same time. The crowd that stuck with FlyLo was a lot of fun and really brought out the most in the performance, it didn’t matter if we were all strangers at the beginning of the night, because at the end we each had changed from this experience. Also, I’m pretty glad I didn’t have to wait through 10 minutes of a blue screen of death once the power blew out at Deadmau5.

While the more mainstream performers such as Nero were a lot of fun to see, the more underground artists were able to use the small crowds to their advantage. Being relatively new to electronic music, I was surprised about the amount of energy FlyLo was able to gather from a relatively small group of people, and I remained relatively unaware of how many people were actually inside the warehouse until the end. The amount of cheers, shouts and dancing out of the 50 people remaining could’ve filled up a stadium.

Sunday

Sunday’s action built upon the precedent of high energy, adventure and musical variety set by the day one crowd and performers. With performances by dubstep king Skrillex, hip-hop star A$AP Ferg and dark techno visionary Gesaffelstein on the docket, a tapering-off of Saturday’s intensity was never a part of the equation.

Chad Greathouse, a 22-year-old college graduate from Palm Springs, was quick to dismiss any concerns about fatigue stemming from partying for a second straight day.

“Are you kidding me? I’m more pumped today than I was yesterday!” Greathouse interjected as he quickly sprinted to keep up with his posse of various other 20-something festival-goers.

Cameo appearances are some of the most anticipated and buzz-creating aspects of any music festival, and HARD Day of the Dead had no trouble generating its fair share of surprise guests. One of the first acts on the bill, trap artist Troyboi, threw a curveball with his guests, sharing the stage with dance crew Kinjaz, best known as the runner-ups on the most recent season of MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew.” Gary Richards, the founder and CEO of HARD events who also deejays under the moniker Destructo, brought out rappers Problem and Ty Dolla Sign during his set on the main stage to perform hits such as “Like Whaaat,” “Paranoid” and “Blase” for the crowd. Another surprise guest that stole the show was none other than world-renowned producer and DJ Diplo, who joined Skrillex for the last 10 minutes of his closing set for a performance as the duo’s collaborative project, better known as Jack U.

“Ridiculous, just ridiculous,” 21-year-old Manuel Escoto feverishly said of the night’s surprise guests.

Even without the presence of a plus one, I was still able to marvel at the ability of performers such as Gesaffelstein to garner the crowd’s affection. Opening his set with the ominous, captivating sounds of “Pursuit,” the tone was immediately set for Gesaffelstein’s patrons as they were treated to an hour of groovy, bone-chilling and hard-hitting French techno.

While electronic music was the clear majority at the festival, other genres still made their presence felt loud and clear. Rapper Darold Ferguson Jr., colloquially known as ASAP Ferg, brought an unmatched intensity with his high-energy stage presence as he encouraged the crowd to “turn the fuck up” to live performances of club bangers such as “Work,” “Shabba” and “Murda Something.” Audience participation was a highlight of Ferg’s 45-minute set, as the crowd continually belted out the lyrics to the aforementioned tracks with ease, sometimes even drowning out Ferg himself on the sound system.

At 11 o’clock sharp, the stages across the venue transitioned from a lively cornucopia of sensory-overloading visuals and sounds to a blank slate of nothingness. As crowds filed out of the gates for the last time, the success of the event can be best encapsulated by a recurring quote overheard in a number of various side conversations:

“When’s the next HARD event?”

Joseph Pham/HIGHLANDER
Joseph Pham/HIGHLANDER
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