The good, bad and very ugly of San Francisco’s Portola fest

That’s what I found myself thinking as I wandered the grounds of San Francisco’s newest major music event, the Portola Festival. Organized by Goldenvoice, the producers of Coachella, the fest had a massive footprint at Pier 80, flanked by a backdrop of gigantic ships, the bay and views of downtown.

In a Billboard interview, the event’s chief organizer, Danny Bell, mentioned that he wanted this to feel more adult than other electronic music festivals — “a hard turn from the neon kandi raver style” of events like Electric Daisy Carnival. On that level they succeeded – despite being 38 years old, I felt squarely in the target audience here. As a DJ and electronic music producer myself, the lineup was more exciting than any San Francisco festival since my arrival in the city in 2019.

The Avalanches perform on the Pier Stage at the Portola Music Festival, on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2022.

Charles Russo/SFGATE

There were bucket list bands like the Avalanches, a reunited Australian duo who released the seminal album “Since I Left You” in 2000 before disappearing for 16 years. I’ve listened to Caribou’s album “Our Love” dozens and dozens of times. I’m such a fan of German DJ Danilo Plessow (Motor City Drum Ensemble) that it took me 15 minutes to get the courage to say hello when I spotted him at El Rio in March. And pop stars like Charli XCX and up-and-comers like Fred Again were so popular people jumped over fences to see them (I didn’t make it to the stage, but did hear a remix of Frank Ocean’s “Chanel” reverberating through the warehouse walls at one point).

That’s not even mentioning legacy acts like Fatboy Slim and Chemical Brothers, who were must-sees based on historical significance alone. But was this festival worth the $200 ticket?

Kelly Lee Owens performs at the Warehouse Tent stage at the Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Sunday, Sept.  25, 2022.

Kelly Lee Owens performs at the Warehouse Tent stage at the Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022.

Adam Pardee/Special to SFGATE

Superstar DJs, here we go!

Kelly Lee Owens played a staggering set in the warehouse, proving that drum machines do indeed have a soul and that in the right hands, even the most mechanical of synthesizers can become emotional weapons. DJ Shadow, a 50-year-old Davis legend who counts as a hometown hero by association, reminded me that scratching can still be cool. Another Bay Area favorite, Toro y Moi, proved he’s worthy of headliner status with an infectious yet understated main stage performance. And Chemical Brothers’ remarkable visuals of robots hurdling over purple polygons were a strong endcap to the weekend.

Goldenvoice has not yet released attendance numbers, but the grounds were packed. Other festival organizers who relegate DJs to side stages and shy away from booking any electronic acts with smaller font sizes than Kygo should take note. There is a huge audience for this music, and if you book it they will come.

Concertgoers hang out near the Pier Stage at the Portola Music Festival, on Saturday, Sept.  25, 2022.

Concertgoers hang out near the Pier Stage at the Portola Music Festival, on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2022.

Charles Russo/SFGATE

Raw cuts

While the music delivered on its promise, what was lacking was the festival.

Pier 80 should have been an incredible place to throw a music festival. The seemingly endless stretch of concrete was a blank canvas, and compared with the many challenges of Golden Gate Park (muddy pathways, uneven ground, acres of perimeter to police) this should’ve been a cakewalk. It seems like even more of a softball when you consider that it took six years to plan and was thrown by the Coachella organizers.

Yes, this is a first-year festival, but it’s not Goldenvoice’s first rodeo. Despite the resources, Portola gave me flashbacks to DIY parking lot shows that I helped organize decades ago. Apart from some blue artificial turf, there was nothing done to the space. The backdrop could have been a playground of site-specific installations, with projections illuminating the side of a gigantic tanker ship and sky-high cranes. Aside from a hidden ABBA-themed bar, it was almost like the team responsible for decorating the space called in sick.

Caribou performs inside the Ship Tent at the Portola Music Festival, on Saturday, Sept.  25, 2022.

Caribou performs inside the Ship Tent at the Portola Music Festival, on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2022.

Charles Russo/SFGATE

All the signage was generic, giving off state fair vibes (I got a nice chuckle out of an all-caps red sign reading “NATURAL WINE”). Aside from a few picnic benches, there was almost nowhere to sit. Regardless of your opinion about the bands at Outside Lands, it feels magical to wander around Golden Gate Park as the sun sets and the urban forest becomes illuminated by purple uplights. There was no magic to be had at Portola beyond the music.

The lack of attention to detail also applies to staffing. Security was incredibly lax. I entered the festival without anyone looking in my backpack, and strolled into the VIP area without credentials (maybe they noticed the lingering glow of my $2,000 Golden Gate Club pass). Staff members guarding the warehouse stage were overwhelmed and fans climbed fences to enter a seemingly empty space. The bottleneck at the entrance meant I didn’t even bother trying to see Jamie XX.

Toro Y Moi performs at the Pier Tent stage at the Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Sunday.

Toro Y Moi performs at the Pier Tent stage at the Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Sunday.


Adam Pardee/Special to SFGATE

Ross From Friends performs inside the Ship Tent at the Portola Music Festival, on Saturday, Sept.  25, 2022.

Ross From Friends performs inside the Ship Tent at the Portola Music Festival, on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2022.


Charles Russo/SFGATE

Toro y Moi and Ross From Friends perform at Portola Festival. Credit: Charles Russo and Adam Pardee/SFGATE

To the organizers’ credit, bottles of water were passed out for free to fans in the front rows. But an off-balance ratio of alcohol to food vendors led to hourlong lines for a slice of pizza, which makes for a truly dangerous situation (and causes people to miss dinnertime headliners).

There was also zero cellphone service, and the Spartan media tent was so far removed from any stages that filing stories during the festival was almost impossible. This essentially caused a blackout of the event in both traditional and social media, so noise complaints and a viral and misleading Twitter video of crowds jumping a fence came to define the narrative of the whole festival.

Chemical Brothers perform at the Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Sunday, Sept.  25, 2022.

Chemical Brothers perform at the Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022.

Adam Pardee/Special to SFGATE

Loud places

As someone who was there for the music rather than the style (although shout-out to the very many bucket hats), I was surprised by how bothered I felt by the lackluster infrastructure. This was supposed to be a festival for me: the middle-aged electronic music fan who still has the gumption to brave crowds to see mid-afternoon acts like Ross From Friends (whose live guitar solo on “Talk To Me You’ll Understand” was a real moment).

For all the attention that went into the bookings, it just felt like the organizers didn’t care at all about how the attendees felt when they stepped away from the stages. When it comes down to value, it begs the question why this would have more expensive ticket prices than Outside Lands ($200 vs. $175). Outside Lands headliners like Disclosure were likely paid double the fee of someone like Bicep, whose immersive live show was an excellent conclusion to Saturday night. So where exactly is that money going if not into the pockets of a gigantic booking conglomerate?

For electronic music fans like myself, this felt like a once in a lifetime lineup that is rarely seen outside of Europe or Detroit. Given that Portola has been mum about a sequel next year, it very well may be a one-off, but for all my gripes, I do hope it returns next year. I’ll be there for the music — I just want more out of the experience.

Kaytranada performs on the Pier Stage at the Portola Music Festival, on Saturday, Sept.  25, 2022.

Kaytranada performs on the Pier Stage at the Portola Music Festival, on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2022.

Charles Russo/SFGATE

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