Long lines and some highly ineffective crowd management strategies led to mayhem, chaos, and bum-rushing at Saturday’s Day 1 of the Portola Festival, overshadowing terrific performances from Flume, Charli XCX, and Fatboy Slim.
It is never a good thing when the headline news out of the first day of your inaugural new big-budget music festival is not the performances on stage, but instead some poorly mishandled crowd management incidents. But so it is for the first-ever Portola Music Festival, put on by the producers of Coachella, which had its first day marked by a few chaotic incidents Saturday, and continues Sunday at Pier 80.
@PortolaFestival @SFFDPIO @EDMIdentity @SFGate The entrances and exits to the warehouse stage were super dangerous and poorly planned. What happened?! #portola #portolafestival pic.twitter.com/KR2JNNz7Ny— Tom Consolazio (@tom_consolazio) September 25, 2022
TMZ is kind of exaggerating things in their report that describes Saturday’s Portola scene as “Mayhem at Concert” and “Shades Of Astroworld.” (Eight people died at Astroworld, this seems an inappropriate comparison.) But SFist was smack-dab in the middle of the very scene TMZ is describing, and you can see the bum-rush for yourself below.
The people in this video are not crashing the gate or trying to get into a concert for free. The people in this video are already inside the festival, having paid $200 for a single-day ticket or $300 for the weekend. They simply were not being allowed in to see one of the stages they’d paid good money to see, so they took matters into their own hands. The above video is from exactly 10 minutes before Charli XCX was scheduled to perform at the Warehouse Stage, which is indoors. This line had not moved in 20 minutes, people were chanting “Let us in! Let us in!,” and upon realizing they were unlikely to see Charli come on, people said ‘Fuck it’ and barreled their way in.
And all of this seemed unnecessary. For whatever reason, organizers chose to utilize fewer than half of the entrances to the Warehouse Stage building. As you see above, many of the entrances are shut closed with aluminum doors. That meant fewer entrances, all of which were lined with the cattle-line maze of pedestrian barriers.
A big mess inside @PortolaFestival at Pier 80. Hundreds of people jamming up to get inside the warehouse stage with no real direction/crowd control from the venue staff. Some people were getting crushed (hopefully not hurt) @KPIXtv pic.twitter.com/9ZE5fjyWCE— Sara Donchey (@SaraDonchey) September 25, 2022
But the crowds were so massive that many people did not even realize there were barriers, and there was no signage and very little direction for people to understand the Warehouse Stage's highly counterintuitive entrance structure. Chaos ensued, but it wasn’t exactly Woodstock ‘99. The crowd remained friendly and in good spirits; there was no hostility or violence, just exasperated security trying to manage an ill thought-out structure.
And as we see above, it was not even that crowded inside the warehouse stage area.
Sure, maybe they were given a capacity limit they had to mind. But this did not feel anywhere near capacity, and either way, it was clearly a miscalculation to put one of the main stages with some of the biggest acts indoors.
The mayhem described above was for Charli XCX, who was terrific on that indoor stage. But the consensus among attendees was that the sound was absolutely awful on that same stage. Charli’s attitude (and that of her electrifying background dancers) still had the audience eating out of her hand. But if you’re going Sunday night to watch Lane 8 or Ben Böhmer on that Warehouse Stage, do not bring high expectations that you will hear quality sound.
But we should note the sound was excellent at the outdoor stages, like Pier Stage. Kaytranada had crowd sing-alongs going throughout a lovely set highlighted by his remix of The Weeknd’s “Out of Time,” creating a blissful and happy scene that was a far cry from the chaos that preceded Charli XCX.
And boy did the old fogies have fun at Fatboy Slim! The sound was also very crisp and good at the Crane Tent, where Fatboy Slim took us back to those first early radio-friendly EDM hits of the late 1990s, back when we called the genre “techno” or “electronica.”
His set was not so much a collection of songs, just one raging dance set into which he sampled his own riffs and hits of “Right here/Right now” and “It's a wonderful night/Come on and break it on down.”
But Day 1 of the Portola Festival will probably be remembered more for its rookie operational mistakes than for any of the otherwise very good performances. The excuse that “This is their first time doing it” doesn’t really wash. This festival is run by Goldenvoice, who also operate Coachella, and throwing large festivals is what they do. They are not new at this.
Saturday’s cock-ups seemed more thanks to poor planning, corners possibly being cut, and perhaps attempts to operate things on the cheap. But when even the VIPs are complaining about arduously long restroom lines, that is probably not a sign that your festival iterated well.
And if people are summing up their experience at your concert using January 6 memes, that’s not a great sign either. We’ll see if the Portola Music Festival can make a quick course correction on some of these issues Sunday.
Images: Joe Kukura, SFist