There’s mega festivals, and there’s boutique festivals. Last year, DownBeats were invited to attend Northern Nights for the first time – a three-day camping festival that takes place in Cook’s Valley Campground in Northern California. We were the official ear plug sponsors and vendors for the weekend, and after an incredible first year were asked to return in 2016. We immediately said yes, remember full well how amazing that first edition was for us.
Location, Accessibility, and Set-Up
Northern Nights takes place in July about 4 hour drive north of San Francisco right off U.S. Highway 101. It is really only accessible by car, whether you are coming from the north or south, and mostly attended by residents of California, Oregon and Washington State.
Although somewhat remote, the entire weekend takes place in the magical surrounding of the Redwoods and on the banks of the Eel River that straddles the Mendocino and Humboldt Counties. There are several types of camping available, including in a grove, by the river, under the Redwoods and designated areas for RVs. Some are available for pre-booking while others are on a first-come-first-serve basis. Northern Nights does a great job in teaming up with local companies to organize car pooling and offer cheap rates on camping accommodation services such as with Jucy.
I was thoroughly impressed, once again, by the tremendous space provided, the cleanliness of the grounds and porta-potties (cleaned at least twice a day, and often found immaculate), the diversity of food options and green initiatives pushed and encouraged by the entire festival. This year, Northern Nights also teamed up with Leafly to provide an oasis for those with a California Medical Card to enjoy, learn and spread awareness on recreational legalization.
The entire festival area is fairly spread out, this year expanding by leaps and bounds to accommodate the ever-increasing number of attendees. Regardless, it took no more than 15-20 minutes to walk anywhere during the weekend.
Officially, Northern Nights offers four stages of music an entertainment. During the afternoon most of the crowd is floating on the Eel River by the River Stage, an entire sea of inflatable rafts and and debauchery in the sun. The Main Stage activity began right after dinner and went on until 2am, located adjacent to the Redwood camping. Further up north, sat the Silent Disco stage, which went on throughout the night to allow those needing rest to get some sleep.
In the Redwoods themselves sat the Grove Stage, which housed yoga, comedy and music throughout the weekend until 2am. For the first time ever, Northern Nights saw the addition of a quasi-renegade fifth stage further up north on the banks of the Eel. Organized by The Lemon Tree, this staged was home of heavy bass and house music for the entire three days until sunset, providing an ulterior and less crowded river alternative to the aforementioned River Stage.
Sound at each stage was perfect, with only some issues experienced at The Lemon Tree renegade stage. The festival organizers clearly appreciate the importance of hearing protection, having asked us to come on board as official ear plug sponsors for the second year running.
Both years, weather was typical for Northern California during summer. Hot days up to 90 degrees but cold nights as low as 45 degrees. Naturally, festival-goers came equipped with both warm and cold weather clothing to adapt to the high variance and drop in temperatures.
Crowd and Atmosphere
Electric, eclectic and friendly, it’s impossible to not make new friends at Northern Nights. We ended up camping next to the very same people we met last year, strengthening our bond while creating new ones throughout the weekend.
Overall, the crowd is respectful yet diverse. From hippies to deep house aficionados, camp and nature fanatics to bass lovers Northern Nights is a melting pot of different tastes while at the same time seeming to draw a majority of crowd that could possibly be found at other West Coast festivals/gatherings such as Burning Man, Symbiosis and Lightning In a Bottle.
Beyond the people, however, it’s the magic of the festival’s setting that makes it one of the most beautiful festival experiences of my 12+ dance floor career. The mountains are pristine, the grandiose trees as lush as they get and the river clean – it really feels like you’re experiencing music on the set of a Planet Earth episode. It is because of these surroundings that the music almost takes secondary place – it’s practically impossible to not have a good time with this crowd and this backdrop.
Despite keeping a similar format, this year’s Northern Nights lineup differed from year’s past. Concentrating on more up-and-coming names than established artists, the festival’s talent booker put together a roster that celebrates bass music, hip-hop, trap and garage while maintaining a fairly cohesive signature sound peppered with the occasional house and deep house set.
Frankly, I was unaware of every artist performing at the River Stage except one. But when you’re spending the entirety of your time there floating on a massive raft it’s practically impossible to even see who is performing. On the Main Stage, however, highlights included Amon Tobin’s Two Fingers performance, Claptone bringing his Immortal live set-up to close out the weekend and UK garage duo Gorgon City, who put together an impressive catalogue of personal productions for the crowd to enjoy.
On the hip-hop front, Okland’s The Coup knocked it out of the ball park with a performance that had the entire crowd riled up, whereas Griz and Troyboi both separately delivered some great tracks in what were unfortunately not very cohesive sets overall. The crowd lapped it all up, although there were definite moments in Troyboi’s set where he lost the momentum built by some otherwise impressive track selection.
Experience – 4.5 out of 5
As I mentioned already, I believe most attendees decide to make the trek to Northern Nights because of the overall experience the festival provides. It’s fairly seamless to get around, the porta-potties are kept immaculately clean (every other festival should seriously take notice), the people are as nice as they get and the entire weekend is lived in one of the most magical and unique festival setting in North America if not the world.
Music – 3.75 out of 5
Truth be told, musically Northern Nights lived up to my expectations and it is entirely likely that the lineup takes second place to how much fun everyone is having. However, a case has to be made for what appears to be less top-billing acts when compared to the last few editions. To illustrate an example, 2015 hosted music by Black Star (Mos Def & Talib Kweli), Gold Panda, Shlomo, Autograf, RÜFÜS DU SOL, Lane 8, The Polish Ambassador, Justin Jay, Sweater Beats, Hotel Garuda and more, clearly a much stronger lineup than was provided this year.
Value – 5.0 out of 5
General Admission tickets (which include basic camping) began at $169 and capped at $279 with a total of five tiers. Although add-ons and other expenses do have to be taken into account, the experience is 100% worth the price for anyone driving from as far south as San Diego (I drove from Los Angeles).
Overall – 4.42 out of 5
I am a big techno and house listener, yet manage to have a fantastic time every year I attend Northern Nights. The overall experience from the entire weekend is unique, magical and one that I look forward to reliving in 2017.
Northern Nights is becoming more than just a West Coast boutique festival, elevating its status year after year as a self-sustaining, environmental-friendly experience that connects people with nature and the beauty of art.