Is Portola the best American electronic festival lineup of the year? The creator of the event at a show six years in the making

This weekend’s debut Portola Festival in San Francisco took six years to complete.

Launching tomorrow (September 24) at the city’s Pier 80, the two-day event was the brainchild of Danny Bell, VP Talent Buyer for AEG Presents in San Francisco, who came up with the concept after a 2016 music-fueled tour of Europe’s electronic hubs.

Bell had just left his job as a Talent Buyer for HARD Events in Los Angeles, where he had previously worked after graduating from USC. (“I graduated on a Friday and was full-time [at HARD] on a Monday,” he says.) With eight months off before starting his new gig at AEG, he wanted to go on the kind of extended Euro tour many embark on after college.

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“Luckily for me, I was 27 and I had some money in the bank. So I was actually able to enjoy myself instead of throwing it on sofas.”

He started in London, saw Four Tet and James Blake headline the city’s Field Day Festival, hit Paris and then went to Barcelona for Sonar, where he was struck by “the electronic music presented in a very grown-up way.” A plan to spend three days in Ibiza turned into a 12-day marathon with highlights including a set by legend Sven Väth. “I was wearing flip flops, shorts and a t-shirt and expected to get by in 15 minutes,” Bell recalls. “The next thing I know, it’s 6:30 in the morning.”

After a run through Berlin, Bell returned to work in San Francisco with the inspiration for what would eventually become Portola. He envisioned a festival that would present electronic music the grown-up way – a stark departure from the neon-candy raver style that was then seeing mass appeal among the kids that fueled the US EDM boom and one that is still popular in day at most mega parties. He envisioned an event that was cooler, more rock than rave, and something that focused on artists who mostly play their own music rather than banging out the same old standards.

“It’s the real thing I wanted,” says Bell, “a festival where you don’t hear songs repeated throughout the day.”

He toyed with the idea for years, even getting friends to make fake lineup posters to keep the concept top of mind. After Bell successfully launched the hip-hop and R&B-focused Day N Vegas in 2021, Goldenvoice and its parent company AEG ignited the idea he had been developing since that flip flop club night in Ibiza.

“It’s one of the things I’ve learned from [Goldenvoice CEO and Coachella Co-Founder] Paul [Tollett]how personal you can make these lineups and see how people are more interested in a festival with a personality and a concept behind it rather than just a collection of artists who on paper look like they could sell a certain amount of tickets at a certain fare.”

The result of this unique vision is easily one of the best American electronic festival lineups of the year, with the bill bringing together some of the scene’s most trusted veterans (The Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, DJ Shadow), a bunch of this generation’s best and brightest (Arca, Jamie xx, Kaytranada, James Blake, Flume, Four Tet, Caribou, Charlie XCX) and white, hot-rising acts like HAAi, Fred Again.., DJ_Dave and more.

Although it’s taken six years to make it happen, Bell says the timing for a gathering of artists like this “wouldn’t have worked a few years ago, both given the way a lot of these acts have risen to headliner status over the past few years, and how American audiences have become extremely hip to the kind of “esoteric electronic music” (as Bell calls it) played by much of the lineup.

Danny Bell

Misha Vladimirsky

So the timing is right for this festival to take place in San Francisco. Although the city has a long history as a hub for electronic music, it hasn’t had a stand-alone electronic festival within city limits since Treasure Island ended a seven-year run in 2018. (The traveling electronic festival Breakaway will make its California debut in October with an event in Oakland, while Porter Robinson’s Second Sky festival, also produced by Goldenvoice, returns to Oakland for its third year in late October.)

Portola takes place at Pier 80, a million-square-foot maritime pier owned by the Port of San Francisco. Amid ongoing supply chain issues that have affected the global shipping schedule, the facility had one weekend in 2022 available for such an event. The Portola team, a group of 27 spread between Los Angeles and San Francisco, took it. They expect 30,000 participants per day.

Portola marks a moment not only for the city as an electronic destination, but for San Francisco itself, especially amid headlines largely focused on the city’s pandemic exodus (and subsequent population return), homeless crisis, the existential dilemma of the tech boom and the extreme cost of living. Bell, a native New Yorker, offers an alternative view, citing the “new guard” moving to the city, the great restaurants, select dive bars and the general upswing in culture in the post-pandemic era.

In fact, the festival is named after San Francisco’s October 1909 Portola Parade, organized by the city to show the world that it was open for business after the devastating earthquake and subsequent fires of 1906.

As Bell sees it, this Portola has a similar function.

“I feel like the city is on the mend, and I’m betting it’s moving forward, and I really hope Portola can help be a part of that.”


amritabazar.com

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