Wednesday, September 01, 2004

wemf destiny

A Look Inside the 10th Annual World Electronic Music Festival in Ontario, Canada ~ Story & Photos by bPositive

What’s the furthest away you’ve ever been to hear your electronic dance music of choice? For some, maybe your local club is as far as you are prepared to go. For others, far-flung cities beckon. I know some who have even gone to Europe. There is only one event that I know of on the North American continent that offers a chance to experience a real, European-style rave festival. It’s the closest thing to Woodstock for our generation.

That festival is the World Electronic Music Festival, more commonly referred to as WEMF. Taking place every year in Ontario, Canada, this year’s edition was celebrating the event’s 10th installment.

My brother and I have attended this festival in two previous years. It is billed as the largest rave camping/festival event in North America, though with this year’s attendance closer to 5,000 it is better appreciated for it’s similarity to European festivals with multiple days of event and a chance to camp and connect with fellow music lovers from far away places.

With such a long history and a reputation for bringing in huge lineups of world-class talent, WEMF draws people from as far away as California and British Columbia on the West Coast, including a traditionally sizable group from the central Midwest, especially Iowa. There are even reportedly attendees from Europe.

The promoters, Destiny productions from Toronto, organize the event and book the talent for the main stage. They then work with other area promoters to book the talent for several other stages. I often wonder why more promoters in the US don’t do the same thing. In the case of WEMF this cooperation brings welcome diversity to the lineups. Destiny leans heavily towards hard Techno and Trance, while other stages at the event usually feature Jungle and Drum-n-Bass, Hardcore and Psychedelic Trance. This year however, there was a notable absence of Psy-Trance.

For ten years, WEMF has been in the summer vacation plans of thousands of young people from across Canada and the US. Despite this, and like most raves, it has been a rare year that WEMF was a “sure thing.” Every year the promoters struggle through having to select and negotiate with multiple venues because their venues have a bad habit of dropping out at the last minute due to the “stigma” attached to raves. Somehow, every year Destiny managed to find a venue and pull it off, usually with help from increasingly sophisticated legal wrangling.

This year, however, Destiny found a venue and a town that were a bit less vulnerable to the rave horror stories perpetuated by the authorities. The venue manager called past WEMF venues and asked for references. Upon hearing that things had gone smoothly at past venues, the town of Wasaga Beach decided to take a chance on WEMF. Directions and pictures of the venue were posted on Destiny’s Web site in advance.

As far as my brother and I were concerned, the location made all the difference in our decision to attend. Wasaga Beach is located on Georgian bay, an offshoot of Lake Huron, one of the Great Lakes, and is about the same geographic latitude as central Michigan or Minnesota. We had visited that area for a previous WEMF at Sauble Beach, and had been impressed with the area’s unspoiled natural environment, beautiful, crystal clear water and white sand beaches. It seemed like the Bahamas of the North. Swimming all day at Sauble beach had made that WEMF one of the most enjoyable vacations we had ever taken. Now, here was our chance to see that beautiful part of North America again, coupled with the opportunity to hear some of the best DJs in the world at the same time. My brother and I instantly knew we wanted to go.

With a day and night in Toronto under our belts, we started our WEMF journey refreshed from a good night’s sleep and with some of Toronto’s best Thai food in our tummies. As we left town at 3:00 pm to head North, we were surprised at the traffic jams that already seemed to be everywhere.

It was fun trying to guess which of the other cars in the traffic jam were also headed to WEMF. The forums on the WEMF Web site were full of posts from people all over the US and Canada organizing group camps and making plans to meet up. So, I knew there were bound to be other fellow travelers heading up there with us. Many cars had WEMF flyers in their windows or WEMF painted large on the car or car windows. It is clear that WEMF is a phenomenon that transcends the underground dance scene and national borders!

We arrived at WEMF well before dark on a beautiful, though brisk, Friday afternoon. The venue was a county fairgrounds with the camping located in the large grass fields usually used for parking. The ground was flat and the grass lush and well-mowed, perfect for camping. Once we parked the car it was time to break out the long pants and sweatshirts. We arrived during a lull when the wait to get in the main gate was only about 20 minutes. A far cry from the six hours it took to get in the event the last time we went to WEMF! By 6:00 pm on Friday, the huge camping area was already 2/3 full.

Our neighbors on both sides were from Toronto and turned out to be very nice. We later ended up hanging out with one group of them quite a bit on Saturday. One of the great things about camping parties is all the new people you meet and new friends you make.

We used the downtime before the music started to make a huge banner that we hung on the side of our Jeep letting people know we were from Ohio and Kansas City in case any fellow Midwesterners happened by and wanted to say ‘Hi!’ A serendipitous trip to one of the fabric stores in Toronto’s Chinatown had yielded the piece of day-glo green parachute material that we used as the background.

One of the best features of past WEMFs was the main stage set up. Imagine a football-field-sized field complete with the most amazing surround sound courtesy of huge, concert-sized stacks of speakers in all four corners. There is nothing like dancing outside in the clean, night air surrounded by rich full sound and 2,000 fellow dancers. You don’t get overheated even after dancing full-on for hours, which is easy to do with the likes of John the Dentist and Chris Liberator giving your ear drums a beating. The moon and stars above lend a primitive quality to the celebrations. The high quality sound system doesn’t hurt either, as it wraps you in hard trance and techno for hours. I wish everyone could experience the amazing sense of unity that comes from dancing outdoors with a whole field full of people all moving in unison to some wicked trance or techno. My brother and I were really looking forward to another weekend of dancing under the stars to Destiny’s unrivaled sound system and world class DJs.

Well, that part of our dream was not to be. As we headed up to the party, it became clear that most of the music was going to be indoors this time. We were very disappointed! But we are troopers and decided to make the best of it. The venue was beautiful, the weather perfect and after all, there was some fabulous music slated for the weekend.

The first DJ on our night’s agenda was Jelo, one of the best DJs to come out of Canada in recent years. We had been privileged to hear his set last New Year’s Eve in Toronto, and I expected his set to be one of my favorites of the weekend. Jelo did not disappoint us. When we walked into the main dance area, the whole room was dancing. This man was playing some straight up crazy tech house that had some incredible funk and energy behind it. I peeled off my 5 layers of shirts and sweatshirts and proceeded to get down with a vengeance. We don’t often hear this style of tech house in the US, and the music was really grabbing me. Imagine my surprise when after 30 minutes, I saw another DJ step up to the decks. As often happens, it turns out Jelo had to go on early. We only got about 30 minutes of Maestro Jelo, but it was enough to get our weekend started right. The remaining music that night was going to be a lot harder and darker. So, it was good to have a warm-up to something more funky and housey.

We took a break during the Lou Cypher project to refill our beverages with some vodka tonics mixed up back at the camp (one of the advantages of a venue that allowed alcohol as long as it is in plastic bottles).

We did not pace ourselves very well though. The building that housed the main stage was heating up and security guards weren’t very accommodating about opening the doors for some ventilation. Nevertheless, we found a place near one door where the security guard was more humane and the cool night air was flooding in and keeping it bearable in the area.

Chris Liberator came on around midnight, and that was it. We were putty in his hands and he worked it for all he was worth. Starting out with some really funky hard techno, I got the feeling that Chris had sized up the heat situation and the need to bridge into his harder, more minimal material. Though I have seen Chris Liberator numerous times thanks to a Kansas City promoter who also loves his music, I was, once again, impressed with Chris’s dance floor control skills and his versatility as a DJ. One minute he was getting all funky, down and dirty, and the next thing I knew, he had built up his set to a fever pitch and was cranking out the hard acid techno with a passion. The dance floor was going absolutely off its head. Chris controlled our energy like a master.

Acid techno has been around for a while, but Chris is proof that this genre is not stagnating like Breaks had several years ago. Many of his tracks clearly featured the distinctive “acid” sound, but they were all so fresh and cutting edge. He really expanded my mind and showed me there are no limits to where music can take the mind and body.

Madame Zu from the UK took things back to a more hard trance tip. Her set and that of Scot Project from Germany were kind of a blur for me. The heat and the two-plus hours of acid techno ass-whippin’ from Chris Liberator were taking a toll. We had to go outside to cool off for a while.

I was disappointed that the heat had not been anticipated by the promoters and that no better solution to the situation was forthcoming. To make matters worse, due to noise complaints from the town, the doors in the main venue were closed more often than open the rest of the night. The only thing that saved it was the clean, well-lit bathrooms with ice-cold running water where you could go to cool off and put back all the moisture you were sweating out.

We made it back inside in time to hear D:Fuse. With our glasses all fogged up and several bottles of water in our back pack to stave off dehydration, we again hit the dance floor. D:Fuse’s characteristic cowboy hat was bobbing above the crowd and he was playing a harder-edged set than I had heard him play before. We were ready for some slightly slower beats per minute, however, so we danced for a while and then headed outside to cool off and wind down.

There were almost more people outside the main stage building than in it. We sat down and talked with a few interesting looking people and found out about a live House music band that would be playing in one of the vendor’s booths the next day.

The walk to the camp site was a little nippy! We both had our hoods pulled up and gloves on. But, it was good sleeping weather, so we called it a night and crawled into our sleeping bags for dreams fueled by the pumping bass that was vibrating through the ground.

The next morning dawned clear and sunny. Fortunately, it was cool enough to sleep until 10:00 or 11:00 am. After that it was up to the front of the venue for a bathing suit “shower” under some ice cold running water. We thought about going to the beach with many others, but were deterred by the three-hour wait for the shuttle bus.

That was okay. We spent the afternoon walking around the campgrounds and hanging out with our new neighbors. The sheer number of tents and people was mind-boggling. Many camp sites featured banners or other signs of advance planning and organization. The award for doing WEMF in style went to the group from Toronto who were lounging in a large above-ground swimming pool complete with inflatable palm trees.

All afternoon more people were arriving. Soon there were no pieces of grass larger than 3’x3’ left uncovered by tents. We spent a pleasant couple of hours dancing to the House band which played at the Play de Record booth during the mid afternoon. I think the group’s name was Contact. They played a cross between electronic dance music and Indie Jam Band music, such as Phish.

A nap and some dinner put us in the right frame of mind for night number two of WEMF madness. We weren’t quick enough to catch Deko-ze’s set, but OS/2 (Destiny) and Dr. Trance from Toronto played a truly captivating set they called “10 Years of WEMF.” Some people might have turned this into two hours of tired, played-out trance anthems, but not these two. They really dug deep into their crates and produced a fresh trip through music that many may not have heard before.

Dave the Drummer delivered another hard techno ass-whipping on par with that of Chris Liberator’s the night before. And, Lab 4 from the UK was taking the stage for their live tech-trance PA. Meanwhile, the heat in the main room had stolen the show for me. We thought Friday night’s heat had been bad enough, but by 9:30 pm on Saturday it was already hotter and more humid inside that venue than at the peak of Friday night.

Johan Gielen from Holland was on by this time and his set was so good our adrenaline really got pumping. They must have been short of security guards because we discovered one of the doors near us was unguarded. In an act of civil disobedience, we propped open some doors near us and set up shop near them so we could dance. Things were looking up for about 30 minutes, and then a security guard we grew to call “The Door Nazi” showed up to police our open door. She could see all of us sweating like in a sauna and could feel the clouds of hot, steamy air rolling out into the cool night air, yet she set her jaw and refused to even leave one of the doors open.

So my brother and I spent the rest of Johan’s slammin’ trance set and a live set by an American group called Motorcycle sitting down. Even sitting down, the heat made me feel sick, so that part of the night is a bit of a haze. But, my brother was really digging Motorcycle’s music. Their lead singer was a cute girl with a fabulous voice.

We were drinking water like liquid gold just to keep from being overcome by the heat. Fortunately, there was cool water near at hand in the building’s bathrooms. The dance floor was pretty low on energy. The few people who were dancing could only last a short time and then they had to go outside to cool off. We didn’t want to miss any of Johan’s set so we stuck it out.

Just when I thought the heat couldn’t get any worse. Someone walking by told us the men’s bathroom was closed. When I went to look, sure enough, so was the women’s. No more nice, cool water close at hand.

It couldn’t have been more than 30 minutes later when a group of paramedics came rushing past us and a few minutes later a second group came in a few minutes later with a stretcher. “Uh oh,” I thought “I didn’t want to be right about the heat that bad!”

We never heard what happened, but - thank the Lord – someone got some sense and all of a sudden all the doors were thrown wide and the cool night air came rushing in. We were all too tired to let out a unified whoop of joy. But, John “OO” Fleming from the UK, who had just started his set, must have felt the change in the temperature as well as the crowd’s energy level, and he gradually started revving it up to the red line.

John “OO” Fleming’s set turned out to be the highlight of the weekend for me. A WEMF fixture, John has played at every WEMF I have attended and his set is always one of our favorites. This year, he plainly out did even himself, and served up everything from what I would call some funky hard techno to technoey trance. No cheesy anthems here. His tracks were all about putting the four-four and our feet on the floor. It’s amazing what one’s body can do when the music really strikes a chord (and when the temperature is finally more comfortable for dancing). I went from sitting down with my eyes closed to full-on dancing in a matter of minutes. This was one DJ that deserved every second of his two-hour set, and then some.

Another WEMF was drawing to a close. Our sleeping bags sure felt good after kicking it hard for two hours to John “OO.” After getting some good sleep, we peeped out of the tent to view the aftermath. The sun was shining with enough intensity to make up for the past two cool days. Many people were already packed up. Periodic piles of trash indicated camp sites vacated by the socially irresponsible. Hundreds of people were wandering around in various states of awakeness, their rumpled hair and clothes the great equalizer.

We packed up quickly and headed to the beach for the coup de grace of the weekend: a swim in beautiful Lake Huron. We didn’t have enough time to track down any of the lesser known stretches of beach, but the public beach was a gem of it’s own. The white sand glittered in the hot sun. The clean water was nearly transparent and beckoned despite the cool breeze.

I waded out for at least 500 feet in the shallow water with the soft sand squishing between my toes before getting deep enough to get soaked from head to toe. The water was brisk, but refreshing. Body surfing on the little waves gave me an excuse to linger. A couple naps on the beach augmented our abbreviated sleep from the previous night. Two hours on Wasaga Beach did more for my tan than hours laying out and suffering in the heat in Kansas City.

While we were peacefully napping and enjoying the sun, we suddenly heard the sound of fife and drums about 200 feet away. Out of the woods near the beach came marching a troop of men attired in the military uniforms of the British army of the 19th century. It turns out a group has chosen the park next to the beach for a re-enactment of a famous historical battle between the Americans and British in 1812.

After the battle was over, and with one more dunk in the lake under our belts, we drove back to the States via the back roads. A flaming red sunset was a fitting farewell from the Great White North as hard techno and trance music echoed in our minds’ ears.

I was left to ponder the trade offs that our dance culture must make to hear our music in settings like Wasaga Beach, and marvel at the insatiable desire for creatures of our species to gather together with music as a catalyst.

For more information about the WEMF, check out their web site at WEMF.com, or Destiny's web site at DamnDJs.com.

For additional information about DJ Jelo, look here and to read more about 00, check his site here.

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