Nocturnal Wonderland Recap: A Festival That Alice in Wonderland Would Be Proud Of

So. Much. Kandi.

Sep 8 2014, 10:25pm

Photos by Galen Oakes

You have to be a bit of a mad hatter to survive Nocturnal Wonderland—the two-day festival that holds the title of America's longest-running dance music event. For starters, getting there is a mission in itself. The San Manuel Amphitheater in Devore, California—a massive outdoor music venue nestled in the hills of Glen Helen Regional Park—is a twelve-mile drive out of downtown San Bernardino, on the same route that would take you to Vegas. The fact that tens of thousands of ravers braved this sojourn for the second year in a row speaks to the cult-like following that the festival has accrued over its 19-year history; while few were present for Nocturnal Wonderland's earliest days, when it occupied a tagged-up warehouse in East LA, the thirst for a strobe-lit weekend on the tail end of summer remains just as strong.  

For better of worse, Insomniac Events—the promoting beast behind Nocturnal Wonderland—has been slamming down the fact that you, the festivalgoers, are the real stars of the show. They even call fans "headliners" on their promotional materials and Facebook page. Whether that is because of the diminishing value of pretty much having the same top DJs play every single event, or just a community-building push for having you "do you," depends on what side of the bed you get up on in the morning. Regardless, they proved once again that they've mastered the art of making sure everyone has a really fucking good time. 

This year marked Nocturnal Wonderland's 19th anniversary, and they celebrated it in style—with an Alice in Wonderland-style demented tea party on Saturday night. Bucking the trend of large festivals banning rave attire for the sake of "safety," Nocturnal Wonderland welcomed kandi concoctions in all shapes and forms, giving revelers the freedom to deck themselves out in all kinds of stunningly creative attire. Beaded masks and pasties were the costume of choice. And say what you want about being the cool fuccboi on the block, but anyone in a full Mario Brothers Mushroom creation is an alright kid with us.

How you chose your journey through Nocturnal Wonderland was entirely up to you. While it was apparent that the lineup was lacking most of the usual EDM gods (Tiesto, Armin Van Buuren, Hardwell, Calvin Harris…) who headline dance music festivals of this scope, it still drew big name players like Mat Zo, Flux Pavilion, Bingo Players and Martin Garrix.

Zo even played double duty—throwing down a progressive house set on the main stage on Friday, peppered with hits like his 2011 chart-conquerer, "Mozart," followed by a highly-anticipated throwback trance set on Saturday night. On the other hand, Martin Garrix tried very hard to please everyone during his closing slot on Friday evening, dropping everything from Linkin Park's "Numb" to Tiesto's edit of John Legend's summer hit, "All of Me." The most cringe-worthy part of the night had to be when Garrix decided that it was actually 2007, and therefore appropriate to play Simian vs. Justice's electro track "We Are Your Friends"—forcing everyone to pretend like it wasn't the sixteen billionth time they'd jumped around to that track.

That said, there were still plenty of highlights off the main stage, too. Whether it was label mates Jaytech and Super8 & Tab bringing the trance early to the Queen's Ground stage, or rising Hospital records stars Fred V & Grafix plowing the Sunken Garden stage with drum and bass, there was hardly a bad way to navigate everything Nocturnal Wonderland had to offer. Other highlights included seeing Tritonal fist-bumping for two straight minutes (a true feat of endurance), and Amtrac dropping funky tracks in the extremely trippy Upside Down Room—whose lineup was like a retro throwback to Insomniac's early warehouse days, with everyone from Bad Boy Bill to Charles Feelgood gracing the stage.

In the end, there was no better way to celebrate the 19th birthday of Nocturnal Wonderland with this journey down a neon-lit. kandied-out rabbithole—Mad Hatter tea party and all. We can't wait to see what Insomniac kingpin Pasquale Rotella and his team have in store for the big 2-0. Although one thing's for sure: that signature owl animatronic isn't going anywhere.

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