Like any good music fest, there were plenty of disasters and spectacles at 2017's Oaktopia Music Festival, which after four years in Denton has moved to Deep Ellum. Shows at The Bomb Factory, Canton Hall and Trees gave it a different feel than previous years. Here’s a rundown of what you missed — the headliners, the embarrassments and the surprises from Oaktopia 2017.
Producer and Chillwave forerunner Seth Haley performed an immaculate, incident-free DJ set, cloaked in purple lights. His set went smoothly, but nothing was at stake—nothing a Spotify playlist and some good headphones couldn’t have provided. Nothing organic. Halfway through the set, a photographer next to me shrugged, “I thought this was dance music.” Nobody was dancing. Throughout the show, the audience chatted, and the music fell to the background — Haley must’ve heard it.
The best Com Truise tracks make you feel like the ’80s. When he played “VHS Sex,” the crowd sparked for a moment but lost interest once people realized he was playing the whole thing. People continued to talk over the music, as if to say, “It’s fine to do a DJ set, but at least provide something new, something we haven’t heard a hundred times at home.”
With astronaut-suited dancers leaping around the stage, STRFKR shook the room awake. The band's disco-sleek electro enticed the crowd. The main area was a healthy three-quarters full, and even the frowning bartenders nodded as they popped open beer cans.
Duo Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter have come a long way since their early days in Denton. They’ve been sampled by Kanye, and they’ve collaborated with The Flaming Lips, A-Trak, Big Boi and Miley Cyrus.
From the moment they took the stage, the duo and its band glowed with a relaxed dignity. They sped from one hit to the next with an intensity that was less wild than it was professional. They played the hits, songs anyone would recognize from commercials, TV shows and soccer video games. Barthel, in a sparkling fringe-trim gown, contorted her body as she sang, violently at times —i n love with the song, each song.
Besides Azizi Gibson, whose show felt like a personal conversation, the national rappers were embarrassments. And most of the festival’s first night was full of insecure rappers who needed DJs and hype men to warm up the crowd for the first 15 minutes of a 50-minute set. Onstage, they delivered their verses like bad karaoke.
Rap is a war genre, macho and combative, and these guys couldn’t stand alone for a 50-minute set. The shows excelled when performers actually did the work instead of hollering about money and how much their newest Rolexes cost.
During the first part of the set, Casey Veggie’s DJ played tracks that shook walls — teens cheered every time the song changed and they sang, eyes closed, the way you sing when you know every word. They knew every track, every lyric. But these weren’t even Casey Veggie songs. Eventually, the Odd-Future collaborator wandered onstage, clapping and stoned.
Lil Yachty showed up 15 minutes into his set and asked, “Are ya’ll ready?” The crowd — mostly Daisy-Duked teens — loved it. But Yachty rapped over his tracks word for word, not even hiding it. He stomped around the stage with ownership and wildness, like a jockey without a horse. Behind him, a giant screen flashed with animated money like overactive clip-art. He spent more of his set asking the crowd to turn up than he did actually rapping. For those 30 minutes, Yachty had the easiest job in America.
It was like listening a mixtape on YouTube, and every 40 seconds there were ads — you had to sit through every one. Yachty never performed longer than a minute before screaming “LIL BOAT.” It was the hip-hop equivalent of waiting in line at the post office.
To be clear, I like Yachty. I like his energy, his optimism. But his set was insulting. Yachty put more energy into his postshow performance, wandering around Deep Ellum with a film crew and two bikini-clad women with dwarfism.
Cure for Paranoia
Local rappers like Cure for Paranoia and Blue, The Misfit surpassed Yachty and 21 Savage in presence, effort and skill. The Cure for Paranoia show was sparsely populated by 25 people, but everyone there got lost in the music.
The Denton-based band’s spastic freak-outs charged the club with an underground mayhem. You could feel the energy. The band members went harder than every rapper. They slammed their guitars and drumsticks around. No stunts. No self-glorification. The music was enough. And the music was all theirs. They were in control of it. Gang of Four with a cooler outlook. Pink Floyd in the sunlight. Something to give a damn about.
On Saturday, the teens were gone. The crowd was different at TOMKAT’s cathartic set. Katrina Cain’s vocals lulled the room into silence. It was TOMKAT’s second year playing Oaktopia. After the show, bassist Mike Luzecky, who’s has been with TOMKAT from the start, described the work that has gone into the band’s newest release, Icarus. “We’ve been grinding so hard on this project,” he said, “so it’s great to be here.”
Medicine Man Revival
Medicine Man Revival opened with a riotous version of Radiohead’s “Myxomatosis.” Panic coupled into beauty. D’Angelo meets Wire. The room buzzed with confidence, anxiety and provocative amusement.
Body English reveled in chaos, with the talent and the urgency of a band destined to break onto the national scene. Big drums, a voice you can feel. Vocoder swiftness. The performance felt elusive, leaving the crowd wandering. Denton legends Mike Luzecky — who also plays for TOMKAT — filled in for
the band’s usual bassist, and, alongside drummer and band-leader Joe James, the band was full of heat and rhythm." Its funk had the ardor of a Talking Heads track and the complexity of Hold On-era Eddie Kendricks.
In a grey hoodie, vocalist Yaya Lion casually sang over a counter bass line and tramping drums. Once again, the local bands were the ones who cared most, who actually wanted to be there. The Lips played a manic set full of warped riffs and sleek vocals. Haunted surf rock. Punk to the hilt. Each song dove into another, showcasing tracks from their recent EP, Blinded Pleasures, which they recorded in Eugene, Oregon.
Lion and guitarist Saulo Ramón, who are roommates, started the band six years ago.
“We’ve been so busy,” Ramon said over shots at the bar. “It’s time to take a little break over the holidays and come back with some new stuff. And our goal for next year is to tour around outside Texas more.”
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It was hard to shake the thought that Oaktopia belongs in Denton. Previous years saw vendors, art exhibits, film screenings — even skate ramps. There was a press machine where vendors made Oaktopia T-shirts right in front of you. This year, there weren’t any Oaktopia shirts, and the only vendor was a guy selling LED glasses that lit up like stringy glow-sticks.
The jaunt from Canton Hall to Trees, three intersections away, became an impediment. In photographer Mikel Galicia’s words, “It felt like we were in a game of Frogger.” The festival would’ve run smoother if all of the shows were in Bomb Factory and Canton Hall. Yet Trees often had the best environment, with its backroom warmth and small-club feel. When the Bomb Factory isn’t full, it feels like a bunker, and people stop listening.
Oaktopia 2017 was the first time I’ve seen the smaller acts outshine the headliners. The lesser-known musicians performed with a mix of wildness and sophistication. They animated crowds in a special way, sparking an energy only found at good shows. Nearly every time the band was local, it felt like watching musicians on the brink of something big, of a scene that’s about to break open.