Chaotic Crowd Management, Standout Performances at Portola Festival Debut

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Caroline Polachek performs at Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )

This story was updated to include a statement from Portola Festival organizers. 

The inaugural Portola Festival promised an exciting weekend of sought-after electronic music acts, including The Chemical Brothers, Flume, M.I.A. and Kaytranada. But when it opened on Sept. 24, things quickly turned hectic. Bottles and cans littered the ground at San Francisco’s Pier 80, and the sounds of them being crushed and kicked became synonymous with the rush of crowds. Fans waited restlessly outside the Warehouse Stage, and at one point on Saturday, they flooded security, climbing up banisters and rushing through lines to catch popular acts inside.

The many issues led to discontentment with festival organizers Goldenvoice (the same company that puts on Coachella), with fans drawing attention to safety concerns. And Bay Area residents as far away as Alameda took to social media to complain about noise pollution—one person emailed KQED to share that the bass rattled her windows across the San Francisco Bay.

Although social media users compared Portola to the deadly Astroworld Festival, which killed 10 people in Houston in 2021, the San Francisco Police Department told KQED that there were no arrests or reports of injuries due to rushing crowds, and that officers assisted with medical and traffic issues. “We are aware of complaints related to the music, which we will be addressing with the event coordinator,” a public information officer wrote via email.

“There was a minimal, isolated issue with a festival stage entrance on Saturday,” Portola organizers wrote in a statement. “This occurred within the confines of the grounds and was quickly addressed and corrected. There were no injuries reported to Medical as a result of this issue. The festival continued for another six hours on day one and the entirety of day two without incident.”

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Despite the unease on day one, the crowd control improved on Sunday, and Portola still delivered some solid performances. While sound and safety could have definitely used some improvement, the stages were full of energy and invited people to rave and dance at a time when solitude has become the norm. Here are some highlights.

The crowd at Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )

Caroline Polachek Blends Electronic Sound with Angelic Vocals

Listening to Caroline Polachek’s maximalist pop feels like walking into a lush garden suspended in space. She contrasts the gentle progression of electronic beats with echoes of choral singing, like voices falling down a well. When she opened her set with “Pang,” she grandly swept her arms up as she sang, creating an atmosphere of dreamy vocalizations and harmonies. The performance embodied what falling in love feels like: “Into me / Pang, and then I go / Into you” and “Tell me what you’re afraid of / Tell me what night is made of / What can I not destroy for you?”

Caroline Polachek performs at Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )
Caroline Polachek performs at Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )

Polachek’s high notes and improvisations at the end of the song jolted the crowd as they danced and shouted along encouragingly with every vocal run. Later in her set, she performed “Bunny is a Rider,” a sensual shift from “Pang” that features a hypnotizing, recurring whistle and harder percussion. Slipping into a sexier energy, Polachek dropped to the floor and swayed her hips as festivalgoers yelled “Fuck it up!” while mirroring her moves.

Charli XCX performs at Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )

Charli XCX Proves She is the Queen of Hyperpop

Well before even reaching the festival venue, attendees were vibrating with excitement for Charli XCX’s performance on Saturday evening. Standing shoulder to shoulder inside a packed bus en route to Pier 80, a group of girls giggled in delight after learning that they all loved the English singer. “She’s for the girls and the gays,” one said, laughing.

The Warehouse Stage was completely full by the time Charli stepped out, and fans even jumped over barricades to get a spot. They met her with roaring cheers. Eager to match their energy, she called out to the crowd: “Let me see your fucking hands!”

Charli XCX performs at Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )

The stage was drenched in a palette of psychedelic bubblegum as she strutted and sashayed from corner to corner. The Warehouse soon transformed into an electronic, techno pop club where people danced and jumped, running their hands over their bodies as they channeled the various moods Charli created—namely, lovesick bad girl.

Channel Tres performs at Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )

Channel Tres is the ‘Controller’

In the darkness of the Warehouse Stage, Channel Tres arrived in a glittery silver robe, sauntering across the stage with the regality of a king. Ushered in by an entourage of dancers, he quietly regarded the audience as they erupted in cheers and applause.

Throughout his nearly hour-long performance, the Compton artist performed elaborate choreography, not missing a beat as he swayed his hips and rolled his body in unison with his dancers. His distinctly calm baritone voice remained stable as he grooved—singing and rapping with an effortlessness that contradicted the rigorousness of his movements.

Channel Tres performs at Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )
Channel Tres performs at Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )

He performed a number of older hits including “Black Moses” and “Sexy Black Timberlake,” as well as newer singles like “No Limit” and “fuego,” illustrating his penchant for blending techno and house sensibilities with rap, funk and soul. As he muses in “Black Moses,” “Try to tell me this ain’t Black music / Well it ain’t, it’s Black precision / And I’m precise as they can be, yeah.”

With lyrics that ooze with sexuality and confidence, Channel Tres elevated the meaning of his music with a stage presence that is arresting and inviting, sensual and self-assured.

The crowd at Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )
Peggy Gou performs at Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )

The Euphoria of Peggy Gou

Before Berlin-based, South Korean DJ Peggy Gou even entered the DJ booth, festivalgoers were chanting her name. Eager eyes roamed around, searching restlessly for the esteemed producer.

When Gou entered, she wordlessly began playing an intense set of hard techno beats as lights flashed, enveloping the room in hues of deep red and green. Friends passed blunts and exchanged kisses, a couple nuzzled and lone attendants closed their eyes, moving their bodies to an ever-evolving beat while packed close against strangers.

Peggy Gou performs at Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )

Chants for Gou returned as she began to play her 2019 single “Starry Night,” a track that blends Korean and English, and stirs a feeling of nostalgia for summer nights spent running through empty, balmy streets. During her hour-long set, time stood still. The air was sweet with a feeling of ease and liberation. In this hour, Gou transmitted joy throughout the room—and it was unbridled and all consuming.

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Nastia Voynovskaya contributed reporting to this story.

The crowd at Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )
Toro y Moi performs at Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )
Toro y Moi performs at Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )
The crowd at Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )
SG Lewis performs at Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )
The Chemical Brothers headline Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )
The crowd at Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )
James Blake performs at Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )
James Blake performs at Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )
DJ Shadow performs at Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )
DJ Shadow performs at Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )
Jungle performs at Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )
Flume headlines Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )
Flume headlines Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )
Flume headlines Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )
Jungle performs at Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )
Jungle performs at Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )
The crowd at Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )
The crowd at Portola Music Festival in San Francisco on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (Estefany Gonzalez )