Photos and story by: Sterling Martin
It’s almost 2017—whether or not we admit it, social media (and the press for that matter) has given almost everyone a medium and further the desire to express their voice. More and more people are recognizing that they are artists themselves in one way or another, and social media gives us a way to promote ourselves along with our art as well.
I’ll be the first to admit that’s how I started. Still yet I’ll tell you that I’m first and foremost a writer because that’s my best medium. Far too often my photography/videography isn’t on par with “professional” quality. However the age of promoting and connecting make it far too easy to have the “fake it ‘til you make it” mindset when dealing with the entertainment industry, whether you admit to being a fan or an artist or both is up to you.
For these reasons seeing an event with “Co-Create, Participate & Connect” glorified in its tagline was more than enough to spark my interest. These also seem to be a few of the reasons Zen Awakening Festival was such a success. Despite a few setbacks, this was one of the dopest festival atmospheres I’ve ever experienced.
While Friday, November 18th was the first official day of music, some had been on the grounds for almost three weeks cleaning and preparing. I heard a few say the area was actually cleaned up before the festival weekend and conditions seemed better than they were previously. A few of Zen’s priorities are not only to reduce, reuse and recycle, but further to heal, restore and rejuvenate both festival-goers as well as the Earth.
I can understand if you’re thinking, “Whoa, a music festival with a ‘hippie’ mentality. Original.” Realistically though, Zen focused on the things that SHOULD & NEED to be focused on in order to shed a more positive light on music culture—taking care of our bodies and in turn our planet—from eating healthy and using natural medicine, all the way to responsibly handling our waste collectively as a species. For the first time I understood what these transformational festivals are trying to accomplish on a larger-scale, even if I’m personally not into collecting and using things like crystals myself. The fact that more continue to pop up all over the U.S. is a promising sign.
Everything ran smooth the first part of Friday when it came to music. Various artists like Robbie Dude and Andy Bruh played late afternoon sets, greeting incoming campers with a bright, inviting vibe. With others like Illanthropy, Higher Learning and The Widdler scattered through the rest of evening, there was a lot of great music in store.
It only took a portion of Zoogma’s set for Zen Awakening to realize they had scheduled the main “Middle Earth” stage and a few others during a firm sound ordinance stating midnight was the cutoff. This news was discouraging at first for all attendees, mostly because of the initial lack of information about the disruption.
Random Rab saved the night by packing up and heading to the Heady Made Weird stage, where the later sets would be found for the rest of the weekend. Even confetti cannons were set off in the crowd, showing they weren’t scared of a bit of rescheduling. Which is exactly how Zen worked around the sound ordinance Saturday and Sunday. Although things got into tighter of a squeeze, the festival’s vibe of strictly promoting patience and positivity allowed any stress to dissipate. (Yes, what Bonnaroo preaches has validity!)
A great deal of artists like Sacral Crown and downtempo producer Nocturnal Status went unbothered with the rearranged schedule on Saturday. Artists performing on the Middle Earth Stage and later those two evenings underwent a lot more stress, having to cram everyone in before the police would shut off the music. Space Jesus and Kaminada played back-to-back sets that made final worries quickly disappear.
Immediately following was The Russ Liquid Test, who just recently launched its debut EP titled 1984. This new venture of Russ Liquid’s includes the creative force that is Andrew Block on production and guitar . Of the few times I’ve seen them perform this year, I’ve been able to hear their chemistry progress more and more. Not only is he releasing new tunes and performance dates, Liquid has also started his own studio in New Orleans called Neutral Sound Studio. It appears his hard work is going far from unnoticed based on everything he’s accomplished this year.
The Russ Liquid Test performance ran back-to-back with Michal Menert & The Pretty Fantastics, who were the headliners of the entire weekend. Menert is someone who truly lives and breathes his art. He inspires and pushes his friends and fans alike to create, which is a reason I’d like to think Zen included him at the top of the bill.
The Pretty Fantastics set not only had Russ Liquid sitting in, but Nicholas Gerlach further accompanied them on the saxophone. Their set was running a little behind due to the time crunch, however it wasn’t a problem in the end. Somehow Menert led the band through a series of encores that lasted until 12:30am, a half hour after the music was supposed to be cut off. The raw energy of the band was carried from the stage into the grounds, where each crowd seemed a great deal more satisfied than the night before.
Yheti and Levitation Jones were both also effected by the sound ordinance on Saturday, yet it didn’t stop them from throwing down their back-to-back sets either. Brian Gardner, better known by his artist name Levitation Jones, has quickly grown in the festival scene over the past few years. His work ethic and the way he interacts with his fans, along with growing skills as a musician have all played a part in Levitation Jones becoming the familiar name that it is.
“Trust me, all of our art sucks according to some rules. But all of our art is also the most unique and the most you—all you can do is make it to the best of your ability,” Gardner admitted. “I found just pushing forward and keeping in mind that there are so many people that love you and what you do is the key to success in whatever medium of art you may be creating.”
By co-creating and connecting with fellow artists, similar to the themes of Zen Awakening, Levitation Jones has gained a loyal fan-base and friends who have helped give him traction in the EDM world.
‘’However, I always have tried to make my art worth something. I never wanted people to be pumped about me because ‘he's the homie.’ I think we see a lot of mediocre music getting popular in the underground sometimes because of this factor. I am all for supporting your friend’s art, though! But use your ears and bump what you're actually feeling, not what someone told you to feel,” he suggested wisely.
While Levitation Jones is a name seen more often and higher billed on lineups, he included that he’d battled with problems as Brian Gardner that unfortunately are frequent in the music industry. “I dealt with a pretty bad addiction on spring tour, and it seriously affected my work ethic. I never go on stage intoxicated, but I was at a point where I would much rather spend my money and every second I wasn't playing getting fucked up, rather than make music,” he said.
Whether it’s kids taking Adderall to stay up longer and/or intake more alcohol, or something even worse in the eyes of the law, these problems are real—as real as the intertwining pasts of music and drug culture. I saw a few ambulances and heard rumors at Zen about a few serious, drug-related injuries, which can be expected at any live music event. These a major reasons I believe festivals should focus more on creating and fostering a healing initiative from the start like Zen Awakening. To me, it seems taking care of each other and the Earth is more important now than ever… after all, we all want to enjoy the music together for as long as we can, right?
Gardner credited Yheti and a couple of others for sticking by him through his addiction, including Yheti’s younger brother Toadface and Hyperbolic Headspace who both played sets the following day.
“They all stuck with me and kept my head on straight, especially during the recovery period … Today, I can say I'm happier than I have ever been. My music is improving drastically, and I feel in control of when and how hard I party,” he said. “I'm sure there will be downs, that's life. But I currently feel like my career in music will grow as big as I'd like it to!” With that mindset, there’s no telling where 2017 will take Levitation Jones.
Sunday was smooth sailing from start to finish, with all the major kinks finally worked out in time for the final day at Zen Awakening. Various styles of artists like Stratosphere, Toadface and Space Cadet were scattered throughout the day leading up to sunset.
Hyperbolic Headspace put on an impressive performance that evening with a great turnout. This was despite being slotted during a stacked timeslot around artists like AtYyA, Sirius Colors and Eliot Lipp. The rest of the night was wrapped up with sets from Buku and Mr. Bill (Live), whose music truly came to life in the festival setting.
Joey Laggis aka Hyperbolic Headspace had a huge crowd at the Heady Made Weird Stage, where there was even a fire pit in the middle of it where people huddled for warmth. “I was dumfounded by the amount of people that came out to the set—I don’t know how many, but there definitely was a grassy knoll full of people,” Laggis said with a laugh. “I don’t think I’ve played for that many people before.”
In just a few years Laggis has grown immensely in the EDM community. He joined Levitation Jones for a portion of his tour this past spring and is starting to show up more frequently on festivals around the South especially. The Knoxville, Tennessee native revealed that a few of his inspirations and favorite artists like The Widdler and AtYyA among others could be found on the Zen schedule.
“Seeing where I was just one year ago opening for Levitation Jones … to playing at Zen Awakening amongst a lot of really, really respectable artists is just surreal,” he included. “It’s kind of unbelievable. When I come back I get hit in the face with reality and understand what I’ve really [accomplished].”
Laggis further encouraged fellow musicians to approach creating the way they want to and the rest will follow if they’re passionate about it. The same can be said for any art form, though. You should do research and reach out to others to learn, so that your approach is as professional as possible when it comes to music and live events.
For photographers, learning to shoot with no flash and getting permission before getting on stage are just a couple of basic keys to being successful. When throwing events, research of laws in the area and health matters should be at the top of your list of things to do. With that being said, I watched only two or three live painters on Friday grow to over a dozen at the main stage throughout the weekend. Sometimes people just need to be surrounded by a lot of other motivated individuals in order to get a little inspiration themselves.
The best thing about Zen Awakening was realizing how much we’re all constantly learning. A welcoming atmosphere for even pets and children alike, paired with great music and people made the weekend unforgettable. Communication can accomplish a lot of things if we all have each other’s best interest in mind—people like you and me will be listening to music either way so we might as well make the most of our time here together. I will without a doubt be venturing back to Zen Awakening, maybe even a few days earlier next year.
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