by Neal Rahman & Daniel Kaufman
The recent game of one-upmanship between HARD and Insomniac resulted in a HARD Summer this year that was bigger than in years before, expanding its audience to new limits and challenging cynical observers who declare that festival season is over. Its line-up, a weaponized concoction blending some of music's biggest risers and elders across genres, really had something for everyone.
At the same time, issues with sound and transportation along with two unfortunate deaths put a damper on the whole affair. To those who have attended HARD religiously in the years prior, you could feel a transformational shift stretching over the Fairplex: it was notably different from other years. Different isn't necessarily worse, but it feels like HARD is turning the page to the next chapter of its festivals. Join us for our in-depth retrospective as we take you back to these two special days.
We planned to open the day with OVERWERK and Daktyl, but by the time we arrived in Pomona, Daktyl's set was wrapping up. It was a scorcher at the Fairplex 2 PM Saturday, pushing everyone towards the indoors stages as we joined them to see Mija at the 7UP Green stage. This has been Mija's year, and she came to HARD Summer fully prepared for a set that was trappy and chill but still filled with energy, closing out a perfect opening for Alesia with the Diplo, CL & Riff Raff tune "Doctor Pepper". Alesiaenjoyed MCing during their set and did a great job setting a house mood in a follow-up to their Day of the Dead set last year.
After Alesia, we spent a few minutes at Sweater Beats, who premiered a huge remix with Hoodboi of Galantis's "Runaway", before heading over to the Pink Stage for an exciting combination: Kevin Saunderson, followed by Shiba San. I love these little moments like this that HARD puts on: it felt like a stalwart legend passing the torch to an upcoming star. Kevin Saunderson played out classics for sure, but he was unafraid to make bold choices, taking unexpected turns in his mix, and contrasting beautifully with the modern flourishes Shiba San provided with his rumbling set.
Meanwhile, at the main stage, Tchami drew a massive crowd, opening with "After Life" and jumping into an hour of epic future house. This isn't the first time that HARD has set up a Tchami v. Shiba San conflict. One of the worst conflicts at Day of the Dead conflicts last year was at 3:45 pm on Day 2 between the same artists. That time, I picked Tchami and it was great, but this time I had to show Shiba San some love. Let's hope that HARD can give them both non-conflicting time slots next time.
Shiba San led into Giraffage, an early highlight of the festival. I didn't take much notice when he was the opening set for Porter at the Shrine (that article doesn't mention him once), but after my friends kept insisting this would be the place to be, I came along only to be entranced by his energetic and honed-in performance. His set was an eye-opener, and I'm kicking myself for not having recognized his talent when I first witnessed it. Now that he's got a growing discography to perform, I expect he'll be filling out main stages and taking on headlining slots around the country: Godspeed, Charlie Yin.
At the same time, Gorgon City was stepping up to the plate over at the HARDer Stage. A relatively medium-sized audience caught the beginning of the British act's performance but there wasn't much commotion from either the band or the audience. The concertgoers were barely tolerating the hot cement heat and Gorgon City appeared to be performing just a bit flat as the levels were low and the vocalist was just not belting it out quite enough. Then came that awkward moment when the vocalist screams for feedback yet they don't quite deserve the praise they are asking for. However, the tides quickly changed as the crowd size grew, the temperature dropped, & the vocalist put just a bit more into with some more of their soulful dance numbers such as "Here For You". To finish off the show, Gorgon City executed a rousing live performance mash-up of the two dance classics, "Gabriel" by Roy Davis Jr & the unexpected drum & bass classic "Renegade Snares" by Omnio Trio.
After the wild Giraffage set, we needed a breather, but while we were grabbing food between Giraffage and ODESZA, mountains were flocking to Schoolboy Q. Yes, that's right: the hip-hop heads have come to HARD Summer. It was strange to run into people at HARD Summer who had never heard of Porter or Dillon, but HARD's audience is known to be welcoming, unpretentious, and about the music, so it comes as no surprise that these new fans fit in just fine. Unfortunately, Schoolboy Q's set started forty minutes late, and though he opened with an apology and by assuring the people it wasn't his fault, many had already flocked onwards.
This is where the level of conflicts was starting to reach a high enough level that we started splitting our crew: some wanted to see Salva turn up the Purple Stage, others wanted to see Mercer bring his signature take on big-room vibes to the 7UP Stage, and even more were curious who the enigmatic DJ ??? at the Main Stage was (it turned out to be DJ Snake). I sauntered off by myself to Erol Alkan, who brought down the loudest bass of the festival. His set was a testament to why he needs to be on the club and festival circuit more often: too many new fans of dance music don't know his name, but should.
We all met back up for Lido, who ended up bringing one of the best sets of the whole festival. His profile has blown up over the past year — his 2 PM DJ set as Trippy Turtle at Coachella packed the Sahara in the sweltering heat — and watching him singing while playing drums live is an experience in itself. He opened with an unreleased ID, and though most of his set were already-familiar songs to his fans in the audience, that only served to support their excitement at hearing these tracks come to life in front of them as Lido eked out every ounce of emotion from his beautiful, tight compositions.
From Lido, a decision had to be made: check out a bit of Porter Robinson, or hold the fort at the front of The Chemical Brothers. Porter's been one of the year's biggest acts, and most people wanted to head over there, so once again I split off only to end up fourth row for The Chemical Brothers' big performance. Their storied, legendary discography speaks for itself: their versions of synths are not just a synth, but 'the' synth, the ones that defined the others. For such a monumental performance, it was criminally under-attended, even though it was a big crowd by the end. Their visuals were the festival's best thanks to visual superstar Adam Smith (who handles them from the stage), layering diverse, psychedelic images with physical effects and laser magic, and culminating when a pair of humongous robots came forth to step in tune with the audience.
The Chemical Brothers kicked the door wide open with the old crowd favorite "Hey Girl, Hey Boy" and kept everyone's attention as they hammered through their essential classics: "Star Guitar", "Swoon", "Setting Sun", "Believe" and a ton more. However, they really seemed to ignite the entire crowd with "Chemical Beats", their first massive underground hit from back in 1994 which they originally recorded as The Dust Brothers. Newer material from their latest album Born in the Echoes shined, but it was the classics that kept the momentum going, and their closer "Galvanize" that sealed the deal.
Everyone I went with agrees that Lido was the best of Day 1, except me: I claim The Chemical Brothers as my saviors. Dillon Francis's main stage closing set also gets rave reviews from those who were there, but Dillon's a hometown boy to LA, so we didn't make it out there.
The situation exiting the parking lot this year was totally fucked up. I'm sorry, there's no better way to describe it: there was almost no signage, very little lighting in the parking lot (except for the headlights of thousands of still cars), the lines crawled for hours, and to top it off, cell service failed everywhere.
If you were trying to take an Uber, which was heavily advertised throughout the festival as a legitimate option...God bless you, we only heard nightmare stories. Shout out to the countless who passed through the Shell at Arrow & White trying to figure shit out. HARD is usually on-point when it comes to egress, so it was a shame to end the day on a bitter note. It was so bad that we heard from plenty of people who chose to leave early on day 2 to avoid the hassle.
Read on for Day 2...
We opened Day 2 with the US festival debut of Golden Features, one of our most-highly-anticipated sets for the festival. His visionary approach to the art and sound of his craft invited people walking by to head over and stay for the entire set, and a lot of people who got to discover Golden Features for the first time were incredibly pleased. Unfortunately, HARD moved his set from 1:40 pm to 12:50 pm, a bit too early for most of those nursing themselves after a lively day 1, so the crowd was small but fascinated.
Before Peking Duk, we headed over to the Purple Stage to check out Jai Wolf only to discover they were closing the doors because they were at capacity. That's right, it was barely 2:15 PM and he had packed the stage. Speaking to a lot of the fans in the room, it seems they dragged their tired asses out of bed just to make it for his set. He brought out vocalist Mark Johns to perform "Diamonds for Breakfast", their Moving Castle collab with aoBEATS and Manila Killa. Meanwhile, Slow Magic was going off at the HARDer stage, bringing out a drum and running into the pit, jamming with the crowd. We won't be surprised if all of these early Day 2 acts get late-afternoon or even night time slots next time given their stellar performances.
The main stage crowd ballooned during Carmada and Jauz as thousands started flocking in to start their second day. It doubled in size during Carmada's set, and exploded even more than that during Jauz's set. Jauz had big shoes to fill, taking on the same HARD stage timeslot that Rudimental and Tchami conquered during their last festival bouts, and he did not miss a beat, establishing a large new fan base and making his name known through sheer force of will. Only a year ago, he recalled at one point, he was in the same GA crowd at HARD Summer looking up at the stage. It was a festival moment so special you really had to be there, but Jauz has put his set on SoundCloud for free download so you can relive it somewhat. No doubt he'll be back, hopefully for Day of the Dead this year.
Meanwhile, Bakermat brought out some sensual saxplay at the HARDer Stage, and at the 7UP Stage, where Boys Noize Records was hosting a 10th anniversary bash, Mr. Oizo was putting down an unexpected set that rode the gamuts of all genres and relied only on the Frenchman's impeccable selection and mixing to hold it together. He could've jumped from trap to trance (in fact, he did), and the whole crowd was into it. We need to see more Oizo out here in LA, that's for sure.
Around the end of Oizo, a wave of movement was sweeping the Fairplex as tons of Fetty Wap fans sprinted from the Main Stage to the Purple Stage to catch Mr. Carmack's signature style. Jimmy Edgar was stepping up to follow Mr. Oizo, and though I can't get enough of his stuff, a lot of my crew had never seen TeamSupreme (I know, right?) so we headed over to the Purple Stage to check it out. He put on a typically-great set but nothing unexpected.
From there, we ended up at the Pink Stage for Jamie xx. He's got the summer's biggest album, so we expected to be packed like canned tuna, but to our surprise there was a lot of room to sit and hang out in the back. He had a veritable set of openers before him on the Pink Stage that day, but there were too many conflicts to make it to the ones we really wanted to hit. A disco ball took center stage behind him as he sought to evoke an older, lost club atmosphere: the disco ball was more effective at FYF (mainly because the arena it was used in there is pitch-black, whereas the Pink Stage had ample light streaming in from the sides) but it still did its job creating a mood and underlining the music. Closing with a rousing "Loud Places", starry-eyed gazes moved out of the room impacted by his tearjerking set.
After Jamie xx, the best set we missed was going on at the HARDer stage: Die Antwoord. A lot of people have called it their favorite of day 2, and we are bummed about missing out, but we needed some rest, water, and grub. We walked around the whole festival and checked out Caribou, who were unbelievable but under-attended (once again, probably due to the ridiculous number of conflicts). This is the issue with Day 2's shorter run time at HARD Summer this year: it sometimes hurt acts who would have otherwise brought in a tremendous audience. When we tried to enter What So Not, we faced security instead: he had brought the Purple Stage to capacity.
Though the loss of Brodinski was disappointing (another one of our most-highly-anticipated sets, damnit visa issues), on the bright side these last minute changes had fortunately brought Boys Noize's set time earlier, so we could catch him and Jack Ü. We're so glad we could catch Boys Noize, cause he brought his very best self this day. Taking the crowd on a journey, he teased them with like Calvin Harris's little known "Wild Scenes" (from back when he was still making disco house) and destroyed the dance floor huge anthems like Barnt's "Chappell". Halfway through the set, I needed to take a breather from dancing and felt like I might pass out from the sheer height of musical energy being pumped into the 7UP Stage.
Finally, Jack Ü stepped up for a star-studded headlining set at the HARD Stage that brought out Fly Boi Kano, CL, 2 Chainz, AlunaGeorge, and even Justin Bieber. Their stage design made great use of their signature Ü logo, and its centerpiece was a TV, seemingly riffing on the corporateness of it all with its MTV-like logo graphics. Their set was high-intensity as usual and meshed the sounds of Diplo and Skrillex into a bumping set, but it was really the guests that made this one of Day 2's favorites. Overall, though, it closed the festival with a clear message: EDM is big business now, and we're going to go all out.
Top sets: The Chemical Brothers, Lido, Jauz, Boys Noize, Mr. Oizo, Jai Wolf, Jack Ü, Erol Alkan
Best stage: 7UP Stage, Day 2 (BNR 10th anniversary stage)