Story and photos by Max Lowe
Lying on the grassy hill above our glowing encampment, I stared up into the midnight sky. The explosion of twinkling stars above and wonderful people around me brought my thoughts to a famous quote from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road:
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
It’s not until I’m flung to the far corners of my awareness in life that I truly feel the magic of my existence.
The earth beneath me is still warm from the day’s sun. All around, I can hear the muffled frolicking, lunacy and laughter of 13,000 festival minions. A fleet of Chinese fire lanterns float across the inky horizon, and occasional firework pops illuminate my awe. How did I get here?
This is Summer Set music festival, located outside of the quaint town of Somerset, Wisc. It’s one of many music festivals across the U.S. that draws thousands of people, young and old, rich and poor, for a common quest. Of course there’s the draw of amazing music, but the festival fever that can lure you into driving 18 hours across the Midwest (like I did) or wearing ludicrous outfits you might never be caught in otherwise stems from other motives.
The lineup at Summer Set this year was one to impress. The first day was a scorcher, heat-wise but also music-wise. After a trip to a nearby spicket and a water fight, we headed for the entrance. We took in some classic electronic beat breakdown by RJD2, Mimosa and White Panda, and then headed back to camp for hotdogs and mid-flight beer refueling, then back into the festi grounds for some bass blowout with PANTyRAID, warm breeze flow of Cloud Cult, and then onto the big guns with Big Gigantic on the main stage.
In the festival, my friends and I saw an entire array of people, from teens adorned with bright colored ribbons and toting flags, to old hippies watching the music from lawn chairs on the hillside. These were people in search of escape into a fantasy world of music, new faces and an eye opening look into their own consciousness.
The following days included highlights such as Cherub; an up-and-coming bubbly hip-hop group, MSTRKRFT; the South Beach ocean vibes of Rebelution; classic hip-hop hits from Black Star; and then face-melting finale featuring Pretty Lights.
The music takes the focus at these festivals, but the experience is so much more than just listening and looking. You can lose yourself in the crowd, dancing with a congregation of wingding madness. All around, festi poles adorned with outlandish decorations wave back and forth, each decorated to the specifications of its owner’s vision and state flag, as if you’re part of an invading army.
The festival experience if one not for the faint of heart, for it takes a great magnitude of spirit to survive three to four nights of constant stimulus, but for those than can brave it, the rewards are plentiful. Be sure to look into festivals across the country next summer if it appeals to you, be it Summer Set, Sasquatch in Washington, Coachella in California, or Spruce Moose in Big Sky.
Max Lowe is a photographer and writer born, raised and currently based in Bozeman. He recently shot a project for National Geographic in Nepal and India and will hold a photo exhibition detailing these travels on Sept. 15 at the Loft Spa in Bozeman. Check out more of his work at maxlowemedia.com.