Aurora Halal and Zara Wladawsky don’t refer to Sustain-Release, a weekend retreat with two nights of underground dance music parties that they organized, as a festival. “Festivals in general are not very good, let’s be honest,” Halal wrote via email. “I personally don’t enjoy raving in the daytime and huge crowds. It’s not something I’m influenced by or want to create.”
In fairness, what Halal and Wladawsky established in upstate New York doesn’t have much in common with the typical contemporary American music festival. Sustain-Release returned last weekend to Camp Lakota, a summer camp 2.5 hours north of New York City, for its second year with a bill of underground heavyweights and only 700 attendees. They scheduled the acts to play at night, with the exception of a planned pool party, and eliminated many of the hassles of festivals; there were no overpriced drinks, ubiquitous branding, or overbearing security. And, perhaps most notably, the 700 tickets on offer weren’t available to just anyone. This year sales were restricted to those who attended the inaugural edition in 2014 and their “guests.”
Although that sounds persnickety —the cliquish ticket policy alone could be enough to drive away someone invested in the myth of American dance music’s egalitarian roots—these meticulous measures attracted a very welcoming crowd. In fact, Sustain-Release felt like the Platonic ideal of a music festival. Stripped of all the excess, it was an impeccably curated weekend of music with first-rate sound, simple but well-designed lighting and relaxed people.
By the time the first kick drum touched down Friday, people already felt comfortable to dance however they pleased. There always seemed to be a group on the dance floor grooving their bodies in a syncopated wiggle as their hands traced patterns through the air.
And as much as Sustain-Release was the kind of heads-only event that attracts people wearing t-shirts from labels with connoisseur caché like The Trilogy Tapes or Steve Mizek’s Tasteful Nudes, there was little posturing and less patience for folded arms on the dance floor. As I tried to wrap my head around one of the more rhythmically complicated segments of Jamal Moss’s brief solo set, which followed his jam with Ital as the duo Interplanetary Prophets, a woman saddled up next to me and imitated me, nodding her head and stroking her chin cartoonishly. She laughed good-naturedly, and then got down to Moss’s jacking acid.
Still early on the first night, Moss played a pummelling warehouse set of berserk techno—but he had warned us. As Ital left the stage to allow Moss time to work the crowd solo, he demanded applause from the dancers. “Where are you going in the back?” he thundered over the microphone. “I’m about to jack you motherfuckers in the face. Don’t go away.”
Moss kept his promise, but many ignored his request, leaving to catch The Black Madonna on the Bossa Nova stage. Unsurprisingly, hers was one of the weekend’s best sets. She maintained a sweat-breaking pace through plenty of hits, including a remix of Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and New Order’s “Blue Monday,” which got most hands in the air of any song that weekend.
The daytime pool party on Saturday, like last year, was moved to the main stage due to rain, but nevertheless provided some of the weekend’s best and warmest sets. The dub crew Blazer Soundsystem laid down deep reggae vibes in the afternoon, massaging the already worn campers back into first gear with classic tracks like Mad Cobra’s “R.I.P.” An hour into their set, many had retreated for midday naps before the long evening program, and Blazer Soundsystem had gone full dancehall. But those who remained brought their full enthusiasm for what, during a weekend of techno, were niche grooves.
Beautiful Swimmers, the duo of Andrew Field-Pickering (Maxmillion Dunbar) and Ari Goldman, closed out the daytime sets by playing some of the weekend’s more dynamic selections. Tracks with synths that sounded like sunshine seemed selected for the doomed pool party, but the pair wandered through a wide-range of vibes, including Sully’s jungle-leaning Keysound Recordings release “Blue” and a string of funky bass-driven house that brought them through sunset.
The rain intensified on Saturday night, muddying the path between the two stages but not dampening the party. Though L.I.E.S.’ Terekke was the name on everyone’s lips, even if no two people seemed to say it the same way, the best sets of the evening belonged to Aurora Halal and Paula Temple. Halal immediately tapped into what the audience wanted, opening her live set with rowdy polyrhythmic kicks under a gentle, trance-inducing 303 melody that was met with a visible reaction from the wearied dancers. Her set continued to hit the right tone for those who’d come to the smaller second stage to avoid the driving beats of the main stage, where Temple played a stormer of a set. She punished dancers with techno in the 135 bpm range and Birmingham style without letting her assault become tedious over two hours. Using Ableton to lay elements of one track on top of the others, Temple kept the tension in the room for the duration of her explosive set.
At 5 a.m., she handed the stage to Berghain resident Anthony Parasole, who played a no-nonsense techno set to satisfy those with any rave left in them. After the sun rose, he softened and surprised, playing Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” after most campers had returned to their sleeping bags to catch a brief sleep before packing up and heading out in the afternoon.
In an increasingly bloated festival market, where virtually every country has at least one festival with a drool-worthy lineup of house, techno and/or “adventurous” offerings, distinctiveness has become extremely important. Whether Sustain-Release is or isn’t a festival isn’t important. Only two years in, it may be America’s best weekend of techno and will likely see people enthusiastically return year after year until they are too old for camp—if they ever will be.