Few festivals have managed to gather such momentum and acclaim in so few years as Amsterdam-based Dekmantel. Now in its fifth year, the festival returned to the city of bikes and cheese this August, and in short delivered fully on this rightfully eulogistic review.
A first for Dekmantel, the festival was inaugurated with a four hour panel conference, hosted by RA at the awe-inspiring Amsterdam EYE venue. The event was hugely informative for us electronic music nerds and a pleasant detachment from the meaty, noisy goodness that would soon ensue. Marcellus Pittman’s opening conversation explored the roots of Three Chairs, whilst offering us opinions notable for reflection – our favourite quote being “back in the 90’s people just danced, and didn’t care where they faced. Nowadays ya’ll be all staring at the DJ. I don’t get that”. Brilliant!
The talks were followed by a screening of the excellent Jeff Mills movie and a series of live perfomances –Tony Allen in particular, graced the stage with the heart and soul of the late great Fela Kuti in an all-encapsulating Afrobeat exploration.
The day festival is held in the Amsterdamse Bos, a forested parkland three times the size of New York’s Central Park, and the largest city park in Europe. This throws up perhaps one of the biggest curveballs of the event, which is logistics. With a bike from the centre it’s a rather refreshing and scenic 45 minute cycle to the northern side of the park. However, by public transport we didn’t find much luck other than a bus service that still left you with the daunting challenge of traversing the park by foot. Group Uber is highly recommended here.
But once we made it to the festival grounds, there’s little to be disappointed about. Giant radio towers dwarf the six stages, and each stage was distinct in its own character. The attention to detail is palpable, and the design around stages like UFO and the palm tree filled Greenhouse create environments that encourage abandonment. DJ Harvey delivered a memorable opening set with a selection of breezy soul and jazz. And following that we caught an exuberant and explorative set from Holly Herndon, accompanied by a wall of A/V.
As the day progressed we found ourselves caught amongst different tides of sound. From the long tunnel like UFO stage, rows of lights battle with the towering sound system, and Rodhad’s mammoth techno set was a fitting compliment. But outside with Three Chairs aficionados Theo Parrish and Marcellus Pitman, it was sun-draped jazz and flowery house. A searing closing set from Jeff Mills made the empty festival grounds at the end feel all the more eerie.
The highlight of the second day had to be the four hour back-to-back between Vancouver’s Pender Street Steppers and Washington D.C’s Beautiful Swimmers in the leafy Greenhouse. The Canadian duo spun a melodic menagerie of easygoing, good vibe house tunes packed with 80s and 90s sounds, laidback bubbling basslines, and hazy synths— the very embodiment of the Mood Hut label sound. Whilst the DC double act delivered a complimentary grand slab of weird warpy electro, disco cuts and rare grooves.
A strange sense of nostalgic futurism was present at the festival during Palmbolen II’s live performance on day 2. The Dutch artist successfully presented his characteristically brilliant musical weirdness to the festival goers, staying true to his trademark lo fi 80s aesthetic. Another standout performance was from UK’s Midland who laid down a kaleidoscopic mix of deeply pleasant techno, bass-driven house cuts, and some left-field gems thrown into the mix as well.
The crowd at Dekmantel are pleasantly mature, and somewhat in keeping with the Dutch jolly stereotype. But the wider European following definitely reminded us that this was very much an international crowd. Surprising to see how many people took the measure of bringing earbuds. Nearly none of my British compatriots did. Equally as nice was how much space you had, and the organisers didn’t over pack the festival, confirming their focus on the quality of the experience rather than to make a quick buck.
Lee Scratch Perry and his cheshire cat stage presence was hypnotic in conjunction with long standing collaborator Adrian Sherwood on day 3. The two have built a unifying career together, so it’s inspiring to watch them perform together live. Digital Mystikz kept up the dub vibe fully flexed as night cloaked the Bos. Finally, universal ebullience was abound for Motor City Drum Ensemble’s Sunday evening closer on the main stage, whose vast crescent LED lights display looked spectacular at night.
Whilst the festival offers both day and night time programming, to be able to go through continuously is a tall order, and you almost have to make a choice between saving yourself for the next day or taking a breather before heading out for the night. And with Melkweg reaching capacity on the second night, and with some unhappy customers taking to the festival facebook page to ventilate their anger in being kicked out, for us the focus was much more on the day.
Then there was the drug’s policy. Miraculously (considering where we were) I saw a bloke get kicked out the festival grounds for smoking a zoot. The organisers had created their own micro-climate with new laws put in place within a city known for its liberal policies. At times it felt like a mini war on drugs, and the security guards taking this quite seriously.
In sum, Dekmantel is a truly stellar experience. The organisers pride themselves on their “meticulous” planning and it shows. Never too crowded, great curation of artists, and top end sound quality. The only downside is that it had to end.