Unleash the sesh gremlins! Sunset Campout, California’s clubbing paradise

With its mix of hippies, techno heads and hikers, this party deep in Californias gold rush country has resisted creeping commercialisation

The narrow road to Belden Town, California (population: 22), careens through hairpin turns, down a thousand feet of craggy grey stone to the white-tipped rushes of the Feather River. The only other vehicle for miles is a train running parallel, barrelling through tunnels blown into the mountainside. During the gold rush of the 1800s, a few boomtowns sprang up in the area. Now they are lonely outposts. But for one weekend a year, they host one of the west coasts most durable and cherished party institutions: Sunset Campout. Its like an early 90s acid rave meets Westworld meets Oregon Trail, and its story goes back 25 years.


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In 1994, a teenage Bay Area upstart named Galen Abbott traded in his dreams of Olympic swimming for a set of DJ decks. The son of hippies and a newfound resident of the famed alt-culture haven of Haight Street, he was activated by the still-nascent San Francisco acid house rave scene, the transplanted UK party crew Wicked, and Future Sound of Londons track Papua New Guinea. Despite his enthusiasm, Galens homemade mixtapes still actually tapes back then couldnt get him booked at any parties, legal or otherwise. A psychedelic epiphany at the nearby Berkeley Marina inspired him to throw his own event at that very spot, and Sunset Sound System a free, weekly, renegade daytime picnic rave was born.

Galen Abbott playing Sunset Campout 2019. Photograph: Aaron Glassman

Fast forward a quarter of a century, years that have featured hundreds of parties in fields, on boats and mountaintops and at least four Sunset babies conceived on the dancefloor. Its 5.30am on Sunday and Roman Flgel is wrapping up a masterful acid-laced three hour treatise on a dusty plateau, souped up with a truly visceral four-point soundsystem, an ocean of fog, and a thick canopy of lasers. As the morning light begins to arc over the trees, the faces of my dancefloor companions are illuminated. Seasoned Burning Man veterans, fresh-featured San Francisco party glitterati, a group of individuals best described to me as NorCal sesh gremlins, and a couple of feral and bemused long-distance hikers who sneaked in from the nearby 1,200-mile Pacific Crest Trail. They all keep the vibe astral with cartoonish dance manoeuvres devoid of inhibition and, in some cases, motor skills.

A direct cultural thread runs from the first Summer of Love and the Grateful Dead through to Phish, acid house, and Burning Man, on to the diffusion of hippie themes in the west coast festival scene. Sunset Sound System has been a dutiful custodian of this legacy in its truest form, unspoiled by commercialisation. That means something here. When Galen finally hits the stage, radio detached from his shoulder for the first time all weekend, its the closest thing to a religious experience this motley crew of heathens probably gets all year.

As the morning unfolds, the party descends down a sandy hill to the shores of the Feather River. Sunset Sound System resident Solar turns up the aggressive space wonk as the more intrepid campers slosh into the water. By midday, its a sea of surreal inflatables bobbing under the baking sun: pink swans, stained-glass rhinos, boat-sized rubber skiffs. Some brave souls endeavour a ride down the rapids, but most lounge away the morning floating in an increasingly dissociated state of bliss.

Lauren Flax playing Sunset Campout festival 2019. Photograph: Aaron Glassman

While the party ebbs and flows on the dancefloor, in the campgrounds it never stops. To the die-hards, much of what makes Sunset Campout so essential is that it has the feeling of a family reunion. Children frolic in the kids zone while their parents take turns on the dancefloor. Long lost friends hug it out on verdant trail paths. On the Story Time stage, struggling jugglers drop balls and acrobats miss their cues. It becomes ever the more evident that Sunset Campout is not about being the biggest, growing the fastest, or winning the festival arms race, but something far more lasting.


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We still have the same mentality as back in 1994, explains Galen. Its never been about money. Its just been about playing, creating this environment, building a family. The people who come here actually matter. Our community grows through word of mouth. I think that has been the best curation, because its created something that has stuck with people and feels different than another commercial venture.

Back to the Summer of Love? A festivalgoer at Sunset Campout 2019. Photograph: Aaron Glassman

Despite the sterling global underground pedigree of the headlining acts such as Flgel, Gerd Jansen and Octo Octa, along with the general sense of organisation, the restaurant, the bar, and the spa, Sunset Campout maintains the renegade flavour of a remote camping weekend with a bunch of fried freaks, one that could have taken place during either summers of love. While so many of its contemporary hippie-adjacent festivals have chased growth bigger venues, higher ticket prices, corporate investment, creeping ever further towards mainstream dilution the Sunset party brand has remained wilfully small and community-centric. This is even more remarkable when held in contrast to the growth-at-all-costs mentality that has come to define San Francisco.

I remember [the Wicked crews] Garth telling me that once during the later days of the [legendary San Francisco] full moon parties, he looked out while DJing and didnt recognise anyone any more, says Galen. He decided then that it was maybe time to wrap it up. I always thought that was a really good check. But we havent hit that yet. With more Sunset babies conceived every year, and Sunset Sound System showing no signs of slowing down, it may be another quarter century before that happens.

Five key Sunset Sound System tracks, chosen by Galen Abbott

Hot Chip Hungry Child (KiNK Remix)
This track showed up in my promo box earlier this summer, and it couldnt have come at a more perfect time. Its just gushing with a dissonance that resonates with my mood right now through its slow-building, pad-driven chords. I played the dark-to-light set Sunday morning and this track pretty much become the musical focal point as the days brightness started to take over.

Cassius Caliope

After hearing of the terribly tragic news of Philippe Zdars death, I went on a Cassius listening spree. Im really loving many songs off the new album and this one gives off so much emotion despite its relative simplicity. Nothing like dropping into a rolling bass line in the morning light.

Todh Teri Sampadan 16

Ive been a Todh Teri fan for a while now, and this mix off his Deep In India 5 compilation is an awesome array of vocal samples blended with old school strings and raw warehouse vibes. Its got all the elements in one song that I love to mix through an entire set.

Perel Pastarella Al Limoncello (Massimiliano Pagliara Remix)


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This is what building a groove is all about. This track just takes you on a journey where at first youre just bobbing along, but by the end of it youre are dancing in wild abandon without even realising it. Massimiliano took an already great original and embedded his notorious groove to make it one of my favourite go-to dancefloor stormers of the year. Perfect Sunset Campout vibrations right here.

Age of Chance Times Up: Timeless

This is a Sunset classic that has resurfaced. The track is from 1990 but sounds incredible on a good sound system. We always set up a four-corner rig at Sunset Campout because theres nothing more sonically satisfying than being surrounded by clear, full sound while dancing outdoors. The Pink Floyd and Blade Runner samples add a sweet wonderment to the psychedelic journey of the slow building arrangement. It truly is Timeless!

Original Article : HERE ;

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