Arizona’s Lost Lake Fest Is A Continuation Of Superfly’s Bold New Festival Ethos

If you want to know what the new Lost Lake music festival is all about, just ask Chance the Rapper. He headlined the first-year festival’s first night with the kind of exuberance usually embodied by small children in the height of a joyful moment of play. You’d never be able to tell he’d done this dozens of times over the past summer festival season.

Long before Chance hit the main Camelback Stage, you heard him. From somewhere behind the shadowy scrims and dark stage, Chance was intermittently letting loose with his signature whippoorwill whoops, sounding for all the world like a little bird in the brush signaling the coming dawn. If dawn came in the form of bursting towers of flame and a state of the art lighting rig, that is.

As soon as he leaped out of the dark, Chance was ebullient. He bounded across the stage only to pauses neatly on one side or the other, close to the edge, flickering intently. At times he seemed to hover for just a few seconds longer than is possible. His joy was contagious; it was Friday night, and the festival was just getting started.

“I didn’t feel like I won the Grammys until about two days ago,” Chance confided in the crowd, mid-set. This was Chano’s first show since he got to unpack each golden phonograph with his daughter, carefully lifting them out of the brown cardboard boxes they were shipped in. Caught on video, that alone was a tender moment that brought Chance to tears. “This is my first show as a Grammy winner,” he said, never mind that the Grammy’s were in February and it was then an unseasonably balmy August night in the Arizona desert.

Time and place shifted. Los Angeles is Chicago is Phoenix. February is October. This was a golden, extended moment for Chance, and by extension his fans. After his set, once the first night of Lost Lake closed in a blizzard of confetti and puffs of flame, Chance the Rapper flew to Atlanta for a much-deserved vacation. There’s a rumor he’s thinking about going to college there.
By then, Chance would be far from the minds of everyone flooding into the Steele Indian School Park, transformed by Superfly Productions and local partners into a desert oasis where everything was topsy-turvy. Hours before Chance took the stage, though, this place was already rocking with sets by Crystal Castles, the Pixies, Haim, and Ludacris. And when the lights went dark on Chance and the Social Experiment, the party was just getting started.

The next day, I found myself playing an outsized game of foosball with Rick Farman, the mind behind such famous festivals as Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, and now Lost Lake. The board is big enough I could’ve curled up in it, if it weren’t for the plastic figures, each about the size of the Miller Lite tallboys sold at a nearby beverage booth. We were living Farman’s guiding principle, which argues festivals aren’t just about the music, they’re about “putting yourself back into play.” Farman’s strategy has been working brilliantly so far, so he just might be onto something.

At Lost Lake, the oversized games and massive, cartoon-like imagery by the stages (designed by the local Fortoul Brothers) have been created to invoke the perspective we all have when we’re small, or as he puts it, “that childlike way of everything being big.” It’s also about celebrating what is bringing Phoenix residents back from the fringes of the Valley of the Sun and convincing them to settle in the city center.

When I met up with Farman, who is unassuming in a ballcap and cargo shorts, we agreed on a landmark in the form of a giant VW Beetle the size of an RV, one of several massive art cars installed by Walter Productions, a local “immersive entertainment experience.” Our first stop was the nearby Lost Market, flush with hometown goods, including t-shirts and hoodies emblazoned with designs by those same Fortoul Brothers.

As LA duo Frenship jammed in the background, the woman running the booth entered into a deep discussion with Farman about a mural project. The Fortouls are behind it, of course, in cahoots with a nearby school, hoping to create a sense of a community in a neighborhood once rife with the violence. This kind of small-town flavor is exactly what Farman wants to be baked into each of the city festivals that are his yen these days– starting with Outside Lands in San Francisco, now Lost Lake, and next year a new experience in Denver.

Unlike old-school rural American fests like Woodstock, Burning Man, and Bonnaroo, Superfly is currently focused on how urban festivals can build on and contribute to a city’s sense of itself. After pulling this off in the Bay Area, which hasn’t been short on ethos in over a century, it’s interesting to see what happens when hosting something similar in a smaller city with an evolving vibe. Steele Indian School Park has long flummoxed developers, and in many ways, it’s still Phoenix’s secret garden. All Superfly had to do was bring in the bands, and their signature focus on experiential art.

On our way to the games area, Farman pointed out a giant volcano that shoots fire; there’s a lot of pyrotechnics to Lost Lake, and on my way out of Chance the Rapper’s show that first night, I wound my way around the banks of the titular lake as giant metal lotus blossoms balanced on the water shot flames a dozen feet in the air in a carefully choreographed display.

But there were also plenty of spaces to chill and take in the natural beauty of the park. On Saturday night at dusk I stumbled across a glamorous tent filled with vintage sofas and rugs overlooking the lake, the pinks and oranges of the Arizona sunset bouncing off a tree that seemed to be fruiting a crop of disco balls. On another walkabout, I ran into a sacred mandala lined with agave plants, snapshots, and scattered old 45s, like the detritus left behind after a wild weekend between Almost Famous’ Penny Lane and a tequila baron.

Even with so many side attractions, it was impossible to separate the music from everything else that was going on. The Kongos soundtracked my late afternoon feast of green chili pork stew, a specialty from Phoenix patio powerhouse Ocotillo. Huey Lewis vamped with the News while a trio of people in inflatable velociraptor suits faced off near the croquet field, where players hit balls with mallets near their own size. And the VIP viewing platform was crowded with overstuffed sofas and tables piled with the spoils of bottle service, as the crowd packed in for a night with the Roots and the Killers.

On that final night, I found myself chowing down on a first — a sushi burrito from Pokitrition, which was founded by Arizona State graduates — as Run the Jewels riffed off El-P’s apparent, innate ability to Riverdance, and, of course, their mutual love of dank weed.

But, on the other hand, Farman is right when he says that Superfly crafts festivals that are about more than music. The last two nights, Lost Lake spilled over out of the park and into two slick after parties at the nearby Crescent Ballroom. Saturday night festival goers followed Lil John from the Echo Stage down to 2nd Avenue. And Sunday night, once Major Lazer was done rattling the park with their bass drops, Diplo broke off to do a set at Crescent with Run the Jewels’ own DJ, Trackstar.

After just a short train ride from Lost Lake, suddenly I was ensconced in an intimate, glossily grunge venue deeply reminiscent of the Bronze from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Bronze, you know, if all the moody ’90s indie jams were replaced with a bass-heavy mixtape by two of the country’s hottest DJs. Diplo and Trackstar reigned supreme.

In the dark there, blocks from all the neon and fire, the mezcal, and Sonoran dogs, away from the crowd of 45,000 filling Steele Indian School Park, was all the evidence you needed that Lost Lake was a success. That tight-packed group at the Crescent wasn’t made up just of neo-ravers and dance floor heroes, or of perpetual clubbers out for another waltz. They were there, yes, but so was a sizeable number of committed 9-5ers laughing off how tired they would be the next day, eager for the final show of the festival to start.

It was the sort of extended play moment Chance the Rapper seized on that first night, a sense of intense, almost forbidden fun, like a child up past their bedtime. Everyone, DJ and dancer, was ready to play. There were all were, trying to squeeze every last drop of joy out of Lost Lake.