Atlanta Comes Together for Sweetwater 420 Festival
For the last few years, the Sweetwater 420 Fest has cast a wide net with its musical selections, and this year was no exception. Ranging from hip-hop and EDM to funk and reggae, this festival captures the diversity of this city, bringing people from all walks of life to Centennial Olympic Park to celebrate music; beer; and absolutely, definitely, no matter what your mom saw online, not weed. This year, at the 12th annual 420 Festival, the crowd was an interesting mix of festival kids, hippies, drunk bros in Masters-branded gear, and Atlanta families.
When I first arrived Friday afternoon, things were already underway with crowds pouring into the park through a variety of entrances, each with their own differing levels of security. Once inside, the Sweetwater staff at the bars were friendly and accommodating, but from the very first drink we ordered, had a hard time maintaining their inventory. They were constantly running out of lemonade and we had to wait upwards of ten minutes for a drink on more than one occasion. In addition to several outdoor bars, there was also the “Sweetwater Experience Tent”, which had taps of experimental beers and held special events throughout the weekend, like film viewings and meet-and-greets with the bands. The food vendors more than made up for things, though, with Barbecue, Mac N Cheese trucks, Thai noodle vendors, and so many other delicious options. Thankfully, water was freely available at several of Centennial’s permanent water fountains. The art vendors were great too, with a wide selection of items all for sale by friendly and helpful people. Even the EMT staff were calm and cheerful to everyone.
There was a good solid crowd all three days, but still plenty of places to sit down on a blanket in the shade or sun. There was even a structure set up with hammocks that people took turns sleeping, cuddling, or relaxing in. The mixed crowd, plentiful refreshments, and music made for a very happy weekend with loads of day drinking and nights illuminated by the flow artists helping everyone come down. The stages were well situated, and far enough apart from each other that there was little to no sound bleed. It was also nice that they were at a good loud volume, without being unpleasant. The EDM stage did run a little heavy on bass at a few points, but some of that just comes with the territory.
Illenium kicked off my weekend, as I arrived at the end of his set. I had seen him perform once before at Electric Forest where he had mixed Midtempo Trap and Chillstep in with a few stints of hard dubstep. Nearly a year later, and he’s released an album and settled into his own sound. Here at 420 Fest, he played a lot of very synth-heavy emotional future bass. His set wasn’t nearly as hard as the last time I had seen him. I like his new sound, and I definitely enjoyed his set, but with Future Bass running things in the trap game right now, I wasn’t blown away.
I left after Illenium to get some water and pee, and passed by The Disco Biscuits and Pepper as I did a lap of the park. The Disco Biscuits were warming up the main stage with some funky southern rock, and the crowd was already drinking heavily in anticipation of the night’s headliner. Pepper was more like a 90s ska revival than anything. It was what I imagine Sublime and 311 shows were like back in the day. Never really was my thing, and it turns out it still isn’t. Back at the EDM stage, Paper Diamond was playing a heavy bass set with a lot more grooviness than I’ve heard from him before. He seems to be moving away from his older more hip-hop-centric style toward a Bassnectar-inspired flowing bass structure. I really enjoyed it, and even started freestyling to myself, which is something I almost never do. Everybody was moving, drunk, and having a great time. We all knew what was next...
Kid Rock is an interesting guy, but he’s oddly inspiring in his authenticity. What you see is what you get. He marched out on stage with a red glowing LED Belt Buckle and immediately began jumping around and screaming his hits to the crowd. It’s worth mentioning that the crowd was completely drunk at this point of the night. With the weed coming out and beer cans and cups being tossed up on stage, it certainly felt like what I had imagined a Kid Rock show to be, but also like an Atlanta crowd. Kid Rock is nuts, but his band is actually pretty good, and it was especially enjoyable to watch his white-haired drummer raging out like Doc from Back To The Future, but with way more whiskey and amphetamines. After a few songs, the guitarist played the first few chords of “Purple Rain” and they put a graphic in tribute to Prince, but in deep and grammatically correct irony, the show was immediately called off because of an impending thunderstorm on the horizon. Everyone fled the scene as the heavy rain set in.
I arrived around 5 p.m. on Saturday, in time to hear Dabin play the small “420 Disco” EDM stage. (ICYMI, here's our interview with Dabin & the Kannibalen crew from last month.) I really like his music, but the bass levels felt too high for his set, and it was hard to hear him playing his guitar. When JackLNDN came on after him, I had the same complaint. JackLNDN’s vocals are so high and his keyboard playing was jazzy, so it was a shame to have it all drowned out in the bass. His performance felt like a one-man Disclosure, and I bet he tears it up in a club, but at an outdoor festival in the daytime, some of his smooth energy evaporated and his music felt drowned out.
Over at the main stage, Rebelution played a massively fun medley of reggae, funk, and jammy rock. With trumpet, saxophone, and guitar all taking turns, they put out a very happy vibe for the crowd and really impressed me with their talent. It was like if Dave Matthews was good. The Roots came on after them and played a solid set, though I wasn’t blown away at any point. The Roots are just fun to watch, and they interacted with the audience with comfort and enthusiasm.
Over at the Planet 420 stage, AWOLnation were taking themselves very seriously on stage. Their lead singer reminded me of the “Max” character from “Across the Universe”, and they honestly weren’t that much fun to listen to. Judging from the lyrics they’re very upset about something, but it wasn’t clear quite what. I have little patience for whiny rock.
Back at the EDM stage, Minnesota was starting. He’s one of my personal favorites, and his performance Saturday night was no let-down. Though the power on his decks did fail at one point, he recovered quickly, and of all the DJs who played on that stage, he managed to play the music loudly but clearly. His bass level never felt overwhelming, and it was refreshing to be able to easily hear the melodies of the tracks he was playing instead of being immersed in nothing but low frequencies. After Minnesota, I walked over to the main stage to catch the end of Bastille. They delivered their well-known fun, poppy sound, but their performance was nothing spectacular. It was the sort of show where the guitarists all hold up their guitars to the audience, and then just play chords. One interesting moment was when they covered “No Scrubs”, which raised a few eyebrows, but was generally well received.
On day three of a festival, I was pretty relaxed walking in on Sunday, but Duelle clearly had other ideas. I had never seen them before, so as I wandered over to the Disco 420 stage, I didn’t know what to expect. What I saw were a couple of girls playing hard festival trap, rapping, and shouting at the crowd over wireless mics. It felt very L.A. (which is where they're from), and lacked some spark of genuine feeling. Fortunately, at the main stage, Atmosphere gave a heart-felt and emotional performance. The Minneapolis MC/DJ duo brought true lyrical hip-hop, bursting with talent and with an honest and intelligent voice. They were always one of my favorites in college and were one of my most anticipated acts going into the weekend. I was so pleased to see them perform with a smooth and clear flow, we could all hear what was being said. There was love in MC Slug's vibe through his whole show, but I most appreciated when he told us all to “never be afraid to be embarrassed”.
Son of Kick played a heavy bass trap set of enjoyable but unremarkable bangers, and Nahko & Medicine for the People took the Planet 420 Stage. These guys were like something out of Scooby Doo or That 70s Show. Long hair, headbands, flowing open shirt, the whole deal. Their music was great, if you like that chill, classic folk rock vibe, It was fun to relax with some hippies for a moment, but I wasn’t in the mood to stick around long.
It was time to head back to the main stage for Ludacris, the hometown hero. Of any performer that weekend, Ludacris had the largest crowd by far. Everyone showed him love and the audience of thousands chanted along with every word. It was the one of the strongest Atlanta hometown vibes I’ve ever had at a show, and Ludacris fed the crowd all their favorites. Just from memory, I know he played "Welcome to Atlanta", "Stand Up", "Get Back", "Move Bitch", "One More Drink", "All I Do Is Win", "How Low", "My Chick Bad", "Let’s Get High", and "Fantasy"; and I’m sure there were more hits in there that I can’t recall. He even had an exotic dancer come out on stage for "My Chick Bad" & "How Low", and the crew wheeled out a hot pink pole for her to dance on. There was a really fun, happy vibe coming from everyone around me, and we felt like one city that knew how to come together and have fun.
After Ludacris, I wandered over to catch Robert DeLong on the Planet 420 Stage. He sang, drummed, and played music on a rig that included a keyboard, computer joystick, steering wheel, and a GameCube controller, all rigged to effects or tones that he could play. He was an impressive performer, and his talent was almost incomprehensible at times, even if I didn’t particularly like his sound. He performed very high energy indie dance and electronica, which wasn't my favorite, but I was very impressed and would recommend him to anyone who is a fan of live performance, especially percussion. He had his crowd entranced by his performance and people in the audience were shouting their adoration at him during any breaks in the music. Everyone at the front row got their faces painted, and it made the whole show feel much more fun and communal. Finally wrapping up the weekend, Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals closed out the main stage with blues and folk jams that had the dwindling crowd so relaxed that I saw a few people sleeping.
The Sweetwater 420 Festival feels like something that will be an Atlanta fixture for years to come and I’m already looking forward to next year. I found that the mix of musical selections brought together a diverse and truly representative Atlanta crowd, and I saw happiness on almost every face the whole weekend.