Despite a week of absolutely ideal weather, temperatures in the 40s and bitter-cold mists decided to descend upon Nashville on Friday — the first day of With Your Friends Fest. The Spin & Co. faced down the gales, striding toward The Lawn at Riverfront Park and the sound of Dillon Francis dropping the bass on his “Low Rider” remix. With its vendors, art installations, tents and an honest-to-God carnival ride, The Lawn looked like Bonnaroo’s Which Stage had been dropped in the middle of Downtown Nashville. Making our way through admission, we swiftly realized that our seasonally appropriate overcoat might very well have put us among the most conservatively dressed people in the whole place. But after seeing all the bikini-clad, elven coeds and sleeveless-shirted masked bros shivering together in the wind, we felt OK about our wardrobe choices.
Shortly after 6 p.m., Francis was playing his set to what looked like a thinner crowd than we anticipated. Then again, 11 acres can make several thousand people look like several hundred. We only spotted a few festival-goers brave enough to go for a loop on the carnival ride — a two-armed, swinging contraption with “SCREAMER” emblazoned in lights across the top. We did see, however, scores of college-age costumed freaks: a pretty solid-looking Bane, a Joker (who spotted The Spin eyeballing him and silently slipped us a playing card), Marios and Luigis, Ninja Turtles, Santa Claus, bears, cats, Mad Hatters, Tiggers, Jasons, a dragged-out “I Want To Break Free”-era Freddie Mercury and a Scooby Doo. The Spin later heard an unofficial attendance estimate of 6,000, and we wondered just how many more Vanderbilt students might have made it out were Vandy’s Commodore Quake with J. Cole and Childish Gambino not taking place the very same night.
At 6:45, indie electro-popstress Santigold took the stage with her costumed backing band, kicking off with “GO!” from this year’s Master of My Own Make-Believe and the breakthrough “L.E.S. Artistes” from her eponymous 2008 debut. Santi’s set featured live instrumentation and a sequencer alike, with her back-up singers functioning more as choreographed dancers than anything else — the two young ladies hammered away at unseen rocks, shook their pompoms and even whipped a two-man pantomime horse at one point. We’re fairly certain the horse was played by Santigold’s rhythm section, as the drummer and bassist returned to their posts moments after the beast was chased offstage. Giant ant and praying mantis puppets coursed through the crowd, and when Santigold asked if it was normally so cold in Nashville at this time of year, a hearty “Fuck no!” went up from the audience. Unfortunately, an affirmative response was not as resounding when she asked the crowd if they intended to vote next month. She may have been a little disappointed in us, but regardless, her set sounded top-notch and displayed genuine showmanship throughout.
We roamed the grounds a bit before Pretty Lights, watching ecstatic youngsters whirl and spin together in fits of gleeful exuberance. Our photog lost his cell phone, which was serendipitously recovered by a friend. Another acquaintance wasn’t quite so lucky, however, as we were later told that he was cited for possessing a small amount of marijuana. So, you can’t say With Your Friends was quite as freewheeling an environment as Bonnaroo.
Derek Vincent Smith, better known to us as Pretty Lights, launched into his opening set as an array of cityscapes and throbbing eddies of light flashed across the onstage LED screens. We made a brief sojourn into the very womb of the crowd, where lasers sliced through the night sky overhead and bodies around us roiled. There were fan favorites like “I Can See It in Your Face” and “Total Fascination,” and the latter featured a very well-timed and unexpected burst of fireworks. As he promised beforehand, Lights’ night-one set was more a mellow warm-up for Skrillex than a proper headlining performance. Regardless, his soul-sampling electro-hop is just the sort of electronic dance music we can get behind, and The Spin did indeed cut a rug. Thing is, if you’re not completely lost in the moment, EDM performers’ random crowd-hyping interjections — “Nashville, are you with your fuckin’ friends?!,” for instance — can come off as sharply un-musical. Still, Smith is a talented musician and a solid party-starter. So, the party was started.
As we waited for the commencement of Skrillex’s headlining set, lo and behold, the dude’s spaceship was wheeled center-stage, and a giant countdown — just as we’d seen at his Bonnaroo performance — began onscreen. The countdown clicked over to zero, and Sonny Moore himself (Skrillex, that is) popped into his control booth to the sounds of “Right In” from the Bangarang EP. The part we didn’t see coming, however, was the pyro: Flaming plumes shot up from the front of the stage, their warmth thawing out our faces. Moore’s set was populated by tunes like the Damian Marley collab “Make It Bun Dem,” the Doors collab “Breakn’ a Sweat” and a Fresh Prince-theme-sampling version of “Right on Time.” In a very meta move, Skrills even sampled Pretty Lights’ “Finally Moving” — well, he at least sampled Etta James’ “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” which is sampled in “Finally Moving” … but we think it was a take on “Finally Moving.” All the while, fire-breathing psychedelic skeletons and revenge-minded Santas pulsed onscreen behind Moore’s spaceship.
Somewhere around 10:20, Skrillex’s spaceship lifted off — which of course gave us something of a second wind — but EDM can sometimes become tedious in long stretches. The point is just to have fun, and thus The Spin found ourselves chuckling at … ourselves. If we can tire of fireballs, rumbling bass, mind-boggling visuals and thousands of strangely costumed, dancing 21-year-olds, then what will live-music experiences come to 30 years from now? We weren't lucky enough to score VIP passes for the after-party festivities, so we exited The Lawn and headed homeward to the sounds of Skrillex's "Bangarang," wondering just what sort of strange musical experiences The Spin's kids and grandkids are in for.