New World, Same Old Festival: Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival Makes a Welcome 2022 Return
Have you ever been to a show and gotten the sense that you were witnessing something approaching Alive 2006/2007 levels of greatness? It’s the rare but unmistakable feeling that comes with watching a musical act at its apex, a display so singular in sight and sound that audience members disintegrate to an amalgamated mass of slack-jawed awe.
I’ve experienced something like that, and it looked like Tame Impala rocking out while engulfed in a flying saucer. Although few have risen to the bar set by Daft Punk’s revolutionary tour and accompanying pyramid, Kevin Parker and crew came close during their headlining performance at Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival 2022 last Friday. It was one of many memorable moments from this year’s fest, which ran from Thursday, March 3, to the early hours of Monday, March 7.
Juliana Bernstein for Insomniac Events
The last edition of Okeechobee happened to take place just as the world was coming to a standstill. It was March 2020, and I was covering the gathering for Miami New Times alongside the photographer and pair of writers who made up my team.
Despite documenting every year of Okeechobee since its 2016 debut and attending plenty of music festivals in my time — somewhere between 15 and 20 at last count—there was no reference point for the experience of navigating that weekend. Put simply, the vibes were off. Each glance at a phone or computer brought more news of COVID-19’s arrival in the United States and unchecked spread across the globe.
Meanwhile, signs urging attendees to wash their hands and more sanitizing stations than I’d ever seen in one place, much less a music festival, littered the grounds. Naturally, I was all too happy to oblige and spent the weekend with my hands caked in a viscous glop of sanitizer and anti-bacterial wipes, still oblivious to COVID-19’s airborne nature and the usefulness of masks.
Alex Perez for Insomniac
It was colorful, decadent, and draped in ignorance about the sinister things lurking right around the corner. One festivalgoer summed it up much more succinctly that Sunday: “The whole weekend’s been fuckin’ weird, yo!”
The pandemic hit its inflection point within days of the festival’s end. Later that week, the NBA postponed its season, and Miami Music Week was called off through piecemeal cancelations. Soon enough, I joined the many Americans laid off amid a tide of uncertainty. But even as I spent most of the following year hunkered down at home and watching the world burn from a distance, I took some comfort in the knowledge that I’d attended the only major music festival of 2020.
Alex Perez for insomniac
All of the above was at the forefront of my mind when I arrived at Sunshine Grove for Okeechobee 2022 last Thursday. Event organizer Insomniac announced the festival’s return in June 2021 during that brief window of time when it seemed like the worst of the pandemic was well and truly behind us. And although I’d since resumed many of my pre-pandemic pastimes —and eventually reentered festival life by way of III Points’ 2021 edition — I hadn’t yet spent days away from home in a remote location worshipping at the altar of live music alongside tens of thousands of people.
Camping festivals are a strange, distinct beast, teeming with as much wonder and possibility as they are headaches and heat-induced exhaustion. Whether you’ve done one or several, it’s difficult to fully convey the nuances of festivaling to someone who’s never stepped into the madness themselves.
The pressing question at the heart of Okeechobee 2022 was relatively straightforward. All subtleties of festival culture aside, how would it feel to be back? After all, this was the first time many attendees would be venturing out to a camping festival in years. And for some, myself included, it marked a return to one of the last places we visited before words like “quarantine” and “vaccination” became fixtures of everyday life. Would there be a communal reckoning for seasoned festivalgoers who spent their final weekend of pre-COVID life at Okeechobee? Was it possible that pervasive tension would take the place of the usual festival ebullience? Or would people be happy enough hearing the likes of Tame Impala, Megan Thee Stallion, and Porter Robinson in a live setting again?
Ivan Meneses for Insomniac Events
Like everything else in 2022, the answers are streaked with shades of ambiguity. Upon arriving at Okeechobee on Thursday night, the landscape showed few signs of taking place in a post-March 2020 world. There may even have been more COVID-19 precautions at the preceding edition when the threat posed by the virus still wasn’t understood, as there were far fewer sanitizing stations available and only a handful of signs promoting proper hygiene.
Keen-eyed Okeechobee veterans may have noticed a little less of, well, everything. Like a smaller-scale Bonnaroo, the festival’s layout has always been divided between its expansive campground and the central hub hosting the Be, Here, and Now main stages. While the former houses an array of vendors and activations along with the more intimate Aquachobee, Jungle 51, and Incendia stages, the main area has always been where the bulk of the musical action takes place. However, the accoutrements and amenities that lend any worthwhile festival its character were in shorter supply this year.
There were far fewer eye-catching art installations, not as many water refill stations available, and past conveniences like pedicabs were nowhere to be spotted. Whether this was due to the issues plaguing other aspects of post-pandemic life — supply chain snags, labor shortages, the ongoing process of getting back into the event production groove — is unknown. Although first-time attendees were unlikely to notice anything askew, and none of these were dealbreakers for the overall festival experience, their absence was felt all the same.
Kacey Fillmore for Insomniac Events
With that said, the things that Okeechobee has historically done right were back in full force. Jungle 51, a wooded nook at the edge of the festival grounds, traditionally reserved for headier electronic acts, was as dazzling as it’s ever been. The enclave’s quasi-pyramid stage and surrounding palm trees have been the site of some of my favorite DJ sets over the years — Honey Dijon in 2018 and Lil Louis in 2020 come immediately to mind. So, hearing head-bending sounds like Danny Daze mixing vocals from Missy Elliott’s “We Run This” over drum ‘n’ bass during the first night of the fest felt like a welcome return home.
The simple pleasure of watching brightly colored lights illuminate the trees overhead come nightfall remains as arresting now as it was in 2016. Likewise, features so subtle that most might not even register them — like the corridors in and out of the main area soundtracked exclusively to Afrobeat artists like Fela Kuti and Tony Allen — reinforced the sense of careful curation that give the best festivals their charm.
Juliana Bernstein for Insomniac Events 9
But no number of flashy amenities can substitute the core of what makes a festival great: the quality of the music and the people. Fortunately, Okeechobee 2022 shined on both accounts. After the isolation of the last two years, the mere sight of thousands of people huddled together in a shared space to celebrate the miracle of music was enough to instill a profound sense of gratitude. As any practiced festivalgoer can attest, it’s the little moments of humanity that make these things unique. Although I didn’t catch their names, I will forever appreciate the couple who lent me a hammock to rest in as a wave of exhaustion during Jungle’s Sunday night performance washed over me.
Even though each day offered no shortage of must-see sets, Friday was far and away the crown jewel of the weekend. The progression of Myd into Ross from Friends, Caribou, Four Tet, and ultimately Tame Impala was one of the best uninterrupted sequences of live music I’ve ever experienced at a festival.
Ivan Meneses for Insomniac Events
Only in settings like these could you start your night with a burst of French filter house, weave your way through melancholic rave and larger-than-life electronica, and still have time to be floored by a psychedelic stage show, unlike anything you’ve ever witnessed.
Tame Impala’s staggering spectacle of rock, synth-pop, lasers, confetti, and one of the most impressive stage props ever wielded (seriously, the band’s Halo-like fixture must be seen to be believed) would have been striking on its own, but as the crescendo to 7.5 hours of incredible music and unforgettable moments like Four Tet closing his DJ set with Donna Lewis’ pop masterpiece “I Love You Always Forever,” it became downright transcendent.
Coming back to Okeechobee after so much time away was an elucidating experience. While life looks dramatically different from when the festival last took place, arguably too much has remained the same: two years onward from the start of the pandemic, any hopes that the COVID-19 crisis would prompt widespread changes that might lead to a kinder, more equitable world have yet to pass.
Tony Nungaray for Insomniac Events
Nonetheless, there was a palpable shift among attendees who are sensitive to these sorts of things. Talk of life-changing moments at previous festivals was pervasive, as was a heartfelt enthusiasm about being back and bringing first-timers along. Even before the world entered its current epoch of division and social distancing, music festivals epitomized the beauty of what happens when people come together for a unified purpose. They represent the rare space where individual passions are elevated to collective rituals, forging lifelong bonds, memories, and romantic ideas about what’s possible in the process. For as uncanny as returning to them may feel at first, they might be more necessary than ever.