It’s still not warm enough to ditch your jacket and the sky is a hundred shades of grey, but we’re waiting on a ferry at the back of Amsterdam Centraal station – festival season is just about to kick off and it’s not even Easter yet.
We’re in the middle of a jostling queue on Amsterdam’s north side, and the ferry’ll be taking us across the river Ij to DGTL, the party that’s for five years been the unofficial starter pistol for European dance festivals.
We’ve all moaned about Christmas coming too early, with the decorations going up before you’ve washed the Halloween face paint off, but we have no beef with DGTL jumping the gun on the Irish festival season, which doesn’t start in earnest until Life goes head-to-head with Forbidden Fruit at the end of May.
First up, DGTL has one of the most impeccably curated line-ups, with a nod towards deep house and techno, without a lull over a two-day stretch. It also must be the only festival that could throw in Four Tet and Mount Kimbie as bonus prize after-thoughts, on the Friday night opening party before the festival begins proper.
And it really does begin proper on the Saturday – we jump off the ferry at the old disused NDSM docklands to a steampunk metropolis, with arenas forged out of hundreds of rusted shipping containers, as if Mechagodzilla had made himself a festival out of whatever huge hunks of metal were lying around. The blustery grey weather only adds to the party-through-the-apocalypse buzz.
The DGTL centre point is the hulking 50-metre crane that’s visible from all over the site – which lands an extra million wow points when we realise Red Bull has set up a stage in one of the cabs. We try in vain to get info on the DGTL app about gaining entry to the crane but we never worked it out – just a minor first world festival problem.
The beauty of a dance festival over your regular catch-all eclectic summer jam in a field is the turned-up to 11 buzz from as soon as the doors open. There’s no tasteful afternoon acoustic strums or heritage act building up to a headliner 10 hours down the line. Our early afternoon at DGTL was kicked into gear at the Phono shipping container arena by local hero Steve Rachmad, setting out his stall as Amsterdam’s techno pioneer once again, playing Detroit-style warm grooves, records that could easily close a festival back home.
We’re juggling between Rachmad and Miami house don Danny Daze at the Ellum tunnel room, and getting used to the novelty of the new wristband system for buying drinks and food. It’s a given that the Dutch run festivals better than us (along with most other infrastructure), but the new DGTL cashless system is a breeze. Along with your festival wristband you get an extra band with a barcode that can be topped up at points dotted around the site, and scanned when you treat yourself to some refreshments. Craft beer buffs might get offended at the choice of Heineken, cider, mixed spirits in cans or wine, but there wasn’t much complaining.
After an hour or hopping between stages and stopping to marvel at cyclists powering generators, chill-out areas in hanging boats and a mechanical fire-breathing winged hybrid of Terminator and a stop-frame Clash of the Titans monster, we take a breather for a minute. A pal who’s been to DGTL before says he’s heading to the “main area” and I realise we haven’t even seen half the site.
The Digital and Analog arenas are the vast chugging engine of the festival – the former a huge two-tiered hangar with makeshift scaffolded balconies and the other an industrial warehouse with the huge graffiti tag: ‘We stand for something’.
It’s early evening and Hot Since 82 is already hogging most of the festival crowd, with hundreds spilling out the back of the DGTL hangar and nearly as many on the stage behind him. He keeps it dark and deep for a half hour or so until the twisted rave of Steve Lawler’s Generation Acid took it into sci-fi territory and the set goes up 10 notches – with the spacey italo of Discopolis another bang-on moment.
Across the way at Analog, Finnebassen is playing his trademark dirty melancholic house, dragging on cigs like a trouper and matching the gritty beats with his steely expression, and finishing on a tubular bells-type track that’s still ringing in our ears.
At Ellum, Pachanga Boys aka Superpitcher and Rebolledo look like they’ll need to be dragged off the stage to the sound of their own twisted disco and leftfied house. They’re infamous for marathon sets including a 25-hour show for the Lost Track of Time documentary, so their two hours at DGTL is a mere snippet.
And then it’s another epic trip over the mammoth wrought iron bridge between areas, dodging the ‘Chaos generator’ gyroscope and some mechanical eyeball puppets that’ll give someone the fear if they’re not careful. We catch the tail-end of Dubliner Mano Le Tough’s banging techno set, and it looks like he’s killing it even more than the last time we saw him in the Limelight in Belfast last year when he swooped in at the last minute and saved the day when Skream missed his flight.
And there’s no prizes for guessing who’s the main draw at Digital as Saturday comes to a close. Jamie Jones is hoovering up all stragglers in the food area between Digital and Analog, with his abstract techno full of vocal tics and dubby low end, while the kaleidoscope light displays start to etch into our eyeballs – we hadn’t really noticed earlier in the daylight.
In the weeks leading up to DGTL we did a double-take when we saw the 10m and 11pm closing time, thinking we’d made a balls-up and there was some nanny state noise pollution bye-law and we’d have to be tucked up in bed by midnight. But we hadn’t banked on the after-parties, which really just rounded up the disparate crowds into the ‘Scheepsbouwloods’ depot, which must be the size of the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It looks like no one’s going home early, so there’s a hell of a crush to get in, but another dimension to DGTL unfolds once you’re inside the vast hangar. It’s the scene of plenty of carnage as dawn approaches, with hush-hush sets from Tsepo, John Talabot and former Trouw resident Job Jobse among the heavy-lifters as the Dutch show off their hakken rave dancing.
After the dystopian grey skies on Saturday , Easter Sunday brings the sun to DGTL, and with it a more relaxed crowd, many on good-natured rollovers from the night before, linking arms, heads on each other’s laps and clinking plastic Heineken cups.
The sun also means a lot of the stages are at half-capacity compared with the same mid-afternoon slot the day before. On paper, Michael Mayer b2b Roman Flugel at Digital should’ve been rammed, but the majority of heads were stuck to the sun traps outside, tapping along with their feet, catching up on whatever food they missed the day before. Digital looked like the 3Arena or the Odyssey before the support band takes to the stage – a quarter full, a bit aimless, and plenty of chatter.
We hear the crowd picked up towards the end of their set but by that stage we’re at the front in Analog for Pantha Du Prince, whose chimey techno is better than a mainline of Lucozade, Dioralyte and a fry-up for any hangover. The German maestro comes on hooded like a Jedi and plays a more subtle live set than the last time we saw him at Opium Rooms, teasing each gleaming bell sample and transcendent synth line out by mouthing the intricate riffs and drawing them in the air – pulling faces like a guitar hero during Lay in a Shimmer.
Most of the 70-odd DJs at DGTL will be in the regulation uniform of jeans and a t-shirt, but Culoe de Song at Innervisions is the right gentleman in his Sunday best – shirt and trilby clashing with his not-so reserved boompty-boomp disco house that Derrick Carter would dig.
It’s then time to for another few hours of Digital b2b Analog, as Ten Walls takes it deeper than most, and Barcelona native and honorary Dubliner John Talabot finishes the main arena by teaming up with Job Jobse, playing tough house, electro dark coldwave and a mental edit of Born Slippy that no one saw coming. He’s earned his fee alright, but he’s got another few hours left in Scheepsbouwloods, taking it into Monday morning.
After years of going to festivals, we’re always in danger of rose-tinted shades when we visit a new one and get bowled over by the novelty – but DGTL really is a cheesy ‘where have you been all my life?’ event. We were at the almighty Bloc fail in London in 2012 when organisers tried to do something similar at the eastern dockands. It was raided by cops who’d got wind of the shoddy half-builts sets, bottlenecks and metal detritus strewn around. It was the first time we saw thousands of ravers leave willingly as cops shut a party down.
But as it stands, they should’ve left it to the professionals, Bloc is back in Butlins and everyone’s happy again. To sum up, DGTL lived up to the hype and then some, we reckon the Dutch won’t be shutting this one down in a hurry.
Originally published in Irish Daily Star