Zen Awakening is one of those festivals that’s always somewhat of a mess in practice, but one that always turns out being one of the most magical weekends for its attendees. Looking beyond the lack of medical staff, exploding or fuel-less generators, and complete abandon of the concept of set times, both the curation and energy of the festival were phenomenal as always.
Translocated this year from Wildwood to St. Cloud, Florida, Zen Awakening 2018 made a home of Forever Florida, a wetland adventure park that also played host to Dirtybird Campout East earlier this year. Much like Dirtybird, noise complaints from neighbors and sound ordinance issues with the county came into play multiple times throughout the Zen Awakening weekend, forcing some of the stages to either turn down or shut down late in the night.
Slideshow: All the things we saw at Florida's Zen Awakening 2018
But as Zen owner Niekko Chin alluded to in a preview of the fest, attendees weren't supposed to come expecting a lot of production.
"We’re not Hulaween, Okeechobee, etc.,” he said.
While the production was incredible on both the Middle Earth Stage and the Minglewood renegade stage (a stage set up by attendees, not the festival), the fact that this was a smaller festival became more obvious when looking at setups like the Galactic Guru stage, a very small stage featuring one lighting truss, a wooden cutout featuring sacred geometry and a white sheet playing animations from behind.
This isn’t to say that the festival wasn’t enjoyable. Zen always attracts some of the best artists and people from every part Florida. Artists on the Middle Earth Stage gave some of the best sets I’ve seen at any festival to date, and the visuals were all top-notch. These performances, combined with the vendors, flow artists, and genuinely caring attendees, made a perfect festival soup that anyone could enjoy.
Friday featured a weaker lineup than the rest of the days, and music ended much earlier. Notable performers from Friday included Ployd, Aplsoz, and Tampa’s own SoundLeake, who works often with Headbang Society. Sadly, all of these performers were scheduled to play the Galactic Guru instead of Middle Earth.
Saturday, however, was light years ahead as far as curation went. Notable Saturday acts included Flow Sisters, Bit Deff, Bells & Robes, Ajeva, Teriyaki Noise, Exit 9, Emalkay, and The Human Experience. Besides Exit 9 and Teriyaki Noise, all of the previously mentioned acts were on the Middle Earth stage.
Saturday also hosted one of the most impressive acts of the entire weekend and one of two that blew absolutely everyone away: The fuckin’ Zebbler Encanti Experience. If you’re not familiar, the Zebbler Encanti Experience is a two-man collective comprised of seasoned electronic music producer, Zebbler, and his visual artist, Encanti. With some of the craziest and most meticulously crafted bass notes on the scene, combined with a never before seen and psychologically horrifying visual display from Encanti, the pair tore down the Middle Earth Stage. While the audience began the set dancing like animals, they soon stopped and stared straight on as Encanti lobotomized everyone with visual stimulation that was, at times, overtly sexual.
By Sunday, the festival finally felt a little planned, like it was supposed to be happening in the first place. Maps were posted in the morning, and there was a single security guard for the first time all weekend. The attendee-accessible Porta-Potties finally got cleaned. It started to feel like an actual production.
Sunday’s lineup was just as solid as Saturday's, although generator problems plagued the main stage all day. After a few hours of having no power at the main stage or for half the vendors, sets were pushed back to accommodate for lost time. Things went smooth for Sixis, Bogtrotter, Whitebear, and KLL SMTH (which was right up there with Zebbler performance-wise.)
The entire stage went off during Desert Dwellers, one of the main headliners for the weekend. A man eating a chicken leg came onto the stage and announced that they were going to get more gas for the generators, and the stage came back on 20-30 minutes later. Festival goers endured, and everyone began howling like wolves at the moon until lights came back on. These people weren’t here for just pretty lights and over stimulation, they were here for the community and to simply have a good time, no matter what form that may have taken.