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Story and Photos: Cory Weaver

A Formidable
Music and art have always been bedmates—either one leaning on the other for inspiration, with many levels of dexterity to amass the severest of attentions. Combining these within a multi-day festival is pedestaling the two to grandeur and in the small Northwest Arkansas town of Bentonville, FORMAT (FOR M[usic] + A[rt] + T[echnology]) Festival not only brought musical acts from multiple genres and curated art installations—they introduced a technology aspect that no other festival can boast.

(Top to Bottom, L-R): The Graphic Art wall entrance to Maurizio Cattelan’s TOILETPAPER MAGAZINE’s “Drag Me To The Disco.” The EDM forest refuge that is "Smokey's", James Tapscott “Arc Zero” and  Doug Aitken’s “New Horizon” hot-air balloon help complete the festival landscape.

Situated on the 250-acre Sugar Creek Airstrip, the inaugural festival was a buffet—an opporunity to make the experience your own with endless waves of musical programming to choose from. Surrounded by hills, trees and a dry creek bed, the vibe was chill and it made you feel like you were miles from civilization—even though you were just a 12-15 minute shuttle bus ride to two reserved parking lots.

Let’s get into it. The Walton-backed FORMAT was organized by the event company Triadic, run by Mafalda Millies, Roya Sachs and Elizabeth Edelman, in partnership with C3 Presents, the producers of Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits Music Festival, Bonnaroo, Austin Food & Wine Festival, and The Voodoo Music and Arts Festival (we hope for a raucous return of the New Orleans weekend-long party soon). Every aspect of the festival was curated, and that was evident as soon as you walked through the gate—the gate itself was a piece designed by Athen Brandon, the winner of the “Gate Competition.”

Two stages were within view from the entrance to the grounds. The South of Oz and North of Oz main stages were situated in close proximity to each other—so festival goers didn’t have to miss a minute of the headlining acts. Multi-disciplinary artist Marinella Senatore’s piece—which fenced the two stages in a zig-zag pattern and posed as a sort of divider from the stages and the art—became an unofficial motto of the festival: “Dance First Think Later.”

The “hub” of the festival was The Cube. Although it may sound like a Kubrick thriller, it’s ominous in name only. The imposing three-story performance space was unavoidable—you really didn’t need to have an excuse, you just drifted into it when passing by. Highlights in The Cube included Joe Kay, co-founder and host of Soulection Radio on Apple Music; real-life cyborg Neil Harbisson, who has an antenna implanted in his skull that allows him to perceive visible and invisible colors via audible vibrations while he connected to NASA’s International Space Station; or Moses Sumney as he performed “Faux Mo.” The Cube’s exterior, wrapped in transparent artwork by Kenyan-raised artist Uman, allowed lights to pulsate and seep into the festival grounds at night—making it feel like it was a living organism.

Another unique venue within the festival was “Next Door: Nova Heat.” Described as a speakeasy, if you weren’t in need of a restroom, you would’ve passed the place by. Next Door had three entrances—one in front and two to each side. The catch? The entrance doors were halved port-a-potties. Each entrance led into a multifaceted dystopian reality of the creators—New York-based artists Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe. The center contained the most intimate and uncanny venue onsite; it also played to eclectic tastes by featuring artists like indie-rock singer-songwriter Katie Schecter, local punk rockers The Phlegms from Fayetteville, and Brit-Cowboy Alan Power.


Venturing out of “Next Door” and through the festival grounds you hit Maurizio Cattelan’s TOILETPAPER MAGAZINE’s “Drag Me To The Disco,” a custom built-for-the-festival barn that housed everything from Latina Funk ensemble, The Malcriados Band; The Mauskovic Dance Band, which combines elements of cumbia, Afro-Caribbean rhythms, & space disco from Amsterdam; to Friday night’s big hit: Fatboy Slim. Upon entering, you’re immediately in a world of editorial art and a Warhol-esque display of teeth with the word “SHIT” written in what looked like a blue chalk pencil above the stage.

On your way to one of the coolest venues, you can’t help but stare at the 100-foot tall, mirrored balloon—Doug Aitken’s “New Horizon.” Impressive during the daytime, but even more transcendent at night, as the piece illuminates the far end of the festival grounds. A few steps to the left of Aitken’s New Horizon, is the Sugar Creek Forest stage, “Smokey’s.” A forest refuge, Smokey’s was an oasis during the daytime and a laser-lightshow dance party at night. Designed by Brazilian artist duo Assume Vivid Astro Focus—a.k.a. São Paulo-based Eli Sudbrack and Paris-based Christophe Hamaide-Pierson—the two incorporated wooden structures that provided several vantage points. These were incredibly handy at night when viewing headlining acts like English EDM rapper, DJ, singer/songwriter Shygirl.

Now that we’ve set the layout of FORMAT, let’s dive into the music. Friday kicked off with a myriad of genre-weaving bands, which quickly became the theme of the festival. As crowds started to gather and make their way into the grounds, hour-long sets by 19-year-old Austin-based singer song writer, Calder Allen; indie rockers, Del Water Gap; and Boulder’s Leftover Salmon tapped the keg to this party.

By the time The Marías were set to take the main stage, a raucous and rather large crowd gathered to celebrate the L.A.-based bilingual indie-pop band. Our second time covering the group, one thing is evident: you can never get enough of a band that combines elements of jazz, funky guitar riffs and bossa nova, lest we forget Maria Zardoya’s flirtatious velvety vocals. A midday highlight, The Marías could have easily held a later slot in the evening.

With the North of Oz stage already fired up and twilight setting in, Nile Rodgers and Chic took it over. There were quite a few attendees that didn’t know Nile Rodgers, but now they won’t be able to listen to Madonna, Pharrell, Daft Punk, David Bowie, Diana Ross or Duran Duran the same way ever again. Bringing a joyful energy to the stage, Rodgers fueled that vibe with a Soul Train-esque presentation that would’ve made Don Cornelius proud.

The War on Drugs took the South of Oz stage and delivered their Grammy Award-winning indie/alternative rock on point. Led by lead vocalist Adam Granduciel’s raspy vocals, the septet had the crowd amped from songs like “Victim,” “Holding On,” “An Ocean in Between the Waves,” “Pain,” and rarely performed on the I Don’t Live Here Anymore tour: “Slow Ghost.”

Every festival needs a nightly powerhouse headliner, and FORMAT pulled no punches with Phoenix closing out the first night. The hit French rockers gave a memorable “first time to Arkansas” performance, hitting the audience with “Lisztomania.” Lead vocalist Thomas Mars acknowledged Nile Rodgers and said that playing the same stage as him was both humbling and an honor. Phoenix finished their 19-song set with songs that spanned their catalogue, including “Alpha Zulu,” “Armistice,” Lasso,” “Rome” and closing the mainstage night out with their biggest hit, “1901.”

Approximately 150 yards away during Phoenix’s set, Fatboy Slim jam-packed the custom “Drag Me to the Disco” barn. The DJ, who hails from Bromley, Kent in the U.K., enjoyed major, worldwide success from the mid-1990s to 2010. The Guinness World Record holder is no stranger to festivals or packing a room, but packing a 250-person capacity barn in the middle of a grass airstrip is a first, I’m sure. He strutted on stage five minutes before his allotted time and immediately teased the crowd with a 10-second snippet of “Praise You” and then, it was 100% house, electronic and trip hop, including “Right Here, Right Now,” “Rockafeller Skank” and “Praise You,” with one exception: a sing-along rendition of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” and that really got the place shaking, literally.


(Top to Bottom): Fatboy Slim nearly demolished the custom built "Drag Me to the Disco" Barn and the legendary, Herbie Hancock.

Saturday was another amazing day for the music portion. Brit-indie rockers Palace really impressed, and once again, the talent being so palpable at FORMAT, they played an early 3 p.m. slot on the North of Oz stage rather than a later slot. The trio reminds me of a more rockin’ and melancholier Coldplay—check out their newest release, Shoals and it’ll be an instant add to one of your many streaming apps.

Direct from Clarksdale, Miss., Christone “Kingfish” Ingram melted the late-afternoon crowd, and it wasn’t the 90-degree temps that did it. Kingfish shredded his way through the hour-long nonstop blues set. Paying homage to the newest up-and-coming blues artist was a must. He’s got the blues in his veins—learning from some of the best blues artists in the South, and for that hour, we were all down on Sunflower Ave.

Son of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, Seun Kuti and the Egypt 80 navigated the complex fusion of jazz and funk, summing up what is simply definable as danceable infectious grooves. Doubling as vocalist and saxophonist, Seun makes leading the band look effortless—as if he were born to take over the reins of what his father started in the ’60s. His short, 11-stop US portion of the “Love & Revolution” tour also stopped in at the Big Top in St. Louis the night before his appearance at FORMAT.

Shifting gears to the port-a-potty adorned entrance “Next Door” venue, British Cowboy Alan Power entertained mightily all by himself, a lonesome dove if you will.             His campfire country vibe fit perfectly at this smaller stage, and his banter was well received: “I was going to call my album 11 inches of Alan, but my label wouldn’t let me. Just kidding, I don’t have a label.”

Following Alan Power was Fayetteville’s, The Phlegms. The tiny space went from stand-and-watch to an all-out basement punk rock party, some people even finding the space to form multiple mosh pits. The hard-hitting group have played with recognizable bands such as Protomartyr, Shame, Guerilla Toss and Mannequin Pussy.

Before leaving the “Next Door” stage, it was Nashville-via-NYC indie rock singer/songwriter Katie Schecter’s time to shine, with her husband (Cage the Elephant’s lead guitarist) Nick Bockrath and their four-month-old daughter in tow. Schecter and Bockrath form a dynamic duo, with her vocals and lyrics and his musical ability on guitar, they mesmerized with ballads from her new album, Bad for Business (see page 26 for our interview with Schecter).

At the mainstage, The Flaming Lips brought their truckloads of balloons, inflatables, confetti and feel-good vibes to the North of Oz stage. Opening with “My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion” inside his plastic bubble, Wayne Coyne stepped out of it for “Do You Realize??” under a giant inflatable rainbow, eventually ending in multiple confetti cannon blasts. And in true Flaming Lips style, they went over their allotted hour—but hey, why kill good vibes at a feel-good festival?



(Top to Bottom, Clockwise): Phoenix highlighted opening night of FORMAT, the British Electro-neo-soul outfit Jungle, Nile Rodgers checked off the must-see bucket list box, British indie-rock quartet Palaces, The Marias mesmerized, and bass virtuoso Thundercat is a can't miss.

As confetti at the North of Oz stage was still falling from the sky, Baltimore duo Beach House was waiting on the South of Oz stage. The group’s “Once Twice Melody” tour kicked off in February and has been in full swing with little to no breaks. In true dreamy-pop style, they opened with “Once Twice Melody.” Their shortened seven-song set included “Dark Spring,” “Silver Soul,” Space Song” and “Over and Over.”

Completely opposite from Beach House’s dreamy, somewhat meditative set was Saturday’s headliner, Rüfüs du Sol on the North of Oz stage. The Australian trio is no stranger to 10,000+ crowds or headlining festivals, but it was their first time doing both in Arkansas, solidifying their place as one of the top EDM acts in the world. Their 90-minute set was a dominant performance, and if the crowd was hyped at the beginning, they were even more when they dropped “On My Knees.” The Aussie unit is so much more than just an EDM band, their originality coupled with Tyrone Lindqvist’s vocals set them apart from the likes of formidable genre-mates ODESZA, Louis the Child, REZZ and Skrillex. Their 21-song set was highlighted by “Treat You Better,” “I Don’t Wanna Leave,” “Underwater” and “Innerbloom.”

Sunday was a slow burn. Still feeling the effects from Rüfüs the night before, the D’Addario-brother led Lemon Twigs kicked things off and brought some good ol’ rock n’ roll to perk you up. A brightly lit afternoon on the North of Oz stage greeted the NYC duo, but personally, I would’ve liked to see them at a slightly later slot. Their 1960s power-pop/art rock channels a Lou Reed-meets-ELO vibe and is perfectly suited for a Wes Anderson film.


A literal art meets music collaborative bonus performance occurred between Oz stage sets featuring the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff drumline and Nick Cave’s Soundsuits. Three performances between the stages drew impressive crowds. An interpretive dance in suits of various sizes made from all manner of materials, the elaborate other-worldly costumes were elevated by the drumline.

Kicking off a festival with notable bands is important, but doesn’t it always seem to come down to how you end it? With that in mind, the team at C3 had a no-holds-barred mentality and finished the North and South of Oz stages with the legendary Herbie Hancock, who featured Terrance Blanchard on trumpet; UK funk-electronic-neo soul outfit Jungle played everything but “Lemonade Lake” during their electrifying set; psychedelic crossover R&B virtuoso bassist Thundercat captivated; and closing out the night was Houston trio Khruangbin. The trio’s take on classic soul, funk, dub and rock was a perfect fit with the aforementioned bands that finished off the inaugural FORMAT Festival.

It’s easy to find people to throw money at a festival—and in this case—Walmart money—but, combining the amount of art and music programming that Tradic and C3 did is monumental. FORMAT is here to stay, and the region should be excited for next year’s festival in what can be dubbed a less stressful, smaller and manageable Bonnaroo.


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