I’ve always considered myself somewhat of a psychonaut (one who is not afraid to venture into the unknown parts of their mind with utter disregard for consequences) which is why I happily agreed when my girlfriend suggested we take LSD during XPN fest, 2015. The week before we left, we scored 3 tabs off of a friend in the staircase of an apartment building in Queens. They were small, light, and wrapped in a thin sheet of tin foil. After examining them briefly back at our home base, we set them in the refrigerator and continued packing.
We left New York in the morning, and headed to Philly via New Jersey Transit. My girlfriend and I were restlessly talking and screwing around on our phones. My mind would randomly jump to the thought of the tabs sitting in our suitcase. All of my trips before this one had left me with a tremendous sense of wonder and amazement. I was eager to try tripping in a public place, as strange as it sounds. I remember feeling like Hunter Thompson heading to Las Vegas. My head was clear that night as we pulled into 30th street station and got off the train. The first thing we did, naturally, was stop at the nearest convenience store and try to buy rolling papers (as we, like good participants in a music festival, brought a quarter of weed to be rolled in our hotel room). To our dismay, the store didn’t carry any rolling papers. We were saved by the kindness of a nearby stranger, who overheard our inquiry and gave us 6 ot 7 papers to use at our convenience. I made a remark about brotherly love in Philly, and we hopped in a cab to our hotel.
Once we were back at the hotel, we dropped off our stuff, rolled some joints, and headed out to the venue. The fest was being held on the waterfront in Camden, NJ. It was right across the water from where we were staying in Philly, so we smoked a joint walking over and then got on line for the ferry. The line was full of snobbish sports-fan looking white people. They had coolers for their beer and many of them had lawn chairs. Looking at them all waiting made me feel grossly unprepared and out of my element. Their conversations all resound with longing. Longing to get to the other side of the river, longing to see their favorite band, meet up with their friends, longing to feel something other than hot.
Once we got on the boat, I started seeing friendly faces wearing XPN shirts. These concert goers were likely contributing members of the station, which would soon become a theme of our concert experience. Once we touched down and our bags were checked, we were instantly asked if we were members, and after politely declining the many listed benefits of becoming an XPN supporting member, we were told to make sure we had the proper wristbands for the festivals multiple zones. So at that point we sorted out our wristbands and checked out the first day’s bands. The first band we were able to catch was a gospel-jazz band called something like “the living word”. Their songs were long winded riffy versions of classic gospel songs. Positive energy filled the air as they took their solos and quietly took their place in the background for their partners to solo. The sun set and when the moon was high, the main act Dawes played a killer set. They covered an old Irish folk song that I had just heard an Irishman play at an open mic in Manhattan a week earlier. On the way back to the hotel, the line was insanely long for the ferry. My girlfriend and I bonded with some other fans over Bonnaroo memories. They commented on how many of the people on line with us weren’t even there for Dawes, they were coming from the stadium, which had a country act playing that night. This explained all the cooler-bros waiting earlier, and also gave me hope that the next two days the line wouldn’t be so long.
When back at the hotel, we took stock of the knowledge we learned from the first day: bag check is thorough but friendly, it’s not easy to smoke, but it’s possible, and the people are friendly and overall, probably Christian. Upon waking up, we stretched and got dressed, and then took our tabs. We each put one tab under our tongue, and then I cut the second in half with some scissors, and we took those too. We went for a walk and smoked. It was the usual anxious LSD come-up, but with some factors that were different from my last trips. First of all, we were in a city totally new to us. I had been to Philly before, but only with family. The vibes and people you see on the street are much different than that of our home, New York. While walking around, we decided we should buy some sun screen, so we stopped inside a nearby hotel gift shop. I remember looking around at all of the items. The room seemed small and I couldn’t believe the variety or items that they could fit in there. I started to notice some visual breathing and we paid and walked out.
After our trip-induced ADD thwarted our plans of boarding the ferry, we stopped and sat on a bench facing the water. Boats of many varieties littered the horizon. A guy in a jet ski went riding past us, with this really dumb face on. He looked like it was giving him more pleasure that we were seeing him on the jet ski than the fact that he was actually riding it. We made fun of the guy’s materialism and got back on line for the ferry, eager to actually board this time. While we were waiting, I remember thinking about how our stomachs are like water bottles inside of us. I thought it was kind of stupid that we carry around water, but then get thirsty. I had read that it’s best to drink before you’re thirsty. I also remember thinking about how the body processing water inside is way more effective than cooling down with a mist-blaster. All of my gadgets to stay cool all seemed obsolete compared to my biology. Similarly, I started to notice the excessiveness of people’s interaction with their phones. People were glued to their screens, and just the fact that they had to show a ticket to a worker seemed to annoy them beyond comprehension. They were eager to get back to their devices.
Once we were on board the ferry, I couldn’t help but feel uneasy. Some mixture of the bobbing boat, the LSD, and the fact that my girlfriend and I were in the process of quitting smoking cigarettes put me in a restless mood. This mood was amplified by the various people partying around me. There were the old couples, eagerly looking for seats. There were the young adults, with their devil may care attitude smoking reds off the side of the boat. As I watched their smoke spiral and dance before dissipating into the mist, I remembered how it felt to damage my body for the satisfaction. I remember the chemical reaction behind their eyes as they glared at us sitting under the awning near the “no smoking” sign. Behind the glare is a sentiment of superiority. It’s an utter disbelief that others wouldn’t want to spend their time smoking as well. “Look at these chumps, sitting here and not enjoying life to it’s fullest” they thought with a cigarette in hand, truly free.
When we got to land, my girlfriend and I veered off from the bad check line and made sure that all of our marijuana was well hidden. The fact that I was tripping made me even more afraid that something was going to go wrong upon entry. I think the staff caught wind of our discomfort, because from the corner of my eye I saw a chubby middle-aged woman with a walkie talkie approach us and curiously look at us. At this point my girlfriend grabbed my arm, and dragged me onto the bag check line.
We got in without a hitch and instantly headed to the band directory, as we already had our bracelets from the night before. The band that was currently performing had a name that appeared to be in a language I had never before encountered in my time on earth. I remember not even recognizing the individual letters, let alone the name itself. Whatever band it was left us scratching our heads as we walked towards a main stage where we would soon see First Aid Kit. We had both seen First Aid Kid in NYC not long before the fest, but we still wanted to see them play again, especially now that we were tripping.
When the sisters came out onto the stage, the energy was electric. The crowd roared as they picked up their instruments and started the first song. Although the instruments were in tune and sounded heavenly, something seemed dark once they started singing, and I couldn’t quite place why. I wondered if it was the drugs changing my experience, and started to wonder if it was a good idea taking them at all.
Behind the band was a battleship, and in the sky appeared a large skull, with glowing eyes. I felt like a giant laser was pointing right at me, with the rafters of the stage creating a perfect crosshair. When the first song concluded, the sisters explained that one of them had a cold and that’s why their harmonies weren’t what they usually were, which explained some of my confused energies. The longer they played, the more I got used to the less-full sound that comes with First Aid Kit with only one singer, and the more they impressed me. It almost felt as if the singer was channeling some kind of other spirit, as their lyrics took us to the edge of reality and back over beautiful rhythms. After a somewhat questionable drum solo, the sisters played an amazing cover of the Simon and Garfunkel classic “America.” The performance really hit home looking around at the other concertgoers and contemplating the state of our great nation. “I smoked the last one an hour ago” struck me to the heart, as during this trip my girlfriend and I had set out for our first festival with no cigarettes. I felt bad for the people who were still under the grip of an addiction pandered by big business, but I also related to them and knew exactly how they felt. These realizations made me happy that I was quitting, and put a positive end to a tumultuous set of live music. I didn’t realize then, but this was only the beginning of the supernatural forces that were about to be at work through notes and rhythm.
The roadies started changing the set almost immediately after the band walked off stage. A gigantic, classic Americana tattoo style skull was hoisted up above the stage. A huge, light up “Strange Trails” lit up underneath. I wondered if this was referring to the trails that followed everything moving around me, as if I could see the world as a Tralfamadorian would. Contrarily, I think the group just happened to enjoy hiking.
A vintage style, ambient, lo-fi song started. It had eerie harmonies and a ghostly structure. The band walked onto stage, and without acknowledging the crowd started playing as soon as the intro song stopped. We were thrust into a high octane, powerful set that honestly scared the living shit out of me. As the band members swayed on stage the lyrics stated to stick out to me more than ever. Songs that I had listened to on the train for hours started to scare and upset me. “I don’t want to die” “I’m the world ender baby” “till the ends of the earth, would you follow me?” all felt like they were a celestial force pleading with the audience to feed into a cycle of negativity, which would ultimately lead to the destruction of mankind. As I looked around at the people around me, singing along and dancing with the rhythm, I started to feel uneasy. But the rhythm and energy was intoxicating, and before long I found myself dancing along as well. As the singer swayed and thrusted on stage, my girlfriend pointed at the bassist. “Look!” she said it almost looks like the bassist is in love with him. And when I looked, it did. The bassist was looking with utter infatuation, and we both felt that we had discovered a little too much about this group through simple human observation. As the light shone down onto the singers writhing body, his hair stuck up into two perfect tips. Singing about the beauty of infinite life, and the fear of the darkness and the unknown, my mind could not help but make the connection to Lucifer, the fallen angel. I tapped my girlfriend on the shoulder. “Very Luciferian” I said, and caught the attention of a nearby concert-goer, who looked over at us in intrigue. “What?! I’m just saying! Not like it’s a problem!” I snapped at him. I was sure that he was a loyal servant of the army of darkness, and wanted him to be sure that I was no threat to their dark cause. Soon after, the band broke into another song, which concluded in a section of audio played in reverse. As the effect played, I felt time warp with the sound. I was clapping in reverse, and all I could do afterwards was look down at my hands in disbelief.
The aftershock of the set was palpable. Looking around at all the forms of friend meat and cheese with my vegan girlfriend left me feeling uneasy and out of place. I looked hard for something wholesome to eat, and eventually settled on some pierogis, which I unfortunately could not share, because they had cheese in them. I remember not even really tasting the cheese, which was disappointing because I felt that it’s only purpose in those pierogis was to stop me from sharing them with my love. After eating, we decided to head toward the main stage where My Morning Jacket would play later that night. As we neared the stadium, however, tensions grew high as we realized there was another bag check, and what seemed to be an armada of police waiting for us near the entrance.
Before we approached the group of officers, we stopped by the porta potties to put the rest of our weed into a safer space before inspection. I think the fact that we were tripping made us even more uneasy to approach the officers. Something felt terrifying about how they had the power to put us somewhere we couldn’t leave. We did our best to keep it cool as the cop asked “How are you two doing today?” – “Well” we replied with a smile, although behind our eyes we wanted to run the other direction. We made some friends waiting in line to get into the main theatre. Some older folks who were into the same music as us, which was cool. I remember asking if they’d ever been to a “collection of shows like this” before, to which they replied, “We love festivals!” although I didn’t fully agree that this was an average music festival. It seemed more disjointed due to multiple bag checks, separate areas, and staff which was generally not helpful in the slightest. There were some people giving away granola bars, but nobody would take them until someone else walked up and started looking people in the eyes. I took one from the second guy, and it was pretty good. Natures Valley, I think. There was a large cutout of an alligator which looked extremely alien, in fact I didn’t recognize it as an alligator until I was back the next day.
Once we were through the bag check, we started heading in and looking for our seats. We had purchased “Go Anywhere” ticket, so we figured we’d be allowed through to the front standing room by the stage. However, when we tried to talk to the usher about it, she sort of scoffed at us and told us “I don’t know where you need to go, but it’s not here.” The frustration of the situation was compounded by the fact that there were no representatives from the festival on hand to facilitate our entry. We ended up bouncing between another 4 ushers before ending up in the back, on the lawn, farthest from the stage. This didn’t matter much to us, and we sat down on the grass and made ourselves comfortable. Up first was St. Vincent.
St Vincent had a sarcastic and mildly sexual tone to her set. She dedicated a tune to “all the dominators and the dominated” in the crowd, which I’m pretty sure included everyone in attendance when you think about it. She also made a comment about some misogynistic rap lyrics between songs. Her songs themselves were intricate and mesmerizing. She writhed on stage and danced in an ancient way.
After St. Vincent, a lot of people in the crowd headed home. It was a work night, and not everybody wanted to stay for MMJ. I thought that was weird, since I was looking forward to them and hoping that they would be just the emotional pick me up I needed at this point in the trip. After the crowd thinned, another group of attendants started to arrive, and soon after some small talk with other attendees, the band walked out on stage.
Jim James walked out and shook his majestic beard. They introduced themselves and started the set off with “Off the Record” – the first song I had ever heard by My Morning Jacket, and one of my favorites to this day. Jim’s howls filled my soul with wonder, and after each song he left us with hints of wisdom. “Thank you for enjoying the beauty of life on earth with us here tonight!” he exclaimed. Life seemed a little less grim with each song, as the residual effects of Lord Huron started to fade. They ran through an impressive list of old and new songs, bringing in unexpected treats like a saxophone (at the time, I thought Carl Brohman was playing some kind of metal octopus, until my girlfriend informed me otherwise). Jim punctuated the set with another story of when he went to the nearby aquarium and looked into the eyes of a century-old hippopotamus. “it was like looking into the eyes of all life” he said. The unity of all creation started to return, and they pushed through into more MMJ songs like “Wonderful.”