Photos by Jason Huynh and Jeremy Hulsey
IMAGINEFEST: A NEWCOMER’S ACCOUNT
For those not readily familiar with EDM (electronic dance music), (electronic dance music), ImagineFest can seem like the type of event that only happens somewhere else, some other part of the country, or even some other part of the world. This year, however, that otherworldly gathering of top EDM acts from around the globe, found its way into our backyard on the grounds of Kingston Downs.
Most people from the surrounding area will, undoubtedly, associate Kingston Downs with the Atlanta Steeplechase. The Steeplechase was a staple at the site for over 2 decades, and V3 fans, in particular, will likely harken back to some prolific tent celebrations during those prestigious horse races. ImagineFest and the EDM scene, however, is a horse of a different color.
Electronic dance music is the spiritual ancestor to 70’s Disco, and 80’s Synthpop, but truly started to take on its current form in the ’90s, when techno, house, drum and bass, and trance music crawled out of small clubs and onto main stages. Its popularity grew as top-grossing pop acts started including it in their own music and its radio airplay became more widespread and mainstream. My own introduction to the scene began in the late ’90s, with MTV’s AMP.
If you were awake after midnight and needed some good background music for your party, or wanted to watch some interesting computer-generated music videos, then AMP was the place to be. A full hour of uninterrupted music, from a time when the platform was still true to its namesake. Although that show had a very short run, the genre and subgenres that sprang forth from that experimental time period would eventually coalesce into the more refined and polished version that we know today.
I began this year with a simple goal in mind; to do new things and try new experiences that I wouldn’t normally be into. I grew up in the ’80s; the true definition of “latchkey kid” and full-on Generation X. I saw my first concert in 1996 at the age of seventeen. From that day forward, I knew that I wanted to go to every single concert that I possibly could get to. 26 years since that fateful show, and I’ve kept that promise to myself.
I’ve been to hundreds of different shows and seen acts from almost every genre and subgenre imaginable. A packed room, arena, or amphitheater feels like my home. I attended the first 2 festivals of Bonnaroo and countless other festivals during that time. One festival that sticks out in my mind, though, is Counter Point. It too was held at Kingston Downs, and I remember thinking how perfect that spot was for a major live concert event.
In February, my lifelong friends and consummate hosts, Dan and Heather Young invited me to tag along with them to this year’s ImagineFest. They are both huge fans of the music and artists, and I couldn’t really say no to the threat of a good time. This would easily be a way for me to step outside of my comfort zone and try on something new for size. Shortly afterward, my best friend John expressed interest in attending as well.
Neither of us were very familiar with any of the artists or the scene in general. For us, this was just an opportunity to step into a new reality and observe how the other half lives. We wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and John wanted to attend an event because of its proximity to our beloved hometown. We both grew up in the area, and though neither of us live anywhere near it any longer, we both still consider it home.
Imagine began on Thursday, but work schedules and other contributing factors didn’t allow our crew to arrive until Friday. County Sheriff’s had Hwy 411 medians blocked off for several miles to facilitate a continued flow of traffic. We rolled into the day parking line, and the excitement was building. After about an hour-long wait in line (not terrible all things considered), we parked the car and hopped onto a shuttle bus to transport us to the venue gates.
The lines were surprisingly short, and we were in almost immediately. I’ve been through this process before at other venues, and it can be extremely painstaking and, sometimes, infuriating. That wasn’t the case here. Once inside, the minute stress of parking and bussing washed away with the sounds of DJs pumping and bumping dance rhythms and electronic vibrations across multiple stages. There was a main stage where most of the top acts performed, a secondary stage at the other end of Kingston Downs near the old racetrack, and several smaller stages scattered in between.
In my opinion, the stage layouts couldn’t have been any better. Keep in mind that this music is extremely loud, but if you were at one stage, its music is all that you would be hearing. There was no bleed-over. The sights, sounds, and smells were amazing. Vendors were everywhere, and short wait times to get food and beverages. There were tons of pop-up tents selling everything imaginable, but the music was the main attraction.
We started the night watching acts on the main stage, Oceania. This is a massive stage with multiple screens, sculptures, and lights (the likes of which you’ve probably never experienced). The only way to describe it is complete sensory overload. Lights exploding, fire bursting from the main stage, lasers shooting across the entire venue, and thousands of people dressed in the wildest outfits you’ve ever seen. The sound was fantastic.
One thing that I learned about this type of festival is the closer you are, the better. From about 100 to 200 feet away from the stage, you start to feel the music in your chest. At some point, I felt like the bass and vibrations were taking my breath away, but in a fun kind of way. After that, we headed over to the secondary stage, Amazonia. There was a much more relaxed atmosphere there, with plenty of space to spread out, or sit down and just chill out for a minute. You could really get up close and personal with the music at that stage, and we stayed there for the rest of the evening.
On day 2 we got there slightly earlier, and the hour-long wait to get parked had been reduced to minutes. I got the sense that the staff was figuring out the order of operations and streamlining their process from the prior evening. That night was my personal favorite. We traversed the festival grounds multiple times throughout the evening, and one of our friends counted our steps at 40,000 for the day.
Be prepared to do a bit of trekking if you decide to go. We visited multiple stages, but I kept feeling a gravitational pull towards one stage in particular, Disco Inferno. My friend Dan told me that I must be a House music fan because that stage is geared more toward fans of that subgenre. Whatever the case may be, I ended up staying there while half of our group went back to the main stage and finished off the night with one of the headliners.
The 3rd and final day brought out the heavy hitters, with some of the biggest acts in the scene, and wrapped up the event perfectly. Each day seemed to get progressively better from an attendee’s point of view and this gives me tons of hope for the future of the event. Overall, I’d say it was a smashing success, and I truly hope the community continues to support bringing more events like this to the area.
I can see major room for ImagineFest to grow at Kingston Downs and get better as promoters, artists, and all of the countless event staff behind the scenes get more comfortable. Speaking from the experience of having seen the transition from the first Bonnaroo into the subsequent ones, I know that this event will only get better with time, like that aforementioned festival did, bringing prosperity to the surrounding communities.
I can’t think of a better reason to get people, from all across the country, and from all around the world, to make an annual pilgrimage to our amazing neck of the woods. If the music doesn’t interest you, the experience surely will. I know I’ve already locked in my tickets for next year’s event, and I hope to see some new faces, possibly even yours, at that historic Kingston Downs location, for next year’s ImagineFest.