Reviewed: MDL Beast festival
If I said there was a festival in the middle of a desert, with a line up consisting of stellar talent like Black Coffee, Marco Carola, Peggy Gou, Jamie Jones, Kerri Chandler, Solomun, Cassy, Jimpster, Danny Tenaglia, Matthias Tanzmann, Camelphat and much more would it pique your interest?
If I told you I’ve just been to a festival with possibly the most up for it crowd I’ve experienced, in Saudi Arabia, would you believe me?
Between the 19th and 21st of this month, whilst a lot of the world are in the grips of Christmas chaos, the inaugural MDL Beast festival took place in Riyadh attracting a mind-boggling 400,000 attendees across the three days.
Let’s tackle the elephant in the room first. It would be remiss of me to stick my head in the sand (pun intended) and gloss past the fact that a lot of eyes have been on Saudi Arabia recently and not all of that has been positive. There are however positive changes afoot in KSA and General Entertainment Authority Chairman Turki Al-Sheikh is behind a huge push to promote the arts and entertainment in KSA and the sense across the festival is that the attendees are fully embracing the forward motion.
One of the first things that struck me when having my first recce across the sprawling site was that many people were wearing bandanas. If you think about the number of geezers wearing Dquared2 Icon caps at UK festivals and multiple that by 100, you’ll be somewhere close. I subsequently found out this was due to a request from the entertainment chairman to wear them and give the festival its own identity.
Now on to the really important part: the music, the DJs, the spark that would ignite an event that will go down in history. On the first day we were treated to Marco Carola and Black Coffee on the huge record breaking Big Beast main stage. The pair even finished with a back to back. A peak, as far as crowd reaction goes, had Black Coffee dropping Stardust’s ‘Music Sounds Better With You’, he then grabbed a loop, introduced Robin S ‘Show Me Love’ acapella over the loop and then brought Stardust back in for a huge crowd pop.
Over at the container style underground zones – entitled UG Beast 1 and 2 – UG Beast 1 had the first EVER female Saudi DJ – Cosmicat – laying down a serious, but groovy set of house and techno. Now bear in mind women were only allowed to drive in KSA recently, you may understand the importance of this particular set beyond the music itself?
Jamie Jones came on a little later and looked like he was having a lovely time. I was slightly envious of his nice leather jacket, as I’d totally misjudged my packing. I’d packed a load of t-shirts, but it was really rather cold at night. JJ was playing various bumping tracks that had familiar samples in them including Sean Paul, Sisqo and Toni Braxton, which proved to be a wise decision as the samples had familiarity whilst the drum tracks kept things moving. And moving the crowds did! Bearing in mind there was no alcohol for sale at the festival, the energy the Saudi crowd were bringing to the dance was genuinely refreshing.
JJ pulled a double shift as Nicole Moudaber seemingly no showed, even though her IG stories had videos of her in KSA, who led into Peggy Gou and then into Solomun. Rumour has it Solumun is still playing at an after-party somewhere in the middle of the desert, running on Arabian coffee alone.
A small thing I noticed whilst Peggy Gou was playing was that she was the only DJ I saw that had a whole load of booth botherers. Amusingly some of them tried to get into the DJ booth but a bouncer, the size of The Mountain from Game of Thrones, was having none of it and kept them in their designated booth botherer area so they could insta their life away.
On the Friday I managed to have a brief chat with an important part of the Saudi underground (and I mean proper underground) electronic music scene, DJ Baloo. A veteran of over twenty years and someone who was an integral part of programming the Saudi DJ talent. I asked him if he ever thought something like MDL Beast would ever happen? “Not really, you live in hope”. A succinct comment with the last bit resonating with me the most. Personally, I don’t think a UK crowd can quite understand the gravity of what was happening in KSA, as we are spoilt for choice. Week in, week out, we can see the cream of the DJ world. An event like MDL Beast, that couples local talent with some of the best DJs in the house and techno scene, has literally NEVER happened before, no wonder the smiles that weren’t hidden behind surgical masks (a half practical, half fashion trend in KSA) were so broad.
Friday’s musical highlights were Camelphat on the Big Beast. Two likely Liverpool lads who have grafted for years to get to where they are now. They were rolling out their huge sounds to 65,000 people on a sound system that could probably be heard back in the UK and prompt the some wally to file a noise pollution complaint against MDL Beast.
Baloo was playing over at UG Beast 1 and literally a stones throw away in UG Beast 2, we caught Kerri Chandler sending the crowd nuts with some exceptional deep house with chords that seemed to hypnotise you. Jimpster, who was playing after Baloo, ended his set with a poignant track – Joe Smooth ‘Promised Land’ – and although it looked to be unfamiliar to most that were dancing around me, you couldn’t overlook the importance of the classic tracks lyrical content.
Most of Saturday was actually spent checking out the arts side of the festival in the Art Beast. They had all manner of bright, shiny things to catch your attention. There was the Cirque Beast that had robots dancing to Daft Punk’s ‘Harder better Faster Stronger’. A carnival procession with drummers, stilt walkers and dancers with disco ball heads. There was also a 360 degree immersive sound and visual dome that had imagery in time to the throbbing BPM, that would be impressive in an a club. They also had an interactive sound zone and next door was a small studio where you could work on making some beats if the urge took you.
There was a LOT to keep you entertained if you wanted a break from dancing.
My favourite lowkey MDL Beast experience didn’t require dancing. All it needed was a bobbing head. If you’ve never seen FKJ/FrenchKiwiJuice before (as I hadn’t) I highly recommend it, he’s a one man music making whirlwind, as he flits between playing 1 of 4 guitars, 2 saxophones and various synths and who had a big crowd singing along to his huge hit ‘Tadow’. It was an intimate and fitting ending to what had been a massive landmark achievement for everyone in attendance. My main take away from such a historic event, that obviously had such a huge impact, is to continue that forward motion. Think about legacy, think about longevity, continue to nurture and promote that home grown talent. Maybe create a Mini Beast, where it doesn’t need the huge scale operation of MDL Beast, but can continue to build the scene and further educate the eager audience.