By Mitch Tilley and Ali Haseeb
As you pull into the Texas Renaissance Festival grounds, you immediately realize you are about to enter a completely different realm unlike anything you’ve ever seen. In its inaugural year, Middlelands was hosted by the legendary Texas Renaissance Festival Grounds in Todd Mission Texas. It was the perfect venue for the occasion as you witnessed all the festival goers in middle aged era themed costumes with the variety of genres playing on the five extremely aesthetic stages. Insomniac and C3 did an amazing job of coming together to create an exciting festival enjoyed by everyone in attendance. Mitch camped this year but I, Ali, did not. Either way, we checked out the sound camps and that was an amazing set up and concept. So with that being said, come hither… Let us paint you a vivid description of Middlelands, a festival for the ages!
Stage Production and Venue Set Up
The Stage productions are what caught my attention first. The architecture was absolutely incredible. The words “Middle Lands” were identifiable from hundreds of yards away with an epic castle like feel to them. Fit in perfectly with the ambiance of the festival. We’ll further explain each one below. The choices for food were also great. Legendary Houston classics Wokker and Waffle Bus made cameos. If you haven’t checked those spots out, you MUST! Drinks were a little pricey, but the best deal was the King’s Cup. Definitely worth the 16 dollar price tag. The venue accommodated multiple varieties of food and drinks that kept everyone full and their thirst quenched!
Nestled away in a realm of tall trees with candle-lit lanterns, Castle Northwoods towered almost 100 ft tall and spanned 200 ft wide. Castle Northwoods had a good assortment of lasers and flamethrowers; however, the pyrotechnics and LED screens really made for a unique production experience. Marshmello, Bassnectar and Zhu took the most advantage of the 800 LED screens to make insane visual images that complimented their DJ sets.
While Middlelands Arena was not technically the main stage for the festival, it was hands down one of my favorites from the weekend. The setting was absolutely perfect from the outer wall made of stone archways to the nice grassy hill to the lower pit with a dance floor. During the daytime, the production was mainly focused on the LED screens placed inside each archway behind the DJ’s. However, once the sun dropped the Middlelands Arena came to life with constant CO2 jets, lasers, lights, flamethrowers, stupid amounts of confetti, and pyrotechnics.
The Stronghold had the feel of a typical festival stage; however, Insomniac spruced it up a bit. The stage had some really cool medieval tapestries that hung from the sides and tapestries on poles around the outer perimeter of the crowds. The stage had a small assortment lasers and flamethrowers, unlike Trinity Vale. The Stronghold was centrally located along the pathway to Castle Northwoods with an assortment of options for food trucks, adult beverages, free filtered water, and official merchandise. The stage was quite hot during the day due to the lack of trees for shade and the ground consisted mostly of gravel, which was quite rough to dance on. Due to the close proximity of the stage to Castle Northwoods, some sound interference was experienced from the main stage.
Trinity Vale always always was bumping no matter what time of the day I passed by. While there were not any pyrotechnics or insane lasers, the crowd’s energy and the wooden floors (a shuffler’s favorite) were all that you needed. Trinity Vale consisted mostly of house sets (progressive, bass, and techno) and also drew in large crowds since the stage was perfectly nestled on the pathway between Middlelands Arena and Castle Northwoods.
After docking its anchor from a long voyage at sea, the Wench’s Bay (also known as the Space Wench) unveiled fresh beats on its deck from local Houston talent. The Space Wench was originally built in 1970 on a Ford van and made its first appearance at Burning Man in 2001 then EDC in 2006. The pirate ship art car has a thumping sound system, cannons, steampunk finishes, a few candle-lit chandeliers, and the occasional plundering pirates.
Paying homage to Shakespeare, the Globe Theatre at Middlelands hosted live performances; however, with a slight twist. While traditional artists and DJ’s didn’t play at this small stage of vines and leaves, Paragon still drew in large crowds. He is a purple monkey puppet with a unicorn horn who entertained headliners as they walked between stages with improvisational raps, funky beats, and live DJ sets. Paragon is the leader of a group called the Fungineers who put on hip-hop puppet shows with multiple puppets, vocalists, rappers, and dancers. Paragon has previously appeared at other festivals, such as Electric Forest and Lightening in a Bottle. Magicians, jugglers, and other performers played at the Globe Theatre, in addition to Paragon.
Ye Ole Camping
If experiencing the largest Renaissance theme park in the nation wasn’t enough, attendees could travel further into the realm of Middlelands with 20 acres of camping. Middlelands featured 10 different camping options to accommodate different group sizes and preferences, everything from basic camping to themed / sound camps to VIP glamping. Entry and vehicle searches were very smooth and quite painless for the majority of the campers who followed the camp rules sent out earlier in the year. Since vehicle movement around the camp grounds was limited after arriving to your spot, the pathways were easy to navigate and relatively non-dusty thanks to the daily water trucks wetting down the roads.
Early arrival on Wednesday went really smoothly after we got settled in around 8pm. It did start to rain a little bit, but it honestly helped cool off everyone after a hot day. You already knew the party started once you parked because everyone was jamming out to music and drinking while setting up their campsites. Insomniac kicked off Wednesday night with a big bonfire for all the early arrival campers to mingle and warm up from the chilly night, in addition to a movie showing. Once the general camping began on Thursday, Bassrush kicked off the enchanted weekend with a pre-party for all the campers at the Insomniac sound camp, located right at Conqueror’s Court. Bassrush really bought the heat with a stacked lineup including 12th Planet, Crizzly, Space Jesus, Tim Gunter, Carlyle, and Mad Hatter. Not only did the Insomniac sound camp have a thumping sound system, it also featured a custom built wooden stage with lighting features.
Additionally, there were official after-hours parties presented by Night Owl Radio to keep the party going after Middlelands ended each night. Everyone flocked to the Insomniac Sound Camp at Conqueror’s Court after the festival and the whole area was packed with head bangers, costumes, totems, fire dancers, flow artists, and vendors as far as the eye could see. Friday’s crowd was really fired up for the after-party sets with Tokimonsta and NGHTMRE. One of my favorite sets from the Insomniac Sound Camp was Sunday aftert the festival with Snails because he threw down a filthy back-to-back set with Griz and Herobust.
After rumors were confirmed about 12th Planet playing a sunrise bass house set on Saturday morning at the Call of Booty sound camp, many of the campers further explored the sound camps after Day 2. The sound camps carefully planned and designed their camps for DJ’s to play sets late into the hours of the night, each with its own variety of music, theme, and vibe. Ye Olde Dohm built an impressive geodesic dome structure complete with visual screens, hanging hammocks, and lots of trance music. With over 70 campers, Holy Ship’s ShipFam kept the good vibes flowing at House Pineapple with their lit-up, covered dance floor and non-stop house and techno music. Across the street, campers found the Call of Booty who took you into another realm that fused pirates with electronic dance music culture. Before Middlelands even started, the Call of Booty for the past 15 years had been camping and playing their favorite game “Pirate Planks” at the Texas Renaissance Festival.
The Enchanted Grove and Conqueror’s Court were my favorite areas of camp because there was so much to do. The Enchanted Grove hosted movie showings, stargazing, yoga classes, slack line workshops, and a mindfulness circle. Each day Conqueror’s Court hosted various activities to satisfy the crafty campers and even the athletic ones too. The amenities in the court were also very well thought-out from the free filtered water stations to the phone charging stations to the free shower trailers (btw most camping festivals charge for showers). There were stations for making flower crowns, decorating bicycles, tie-dying shirts, and crafting kandi under a covered tent while the fierce competitions (bubble soccer, tug of war, and archery tag) were held just outside for all to watch. Conqueror’s Court was a true melting pot for all the campers to mingle, located right in the middle of the campgrounds about half way to the sound camps and the festival entrance.
While roaming around the vicinity of the community area, I stumbled upon group camping where I met a very large squad, ICT Rave Crew, that themed their massive campsite after the movie “The Wizard of Oz”. Most of ICT Rave crew hails from Kansas and even Dorthy was seen roaming around the camp grounds trying to find her way back to Kansas.
Overall camping was a huge success with more than 15,000 campers, minimal hiccups, gorgeous days and clear nights. For it being a first-year festival, most of the kinks seemed to have been ironed out. The only major complaint was long wait times to use the showers in the late morning and early afternoon; however, it was rumored that the original bathroom / shower vendor backed out just a few days before Middlelands. Everyone I talked to said they would come back next year, including Madison Ivy, Janelle Elizabeth aka “Forbidden Kitten”, and the iHeartraves unicorns (Mama Unicorn, Tiny Dancer, and Minnie).
Even though we were nowhere near Halloween time….the costumes were my favorite part. Not everyone was dressed up but those who were, went all out. We saw everything from elegant kings and beautiful queens, to suited up knights and dungeon masters. Several couples stole the show….we got stopped multiple times to take pictures of our outfits.
What were your Top Favorite Sets of the Weekend?
1. Zhu 2. Slander 3. Bijou 4. Boombox Cartel 5. Lido
I don’t know if it was because we were moderately lit or if the crowd’s energy was contagious or simply the fact that the timing was just perfect…but Slander absolutely blew our mind. They tore it up right after G jones as the sun went down and warmed the stage up for seven lions. It flowed perfectly. There was a sea of head banging ravers jamming in sync. A site to see. This is where I went the hardest, definitely felt the whip lash the day after. Snails also killed it with his Vomit step genre. I saw countless videos of him in his king’s crown, robe, and gear dropping super heavy bangers and I realized I was in that crowd. Bassnectar totally blew my mind as well! 5th time seeing him and he came with the dark heavy trap and dub. Honorable mention to Major Lazer for the rasta vibes! Middlelands also had a few rappers in the mix, my favorite being Rae Sremmurd. Been jamming their albums all year. The stage they performed at was Castle North Woods and it was the perfect spot. The stage extended a platform out where they can pretty much walk into and interact with the crowd. They performed their hits Black Beatles and Swang and the whole crowd chimed in. It was a great addition to the rest of the line up.
I would without a doubt have to give one of my top set picks to Gramatik from Day 1. It was my first time seeing Gramatik and the set had such a unique sound with the blending of funky jazz and hip-hop. The set went to the next level when Gramatik brought out surprise artists such as Big Gigantic and the keyboardist, Anomalie.
My absolute favorite set from Middlelands on Day 2 was Seven Lions because of his song choices for the set. Jeff Montalvo, aka Seven Lions, set the tone of his set by opening up with “Delerium ft. Sarah McLachlan” (Tiësto Remix) by Silence. Throughout the set, Jeff alternated flawlessly with his own music and other EDM artists such as NGHTMRE, Bro Safari, Above and Beyond, Porter Robinson, Myon, and many more. The crowd went absolutely ballistic when Seven Lions transitioned over to psytrance with insane lasers and the song “Great Spirit” by Armin Van Buuren and Vini Vici. Even the dubstep and bass lovers got a little love with “Throwin Elbows” from Excision and Space Laces.
Lastly, Illenium put on a very impressive set during Day 3 and he kicked it off with an original called “Afterlife” to fire up the crowd. Porter Robinson was quite popular over the weekend because Illenium also played one of his songs called “Shelter”. Illenium even alluded to some of the other artists playing at Middlelands with his remixes of “Disarm You” by Kaskade and “Gold Dust” by Galantis, who both were playing later that night at Castle Northwoods. While Illenium did play quite a bit of other artist’s music, he did an amazing job switching between the various genres and songs chosen.
So after seeing it from two different perspectives….and discussing pros and cons of the weekend, it is safe to say, we were both very pleased with the entirety of the festival. The variety of genres at the festival was amazing, over 150 artists over the three-day span. The uniqueness of the festival grounds, the diverse lineup and the camping experiences were definitely enough to make Middlelands a success. There was tons to do. Including five stages, carnival rides or other amazing sights. The staff was very helpful and amazing and the festival goers loved the festival grounds. If you didn’t attend you surely missed out. Unfortunately, as per the decision by the county officials, it will not take place at the Texas Renaissance Festival campgrounds again…but that doesn’t mean Pasquale and the gang will not bring this festival back in another location. Definitely looking forward to year two! ’twas lit.
Closing words from Raytrill,
Middlelands was incredible for more reasons than just a lineup, there was something in the air, good vibes flowed freely.
It was a place where close to 70k people came and felt free, felt like themselves and could escape the problems of reality for a weekend and just be happy.
From running around the incredibly well decorated and planned festival to every single musical performance and every person i met, it was one of the greatest weekends of my life.