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January 24, 2018

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Celebrating freedom through the fantastic at Electric Daisy Carnival

Event breaks down barriers through music, dance and art


Steve Marcus

Fireworks explode over the Las Vegas Motor Speedway during the Electric Daisy Carnival Saturday morning June 25, 2011.

2011 Electric Daisy Carnival

Carnival rides spin show goers during the Electric Daisy Carnival at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Saturday morning June 25, 2011. Launch slideshow »

Scenes from EDC

Beyond the Sun

Midnight at the CosmicMeadow stage and Röyksopp, a nutty Norwegian electronic duo, has the crowd in a dancing thrall when the fun really starts, as acrobats in head-to-toe sparkly gold hit the trampoline in front of the stage.

A bit later, Richie Hawtin, aka Plastikman, directs a frenzy of music behind one of the most sophisticated light shows I’ve ever seen.

Furry boots matched with bikinis, bicycles transformed into monarch butterflies, snakes and bats, and of course, fist pumping big beats.

This is the Electric Daisy Carnival, a celebration of electronic music, art and all around weirdness. Though to these people, the straight world most of us live in, with its arbitrary rules and general lack of dance-ability, is abnormal, and I can’t say I don’t sympathize with this view.

For all recorded history, humans have been seeking the ecstatic experiences of altered consciousness, dance, music and art, and life sure is more interesting because of that instinct, even if we only observe it in others.

Caroline Miller of the Flaming Lotus Girls, a volunteer art collective in San Francisco, has been working at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway for a week on the group’s metal sculpture, “Mutopia,” a series of what she called “spirals of mutating plant-animals.”

Also, they shoot fire.

“I’m all about propane,” she says with a laugh. She’s a scientist at a university in San Francisco when not working with the art collective.

They go through 1,000 gallons of propane each night, plus an additional amount of methanol for extra fire. Different salts give the flames their distinctive colors.

To get in the collective and play a role, “Just show up — that’s all it takes,” she says, a good life rule.

Nearby, Tiesto, the superstar DJ who has a regular Vegas gig at the Hard Rock Hotel, is playing to 40,000.

Katya Chpis is on stilts, covered in leaves, her face painted green, so that she’s like a walking tree. Though born in Kazakhstan, she served in the Marine Corps and now counsels veterans on getting a college education while also doing these performances twice a month or so. When not on stilts, she’s a fire dancer. Her life as a walking tree “is a treasure. Everybody wants to hug a tree,” she says.

As I’m writing this at 2:30 a.m. Saturday, there had been no major incidents here, and I’m grateful for that.

This week, critics questioned whether Las Vegas should have welcomed the event, which was plagued last year in Los Angeles with arrests, chaos and the death of an underage girl.

The debate, humorously likened to the movie “Footloose” about the town where dancing is illegal, felt a bit odd given the nature of our city, with our 24-hour access to alcohol and gambling and the wink-and-nod attitude about prostitution and drugs. How many people commit suicide because of these contributing factors? Last year, there were 400 in Clark County.

But somehow 85,000 young people — roughly the count expected Friday night — having fun and dancing was a dangerous risk.

Mayor Oscar Goodman’s response: "You do the best you can, but if people want to be idiots, you can't stop them." Callous and foolishly phrased, yes, but there’s an element of truth to what he’s saying — nearly 100,000 young people in the same place, and someone is bound to do something stupid, and there’s only so much we can do about it. And, he’s very nearly describing our city’s ethos.

At its best, that ethos is a celebration of freedom, and that’s what Electric Daisy Carnival is. But it’s completely different thing than the Strip. It’s a province of the psychedelic kingdom, described to me by one afficionado as “breaking down the us vs. them thing and believing in a higher pattern.” It’s not just “If it feels good, do it.”

A T-shirt at the event: “People white black brown red Christian Muslim Jewish Should just kick it.” And on the front: “Altogether now.”

Cheesy, yes, but authentic and genuinely felt, and a message our community could use to absorb.

Las Vegas has always been anathema to the aforementioned psychedelia. That’s the whole point of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” — Hunter S. Thompson is testing his ability to handle massive amounts of mind altering substances in a deeply hostile environment.

But a nice ancillary benefit of our massive nightclub industry is that we are now one of the electronic music capitals of world. We should embrace that identity, and with it, Electric Daisy Carnival.

As I walked the grounds and saw the collective energy that comes when a crowd is in sync with the music, I was reminded of Nietzsche describing humanity’s occasional urge to oneness with Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and madness: “Dionysiac stirrings arise either through the influence of those narcotic potions of which all primitive races speak in their hymns, or through the powerful approach of spring, which penetrates with joy the whole frame of nature. So stirred, the individual forgets himself completely.”

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