FORMAT Festival 2022: Day 1 – Arkansas’ newest hidden gem

In the heart of lakes country in Northwestern Arkansas sits a city by the name of Bentonville. A relatively small town, notable mostly for being the birthplace and headquarters of the world’s largest retailer, Walmart.

Recently, however, Bentonville has another burgeoning claim to fame in hosting the nation’s newest up-and-coming music and arts celebration. Deep in the woods, a three-day experience of epic proportions known as FORMAT Festival was about to take place.

2022 was their inaugural year and I couldn’t imagine a better start for what hopefully will grow into the Lollapalooza of the South.

I showed up early on Friday to take stroll around the festival grounds and get a look at all the different stages and art installations that would be the focus of the weekend. As I walked, the first thing to catch my attention was the three-story stage, with 360-degree viewing area known as The Cube. I ended up getting sucked into The Cube and stayed for the first three sets of the day.

First was ambient artist Serrano-Torres, who filled the space with calming vibes as curious fans filtered in and out of The Cube. The crowd started to gather for the next act, which actually ended up being the most mind-blowing thing I witnessed all weekend. Human-cyborg Neil Harbisson took the stage and proceeded to drop everyone’s jaws as he explained how he was able to “cure” his color-blindness by implanting an antennae in his skull that plays a sound related to the frequency of whatever color he was looking at. Neil explained a lot of different stuff about cyborg culture, his own implants and his struggles advocating for the cyborg community. It’s definitely worth looking into his story, because it’s fascinating stuff. The third act of The Cube was singer-songwriter Moses Sumney, performing Faux Mo, a percussive set involving no lyrics. The Cube lent itself perfectly to this small and intimate performance that would contrast starkly with the bravado and grandeur of Sumney’s performance on the main stage the next day.

Finally, I was able to drag myself away from The Cube and made my way to the North of Oz Stage for my first main stage set of the weekend. Fans swooned as The Marías took the stage and wowed the crowd with their music’s stunning combination of psychedelia and soul. The fingerprints of jazz and Spanish influence were evident in lead singer María Zardoya’s fiery delivery of their set.

Next, the crowd shuffled over the the South of Oz Stage located next door, in anticipation for GRAMMY-winning music legend Robert Glasper, who took the crowd on a tour of jazz and R&B from behind his keyboards. Finally time for a break, I left the main stage area to grab a drink and catch the end of The Malcriaos Band playing in a disco ball-filled barn named Drag Me to the Disco.

Then, it was back to the main stages for Nile Rogers and Chic.

Another GRAMMY-winning artist, Rogers could have played hits all night. However, at a music festival like this, there is always something else to see or do. Taking a stroll across the festival grounds now that the sun was down was a completely different experience than when I had explored earlier that afternoon. Haze and lights set a mysterious and beautiful vibe for the thousands of people enjoying the night. After taking in the sights, it was back to the South of Oz Stage for alt rock heavyweight The War on Drugs to melt the faces off of everyone in attendance.

Immediately following that on the North of Oz Stage was the Friday night’s headliner, Phoenix. The crowd went wild as the band put on a colorful and energetic set, which ended in a spectacle of chaos. Lead singer Thomas Mars crowd-surfed into the crowd as the band played out their final song. In the pit, dancers in Nick Cave’s “Sound Suits” swayed and spun to the music, causing the suits to swing along with the music. (Better photos of the Sound Suits will be coming in Saturday and Sunday’s recaps!)

After Phoenix closed out the main stages, the festival’s late night festivities began in earnest. First, back in the Drag Me to the Disco barn was the return of English DJ legend Fatboy Slim. The barn was packed as fans got down to the 90s DJ’s mix. The crowd was so rowdy that you could feel the wooden floor of the barn flexing violently as they jumped up and down on it.

Last, but certainly not least, was an intimate set tucked into the woods at the far back corner of the festival grounds. In among the trees was a stage known as Smokey’s, ostensibly named after the giant creature which served as the backdrop for the stage.

Mouth agape and with lasers beaming from his eyes, Smokey towered over rapper and singer Shygirl, who was performing.

Due to its small size compared to the other stages and the remote nature of its location, Smokey’s stage feels much more intimate than the rest of the festival, which Shygirl took advantage of as she blessed the crowd with her genre-spanning performance.

At that point, I decided to call it a night. As I walked back towards the shuttle, which ferried attendees back and forth from the festival to the city, I couldn’t help but smile at how smoothly things had gone. You don’t typically expect a festival in its first year to go off without a hitch, but the first day was in the books and I hadn’t heard a single complaint from anyone I talked to all day. Friday had set the bar high! Stay tuned for Day Two coverage!

Photography by Sean Rider

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