515 Alive: A Hidden Gem of a Festival

Written by Melissa Faulkner

It’s not about how big it is, it’s how you use it. 

515 Alive’s last-minute venue switch from the much larger water park to its newly opened, and much smaller Water Works Amphitheater had fans, artists, and media a little weary. But when it became feasible to walk between stages in the same set and genuinely enjoy both of them, my concerns subsided. Now in its 17th year (yes, SEVENTEEN YEARS) 515 Alive had one of its most impressive line ups to date, a go-hard-or-go-home crowd dressed like EDM elite, and Lion King sunsets that one can only dream of when planning festivals. At the risk of sounding like an utter millennial cliche…this entire EDM festival was so #OnBrand. And in Des Moines no less. 

Good job, Iowa. Good job. 

Flux Pavilion 515 Alive Des Moines Iowa Water Works Park Amphitheater Festival Squad
Flux Pavilion at 515 Alive – Photo by Chris Taylor

Music didn’t begin until 5pm, mostly due to the proximity of the venue to a critical building in Iowa. Water Works Amphitheater is situated in front of the Water Works Building, which is responsible for supplying clean water to all of Iowa. According to the city, it was in everyone’s best interest to leave the people working there undisturbed. Okay, fine, I get it. 

Six hours of music doesn’t seem like much until you’re living it. Having the entire day to sleep in, grab bottomless mimosas at brunch (shout out to Americana), and leisurely change my outfit a couple of times until satisfied was a festival luxury I highly underrated. 

Day 1 

I arrived on day 1 hydrated and ready. Black Tiger Sex Machine took the stage shortly after in their expected black tiger helmets and leather-studded vests. Not sure who wore it better, them or Chadwick Boseman

Black Tiger Sex Machine 515 Alive Des Moines Iowa Water Works Park Amphitheater Festival Squad
Black Tiger Sex Machine at 515 Alive – Photo by Chris Taylor

Sign game was strong in the crowd. A lot of “No Laws When You’re On the Claw” flags, but some signs that hit me in the feelers too. This is something I’ve grown to love about the EDM community – their desire for inclusivity and acceptance. One girl proudly carried a totem that said: “You Deserve To Be Here.” In fact, 515 Alive was one of the most handicap accessible festivals I have ever been to. I saw so many people with leg boots, scooters, and arm slings. Maybe a sign of the wild summer that Iowans have been having. Perhaps a pause for concern. But I also saw many fans in wheelchairs, some even brave enough to head straight to the rail and crowd surf. 

This dude had the best weekend of his life. Try to tell me otherwise. 

515 Alive Des Moines Iowa Water Works Park Amphitheater Festival Squad
515 Alive – Photo by Chris Taylor

Both Playboi Carti and Hippie Sabotage produced energy and noise levels that surpassed all expectations for pre-sunset. Hippie Sabotage got in quite the cardio workout, jumping tirelessly on stage, and even off stage for a crowd surfing and mosh pit stint. 

Right before GRiZ took the main stage, I casually walked (no need to run, it took four minutes) to the Kosmic Tent to watch Whipped Cream. With most of the crowd staking ground for GRiZ, I had so much room to dance and explore the space. The whole vibe was like an underground LA warehouse party, and I was into it. 

And I still had time to get back and watch 80% of GRiZ ’s set with unobstructed views. 

Griz 515 Alive Des Moines Iowa Water Works Park Amphitheater Festival Squad
GRiZ at 515 Alive – Photo by Chris Taylor

Wiz Khalifa capped out the night, playing his ultimate crowd-pleasers alongside his tour DJ from Minneapolis. I spotted another favorite flagpole: “Lost? Come dance with me.”

After attending Soundset this year, I’ve been a little weary about live hip-hop performances. It seems they are really hit or miss in comparison to what you get on the albums. However, Wiz did not disappoint. His set was energetic, engaging, funny, endearing, and all the things you for a headliner of an EDM festival. I even shed a tear when he played “See You Again” and projected a photo of himself with Mac Miller.

Wiz Khalifa 515 Alive Des Moines Iowa Water Works Park Amphitheater Festival Squad
Wiz Khalifa at 515 Alive – Photo by Chris Taylor

Day 2

After a full night of sleep, a lovely day in Des Moines, and a free hotel shuttle to the park (holler Holiday Inn Express! Know your target market!), I visited the two smaller stages to get a feel for the other stages. Though the tents were more modest (and hotter) than the amphitheater, the intensity was unrivaled. It was that controlled chaos we all know and love from EDM shows in small theaters.

515 Alive Des Moines Iowa Water Works Park Amphitheater Festival Squad
515 Alive – Photo by Chris Taylor

The highly anticipated Getter took the main stage at 7pm. After his hiatus from touring, he came out in full force, and he definitely worked the crowd. We then took a hard departure into a genre I affectionately refer to as “horror rap” with the $UICIDEBOY$, a gritty duo from the depths of New Orleans. I’ve never heard so many F Bombs in a single set. When they said to “Open up the fucking pits,” the crowd obeyed. At one point, I witnessed an actual human being thrown across the various mosh pits that had formed throughout the crowd. 

Getter 515 Alive Des Moines Iowa Water Works Park Amphitheater Festival Squad
Getter at 515 Alive – Photo by Chris Taylor

Despite the scene described, $UICIDEBOY$ was one of my favorite sets of the night. It was downright entertaining, high production, and the IDGAF attitude that you expect from EDM festivals. IDGAF – but also, if your cell phone dies and you need a friend, I’ll help you out and fan your face. Heart emojis. 

Flux Pavilion’s light show absolutely takes the cake on the weekend. He had atmospheric horizontal lasers that covered the entirety of the crowd and transformed the venue. Another cotton candy sunset and the crowd was ready to be serenaded and inspired by Illenium, who conveniently released an album just a few days before 515 Alive. We were the first to hear these songs live – in humble Iowa. 

Overall Vibe

In summary, this festival was one of the more relaxed, laid-back festivals I have been to, in the very best way. Some doses of anarchy, a little mischief, but all around incredibly kind people, remarkable lineup, killer outfits, and a genuine opportunity to escape and embrace happiness. Isn’t that what we are all seeking deep down when we listen to music – live or not? An escape? A way to deal with trauma and pain, and for a moment, be grateful to be alive? 515 Alive did just that. And it’s a festival I will prioritize for years to come.

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