There was a repurposed double-decker bus that opened up onto a stage featuring a rotating lineup of internationally known DJs and live musicians. For the past decade, Silent Frisco’s co-founders, DJ Robbie “Motion Potion” Kowal and John Miles of SunsetSF Promotions, have been throwing similar parties at a variety of left-field spots from Ocean Beach to Golden Gate Park, as well as at some of the Bay Area’s biggest musical happenings, such as the Treasure Island Music Festival and Outside Lands. Even with its widespread popularity, Silent Frisco still has a way of winning over newcomers with its peculiar charm. “My favorite part is when you see someone staring at the headphones for the first time, putting them on and instantly smiling,” said Kowal. The silent disco concept was born out of necessity in the late 1980s at England’s Glastonbury Festival, where local noise restrictions forced promoters to get creative with technology to keep the music going past curfew. When Kowal was tapped to introduce the format to the United States at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee in 2005, he immediately saw the practical possibilities. “I was the festival’s resident DJ at the time,” he said. Because I was down for anything and known for doing weird sets, they asked me to be the guinea pig. […] Kowal and Miles were preparing for the North Beach Jazz Festival and entangled in a bitter political battle with the Washington Square neighborhood group, which was attempting to use a noise complaint as an excuse to curb the event. Silent Frisco also had to come up with a simple organizational system to distribute and reclaim the headphones at large parties, while making sure they remained functional and free of radio interference. Back at the Treasure Island event, the rapper Emcee Infinite, who performed with the live group Jazz Mafia, reflected on the unusual set with the San Francisco skyline as the backdrop. Unlike a regular club, there were as many kids and dogs running around, having picnics and joining the general spirit of community as people getting into the groove. “It really encourages conversation, because you can just slip the headphones off and you don’t have to yell over the music to talk to your friends,” said Megan O’Reilly of Oakland, a regular at Silent Frisco events. “At clubs and concerts you’re only hearing 20 percent of what the artist wants you to hear — what you hear is people talking, ordering drinks, the music bouncing off three walls,” he said, surveying the crowd on the Great Lawn with his own headphones dangling around his neck.
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