The first music festival I ever attended was the Warped Tour in 1999. I was 12 years old. I remember watching a scrawny, drugged out, bleach-headed Eminem perform “My Name Is” and thinking, “man, this guy’s fifteen minutes are about up.”
And yet, twelve years later, at the 10th Anniversary Bonnaroo Festival, there he was: sober and brunette, playing the main stage for what seemed like 84,999 of the 85,000 in attendance.
Aside from Eminem’s notable career climb and my completion of puberty, a lot has changed since then in the culture of music festivals. 1999 was also the year of the 30th Anniversary Woodstock concert, which, aside from Altamont, ranks as one of the biggest catastrophes in festival history. An event that was supposed to pay homage to a landmark in music culture ended in violence and a million dollars in property damage. What happened?
Some people pointed to the characteristically angry nature of the artists (Korn, Limp Bizkit). Others pointed to the characteristically bad nature of the music (Korn, Limp Bizkit). And many blamed the concert planners for gross mismanagement of the crowds and poor preparation. Whatever the cause, it became a huge story and shined a light on many of the risks and potential dangers involved in putting on concerts of this scale.
As I drove to Manchester, TN for B’Roo last week, these questions of foresight and preparation brought me considerable angst. What if things turned violent? What if there was a tornado? How would they evacuate 85,000 people? What about de-hydration, drug and alcohol overdoses, sun poisoning? What if I lost my sunglasses?
How can an event so replete with risks (heat, drug-use, crowds) run smoothly?
Well, the simple answer is experience. As it was the 10th Anniversary, it seemed like Bonnaroo’s planners had benefited from each and every one of their ten years experience. Every possible problem seemed preemptively recognized, a decade of trial-and-errors answered, like a suggestion box converted directly into policy.
First, there were the watering stations throughout the massive, 700-acre farm, both for hydrating and bathing purposes. Second, there were plenty of opportunities to cool off in air conditioned tents without charge (temperatures between 90-100 degrees daily). Third, there was enough food to feed...well, 85,000 people for four days (pizza, falafel, burritos, sandwiches, ice cream, beer, etc...). Fourth, there were B’Roo employees everywhere giving directions, answering questions and helping concert-goers find the right receptacle for their trash (B’Roo is a thoroughly “green” outfit, as they are quick to inform you).
Hydration, hygiene and sustenance may seem like obvious staples of survival, but B’Roo planners also put considerable effort into treating boredom. It may seem counter-intuitive to clout a music festival with distractions, but it’s actually a really nice touch. Four days of non-stop concerts can be pretty taxing on the knees (and ears), so it makes sense to throw in some alternatives.
And there were plenty of alternatives. There were comedians performing in an air conditioned tent (Lewis Black, Donald Glover, Hannibal Burress), a movie theater, endless shopping (various essentials, artwork, a hemp district), a sports bar (NBA and NHL finals were both in full swing), a build-your-own drum station, a mid-size amusement park (ferris wheel included) and a water slide. Oh, and a hair salon hosted by Garnier Fructis (sponsorship is a ubiquitous force at B’Roo and any festival of this size, including a carnival brought to us by Adult Swim, a “Crunch Den” presented by Wheat Thins and a new flavor of Ben & Jerry’s called “Bonnaroo Buzz”).
Aside from all the fanfare and celebrity spotting (a Ron Jeremy sighting among the highlights of my press-area party experience), we were there for the music. Like many festivals this summer, Bonnaroo has a huge emphasis on creating a diverse and stimulating lineup. While the debut in 2002 had its share of rap and electronica (Jurassic 5, Blackalicious, Cut Chemist), this year saw a remarkable rise in focus on mainstream artists in those genres (Lil Wayne, Wiz Khalifa, Girl Talk, Pretty Lights, Ratatat). And considering the fact that many performances overlap in different areas of the festival, it’s nice to have a little variety.
For me, the biggest draw in attending a festival is the mix of top-shelf headliners and smaller acts sharing the same venue (loosely speaking). The main stage hosted headliners like My Morning Jacket, Arcade Fire, The Black Keys and Eminem, all of whom managed to give remarkable performances despite monstrous crowds. The Black Keys in particular played so well and from such a distance that they could have easily switched with lip-syncing stunt doubles, I would not have noticed.
Some of my favorite performances came from artists I had actually photographed for WYEP at previous events, like The Low Anthem or Ben Sollee. But no mid-level performer rocked the dust out of my sandals like Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears. I had previously seen them at the Rex Theater for a perfectly enjoyable show, but this performance blew me away. Not Dr. John’s midnight performance with the Meters, nor Neil Young “Rockin’ In The Free World” with Buffalo Springfield during a thunderstorm could compare to what BJL&TH did at a side-stage tent at 2:30 in the afternoon on Friday.
And that’s the beauty of going to a festival like Bonnaroo. After all the hype, all the buildup, all the buzz, our hopes are essentially the same as they’d be for an opening act at a regular concert: to be blown away by a band that we only half-know. And in that sense, I’d say Bonnaroo did it’s job.
Having enjoyed a few weeks to recover from the festival (aloe vera, dust-removal), I thought I’d impart some of my festival knowledge for those of you still on the fence for your summer concert plans.
Many of you shared my sense of uncertainty about going to a festival of this size, one Facebook comment deeming the setting as “third world.” As Lewis Black put it in his performance, only in America would people pay hundreds of dollars to live like a refugee.
The question becomes, how do the unfavorable circumstances of festival-life weigh against the star-spangled lineups?
The truth is that many of these artists are promiscuous in the festival circuit so lineups aren’t necessarily distinct. In that sense, choosing a festival to attend has less to do with the music and more with the other factors (wait, the music doesn’t matter?). Like any decision, it’s about measuring pros and cons on a personal level. Based on my experience at Bonnaroo, I'd say the most important factors are experience, non-musical alternatives and amenities. So here are the basic bullet points for a few festivals on the horizon for this summer.
Date: June 30- July 10
Location: Milwaukee, WI
Lineup Highlights: Peter Gabriel, Buddy Guy, The Black Keys w/ Florence & The Machine, Jason Mraz & Guster, Cage The Elephant, (Britney Spears, Katy Pary, Kanye), Better Than Ezra, Girl Talk, Fitz & The Tantrums, Owl City, Ben Harper, Old 97s, The Flaming Lips
Price: Too many pricing options to mention.
Rundown: Summerfest boasts the title of "The World's Largest Music Festival," and this is true in duration and scale (11 days, 700 bands). As you can tell from the bill, it's a pretty expansive group of artists ranging from top 40 to bands you'll hear on WYEP (Fitz!). They're expecting over 200,000 attendees, so if the Bonnaroo pictures made you squeamish, Summerfest is probably not the best option.
Date: July 7-9
Location: Mariaville, NY
Lineup Highlights: Disco Biscuits, Ratatat, Yeasayer, Four Tet,
Price: Varies depending on ticket-type. 3-Day pass for $160, Saturday only $80, VIP combo 3-day pass $389.
Rundown: Like Jane’s Addiction/Lollapalooza or Wilco/Solid Sound Festival, this was started by musicians, in this case,the jamband Disco Biscuits. Slightly more electronic this year, with acts like Pretty Lights, Cut Copy, Bassnectar. This is the 10th Anniversary of Camp Bisco.
All Good Festival
Date: July 14-17
Location: Marvin’s Mountaintop, Masontown, WV
Lineup Highlights: Further (ft. Bob Weir & Phil Lesh), Umphrey’s McGee, John Butler Trio, Keller Williams, Toots & The Maytals, JJ Grey & Mofro, Donna The Buffalo, moe.
Rundown: This is the 15th year for All Good, might benefit from that maturity as B’Roo did. It’s much smaller in scale than Lollapalooza or Bonnaroo. Like the name suggests, it is focused on jambands and the like. It's a convenient drive for Pittsburgh residents, just a little south of Morgantown. There are lots of great artists, similar in genre and prominence. (There’s an oddly high number of anniversary festivals this summer, suspicious correlation with the release of “Wayne’s World 2").
Date: August 5-7
Location: Grant Park, Chicago, IL
Lineup Highlights: Like Bonnaroo, there are almost too many to mention. My Morning Jacket, Muse, Explosions In The Sky, Arctic Monkeys, The Cars, Portugal The Man, Best Coast, Bright Eyes, Ween, Tennis, Foo Fighters, Coldplay
Price: Single day tix for $90
Rundown: This is an awesome lineup with reasonable pricing. It's a good example of how much money you can save by paying one price to see all these bands in one event, rather than in individual shows. But, like Summerfest, this is a gigantic festival. In 2010, they estimated 240,000 attendees and should see similar numbers this year.
Date: September 8-10
Location: Raleigh, NC
Lineup Highlights: The Flaming Lips, Guided By Voices, Drive-by Truckers, The Dodos, Superchunk, Vivian Girls, Titus Andronicus
Price: Cheapest! $105 for whole show
Rundown: Hopscotch ranks among the most interesting and provocative lineup this summer. There are 13 venues hosting 150 bands bands, 40% of which hail from the Raleigh/Durham area. It's not a huge number, but it's one of the few summer festivals that places much emphasis on local music. I'd say based on price, lineup and proximity to Pittsburgh, Hopscotch is the most appealing festival this summer.
There are plenty of other concert series this summer, but these are the most intriguing to me. Whatever you decide, be safe, have fun and hydrate.