(The year without music festivals)
It’s no secret that I am a big fan of music, primarily Americana and Alternative, but few people know that I am also closet hippy. Not a hippy in the pot smoking, dreadlock and tattoo wearing, unbathed, unemployed way, but in the peace, love and happiness way. In fact, when I finished my tour as a nuclear missile launch officer in Strategic Air Command the theme of my going away speech was about peace, love and happiness. Those were uncommon themes for a command whose famous founder, Curtis LeMay, once said “If you kill enough of them, they will stop fighting”.
I stayed in the hippy closet for many years, fearful that my military commanders would find out that I was a pacifist that didn’t listen to country music but instead bands that they had never heard of like; Depeche Mode, World Party, New Order, Josh Ritter, Love and Rockets, and my favorite, The National. I still reminder the time when I was flying on a commercial flight with a group of Strategic Air Command military personnel heading to scenic Grand Forks AFB and Daniel Ash, the lead singer of the band Love and Rockets, boarded the flight. I was beside myself and got up the courage to go up and talk to him for just a minute. He was as white as a ghost, wore red lipstick and an earring, and he moussed up his jet-black hair higher than Dolly Parton, so my friends were perplexed when I went up to speak to him. When I returned to my seat and told my friends I just talked to the lead singer of Love and Rockets, they all looked puzzled and said they never heard of them. That same year was the first of the big music festivals Lollapalooza, and I attended the first one, bands included Jane’s Addiction, Nine Inch Nails and the iconic Butthole Surfers. I am pretty sure I was the only S.A.C warrior in attendance. So a few years ago after I retired from the military I was thrilled when the big music festivals began to proliferate like indicted politicians, because it afforded me the opportunity to see many of my favorites bands at one event, and also discover new bands, like John Moreland, Nathaniel Rateliff, and St. Vincent.
After I retired from the military, I was able to come out the closet a bit and do crazy things like attend political rallies, grow facial hair, and attend music festivals where the smoky haze was not fog. One of the first music festivals we attended was a smaller one, called the Nelsonville Music festival, in all places, Nelsonville Ohio, population 5,392. Nelsonville is a few miles north of Ohio University, in south central Ohio centered between Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton. Since there were no hotels in Nelsonville most of the attendees camped in the fields surrounding the venue, which made it much like Woodstock, only with modern vinyl tents and a few RVs.
The whole campground at Nelsonville was a smoky haze, part from campfires and part from pot. There were hippies everywhere, tossing frisbees, wearing tie dye shirts, blaring jam music, eating granola bars and smelling like they hadn’t bathed in days, because they hadn’t. Everyone was very friendly, even the security guards. Nelsonville was a festival to sit and relax and enjoy the music and atmosphere. You could bring in your own lawn chairs, stroll through booths with true artisans selling handmade arts and crafts, and they even had a kid’s section with games. It was a complete family experience. We saw some great bands the two times we went to Nelsonville, from the art rock of St Vincent, to the blues rock of Nathanial Rateliff, to up and coming stars like Courtney Barnett and Mac Demarco. The other beauty of Nelsonville is that old people like me could park their lawn chairs in a nice shady spot a hundred feet from the stage and be perfectly content listening to the show. While, the younger crowd like my daughter Madison could squeeze up to the front and slam dance or crowd surf if they so desired. When we saw St. Vincent, she herself crowd surfed and Madison was helping hold her up, and actually touched her guitar. You don’t get that experience at a stadium concert.
My favorite show though was the psychedelic rockers, the Flaming Lips. They only had a few hits, but their shows are legendary. With phenomenal lighting, balloons, and more balloons, and lasers galore streaming in every direction, it’s an amazing visual and sonic experience. My favorite part is when the lead singer, Wayne Coyne, climbs inside in a large inflatable clear beach ball and rolls himself out into the audience while still singing. They also have large balloon robots walking through the crowd during their song, Yoshima Battles the Pink Robots, and near the end they bring out a large balloon that says “F-you Nelsonville” or whatever town they are in. They closed out their show with their iconic song, Do You Realize, and shoot tons of confetti in the air, that fall slowly to the ground as the song wraps up. It was surreal.
In the early years of popular music festivals, some cities like Cincinnati tried quasi-festivals like Mid-Point where they booked a lot of bands in the city at different venues over a weekend, and you could buy one ticket and travel around and see different shows. I wasn’t a fan of this type of forum, it was like speed dating and the bars with the popular bands filled up and you couldn’t get in. Almost like if speed dating allowed you to stop at the cute girl. The Mid-Point festival later evolved where they set up a few stages at various parking lots, first near Over the Rhine and later near the Taft theater. Standing in a parking lot watching a band (especially on a hot day) was not a perfect venue either but I did get to see some great bands like Josh Ritter, Band of Horses, the Wood Brothers, and Sylvan Esso which brings me to why I like music festivals. First, for my favorite bands like Josh Ritter and the Wood Brothers you didn’t have to pay $100 to get good seats. You could get as close to the stage as you dared. For the Wood Brothers we were about 10 feet from the stage, and it felt like they were singing directly for us. You could see their eyes and facial expressions and hear the chatter between songs. The other really cool thing about music festivals was you got to see hundreds of bands you had never seen or heard before. It was at the Midpoint festival that we got to see Sylvan Esso before they struck it big. Every time I hear the song Hey Mami I think of my daughter Madison dancing to it at her dance recitals. Nelsonville had too many rising stars to mention, but I was mesmerized by John Moreland and his amazing country blues. Eventually Cincinnati got it right with their Bunburry and Homecoming music festivals hosted in large city parks.
As popular music festivals proliferated, and people had to choose which one to attend in a given year the festivals tried various tactics to get you to buy tickets to their festival. First, they provided discounts to their festivals if you bought earlier, and they all had different type of line-up reveal events. Rather than gamble and buy discounted tickets before the line-ups were revealed, I waited to see the lineups for each festival then picked one or two to attend that had the best lineups.
For that reason, in 2017 we decided to attend the Forecastle music festival in Louisville Kentucky. Forecastle was a large established music festival with over 75,000 attendees, and they had a good lineup that year. It was not a hippy fest like Nelsonville and did not have camping, but rather you stayed in local hotels. Which when you are middle-aged is the only way to go. It’s not that I don’t like sleeping on the hard ground, and walking 150 feet in the dark and rain to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, it that I don’t like sleeping on the hard ground, and walking 150 feet in the dark and rain to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. The crowd at Forecastle was much younger, and much drunker than the other festivals I’ve been to, which provided its own kind of entertainment, and there were lots of food options. And in 2017 it was brutally hot and humid, and Forecastle had little shade. However, being held in Louisville, the bourbon capital of the world, it did have an air-conditioned bourbon tent you could slip into with a pass, which I did between most shows. It was a heavenly experience. A full 20 degrees cooler than outside with bourbon distillery booths of every brand spread throughout the tent. I would wander throughout the tent, like a kid in a candy store, sampling a few each time I visited. By the 3rd day of the festival I was on the first name basis with the distillery booth workers, like Norm in Cheers. I think every music festival should have a bourbon tent, and well actually I think all festivals, county fairs, state fairs, weddings, bar mitzvahs, baptisms, and any event that I have to attend that lasts more than 30 minutes. Even work. After a torturous 2-hour meeting discussing the same thing we discussed last month it would be great to sneak out to a bourbon room and have a quick sip. Not that I would ever do that.
In between visits to the bourbon tent I did see some great shows by LCD Sound System, Weezer, Conor Oberst, Cage the Elephant and Nathaniel Rateliff, and after the shows we visited some great Louisville restaurants. If you can stand the heat and humidity, I highly recommend this festival…and the bourbon tent.
The last few years we have stayed closer to home, attending the Homecoming festival in Cincinnati and the Bellwether festival just a few miles away in Waynesville, Ohio. The Homecoming festival was hosted by my favorite band, The National, and it had a great lineup; Future Islands, Father John Misty, Alvvays, The Breeders, and Big Thief among others. The highlight for me was that The National played both nights, that alone was worth the price of admission. Unfortunately, there was no bourbon booth, but since it was in Cincinnati there were plenty of beer trucks.
The Bellwether is a small festival just down the road from where I live and is more like Nelsonville. It is held in the same park as the Renaissance festival with lots of booths selling food and trinkets. For some reason the first year they held it in the grass parking lot, but the second year they held it inside the festival grounds so there were real restrooms, which is a big bonus for music festivals. Much, much better than using the restroom in a 120 degree plastic box that smells like death with drunk people outside yelling to hurry up. There were even a few rounds of jousting in between some of the shows and some odd people dressed in wench costumes because it was held on the renaissance festival grounds. Bands included some old favorites like the Psychedelic Furs, Cake, Echo and the Bunnyman, and of course The Flaming Lips. And a few new bands like my personal favorite Dawg Yawp. a Cincinnati based band famous for using a Sitar instead of the usual lead guitar. They mix it with digital techno with some folksiness to produce a really unique sound. My favorite song is “I Wanna be a Dawg,” don’t we all.
After the show the lead singer, dressed in a white robe was wondering through the crowd and I stopped to tell him how great I thought his band was. You don’t get to do that in stadium concerts.
This year I had planned to go the Homecoming and Bellwether festivals again, but alas, they have been both cancelled. There are also a few music festivals on my bucket list, Bonnaroo in Tennessee, and Osheago in Montreal, Canada, but I won’t be crossing them off my list this year. 2020 has been an unusual year on many counts, and for me it will be remembered as the year without music festivals. It made me realize how important music is in my life, and how it’s food for my soul.
Do you realize that you have the most beautiful face
Do you realize we’re floating in space,
Do you realize that happiness makes you cry
Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die
And instead of saying all of your goodbyes, let them know
You realize that life goes fast
It’s hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun doesn’t go down
It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round