BBQ & Boutiques
I’m going to let you in on a little secret about me. It’s not too kinky or anything, and I’m not the only to ever have held this conviction, but I swear I do my best thinking on the hopper. You know: The can, the john, the potty. When you live on the road, the bathroom becomes the only place where you can get 100% guaranteed privacy. Trust me, until you’re caught for weeks crammed in a stuffy van, or on a cramped stage and never out of earshot of your roommate in a hotel, you can’t understand the value of a few minutes alone.
When I get a few moments by my lonesome, I become conflicted. Since I’m from Minnesota, I tend to think slower- not because we’re mentally deficient, but because we don’t want to have to do it again. Given the few chances I have to enjoy sweet solitude, I’m tempted to think as fast as I can. "Did I shut the iron off before I left on tour last week?", or "Why does my head hurt and who drank all my Old Style beer?" or even "Where am I? What happened?" These are all legitimate questions, given that I can’t quite answer any one with any amount of truthful clarity.
So I was peacefully sitting on the throne, reading Relix, when I cam across a thoughtful article regarding the state of the festival nation and the welfare of its tent town inhabitants. Between the advent of Bonnaroo and the regrettable results that befell several festivals run by those with good intentions and no head for business, the scene has changed again.
For the record, I can’t express enough pity for those who lost their asses in the playing "hippy fest roulette" last year. But don’t say I didn’t warn them in this forum twelve months ago. Festivals are impossible to plan, harder to organize and inspire problems to grow a life of their own the minute the gates open. That being said, the problems that plagued festivals last summer could be boiled down to two conditions: too many festivals and far too few qualified promoters to run them. From my "Dad, Where Do Hippy Festivals Come From?" article last spring:
Promoters are the risk takers, the bankroll, the folks who inspire the gathering and pay for the garbage man to clean it up. They don’t mind negotiating with booking agents. They seem to have an affinity for pressing flesh with members of the county seat and chat with the local sheriff on a first name basis. A promoter is like that friend you had in high school that could butter up your mom while you’re both on acid and convince her to fork over the car keys at midnight. A promoter gets a band to play at a party and intends to pay them with cash they don’t have.
However, the more parties that get thrown, the thinner the talent pool spreads. And I don’t mean the music. There are plenty of good bands to go around. I’m talking about the talent of the host of the party, the promoter. I’ve mentioned a couple of great festival promoters a few paragraphs ago, but I would be remiss if I didn’t recount any of the follies I’ve fallen victim to…
These days, money and time are tight. With so many festivals to choose from, you don’t want to get yourself set up for a Bonnaroo and find yourself getting skinned at Vanish Fest 2003.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have performed at some of the kindest festivals this fair country has had to offer. I will even be so bold as to claim that I’ve thrown a few good ones myself. As you now know, I’ve been party to a couple of worst as well. With every yahoo fancying himself a promoter in need of an event, there is a pernicious shadow of bullshit-for-money that is creeping over our scene. I just hope that you all see great bands that sound like a million bucks through quality sound systems, enjoy your good times without being harassed by knuckleheads with badges, and meet new & fascinating folks around the campfire.
Oh, and I pray that all of your midnight Port-O-Potty encounters are clean and pleasant.
The piece in Relix noted that there are two kinds of festivals: The huge Bonnaroo/High Sierra type that gets all the big SCI and Trey bands and quite a few of the medium bands to boot. Then there are the smaller, (I believe Relix called them "boutique fests") like Walther’s Allgood Fest or my own Big Wu Family Reunion.
While I think the Bonnaroos and the High Sierras of the world are great to attend, (and even better to perform at), there is a certain attraction to the festivals that keep their ticket sales somewhere below fifty billion. The morning we pulled into Bonnaroo, we circumvented the ten-hour traffic jam on some local back roads. Beyond that, it took at least a half hour to drive through the vast ocean of festival-goers. People, people, everywhere I looked it was people. Thousands of them, bobbing, weaving, dancing, catching Frisbees, drinking beer, breathing… For a guy who can’t think unless he’s in the safe confines of the Holiday Inn bathroom, I watched my own mind implode upon itself. "Who are these folks and where do they all go to the potty?"
Playing Bonnaroo was a trip in itself. Honestly, when my manager had told me that he got us a slot at Bonnaroo, he warned me that it wasn’t a prime time gig on the big stage. As if I cared. I had visions of a modest stage with a small PA enhanced by sixteen lights in cans, perhaps a few people scattered here and there. I wish I could’ve seen my own face when I walked up on stage and saw five thousand folks ready to rock. It’s a special feeling when the numbers are overwhelming and all you have to do is jam. How do you play a bad show when you have all that energy going for you.
But the boutique festivals provide something that the Megaroos have lost. True you won’t be seeing the encyclopedia of jam rock parade in front of your eyes, but you won’t be able to catch three quarters of the acts because you had to choose to watch one of the five on stages at any given time. What you get at a boutique festival is intimacy. Not only can you get within a quarter mile of the band you’re watching, but if you’re so inclined, there is no reason why you couldn’t meet the bands that you just saw. Most musicians walk around the grounds before or after their set, probably looking for someone to talk to. So if you do see one, have a beer or tell a dirty joke. No worries, it’s festival time.
It’s not unusual for smaller festivals to have big time talent. In our case, we signed Medeski, Martin and Wood, Particle, Mofro among other notables to play this year’s Big Wu Family Reunion. Not only are these groups chosen by my bandmates in the Big Wu, but we’ve played with many of them before and found them to be great people to hang with. It’s like having the band put their personal stamp of approval on the line up. What finer form of quality control can you think of?
Several people I’ve talked to mention that they’re favorite boutique festival also serves as a time and place to meet up with old friends that they don’t see often. While folks may meet under the umbrella of festival’s banner, it seems as though everybody gets swept away with many of the weekend’s sub-plots, some of which are continuations of last year’s events. Will you get that favorite camping spot again this year? Is that guy going to bring that obnoxious girlfriend? Do you think that guy will have that kick-ass acid again? You know what I’m talking about…
That being said, I wish all of you good times this festival season, be them Bonnaroo or boutique. Let’s pray for the health of the performers, the wealth of the promoters and a sunny forecast in tent town.
Drive safe, be nice to your mother, and drink your milk.
This month’s Old Style Zealot is the one and only Chris Castino. However, it’s not the beer he’s fanatical about, it’s the old style simplicity of Mikeska’s BBQ located off a Texas interstate somewhere between Austin and Houston. Another satisfied customer, Chris joined me on the highway to hell. I mean literally, the paved path of the damned, because that’s where we are going after we ordered and devoured Texas-sized baked potatoes stuffed with a huge smack of butter, a giant dollop of sour cream, a couple fistfuls of cheddar cheese, three scoops of chopped beef and then topped with their house BBQ sauce. This goddamned concoction weighed almost two pounds, had enough carbs to choke two Atkin’s diet yahoos, and must have contained over 5000 calories. To eat such a potato is to dance far beyond the lines of flirting with mortal sin, it is akin doing the Lombada with it. This monstrosity thoroughly mocks gluttony. Hell, it kicks it in the shins and laughs. And Castino and I gleefully played along…