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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2006/06/22
by David Steinberg

Walking the Waka

It’s World Cup time again and that can mean only one thing. It’s time to celebrate insane amounts of soccer by going to a music festival. As rituals go it might not make much sense, but then again how much common sense came into play when they took an incredible lineup of music and placed it in a public park in Kansas?
That was the question I was asking myself Thursday afternoon. While sitting in Kansas City International waiting for my bags, I got a call warning me about the ridiculous check point on I-70. Even taking a back road into town to avoid the five hour delay had some issues; they did the old fake drug checkpoint trick [1]. Instead of seeing Trampled by Turtles, I was stuck playing games across the Kansas countryside and getting pissed.
I’ve reached my limit. I’m tired of being picked on. I’m tired of being an excuse for local police to get a few extra dollars. I’ve been to shows that have had bail bondsmen in the parking lot because the police made their plans so clear. I’ve talked to local merchants who gloated that the busts will fund the police’s new helicopter. Sure, I’m also mad at the few people who overdose or sell drugs to local 15 year olds or behave in ways to give the police an excuse, but those always have been rare exceptions. Besides, the big dealers know how to be stealthy; the people who get busted are largely music fans who have a couple joints in their glove compartment.
I don’t really blame the police here [2]; they’re really the pawns in this game. It’s their bosses – both in the force and in political office – who are to blame. We’re an easy target. We don’t carry guns or get violent. You can get some good press about how you’re being tough on crime without having to, y’know, get tough on any actual crime. It’s frustrating and wrong and went a long way towards ruining the festival before the first band played. Thanks Kansas for laying out the unwelcome mat.
After checking into our hotel [3] and doing a quick hit to the fairgrounds to check out the space (and Jackie Green and Tim Reynolds), it was time to rest up. The big set of the night – what would turn out to be the big set of the weekend for us – was coming up that night and we had to be prepared for it.
The first night act was the Disco Biscuits. They’re very much a hit and miss band for me. Twenty minutes of the set will be waiting around and being bored and then they’ll follow that with an incredible peak. Sometimes that ratio works and the show is spectacular. Unfortunately, this show wasn’t one of those [4]. That’s probably just as well. Eighteen months after being blown away by Perpetual Groove’s Jamcruise shows, I finally was going to be able to see them again. I wanted to get there early to grab a good spot.
One thing really struck me about Perpetual Groove’s show. It’s one thing to be blown away by a show that has a dream setlist. Lots of bands can do that. What P Groove did was construct a set that didn’t have any of the songs that I was looking for and still had me jumping up and down like a madman at 4:30 in the morning. There are only a few bands that had the power to get me to love a show in spite of the song selection. Those are the ones that always keep me coming back. After all, if I loved this night, what would happen when I do get the selection I wanted?
Festivals are always so easy from the comfort of home. Download the schedule and study it. Circle some times. Get excited about all of the music you will be seeing. That’s how we get in trouble. It’s easy to be excited about an event when there’s constant music being played and absolutely no obstacles in the way of seeing them.
In practice, of course, it never works like that. No matter how well you plan things, there always will be weather conflicts or you’ll get fascinated by something in the campground for an hour or two or you’re so blown away by that one band that you need time to digest what had happened or there will be a huge backup or you’ll get sick or something. Festival plans have to be seen as a sketch, an ideal of what you would have done if only you had managed to get under the tent for that one show and the mud were navigable to get you to that other stage and you didn’t just collapse in an exhausted heap before the late night. Being able to take your color coordinated schedule and rip in up with a laugh is crucial.

...at least that’s what I told myself when I sat in the hotel room at 1 PM on Friday where a few bands I was vaguely interested in were playing in 97 degree heat. It’s all about pacing right? No sense wasting all of my energy when the bands I really wanted to see were on later. That’s my rationalization, but the fact is it just sucks to get old.
While the musical highlight of the day for me was the second Perpetual Groove show, sometimes what you remember are the random bands you stumble across. As implied above, I was curious about the mysteriously named Trampled By Turtles. Most of their performance was solid bluegrass, but their final song will be one of the songs I remember most from the festival.

Perpetual Groove

I was busy trying to convince Tea Leaf Green fan extraordinaire Phorreal that Jam Cruise would be the only possible plan for her January. As she was starting to waver, TBT came out for an encore – an upbeat bluegrass version of "Sloop John B." "See, " I cried, "It’s an omen. They’re playing a song about sailing. You have to go." Then I went off to boogie for the rest of the song.
Saturday was my big day. Sticking to my plans would mean seeing great music with very little breaks from noon to well into the early morning. First up was Camper Van Beethoven. I have to admit that when it comes to Camper, I’m completely and utterly biased. The show was sloppy – David Lowery seemed affected by the heat and was messing up some lyrics – and, for the first time that I’ve seen them since their hiatus ended, they didn’t play their big jam vehicle – a cover of Pink Floyd’s "Interstellar Overdrive." It didn’t matter.
Something about their tone, or their songs about the lack of meaning in anything, or their power pop songwriting skills completely does it for me. I could see them every night and I’d constantly enjoy it. I even got a little shout out as violinist Jonathan Segel – commenting on my shirt [5] – stated, "I used to live on Zzyzx Road." It pays to be one of five or six people who were really excited about a show. In a small crowd it really stands out.

Camper Van Beethoven
The plan after Cracker was to head over to Tea Leaf Green early to get a good spot. Right before that though, we ran into a friend from Seattle that we wanted to talk to for a few minutes. That’s how I found myself in the Revival Tent seeing a band play incredibly well. As they launched into Pink Floyd’s "Fearless," I pulled out the schedule to see who they were. Wait, this is New Monsoon? After spending a year not getting why so many people with similar taste to mine liked them so much, it suddenly clicked. I might owe some people apologies.
The discoveries didn’t end there. A high-energy jam hit us as we arrived at the Campground Stage. The name of the band was Shanti Groove. I haven’t had a chance to listen to the rest of their set, but the end was pretty intense. That’s part of the fun of festivals after all. Sometimes the best way of seeing a band is to stumble across them while waiting for the act that inspired you to attend.

Tea Leaf Green
On a day that had sets by Camper, Tea Leaf Green, and Keller, I figured I’d be pretty satisfied. The peak of the day though came from neither of those bands. Rather it was the Greyboy Allstars that won me over. I was present at their show the previous evening, but my usual bout of Kansas heat exhaustion [6]. I was fully awake and alert for this set though, and it was amazing. Not only was the music incredible, but it also showed a vision for the future.
Suppose jambands really are a thing of the past and the old Phish crowd runs off to alternative rock concerts. Perhaps shows will resemble this one. The crowd was filled with people in interesting costumes. People were hooping and playing with Devil Sticks and juggling. It reminded me of the open mindedness I first saw in the Grateful Dead days. A smaller scene is likely to be a lot more free spirited. Sure it was cool to turn around at Giants Stadium and see how many of us exist, but the smaller scene does have something going for it.

As the Allstars set wound down, my day of music went full circle. At the very end of the set, Robert Walter led the band into the main theme of "Interstellar Overdrive." The missing shoe of Camper Van Beethoven finally dropped. It’s nice to get a day that symmetrical.
Despite that being an obvious closing to the day, we decided to press on. The Flaming Lips received a lot of praise from those who went to Vegoose. The appeal was not obvious for the webcast viewers, so it was time to see them live. Our plan had a snag though. The Sun Up Stage area was incredibly crowded. There was room to dance by the rail for Camper but you had to work to even be able to see the Lips.
Perhaps it was because the eye candy was diminished from my vantage point, but I still don’t get them. The music was mediocre at best and was constantly being interrupted by long speeches from frontman Wayne Coyne. That wouldn’t be so bad if he had interesting things to say or even some stage presence, but the experience was Coventry-esque. All that was needed was a rambling speech about living in a cabin and writing songs to complete the image. Some people called this the highlight of the festival for them so there has to be something there, but it seems to be about the gimmicks instead of the music. I’d like to see them once up front to see if that makes the interminable pauses less frustrating.
Even when you stay at a hotel and try to pace yourself, festivals can be exhausting. Between the heat, the chiggers, the constant walking from stage to stage (and the blisters that result from that), and trying to stay awake for as long as your body can handle in order to maximize the amount of music seen, the final day of Wakarusa was just a little bit slower than the previous ones.
The day started out, fittingly enough, with some acoustic sets, first by Tea Leaf Green’s keyboardist Trevor Garrod [7] and then by Bela Fleck. The promoter for that stage announced plans to get more bands playing there next year, perhaps to turn it into a Jam Room like Jam Cruise has. This would be a great way for Wakarusa to separate itself – at least musically – from other festivals.

Trevor Garrod
As much fun as the acoustic sets were, the day’s highlights came in the middle of the afternoon. Tea Leaf Green’s second show was incredibly strong; it was by far my favorite of the three I have seen. The left turn the jam in "Sex in the 70s" took was especially stunning.
Seeing music for four days can change your attitude. Even without chemical enhancement, a long period of time surrounded by wonderful music and great people makes you see the world a little differently. That’s the only way to explain my reaction to Railroad Earth’s "Peace on Earth." Instead of being jaded or cynical towards the sentiments expressed, I had a moment of revelation. In the same way that a great gospel song can make a diehard atheist believe in the salvation of Christ all the way until the final chorus, I wanted to put Bush and Bin Laden in a room and make them listen to the song. Surely they’d agree to cease all hostilities in order to free up their time for attending festivals. Isn’t that how things work?
While I came to my senses a song or two later, that moment of tranquility seemed to define Wakarusa for me. As the evening wound on, we talked about how we should attend in 2007. It was a really great festival. All that was left was to go home. Surely that couldn’t affect our opinion of the event, right?
We had to leave a little early to get to the airport because it was quite possible that there would be another time consuming roadblock on the trip home. We circled around back roads to avoid that, but it took some extra time. We still had some time to spare, perhaps more time than you’d need for Kansas City International. That extra time might be the only reason I’m not presently in jail.
Our instructions said to check in at United Express or Mesa Air [8]. Mesa Air sounded like a pleasant airline, quiet and peaceful, so we went there.
When we arrived at the counter, the security woman said that she had to look at our luggage that we would be checking. We left it with her and walked up to the counter where we were quickly told that we had to check in at United Express. Ok, that’s fine. We turned around to get our bags only to be told that we couldn’t have them. Sure we weren’t going to use their airline, but she wanted to check our bags anyway.
My bag was done quickly, but she became fascinated by Melissa’s luggage. At first we were ok with that. Security on airlines always makes sense. It soon became obvious though, that her concern had nothing to do with safety. Melissa’s philosophy of festival fashion is that you’re supposed to sparkle. Where’s the fun of seeing music unless the glare from your outfit is visible in at least a three state region?
That idea is apparently alien to residents of the Great Plains. If you travel to Kansas City with interesting clothes, you need to expect to play the title role in a rousing game of "Mock the Freak." The signs were subtle at first. She made little annoyed expressions when she had to touch a glittery object. She decided to check every single compartment of Melissa’s bag, in order to maximize the chance of missing our flight; we had to wait for her to finish before we could get in line at our actual airline. In case we still didn’t get the message she was sending – this could be the action of an overzealous employee – she called over her coworkers in order to make comments about us. Finally she started to play games.
She turned to me and asked, "Where are you going?" When I answered with, "Seattle," she sneered, "I wasn’t talking to you."
All of those actions served their purpose. Our kind were not welcome in Kansas City and she wanted to make sure that we understood that. She was going to make sure that our last memory of Kansas City was that we should never return; getting us to miss our flight – this delay was upwards of twenty minutes – would make sure that we wouldn’t forget the message. Fortunately, my anal retentive ways got us to the airport early enough that this was an annoyance instead of a disaster.
When we did get back home, I was able to read that our experiences were far from unique. I missed out on a lot of the fun due to not camping, but the police had a unique view about the way to ensure safety. Apparently the crowd at Wakarusa was so dangerous that the police needed to observe us with night goggles. Fourth amendment rights had to be ignored.
Fine. The cops don’t want us there. The airport doesn’t want us there. Even the promoters
admitted that they invited the excessive police force in order to send a message to the crowd about what types of people they wanted at their festival.
Fine. That works for me. I had a great time at Wakarusa, but this is far from the only festival. If you guys are going to make rules about whom you want to attend your event, that’s fine with me. There are plenty of other regions that will be more than happy to take my money. If you’re going to make decisions about people based on how they look or what bands they like, I’ll find places to go where they’re more tolerant. If you tell people that they’re not welcome, don’t be surprised if they stop coming.
[1] That’s the one where they put up signs warning of a drug checkpoint right before an exit that has no services. Anyone who gets off there is then considered to have given probable cause for a search.
[2] Well I don’t blame most of them. There’s always the rogue officer who gets just a little too into their job. For every one of those though, there’s someone else who will talk to you about the music or compliment you on your outfit or something.
[3] Yes, I know, that’s not true to the spirit of festivals to get a hotel. At 37 you have to make some sacrifices to the realities of what your body can still handle. Besides, Jamcruise has spoiled me. As lame as I felt setting up the reservations, I don’t regret this decision at all.
[4] The Disco Biscuits fans have nothing but good to say about this set, so I would remind curious people that this was a reaction from the extreme edges of Disco Biscuits fandom (I loved one show of theirs, liked moments of others) and if you’re more of a hardcore fan, you might want to download it despite my impression.
[5] A Zzyzx Road shirt that I found in Las Vegas during the 2000 Phish run.
[6] During the Panic/SCI show at Bonner Springs, I decided that I should dress in my black Starman outfit despite the 100+ degree heat. Needless to say, that was a mistake that I never repeated. This year’s heat problem was thinking that it being cooler at night meant that it was cool instead of just being less hot.
[7] This was going to be a Tea Leaf Green acoustic show, but issues with the amount of power the generator could produce made them decide to have fewer people on stage. Trevor turned out to be a rather good guitarist.
[8] Mesa Air was the puddle jumper that we used to get from KCI to Denver.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html
He is the stats section editor
for The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at http://www.livejournal.com/users/thezzyzx.

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