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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2008/04/23
by John Zinkand

Festival Essence

With Festival Season nigh at hand, I wanted to explore just what it is, exactly, that makes these events so darn great. The obvious element is all the great bands in one place for multiple days on a sunny late spring or mid-summer weekend. Of course the family feel you get when hoards of like-minded freaks are in one spot enjoying a communal event is also very special. And then theres the outdoor fun, the spring in everyones step, and the general party vibe that bubbles and percolates like a fizzy cola. In my experience over the years, there are a few choice elements at summer festivals that give these events that special magic and soul-lifting goodness which is hard to describe.

First and foremost is the roadtrip. Ive see postings on different band message boards from time to time about how sweet a festival will be, especially since it is a short drive from someones home. Bullocks to that! While one cant really argue that the festival itself is the pinnacle experience, getting there can be a huge part of the fun. Roadtrips are very important in jamband lore from the days of touring with the Dead or Phish – and the beatnik tradition of bumming around before that. This country was built on a tradition of wanderers and explorers. So the act of actually getting there is an important element of the festival. Being crammed into a car or party wagon with some close friends for many hours, or even days, is a special experience. There will be good times, arguments, boredom, music, games, conversations, naps, etc. The range of human experience during a nice roadtrip is expansive. Stopping at restaurants and rest areas and interacting with other people along the way is also part of the excitement. Camping during multi-day roadtrips en route is another bonding experience that builds excitement for the festival proper. And when the goal is finally reached, there is a communal feeling of accomplishment that is palpable when everyone gets their camp site set up.

Another key element that must be present to get the full festival experience is that infectious warm weather fun. This can take many shapes and sizes. Some people like to bring the ole pigskin to toss around. Others prefer the traditional heady Frisbee toss. And some people prefer the oft-maligned and sometimes misunderstood hula hoop. Whether its walking in the sun with a friend, painting your face for all to see, or juggling apples in the middle of a festival lawn while the music washes over you, enjoying some warm weather activity is one of the simple things that will enhance any festival-goers enjoyment. Dancing to live music is great, but with multiple days of music there is simply no excuse for not enjoying some other warm weather activities to enhance and round out the experience.

One of the most important elements of festival goodness for me is the campsite hang-n-jam downtimes. Most festivals simulcast the shows to local radio stations which you can then tune in at your campsite. So if none of the bands on stage at the moment particularly floats your boat, laying low and hanging out at the campsite is key. This is where the hilarious outbursts happen, where strange characters may stop in for a visit, and where a general feeling of camaraderie is built. Hanging out with old and new friends is very important to the festival experience. And of course everyone has some sort of musical instrument packed along whether its a guitar, banjo, bongo, or mandolin. Busting out these instruments with new and old friends and kicking down some jams is a bonding experience like no other. Its fun, entertaining, and you might even learn a new lick or two and youll make new friends you can connect with later when you see them at a set of music. So never underestimate the importance of solid hang-n-jam time at your campsite.

Speaking of the campsite, another thing that can make the festival a special experience is what I like to call Festi-food. Almost everyone has a special summertime festival meal or snack they like to bring along. Whether its a curried chicken salad with grapes and raisin, a refreshing organic fruit salad, or big hunks of meat to sear on the grill, almost everyone has a delicious festi-food. There have been certain dishes Ive associated with certain festivals for years. Not to mention many festivals now have an incredibly wide array of tasty food at the vending booths. From organic treats, sweet desserts, cool and tasty beverages, or even late night fried snackins, there is something for everyone. One particular festival, for example, has frozen fruit juice bars which are then dipped in chocolate and rolled in chopped peanuts. Without enjoying that particular treat each time I attend, I havent REALLY been to the festival.

One of the most important features that make festivals so special is the Late Night Show. There is an intangible aura of something important about these events. Long after the sun has gone down and the day time activity has subsided, the music never stops. Theres a special feeling of brotherhood/sisterhood at these sets – these are the hardcore minions who cant get enough music and yearn to see bands stretch out a bit. Musical guests and sit-ins are almost a given due to so many musicians being in one place. The children are tucked away and sleeping at the campsites, so these late night events also have a special adult feel to them. And as it gets later in the evening, the crowd often gets a little sparser, the music gets more intense, and the dancing gets going full throttle. There is a special air of jubilation that cant really be described. Bottom line, at least one late night show is essential at any festival.

Another element that can be great at a festival is an RV. While some feel renting an RV is sacrilegious and the antithesis of everything a festival stands for, sometimes they are so nice. Certain festivals are in extremely hot places and having that RV which provides air-conditioned comfort, a quiet and dark place to sleep, and easily prepared meals with food from the fridge cooked on your personal stove can be awesome. Now many people reading this might be thinking, Man, this guy must be old! You are correct! And I will concede that the RV is more of an older festival attendee accoutrement. But if you find yourself getting on in years (hey, itll happen to you, too) wanting to attend a hot festival like Bonnaroo or High Sierra and you rent an RV, I dont think youll ever look back.
Of course, what makes a festival special for any one person is a very individual thing. Some people might only want the music or might only be there for the camping and party atmosphere. But no one can argue that these events are very special and are usually only available to attend in the warmer months. So with festival season hitting us, be sure to get out to at least one or two of these events and make some special festival memories that will last a lifetime!

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