The Garden of Eden: Friendship and Festival
On July 7, 2005 Strangefolk guitarist Jon Trafton announced that, due to his ongoing cancer treatments, there would be no Garden of Eden festival in 2005. This year’s event would have been Strangefolk’s 10th annual music festival. Though I have not attended from the beginning, the Garden of Eden festival has become a cherished tradition among my group of friends. The cancellation of this year’s festival has given me reason to look back at what Strangefolk, festivals and, most importantly, music has meant to my life. It has meant so much.
My appreciation of Strangefolk dates back to the four walls of my dorm room and my first year of college. I have always been a fan of improvisational music, but my true love has always been a well-written song. I found my music in the Grateful Dead, Phish and From Good Homes. Jerry Garcia passed away when I was sixteen years old, well before I ever saw a live show. Over four performances in 1997 and 1998, Phish offered the greatest live performances I have ever seen. But the scene surrounding the band was too much for me and I would not venture to a Phish show again until the rain-soaked fields of Coventry. From Good Homes disbanded in 1998. It was at this time that I first heard Strangefolk.
For me, Strangefolk was a breath of fresh air. In their music, I heard something important. The sound was uplifting, the songs were profound and the harmonies were perfect. At least they were for me. It was new, exciting and exactly what I wanted to hear.
At this time, I didn’t go to live shows. I lived in a small Pennsylvania college town and I didn’t have a car. I was a student and I didn’t have a lot of money. My only connection to music was my stereo and Strangefolk was often in my CD player. So it was that Strangefolk became part of the soundtrack as I pushed through college, made new friends and built the life I know today.
Near the end of my college run, I was blessed with good fortune. My grandmother gave me her old 1985 Chevy Celebrity. I finally had a car and I was ready to see live music. My friends and I decided to see Strangefolk at the Wetland Preserve.
Joe, Scott, Kristen and I visited the Wetlands on March 3, 2001. In terms of historical significance, the show was not unique or spectacular. On the street, it was a cold, Saturday night in March and the band was playing the second of a two night run at the venue. This was the group’s first appearance at the Wetlands without Reid Genauer. It was certainly an important night for the band, but in historical context, just another night at the Wetlands. For me, it was the most powerful musical event that I have experienced.
I had never attended a show in New York City. According to our tickets, show time was 8:30 p.m. We arrived at the venue around 9:00, nervous that the band might have all ready started. Walking in the front door, we found an empty club and a list of groups that would be performing before the headliner. Strangefolk would not be performing until 11:30. We were shocked by the set time. We figured our imagined 9:00 o’clock show would end around 11:00. But, this was the nature of the Wetlands and we were learning its way.
Rather than spend three hours at the club, we decided to tour the city. It was my first visit to NYC at night and I was captivated by its energy. We caught a train and headed for the World Trade Center. Looking back, it’s humbling to think about the significance of quick decisions. We were not particularly excited about seeing the Twin Towers. Mostly, we were looking to find something to do. We emerged from the subway a few blocks from the towers. Turning a corner, they stood before us; two shining monoliths in a sea of metal, concrete, pavement, light and night. We walked around their base, craning our necks, looking up, mesmerized. It was 10:00 p.m. and there was not a car or person in sight; just myself, my friends and the towers. It was the only time I experienced silence in New York City. After a few moments, we walked away, looking for something else to do. I thought that I’d like to return by daylight and visit the top. I never returned.
That night Strangefolk played the most amazing set that I had ever seen. As we strolled out of the Wetland at 3:00 a.m. with Strangefolk still on stage, I was changed. My love of live music was born on that night.Though I love Strangefolk, I have never followed them and have only seen them a handful of times since that night. I do not know all of their songs nor own a large collection of live shows on CD. Still, I have been to the last three Garden of Eden festivals. I certainly enjoy the music but this is only part of what has drawn me to Haystack Mountain, Vermont, Plattsburg, New York and Greenfield, Massachusetts.
In 2002, I journeyed to Haystack with my good friends and college roommates Joe and Scott. We were three friends on the road north and it was our first music festival. It was the only time Joe, Scott and I traveled together. Though I remember the music, I most remember the good times spent with Joe and Scott.
Good word spreads quickly among friends and the next year we were joined by more friends in Plattsburg. Rich and Nick experienced their first music festival and Joe and his lady Kristin announced they were engaged on route to the festival. Once again, the music was awesome, but it is the time spent with friends at our campsite that I remember most.
Though our group was smaller in 2004, five of us still made it to Greenfield for the ninth annual Garden of Eden. Among the festivity and music, Joe commented on all of the babies at the festival, and on New Year’s Eve, he and Kristin announced that they were having one. Katherine Grace was born on June 27, 2005. The responsibility of fatherhood will keep Joe from attending a festival in 2005, so I find it fitting that there will be no Garden of Eden this year. Though I still planned to attend, it would have been strange to be there without Joe.
What have I learned from five years of live music, festival and the friendships they foster? Though live music is central to the experience, it is only part of the story. A live show is only as strong as the connection between music and audience. Without friends, my Garden of Eden experiences would not be nearly as memorable or important. As fans of live music, we can spend so much time analyzing set lists, critiquing the music and pondering band gossip that we lose sight of the core experience. We forget that at any given moment, there are human beings on stage sharing their gift with friends. We may not appreciate that our good friend is dancing beside us, free of worry, enjoying a fleeting moment. We forget that, though we may strive to recreate it, we will never be in this place again. This is the beauty of live music; the spontaneous nature that makes every night important.
Last year, as I danced beside Joe in a field in Massachusetts, I could not imagine the changes a year could bring. I had no idea that Joe would soon be a father. I never thought someone as strong, talented and young as Jon Trafton would be forced to battle cancer. But that is what 2005 has brought. Through birth, change and struggle I have learned to appreciate the moment more than ever before. I know that I will continue to see live music, but I do not know when my last show will be. It is this uncertain beauty that allows me to appreciate every show, every moment. Whatever friends you have, whatever band you love, I hope you do same.