Written by Tony Van Zeyl Monday, 04 July 2011 17:13
Draped in lights on invisible wire while dressed in black and navigating a crowd? I hope you have a solid exit strategy.
This was my seventh Sasquatch! Music Festival. I have been to dozens of other music festivals of all shapes, sizes, and styles. I love music festivals. While strolling through the grounds of a music festival, all sorts of things cross my mind. Here are 10 thoughts inspired by my Sasquatch! experience.
Commercialism: Love it and Hate it.
I am torn in half by the steady increase in commercialism and marketing at big concerts. On one hand, it is pretty awesome to be able to eat free soy bars (though, ironically, I can’t remember the name of the brand of soy bar I ate for free all weekend) and Pop Chips when needing a snack, rather than (or in addition to) shelling out $15 for a pretzel, fries, and a hot dog.
Red Bull built a two-tiered bar-thing with shiny lights, tables and chairs, and sleek coolness. Especially cool was that it offered great views of the dance tent and was restricted not by “superpass” tickets but by safety codes (they limited the number of people allowed at once on the second tier). Speaking of Red Bull, those people were out in force passing out free Red Bull in the camping areas (which was awesome, considering the drinks were running $5 a can from vendors).
Also, there was a huge shower, sponsored by URDB.org and a shower spray (got2B). The purpose was to set world records for things like “Longest Handstand in a Shower” or “Longest Time Hoola Hooping while Standing on One Leg in the Shower.” While this tie-in between a shower spray and a huge shower is a shameless marketing ploy, it adds to a richer festival experience. (check out their website here and look for them at other festivals)
On the other hand there was something called the “Verizon View Bar,” located right next to the main stage. Only special people were allowed access to this open area, and that is unsettling. In this beautiful place that nature created, only those who paid extra for a “superpass” can fully experience the view? Well, I did have great cell coverage throughout the weekend, which hasn’t always been the case in years past.
But the winner for evilest and most confusing marketing move was the exclusive “Camel Tent.” You needed to be 21 to go in, there were no visible windows, and there was a sign alerting those entering that they were not allowed to take pictures. As alluring and mysteriously uninviting as that sounded, my repulsion with cigarettes beat out the curiosity to peek my head inside.
Fortunately, a smoker friend told me that he went in, and that it was full of couches and “douche bags sitting around smoking, kinda like the smoking area in an airport.” He found the experience distasteful, which is probably the opposite effect the folks were intending to have. Offering an indoor smoking area at an outdoor festival? It’s just an ill-conceived idea.
According to my anecdotal non-scientific observations, they are. In years past there were huge anti-smoking campaigns at the festival (like theTruth.org). I heard from another festival go-er that there were “smoking is bad” campaigns at the festival this year, but personally I only saw the Camel Tent and lots and lots of people smoking cigarettes. And I’m not talking about those funny smelling cigarettes—though there were plenty of those. I am talking about those containing plain old tobacco. What’s up with that?
Especially when it is hot. It really takes some commitment to dress up as a Sasquatch, and I saw at least five different versions of this outfit. I also saw a Blue Guy (guy in a blue lycra suit and blue face paint) and a Green Guy (guy in green lycra suit and green face paint). There was a coed group of half-naked hipster/hippies with hot bods, each wearing a different animal head (horse, deer, etc.) made of rubber. One of my new Canadian friends wore a full-body narwhal costume. And then there was a guy with a sign that read “Fun Patrol.”
I noticed that people are getting more and more creative with glow sticks—making bunny/mouse ears, glasses, clothing and complicated pinwheels.
My favorite costume incorporated elements of light, props, and clothing. A guy wore a black stocking hat, black tight-fitting shirt and pants, black gloves, and a shiny red cape. In his hand, he held a black umbrella with small blue lights attached to fishing wire, which hung down past his knees. It was not so much a costume as it was a piece of art. It looked awesome in the light, and in the dark the effect was magically spooky. I probably should have gotten some pictures of him.
The thing about cool costumes, especially those that involve props, is that they can be cumbersome. Draped in lights on invisible wire while dressed in black and navigating a crowd? I hope you have a solid exit strategy. Then again, someone who goes to such lengths to construct such a conversely simple yet complicated piece of visual art is probably a person with a plan.
While this festival draws people from all over the world, the crowd is largely made up of people from Washington and Oregon. Over the years, I have come across a number of people from Idaho and Montana. I always meet a ton of people from Canada (mostly Vancouver, BC, which is logical, since it is only a few hours north of Seattle).
These Canadian folks are always super friendly, and they know lots about music. This year, I saw Chromeo, which is a band that I first heard about from some Canadian friends I met at Sasquatch! a couple years back. There were a ton of Canadian bands that played this year that I didn’t get to see (Death From Above 1979, Sam Roberts Band, Black Mountain, Tokyo Police Club, Dan Mangan, and probably more) but I heard great things about them all from my Canadian friends. Maybe in a couple years one of those bands will hit me like Chromeo did this year.
For the past several years I have covered festivals and concerts in the Pacific Northwest for this fine Internet publication. Though I was in my early 30s, I used to feel like an underage kid with a great fake ID. I could enter with confidence as long as no one asked too many questions and I didn’t make any direct eye contact. Those feelings are gone now. Now, I am just a guy doing his thing.
This year, there was a pretty spacious area with some outdoor tables close to the smallest stage set aside for media types. I popped in there several times to review my notes, grab a cold drink, some shade, and maybe check out the band playing on the stage nearby.
While chillin’, I saw lots of people NOT chillin’. These folks were working frantically to file their stories, upload their pictures, or interview one band or another. I would imagine that there is an unspoken (or openly spoken in some cases, I’m sure) rivalry among some of the bigger publications, so the pressure is probably very real and very intense. Watching them all scramble around was both humbling and inspiring. These were news people working hard at their craft, and I was honored to witness it.
I have already talked about infectious enthusiasm in reference to a bands’ ability to tap into the energy of a crowd. This is not something that all bands can pull off, but those who can are able to create something unique and magical that doesn’t exist in everyday life. While you are in a crowd full of people pumping your fist in the air and jumping up and down while clapping or singing in time with the music, you can get swallowed up in a collective consciousness, completely losing your individuality. A huge crowd of individuals enthusiastically acting as one entity can be just as awe-inspiring as a lightning storm or the views of the Columbia River Gorge. This collective spirit transforms the experience from a passive one that you watch (like on the screen), to an active one that sweeps you away, engulfing you and forcing you to surf in its energy.
This magic is not only about the music, but also the overall experience and context. When people attend a multi-day festival, they are immersing themselves a world where people dress up in costumes and dance-walk. Strangers groove with one another and give each other high fives.
Here is an example of this kooky and inspiring energy. I was walking along a crowded, steep section of a path when a tall, gangly, 20-ish bearded guy wearing a bandana tied as a headband and a loose-fitting bright yellow tank top with the words "'No boyfriend? No problem!” came barreling down in my direction. (Context note, I had just seen two middle aged women wearing the exact same shirt about 15 minutes earlier.) Anyway, this young dude was hooting and hollering and giving anyone who looked at him a high five while a gaggle of people followed him, also whooping it up.
Just as this spectacle and his posse passed me, another tall(er) gangly guy on the path began excitedly pointing to a friend on the hill. His long arm stretched suddenly across the path, forcing me to duck under it—only to notice and dodge a teenage girl who had briefly lost her footing coming down the corner of the path, AND THEN a bathroom door opened blocking my path, requiring a shift in my direction and speed quickly as I came to the same spot on the corner where the girl had stumbled.
The entire sequence of events last about five seconds and seemed choreographed to the music. A hipster-looking chick saw the whole thing just before she descended the path, laughed, and gave me a high five as both of us dance-walked in opposite directions to a rocker by Tokyo Police Club.
Since I love festivals so much, I have an almost obsessive compulsive drive to make my experience as smooth, comfortable, and low maintenance as possible. Here is how I work it:
a) Make veggie wraps and PB&J to take along (healthy, no worries about spoiling, inexpensive, and wraps up easily in plastic). This worked beautifully this year. By the end of the weekend I had only spent about $30 on food at the fest (which is only a hot dog, fries, soda, one beer, one bottled water, and a latte).
b) In the past, I have sneakily brought in alcohol, because I don’t like having to pay $10 for 24oz of Coors Light in a can. However this year, for a variety of reasons (most notably, as we say in the educational world, “making good choices”), I didn’t try. Good thing too, because the Man was enforcing the “no outside alcohol” rule pretty strictly this time around. Some of my new friends had their alcohol confiscated at the gate, and they were neither sloppy, nor belligerent, nor stupid. In fact, they had put vodka into water bottles and sealed the lids with superglue and it was still taken away.
c) I made friends with a group of folks, and we all worked together to secure a great spot each day at the main stage that we could use as “camp” and leave our bags there. That may seem risky (leaving bags unattended) but year after year everyone watches out for everyone else, which helps me believe in the goodness of humanity.
d) Keep the gear at a minimum, but don’t go in empty handed. You can’t leave once you enter, and the weather can change significantly throughout the day. Warm clothes, a blanket to sit on, and rain gear are as important as sunscreen and a sunhat. My secret weapon is a headlamp, which comes in handy as a party prop while giving me an easy way to find loose items in the grass when the sun goes down. At more than one festival, I have misplaced both my phone and keys and been able to locate them thanks to the light.
There are always hard choices to make at festivals. This is just part of the dealio. It’s a waste of energy to get annoyed at scheduling conflicts. Use that energy to come up with a plan that works for you. Here’s a glimpse into my head.
I decide ahead of time what I want to see, but then I stay flexible about it. For example, I had planned on seeing Beach House, but as I watched all of the other shows, I realized that I needed to see Reggie Watts. Always leave room for musical experimentation. For some reason, people feel the need to smash up to the front of the stage. I always feel so claustrophobic all smashed in there, and I just can’t groove like I want to. I can’t stand still when music is playing, and I don’t want to have to worry about bumping into other people when the spirit moves me. At Sasquatch! Festival (and many other outdoor festivals that I have attended), I often found a pocket of openness just to the side of the stage. The views from these spaces were always good, and most importantly, there was room to dance.
The most important part of dealing with the multiple stages of a festival and a tight schedule is your exit strategy. I found the fastest route between stages and generally stuck to it throughout the weekend. Leaving before the band finishes is another way to save a couple minutes. And always remember: never, ever go to the bathroom or get food between sets unless you want to stand in line. Always take care of your business while a band is playing.
Limiting access to free water is stupid and potentially dangerous.
Speaking of bathrooms, the people at the Gorge Amphitheater switched up the bathroom situation in a way that I don’t understand at all. First, they removed a huge bank of bathrooms from the main stage area and replaced it with the Verizon View Bar. It is certainly more appealing to gaze upon the wonder of nature’s majesty. However, they crammed the bathrooms on that side into an awkward and claustrophobic area on a steep incline, which seemed like a recipe for trouble (see “the crowd is magical “ for my close call that turned awesome).
Playing around with bathroom placement is forgivable. As is the annoying layout of the dance tent, though it has always bugged me. After all, the festival grounds seemed to have gotten something of a makeover all around (new sod, major upgrade to the main stage making it safer). What was unforgivable was the limiting of access to free water.
In the past, there were a several key locations to get water. This year, you could get water from the sinks outside the bathroom. That water was heavily chlorinated, warm, and difficult to get to due to the lines of people washing their hands. The only other place to get water was at a water station, just outside a huge bank of bathrooms. Over the course of the weekend, this turned into a gross swamp of mud, which is not something that you want to wade through to get to or out of the bathroom area.
On the third day of the festival, I did see ONE additional place to get water next to the first aid tent. While that was nice, it seemed like a half-hearted attempt to make things better. The line for that water was always 10-20 people deep, and not a good use of festival time. Sure, there were water bottles available for purchase in many locations, but seriously? They are asking $3 per water bottle, not to mention the clutter of plastic bottles that creates. Fortunately, they didn’t keep the lids, which is something that had been done in the past (supposedly because they were concerned about people throwing the lids).
Another change that didn’t make sense was the removal of the “cooling station,” which would provide a water mist during the heat of the day. This was never something I spent any time doing on my own, but if I had brought my children (ages 3 & 5) its absence would have literally ruined the weekend for us (we brought our 5 year old when she was 16 months old, and she spent a ton of time there).
I spoke briefly to a super friendly, incredibly large security guy who told me that there was a ton more “drinking and noncompliance” this year than in the past. Is that related to the lack of access to free water? My non-scientific anecdotal conclusion is YES. If kids today are anything like I was in my younger years, they will spend their money on beer rather than water. Or they will drink the alcohol that they snuck in, ignore the lines for free water, and instead buy something to mix with their alcohol. Drinking in the sun usually equals quicker, sloppier intoxication due to dehydration. The only reason I can see to limit access to free water is to cajole attendees to buy it. That’s not only greedy but also potentially dangerous.
During their set, lead singer of Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst, referred to the Internet as “the pig.” He said that the Internet represents greed. While I can empathize with this sentiment (see Commercialism and Breakdowns), I believe the Internet to be a fantastic place. Thanks to the Internet, I was able to print out my camping tickets after I misplaced them, listen to a variety of performers prior to seeing them at the festival, share pictures with my family, check in with my family (via their own pictures) in Seattle, and stay connected with all of the new friends that I made over the weekend. These actions are not about monetary greed; they are all about making connections.
Most impressively, as I mentioned several times throughout this article, NPR partnered with a few other non-profit radio stations (Austin’s KUT, Seattle’s KEXP, and Minnesota’s The Current) to provide a live stream of the festival (which I was able to tap into on my drive home to catch the Decemberists and Wilco). This trend of providing live streams of concerts, such as the last LCD Soundsystem show and festivals such as Coachella and Bonnaroo, can only be described as awesome. The folks at NPR even went even a step farther by archiving many of the sets and offering many of them as downloads.
Is that an example of greed? Maybe. After all, I can get pretty greedy about consuming all of that music. So it seems the biggest profiteer in this would be the listener. It allows access to music that people may not otherwise be able to afford. The artists benefit by having their music heard. True, there are inherent commercial interests, but this festival’s web coverage seemed to be an example of the Internet doing good things rather than evil ones.
Interestingly, Bright Eyes’ set is not available for streaming or download (though it was available for the live stream), yet in a month they are releasing a live EP. Perhaps Mr. Oberst was projecting feelings of guilt over his own struggle with greed. In any event, thanks for the music and the deep thoughts, buddy. Maybe someday I will be able to ask you for some explanation. In the meantime, I will continue to happily suckle from “the pig.” | Tony Van Zeyl
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