The music festival landscape, an event production universe in its own right, has changed drastically over the course of the past decade and a half, or so. What had begun some half a century ago as a naïve, albeit admirable attempt at youth liberté and rebelliousness, turned into a global-scale business undertaking some time in the ‘90s, only to, perhaps inevitably, become a gargantuan money-making machinery in the ‘00s, abandoning any semblance of ideology or topicality.
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When renowned festivals make the ambitious business decision to expand their activities, namely by creating satellite festivals, there are only two ways in which this tapping into new territory plays out -– either the satellite festival is small, shoddy, cheap, and generally serves only to raise awareness about the queen bee event, or it becomes a rogue sensation in its own right, breathing a new life into the entire franchise and providing ace entertainment for audiences thirsty for new events.
It’s June in New York and there’s rain spitting down on everyone stuck outside. But I’m inside at Warsaw, the Polish National Home in Brooklyn, one of a crowd of a thousand whose eardrums are being ripped to shreds. The bandleader is standing up on a crowded stage, using the neck of his guitar as a baton, his whole body pivoting between swells of violent noise that feel like blinding light. I have decided to take my earplugs out.
The band onstage is Swans, and I leave that night physically exhausted, as if I’d done something other than stand stock-still for two-plus hours. I have a hard time explaining to everyone just what was so pleasurable about the experience, that this all-rhythm, no-melody approach actually heightened the show’s sensory assault, and pushed it into territory generally never trod by touring bands: the transcendent.
It was early June 2013 when I found myself in London by complete chance, on a long weekend with nothing but time. Waking up to a lazy Sunday after a heavy Saturday (those pub crawls will get to you after the fourth or fifth shot), I figured I should try and see a show at the West End since I had never done it. I had heard good things about Jersey Boys, so I went to Leicester Square around 9 AM. The bookie had just opened the shop and didn’t look very happy to see me.
Who doesn’t love a music festival? Well, me, actually. I’ve never been the energetic type, the “let’s bounce from one stage to another amid the swirling masses for like three days” type. I wish that I were, of course. You miss a lot of great stuff when you’re lazy. But even if I could get over my basic preference for standing relatively still during a performance, then there’s the whole “swirling masses” thing. Lolapolooza, Bonnaroo, Osheaga, and Coachella all attract me with their offerings but cause me to feel the gurgling jellies of anxiety every time I imagine finding myself in a sea of people, unable to escape, stretch out, find a place to take a breath. I like bars with clearly-marked exits, is what I’m saying.
But I’ve always wanted to change this, and have been looking for the right festival to ease myself into the whole thing. And, then I heard about the Greenbelt Harvest Picnic.
Small (fewer than 10,000 people, by my estimate), sponsored and supported by local non-profits and smallish businesses, and featuring a decidedly stellar lineup fronted by Feist, Daniel Lanois, Emmylou Harris, Gord Downie & the Sadies, Mix Master Mike, and Sarah Harmer, this seemed like a worthy place to test the waters.