The running joke over Fourth of July weekend with the family: what Ben does for a living. Over the course of four days, I heard it all, mostly from my brother: “memorize lyrics”, “make mix CDs”, “hang out with Common”, “bang on a plastic toy drum”. With all those responsibilities, it’s a wonder I was able to get any time off for the holiday.
I’m not mad; my brother probably knows more about my job than I do about his consulting gig (I do know he spends a lot of time “on the beach”). But he, along with the rest of my family, is a little misinformed about how much my life revolves around music these days. A year ago, I was listening to a lot of new bands, doing interviews, and going to shows regularly. Now? My music-related writing is confined to this column and the occasional preview of a concert that I most likely won’t even attend. My dad thinks I go to one show a week, on average; I’d say it’s more like one a month.
On a recent weekend, though, I upped that number considerably. Over the course of three days, I saw Public Enemy, Dead Prez, Immortal Technique, Rakim, Method Man & Redman, De La Soul, Mos Def, the Pharcyde, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, King Khan & the Shrines, Occidental Brothers Dance Band International, Bon Iver, and Spoon. It was an easier feat than you might imagine, given that I only had to go to two different festivals: the Pitchfork Music Festival and Rock the Bells.
Still, it was a challenge to make it through the weekend. Even when I’m in peak musical condition, I have a love/hate relationship with festivals. This year, the things I loved and hated stood out even more. Since I’m an optimist (despite that “Raincloud” nickname I can’t seem to shake), I’ll go through the positives first.
1. The music. Seriously, look at the list above. Yeah, it cost me over $100 to see all that, but if I were trying to catch them one at a time, the price would be a lot steeper. I’d also have to do a lot more traveling than walking from one side of a park to the other.
It’s not only about being able to see the acts you love; festivals also give you a chance to check out artists you wouldn’t otherwise pay to see. I went to Rock the Bells mainly because A Tribe Called Quest was headlining the fest—since their heyday was a good 15 years ago, I had good reason to think I’d never be able to see them live, so when the opportunity came, I took it. To my surprise, though, probably the best set of the day (and perhaps of the weekend) came from Nas, an artist I’d never considered one of my favorites. Now I see what Kelis sees.
Similarly, there were a lot of bands that made me want to go to Pitchfork’s festival; Spoon, of course, was at the top of the list, even if the group hasn’t come out with any new material since the last time I saw them. When I learned that Public Enemy would be closing the first night of the fest by performing It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back in its entirety, I was intrigued enough to check it out. Even though I’ve never been a huge fan (this seems like a good time to apologize for my poorly thought-out political hip-hop column of a few years ago), there was something pretty cool about watching Chuck D and Flavor Flav do their thing—even if it was in front of a crowd that had little experience with fighting the power, unless you include contesting parking tickets.
2. The spontaneity. At any live show, you’re bound to see and hear some things you might not anywhere else. But add a few thousand more people, and tons more acts, and things get a little more interesting. For example, I watched the first part of Public Enemy’s set mere feet from Spoon’s Britt Daniel (I resisted the urge to have a Chris Farley-like conversation with him). We both listened to a good chunk of the crowd boo Flavor Flav for his reality-show success, prompting an irate Flav to respond, “Boo is something you call your wife.” This is not something you can do every day.
Then there’s the more R-rated stuff, like King Khan’s entire set, in which he exhorted the crowd, at different times, to throw garbage, tear up dollar bills, and to “bring finger-banging back in ‘08.” His quotes were nearly as memorable as those of the performers at Rock the Bells, none of which I really want to type here. Rest assured, they included every one of George Carlin’s seven words you can’t say on TV.
3. The community. Maybe that word isn’t quite deserved—no matter what Perry Farrell would have you believe, it’s pretty hard to create a “community” in three days, especially if no one’s staying overnight (at my day camp, you needed at least a week for true bonding). But at some point during a festival weekend, you’re likely to be struck by the fact that these thousands of people have all come together with one goal in mind: to hear lots of music. There’s something touching about that, even if they are all drunk and stoned.
And you’ll definitely come upon your fair share of interesting people. Over three days, I stood next to some 60-year-olds gyrating to Public Enemy’s “She Watch Channel Zero?!”; witnessed a guy loudly singing Mos Def’s “Umi Says” while peeing into a stainless-steel trough; and nearly gave a ride to a documentarian from Nashville, who attempted to sweeten the deal by using up one of his last Polaroid film cartridges on a poorly framed portrait of my girlfriend and I (hope you made it home ok, whatever your name is).
3a. The community’s clothing. In any large gathering of people, there are bound to be a few stylish individuals. When that gathering is full of hip-hop heads and hipsters, the number increases dramatically, making it the perfect place for people-watching. While the revealing tops and graffiti-inspired clothing at Rock the Bells were inspiring, Pitchfork was the real fashion attraction. I haven’t seen that many cut-offs, neon accessories, and headdresses since…well, since last year (thankfully, there were slightly fewer shirts with ironic slogans—though way more bucket hats—than in previous years). I even chose my outfit for next year: green trucker hat, ‘stache, tight, long-sleeved flannel shirt, short green soccer shorts, Day-Glo orange flip-flops. GQ, eat your heart out.
Add to all that a hefty amount of greasy food, booze, sun, and friends, and you couldn’t ask for a better summer weekend, right? Before you buy that ticket, you may want to read on. There are some drawbacks to festival life, too.
1. The sound. Outdoor fests are notorious for their bad acoustics, which is no surprise, because the outdoors wasn’t designed with sound quality in mind (feng shui, yes). Actually, you can get decent sound if you’re really close to the stage, which is unfortunately not the reality for about two-thirds of those attending any set during the weekend.
The general rule in this type of environment is that the louder you play, the better off you’ll be. Which leaves softer acoustic artists at a distinct disadvantage, particularly when more rockin’ sounds bleed over from nearby stages; anyone who attempted to listen to Bon Iver at Pitchfork knows how hard it was to maintain focus. But louder isn’t always better, either. At Rock the Bells, songs were so bass-heavy as to be nearly unintelligible in the front “pit” area; further back on the lawn, things were slightly better, but far less energized—which is a big part of any hip-hop show. There’s something not quite right about nodding along to Immortal Technique while lounging on a blanket and eating Baked Cheetos.
2. The schedule. A big, multi-stage festival like Lollapalooza (and, to some extent, Pitchfork) functions much like a party where everyone’s looking over the shoulder of whoever they’re talking to in order to see who else they might want to talk to. Fans will often leave one set midway through to secure a good spot for another set elsewhere. Rarely does a band have the undivided attention of its audience, partly because every performance is filled with casual fans, and partly because everyone’s busy asking each other what else they’ve seen so far. It can begin to feel like you’re not “seeing” much at all, but rather just checking off names on a list.
Thankfully, I did pretty much no set-hopping this year. Rock the Bells made it easy, as there was only one stage/one act at a time. At Pitchfork, I did something I haven’t done in previous years: I stayed at one stage for most of the afternoon. As others scrambled to catch other acts, I began my day with two straight full sets, separated by about half an hour of nothing at all; the second act, Chicago Afro-pop group Occidental Brothers Dance Band International, may have been my favorite of the entire weekend, partly because I was so relaxed and in the moment. I barely noticed the huge crowd that had gathered behind me in preparation for the next performance—until I had to find a path through everyone. Which brings me to my next negative…
3. The crowd. Yes, communing with thousands of music fans is fun…for a while. But then it becomes a group of people whom you really didn’t plan on spending your weekend with, unless you typically hang out with stoned 16-year olds. All the people who seemed cute on Friday night are just plain annoying by Sunday (except the girl who’s loudly offering “free secrets” and “$5 pap smears”—she’s always annoying). You’re bound to get stepped on, spilled on, and ashed on repeatedly—and that’s even if you’re on the outskirts of every set. Try to venture near the stage, and it gets worse. I’m no misanthrope (well, maybe just a little), but I do leave most fests with a desire to lock myself in my room for a few days.
Still, these drawbacks (and I didn’t even mention the obvious ones, like the unpredictable weather or the usually exorbitant costs for food and drink) never seem to discourage me from buying tickets to every big fest in my area at the first opportunity. If you’re a music fan, it’s nearly impossible to resist the bloated lineups, for fear of missing something potentially mind-blowing. Besides, fests get me back into musical shape quickly, and I need all the extra time I can get—those lyrics aren’t gonna memorize themselves.
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