Let’s be honest: we’ve got more music festivals than we need. They’ve become good ways for bands to get new exposure or jump up to a larger fan base. They can also make for a nice payday in a time where artists’ pay is tough to come by. But some festivals have gotten too big, too expensive.
All the money now involved makes for some problems. There are outliers that have grown successful and kept their focus — the Big Ears Festival comes to mind — but plenty have just bloated. The now two-weekend Coachella is as much a lifestyle festival as it is anything else. It’s got its own fashion trends. It lets people in the crowd party nearby celebrities and non-performing musicians and be cooler by proximity, like a live-action Twitter feed. Yes, there’s great music there, and yes there are good reasons to spend the money and go. But Coachella is never just a music festival. It’s always an advertisement for Coachella.
Meanwhile, South By Southwest seems to have overrun Austin with corporate-run showcases and exorbitant prices rather than doing its part to keep the city weird. If Coachella still has a strong draw, SXSW — at least from some corners of the musical and critical world, not to mention Austin locals — seems to be turning into a source of fatigue.
If we use these two as examples — and there are plenty of others like them — there may be reasons these are drifting into strange, corporate-branding spaces. They’ve both lost or never had roots. SXSW draws in tourists to spend money and leave, or brings in sponsors that draw in customers to cash in on. Coachella builds itself each year out in the desert. There’s no local community to connect to, no local culture to introduce. It creates its own context. It doesn’t pretend not to, but it can make the relationship between festival goer and festival seem cool and distant.
Luckily, there are smaller festivals cropping up and doing things differently. They use the music festival to connect with a local culture and community, trying to draw people in rather than merely milk them for cash and send them on their way. One great example of this, Phuzz Phest, took place April 15-16 in Winston-Salem, NC.
The festival, now in its sixth year, is put together by a group of local musicians and professionals fronted by Philip Pledger. Pledger also runs local label Phuzz Records (where the festival gets its title) and leads the band Estrangers. The goal in creating Phuzz Phest is to “build a cultural event that our city can be proud of,” says Pledger. “We want to put the best snapshot forward of Winston-Salem.” In that way, the festival succeeded this year, but it also aligned itself with a different purpose from those big festivals. For Phuzz Phest and other smaller festivals like, say, Savannah Stopover, this event feeds off and rises out of the energy of its host city. This isn’t about selling Winston-Salem, or North Carolina more largely, it’s about putting it on display. About showing what the place is about.
This creates a sense not that you’re walking into a constructed event, but that you’re taking part in a particularly active weekend in the city. Local food trucks, restaurants, bars, and breweries are deeply involved and connected to the festival, as are other local artists and artisans. Attendees can walk from venue to venue and get a feel for Winston-Salem’s growing downtown. Part of the energy of the festival comes out of the sense of possibility in the city. The music scene is growing and finding its new shape with diverse acts shaking things up. New venues offer outlets for different kinds of performance and introductions to various corners of the Camel City. Phuzz Phest lets you see local acts play right alongside national acts. It lets you hear music in wide-open parks, huge event spaces, dive bars, record shops, and rock clubs. While people tend to talk about Chapel Hill/Durham when they talk about the North Carolina music scene, Phuzz Phest revealed the energy and possibility of Winston-Salem. It also suggested that there’s a larger, more connected sense of musical community in North Carolina, one that runs from the foothills in the west across Raleigh/Durham and Chapel Hill on east and down to the coast. Phuzz Phest doesn’t spend a lot of time selling such ideas. It’s right there in the experience.
Friday, April 15
It’s fitting that a festival so tied to place and local culture began with a panel discussion titled “Building and Sustaining a Music Community”. As if to sell this point, the day’s music kicked off with several local acts. Durham’s Drag Sounds channeled a scrappy version of the Rolling Stones playing outdoors at Bailey Park for the festivals first set. From there, the night had its share of big acts. Thee Oh Sees played a blistering, excellent set later in the night. Neon Indian brought their stylized dance party to a lively crowd at the festival’s biggest indoor venue, the Millennium Center. But it was the smaller bands that ended up offering the best sets and most surprises, a trend that worked its way through the whole festival.
Reanimator Records, an independent store in town, has a devout following in part because the small space puts on so many off-the-beaten path shows. One of the best performances in the store came from Winston-Salem’s own Mama. The band was all sheer velocity, speedin through a set of lean rock songs. But despite their punk frenzy, Mama managed to shift from edged guitar riffs and off-kilter beats to some sneaky, hip-shaking grooves. The band could flat howl, but there was a polish underneath that, a sense of blues and other traditions woven into their songs, that set them apart.
Up the road at the Garage, Durham’s Teardrop Canyon who, like Mama, hasn’t released a record yet, also put on an impressive and polished set. Josh Kimbrough and his band have put out a couple singles that play like tight, crunchy power-pop, but live the band tempers the sound with a nuanced mix of keys and bass. The songs really opened up around Kimbrough’s melodies, and while the bittersweet sound might call to mind the Cure or a John Hughes film, the band didn’t sound nostalgic or revivalist. They sounded here-and-now excellent.
Indie rock, in all its permutations, was at the center of these earlier shows, but the best stuff later in the night drifted into other genres. Sarah Shook and the Disarmers knocked out a rollicking set of honky-tonk tunes, before Lera Lynn — best known now, perhaps, for her music from True Detective — turned out the lights at Krankies Coffee with a beautiful performance. The Nashville singer seemed a perfect complement to Shook as she slowed the tempo to torch-singer mode but never let the energy leave the room.
Though Sunflower Bean has received plenty of buzz for their debut record, their set late on Friday was the last of many great surprises. The lush, bright pysch-pop of the band’s album leans out into some rumbling, low-end rock on stage. The band’s tight set had them tying their own sound to classics that came before, especially a solid dose of Black Sabbath. On another band, it might have felt postured, but the trio just dug in a belted these songs out with an unmannered zeal.
Saturday, April 16
If Friday provided a good mix of the local and the national, drawing links between trends in North Carolina and Nashville or Brooklyn or California, then Saturday was dominated by acts from the Old North State. Sure, bands like Audacity and Yuck delivered, and veteran Detroit post-rockers Paik put on a deafening and great set too, but acts from all over North Carolina carried the day.
It started in Bailey Park with Boone, North Carolina’s Naked Gods. If you like intricately textured, hook-filled rock and roll, the band’s latest record is a must own. Live the band holds the center of those catchy tunes but pulls at the edges with experimental guitar squalls, impromptu percussion, and singer Seth Sullivan’s manic dance moves. Naked Gods mix of tight compositions and eccentric personality set the stage for the Tills, the most raucous, bluesy garage-rock band this side of Sympathy for the Record Industry or In the Red Records. Like Drag Sounds and Thee Oh Sees before, the Tills brought their sweat-wet, packed-club act to the outdoor stage and didn’t miss a beat.
Saturday started off with high-energy rock tunes, but it shifted over at the Millenium Center with Shirlette Ammons. Ammons, a Durham native, and her band don’t blend genres so much as they melt them down into a whole new musical alloy. Ammon can rap and sing, and the band behind her delivers power-pop with R&B and funk leanings mixed in. Best of all, though, their set shifted tempo and changed up songs on a dime. Ammons herself is a force of nature, commanding the audience’s attention through sheer will, through the charged delivery of every word. The crowd grew as Ammons and her band played — people outside heard, drifted in, and stayed — and the genre-melting set was, for this writer, the highlight of the day, It served as a reminder, like Naked Gods, of how fresh music can sound when it comes from a voice of purpose.
The other highlights from the day follow Ammons lead, delving into different sound and blending genres to create great performances. Jared Draughon, front man for Winston’s Must Be the Holy Ghost, looped layers of guitar and vocals into swelling, maximalist pop jams that blended with his project partner Evan Hawkins’ liquid light show. Joining Draughon on stage was group of dancers from Helen Simoneau Danse. The dancers bloomed and spun, much like the light show, suggesting the subtle way those layers of sound moved, swayed, and warped sweetly with time.
Though JPhono1, the project of Chapel Hill/Carrboro singer-songwriter John Harrison, play as a standard rock four-piece, the band’s set at Test Pattern — a tiki bar turned rock club — was just as surprising as Ammons or Must Be the Holy Ghost. JPhono1, who just released the excellent Time in the Chevron record, kicked up some folk-rock dust, but the songs also stretched out. Harrison’s playing seems to borrow from American Primitive and some of the more lush layers of Ben Chasny or Steve Gunn to take these songs in surprising places, and the band behind him locks in with a swampy thump, as if Gram Parsons’ Cosmic America took through Appalachia. Late in the night, Raleigh’s Boulevards brought his electro-funk-hip-hop sound to a packed crowd in the Garage and erupted with a feverish, leave-it-all-on-stage set.
For two days, people threaded through the streets of Winston-Salem, locals and visitors alike. They filled these spaces and heard these sounds and, in turn, got introduced to a city, to a place with people trying to grow a culture and create something of their own, something that can last.
This seems particularly relevant now for North Carolina. Though a few musicians spoke out against House Bill 2 — the now infamous North Carolina legislation that limits bathroom access in state-owned spaces for transgender people, as well as restricting city’s from instituting their own living wage or from developing their own anti-discrimination ordinances — it wasn’t mentioned much. But maybe it didn’t need to be. Maybe protests and petitions and social media threads aren’t the only way to oppose representative powers when they no longer represent you. Maybe instead, you just present an alternative, something inclusive, something interested in risk and innovation rather than fear masked as “common sense”. Maybe no one at Phuzz Phest needed to say anything, because the festival was itself a way to say — in some way — we are not HB2. This Is Who We Are.
Festivals can and should be transactions, but not of capital or codified cool. They should bring people into a space to let them see what it’s about and to let them add something to it. It can be praise or criticism. It can be a new angle on an old idea. Or it can just be pure enjoyment. Where larger festivals are getting away from this — happy too often to take more than they give — some small festivals are shifting the balance. Phuzz Phest is one of them. “We try to show we can be a real cultural hub where the community comes together and people let themselves have a good time,” Pledger says about the festival, and Phuzz Phest does just that. Which is what makes it capable of all these other things as well.