Festival 101 /// A Crash Course
by Kevin Goodearl
Last month we kicked off festival season with the Instagram extravaganza we call Coachella. With money and image on the line, middle/upper class influencers migrate to the middle of the California desert to drench themselves in a sea of relevance. Adorned in paisley and henna, these festival goers attempt to not only listen to great acts, but capture the perfect golden hour photo in front of the ferris wheel with the San Jacinto Mountains as the backdrop. This millennial pilgrimage has become a meme even amongst the influencer community with stunts like this.
Now that I've gotten the cynicism out of my system, music festivals are truly incredible experiences. Festivals provide opportunities for fans to see several great acts perform outdoors in locations all over the country. This time of year always takes me back to when I went to my first major festival back in 2013, so indulge me for a moment while I walk you through my experiences at Life is Beautiful Festival.
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Talent is Prevalent
There are moments where you will be in the crowd and simply realize "Damn, these people are really the best at what they do." It hits you like a punch in the teeth. I’m reminded of Brittany Howard when she brought the house down with her powerhouse vocals, leaving little doubt that she may be the only person on the planet who can sing like she does. Vocals that run down your backbone and into the most visceral parts of your emotions. Being present in these moments is vital. You could be experiencing a moment that you will be telling your grandchildren about 50 years from now.
Be Prepared To Be Disappointed
I know this is not exactly an endorsement to go to a festival, but sometimes artists you like just suck live. I remember highly anticipating a performance by 90's Lo-fi rockstar, Beck. His experimental work on Odelay was some of my favorite work from that period. Unfortunately, my expectations were far from met. Maybe it was the years of touring, maybe he just had a rough night, but it was very disappointing to say the least. I still listen to Beck from time to time, but I know that I would never pay money to see him again.
Don't Be Either "Youtube Dude"
Youtube Dude can be one of two people:
Youtube Dude 1 - Watches every artist's live act on YouTube before the festival
Youtube Dude 1 is that person who spoils surprises. During Family of the Year's set, some joker behind me kept telling his friends what they were going to do next for their set. This band had made the extra effort to make sure that their live performance was much different than their recorded material and this guy behind me kept calling out their next moves like he was their stage director. Thanks for nothing, Youtube Dude 1.
Youtube Dude 2 - The "professional" phone videographer
Now don't hear me wrong on this: Definitely get some videos of the sets you see - you will thank yourself later. It's a great way to capture memories. In fact, I've watched some videos in preparing to write this retrospective. But no one likes that person who films the entire set. We get it Tiffany, but do you have to post this entire set on Snapchat?
Youtube Dude 2 misses out on things like the wind rushing in as Ezra Koenig captivates the crowd with his performance of "Unbelievers." Youtube Dude 2 misses out on the shared crowd experience.
Both Youtube Dudes aren't experiencing the concert as it should be.
Sometimes, You Gotta Tough It Out for the Good Spot
This might be the most strenuous part of any festival. If you want to be front row for an act, you will need to be prepared. You may need to sit through some acts that are, for lack of a better term, a carnival dumpster fire. With the headliner on night one imminent, I wanted to be sure I was right up front.
Being a festival rookie, I was far from prepared. For one, I decided to go with the "classy look" and wear dress shoes. This might be the most idiotic thing anyone has ever done in the history of Las Vegas (okay maybe top 100, it is Vegas after all). This is especially the case when you have to stand in one spot for 6+ hours. I had some sore feet to say the least. I also forgot to bring some sort of water bottle to stay hydrated. At one point, 10 people in our section were sharing one big water bottle and passing it up to security to fill it up for us. Don't count on having security be this nice, it’s definitely a rarity. So always stay hydrated (yes generic advice, but important). The last thing I wasn't prepared for was the "trash compactor" effect. This is basically when a crowd with thousands of people suddenly moves forward almost unannounced. I have the fortune of being taller, so at least I had some space above most of the crowd, but if you have claustrophobia, getting up front may be difficult for you.
So besides the logistics I mentioned above, the last endurance factor you have to take into account is the bands you have to listen to along the way. Along with the Beck performance, I had to watch Imagine Dragons. Yes, most of us know the flack that Imagine Dragons gets today (spicy Nickleback, per several meme pages), but back in 2013, they were an upcoming band that had a following of super fans. Two of these super fans happened to be standing directly in front of me. This couple that were in their 40's were ecstatic to see this band and were about as suburban middle class as you would expect. Anyways, watching them be excited as if they were watching Freddy Mercury at Live Aid in 1985 provided me enough entertainment to survive the set. However, the theatrical mediocrity that Imagine Dragons brought to the stage was nothing short of remarkable. Despite the guitar player's eight golden guitars, the flashy wardrobe and even a rendition of "Radioactive" with drummers from Mystere by Cirque du Soleil, these gimmicks could not redeem this band's lack of talent. A guitarist playing maybe three chords, a lead vocalist singing off key for 2/3 of the show and just poor songwriting in general does not scream "phenomenal" as the the couple in front of us declared.
Yes, in the grand scheme, these may seem like minimal inconveniences, but it is important to note what you will be going through for the good crowd spot.
The Payoff is Worth It
In 2013, one of my favorite bands was Kings of Leon. Mechanical Bull had just dropped and we were stoked to hear it live. We had experienced so many acts that day (good and bad) and we were more than ready to hear Caleb Followill's raspy vocals and his cousin Matt's guitar leads melt the crowd. Every hit of Jared's bass drum, crudely brandished with "OU" spelled out with cheap drumstick grip tape on the face to commemorate his favorite college football team, was exactly on time. The co-mingling of guitar and bass tones in "Cold Desert" was nothing short of a transcendent experience. The crowd was in awe of what they were experiencing. I remember quite a few things from this festival experience, but every aspect of this set still hangs in my memory as if I were transported back to this fall night. The wait was worth everything.
Before They Were Cool
The hipster cliche of finding a band before they're mainstream is obviously a real thing, but there really is a cool sense of pride in seeing a band before they make it big. I remember the group I was with had this happen to us when we were wandering around the festival grounds earlier in the day and saw a duo on one of the side stages. We walked over and we saw a tightly-packed, high energy crowd singing along to every song. We were thoroughly impressed with what we had to see and the blend of honest songwriting, piano, hip hop and electronic beats. It turns out that band was Twenty-One Pilots, who have obviously done well for themselves in 5+ years since then and, yes, have gone on to become that overplayed, angsty high school kid band, but I digress.
That being said, definitely still make an effort to check out bands you haven't heard much about before. It really can help broaden your music tastes and discover new favorites. Which is how I discovered one of my favorite bands of all time that year…
At first listen, early Dawes albums recording quality may give you the impression that they are your typical indie-americana band from LA, or at least that was my immediate reaction after listening to a couple of their songs pre-festival. My impression could not have been more wrong. I realized this only a few minutes into their set. To this day and after seeing them live six times, they remain one of my favorite bands and I would have probably never seen them if I hadn't attended this festival. The fact that you can see bands that you would have never thought to pay money for might be my favorite part about festivals.
No matter how hard you try, you will miss at least one incredible act if you attend a festival with multiple stages. While seeing other bands, I ended up missing both Childish Gambino and HAIM. Looking back I wish so badly I could have seen both of those sets, but this is a necessary casualty of planning what shows you will see. Always go into festivals with a plan, but expect that you will make mistakes.
The Pinnacle Moment
When looking back on your festival experience, there will be a moment where everything comes together. You will think to yourself, "Am I actually here? Is this even real?" This is the Pinnacle Moment. The talent, the crowd, the atmosphere, the nostalgia, the group, everything just becomes one cosmic etherial blob of harmony and joy. You may have captured it on video or maybe you didn't, but it does not matter. The movie reel will roll in your mind and it will stay with you above all else. I have mentioned several memories in the retrospective of Life is Beautiful 2013, but the one that stands out above all the rest was the Killers singing "When You Were Young" on the last night. No question.
Like a metaphysical experience, it almost cheapens the moment to write about it further, so I won't. All I can say is that the moment will come and you will never forget it.
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So if you do decide to go to a music festival this year, let me assure you: there will be bland and frustrating moments. But be damn sure it will be a weekend you will never forget.