It seems that every day I read about an upcoming summer music festival or concert series. From the impending Sasquatch Festival (George, Washington) to Treasure Island (San Francisco), Siren (NYC), Rock City (Detroit), Rogers Picnic (Toronto), Suoni (Montreal) SummerStage (again, NYC), Fuji (Niigata, Japan) Melt! (Ferropolis, Germany), and Soundcity! (Liverpool), and that's only half of them. One could ostensibly spend their entire summer—from Memorial Day to Labor Day—following their favorite bands around the world, working on their tan, eating Elephant Ears, finding curious new places to get tattoos and piercings, and waiting in line for thirty minutes to use a Port-A-Potty.
Ahhh, outdoor music festivals. Love them or fear them? It is tempting to sing their praises when one sees the list of bands. The National and M.I.A?! Death Cab + MGMT + YACHT+ Spoon + The Roots + a band from the '80s reuniting for the third time?! It's like your favorite iPod playlist come to life.
My first summer music fest was in 1991 when I went to a new festival called Lollapalooza. That was followed the next year by the inaugural EndFest (hosted by 107.7 FM, Seattle's alt-rock station). For the latter, I slept in my car at the Kitsap County Fairground with some friends the night before the concert. By 2 pm the next day I was riding the crowd for the first and last time in my life. And I'm trying to block this next part out but I'm pretty sure I was wearing a purple and black Cat in the Hat hat (somehow popular in the NW back then, I swear).
In deciding to see a festival these days, aside from the line-up, a big part of the draw is the festival setting. Castle, pirate ship, barn, or mountaintop equals yes. Expo Center, mini-mall, or dusty-field-with-faint-smell-of-manure is probably a no. The setting cannot be underestimated. After all, you are basically trapped in one location for 10 to 12 hours.
Though ostensibly there for the music, I am often distracted by a hacky sack or beach ball, a liquidy pile that is either lentils or vomit, or something unseemly going on under a blanket. Additionally, I worry about all the barefoot people and how dirty their feet have become. If they don't put shoes on before entering the bathroom I will have to go home. In other words, the music becomes background noise to a circus of grossness.
Therefore, what I find hardest about music festivals is trying to preserve that sense of awe over and over again, to be awake and aware enough to find that one special moment in each set, or at least in most of them, to cull enjoyment from the broader experience, to feel that I am part of the experience, that it's not about proximity to the stage or how good the band is but about the fact that I'm among thousands, collectively listening, collectively being. At least that's how I want to feel. Unfortunately, to really love outdoor music festivals you have to love both: the music and the menagerie.
So, do you?