I blame it all on Max Yasgur. Max is the guy, way back when, who agreed to lease out his farm in upstate New York for a little soiree called Woodstock. And ever since then hordes of young adults have labored under the illusion that it’s a great idea to try to watch a rock concert in 100-degree heat, half a mile from the stage.
This curious notion seems to be undergoing a renaissance in recent years, as once-small festivals mushroom (even the non Deadhead ones) into mammoth multi-day events. You all know the litany – Coachella, Bonnaroo, Glastonbury, Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits, and many, many more. It’s possible to see 80 or 100 bands at these events. There’s only one problem. You can’t actually see them.
Don’t get me wrong. God knows I love live music. I’d spend my life in some dive bar if I could, hanging out with a couple hundred other people, reveling in the wonders of some new or up-and-coming band. There’s little in life that I enjoy more. But it’s precisely because I enjoy that interaction that I’m mystified by the appeal of the mammoth festivals.
I’ve given it the ol’ college try, and the post-college try. Before that I gave it the ol’ high school try, and had my first experience at such an event in July, 1970 when Sly Stone failed to show up for a free concert in Grant Park in Chicago, at which point there was a riot goin’ on, and I ended up trying not to breathe tear gas as I ran away from police who were firing rubber bullets. That was a rollicking good time. I’ve watched The Rolling Stones in their heyday along with 80,000 people in old, rusting Cleveland Stadium, and heard later about some kid who sailed out of the upper deck and landed on the infield below. I’ve sat in the midst of a sea of wasted humanity many, many times, everybody completely oblivious to the music. Are we havin’ fun yet? But, you know, I actually kinda care about the music.
Columbus, Ohio, where I live, has its own corporate version of Yasgur’s Farm; a former cornfield transformed into a concrete amphitheater and named after a local car dealership. It is one of the most soulless places in the universe. Usually it is home to Styx/Foreigner/REO Speedwagon packaged nostalgia, Genesis reunion tours, and overpriced burritos and watered-down beer. Thanks very much, but I’ll pass. But occasionally it tempts me. I forget myself, forget the lousy times I’ve invariably had in similar environments, and somehow succumb to the notion that this time it will be different. So when Farm Aid came through Columbus a few years ago, I naively forgot 35 years of my musical history.
Up there on the stage, theoretically, were a lot of people whose music I loved – Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, John Mellencamp. But back on the lawn seating it was hard to tell the Emmylou speck from the Willie speck. Giant jumbotron screens on either side of the stage projected the faces of the musical performers, but from where I sat the giant jumbotron screens looked like 12-inch TV sets. So I watched Willie and Emmylou on the little TV set, was mildly entertained by the sea of wasted people around me, sweated in the sun, got drenched by the late afternoon thunderstorm, and groused at the prospect of an $8 watered-down Coors. Are we havin’ fun yet?
So enjoy the festivals, ye neo-hippies. Be safe. I’ll catch you again in the fall, when musicians return indoors, and I can actually bear to pay money to watch them again.