September 2016 – Sitting In A Field Listening to Music

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

As the sizzling summer season of weekend music festivals draws to a close for another year, maybe it’s worth taking a look at this particular cultural phenomenon. It is perhaps tempting to think that open air festivals are a new-ish thing because they are one of the fads of the late ‘noughties’ and ‘teenies’. The modern ‘pop’ festival that we’ve come to accept as part of the summer musical landscape has actually been around for a very long time.

Festivals of the past

People have always performed to audiences out of doors, travelling troubadours, minstrels, bards, poets and entertainers roamed the countryside as a means of communicating news and passing on stories, so the social fabric of our communities has thrived and depended on al fresco musical and literary experiences for many, many centuries. Fast forward…

While it wasn’t the first large scale outdoor music event, perhaps the pivotal moment, and the granddaddy of what we now regard as the open air music festival, occurred between 15th and 17th (actually the 18th) August 1969 at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, New York State, USA. The Woodstock Music and Art Fair, described by its organisers as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music” has passed into field music legend as a hippie pilgrimage and the dawn of a ‘new age’. Known to most simply as Woodstock, it was attended by around 400,000 people and had only 32 main acts. Now widely regarded in hindsight as a massively important event in modern music and a milestone in popular counter-culture, it was by many accounts, a soggy and shambolic experience, thereby setting the standard for modern festivals to learn from and improve upon. The top acts at Woodstock included Joan Baez, Santana, Grateful Dead, Creedance Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, The Band, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, The Who and, ultimately on Monday morning, Jimi Hendrix. Regardless of the myths surrounding the event, it was probably as successful as it could have been. There is plenty of information about Woodstock on the hinterweb, so it isn’t repeated here. (Wikipedia…

The next major festival event was the Isle of Wight Festival in the UK held between 26th and 31st August 1970. While the Isle of White pop festivals started in 1968 and had built a solid reputation for quality, 1970 became almost as legendary as Woodstock. It was certainly much bigger, attracting somewhere between 600,000 and 700,000 people. Given that the island had a resident population of less than 100,000 at the time, the scale of the event proved a logistical nightmare. Ultimately, it failed to make a profit, consigning the Isle of Wight Festival into hiatus for over 30 years. Acts included The Doors, The Moody Blues, The Who, Miles Davis, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Jethro Tull, Leonard Cohen, Free and Jimi Hendrix. As with Woodstock, the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 has been well documented over the years. Wikipedia…

While both these events were essentially limited in longevity (1 and 3 years respectively), they spawned the annual programmes of modern music festivals. Perhaps the world’s most famous and successful music festival is Glastonbury Festival, held at Worthy Farm, in Pilton, Somerset, UK, organised by Michael Eavis. While the first Pilton Festival (as it was called) on 19th September 1970 was attended by only about 1,500 people (rising to 12,000 in 1971), it has grown into a global phenomenon and arguably now sets the benchmark for the organisation of modern summer open air music festivals, including revived events on the Isle of Wight. Glastonbury had a shaky start, taking place intermittently until 1981 but has since settled into a regular feature not only of the festival scene but also an essential symbol of the modern festival zeitgeist. Attendance now hovers around 170,000 to 180,000 people. Festival nerds’ fact: The first Glastonbury Festivals were first held between 1914 and 1926 but were a far cry from the hippie movement of the early ‘70s. The history of Glastonbury Festival has also been well-documented elsewhere. (Wikipedia…

Music festivals also seem to be synonymous with recreational drug taking, although less so these days where alcohol seems to be the drug of choice. I’m not going to cover substance (mis)use here, however, it cannot be overlooked within the broader context so, there you go, it has been mentioned.

I was too young to experience the historic festivals in the early years. So…

Festivals in the current day

Moving to the modern day, there is a massive diversity of open air music festivals across the globe and particularly across Europe and North America. The enormous growth in popularity of outdoor concerts has led to a veritable saturation of music (and indeed other types of) festivals every year, despite being inherently prone to meteorological unpredictability. So much so, that many events struggle to sell out and many have to work very hard to make a meagre profit, usually by finding a niche in the timing, scale or theme of a busy, full summer festival diary. Organisers work on their profit being made in the last few tickets sold (the vast majority of ticket sales go to covering costs of organisation, regulation and artist fees). Long gone is the hippie nirvana epitomised by the early ‘free festivals’ of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and based on a youthful rebellion against capitalist greed and institutional/social constraint. Some festivals have stayed true to their origins and retained ideological stance and continue to support worthy causes, including Glastonbury.

To many onlookers, the current festival scene must seem relatively homogenous with many bands regularly performing on the festival ‘circuit’, leaving little to differentiate between many of them. However, festivals do provide an ideal breeding ground for emerging new talent, eager to gain experience in front of massive receptive audiences. Specialisation is now common with both major and minor festivals adopting discrete genre-specific approaches, including indie, folk, heavy metal, pop and retro.

Success or failure of open air events can often depend on the weather, for instance, Glastonbury has become laughingly notable for the stubborn reliability of its mud. The festival has, however, become equally resilient to it, as it sells out on reputation within minutes every year, usually without any artist announcements beforehand. Automatic sell out is a remarkable achievement, especially considering its history and the volatile economic climate.

What I can’t adequately explain is the magnetic attraction of attending open air music festivals. Perhaps obviously, there is the opportunity to see a concentration of excellent music artists at relatively (!?!?) economic prices all at one location. Add to that the atmospheric vibe, festival girls, and the sheer other worldliness of a back-to-basics existence for a short time. There are also the surprises – the things one never expected to encounter that make it all worthwhile. However, the benefits have to be balanced with potential for poor weather, poor sanitation, poor transport and accessibility, discomfort and exhaustion, drunken idiots, more drunken idiots, irresponsible rubbish and the impossibility of fitting everything into a limited time period. However, there is something in the blood for veteran festival goers that just keep us returning to the fields on a regular basis. Go figure!

Those that don’t ‘get it’ will probably never understand, let alone be converted and it’s not worth trying to articulate the appeal of shivering outside in the middle of a muddy cow field listening to bands (good and bad) that you may not be able to see (other than on big screens) with sometimes poor sound systems. It is notable that live music festivals have continued to flourish despite the proliferation of Internet music, iTunes, music TV, etc. The current appetite for guitar music seems unquenchable, which is promising in this abominable X-Factor-obsessed world. Perhaps, in addition to my grumpy-old-man misanthropic attitude, there is also a bit of the diehard ‘festival snob’ coming to the fore, based on seeing the scene change over the years. So sue me!

Not forgetting CRAVE Guitars’ fundamental rationale, it is also great to see so many vintage guitars being used in earnest at big live events. These instruments are being used for their intended purpose, which is to make real music for festival aficionados, rather than being stored away in wealthy owners’ private collections. I would love to play on a major festival stage, along with one or two of my vintage guitars, rather than participate as part of the audience but, I have to be realistic, it just ain’t ever gonna happen now. Shame.

Personal circumstances now dictate that, like guitar buying, festival attendance is in hiatus, hopefully temporary but perhaps permanently. After 40 years, I have to report that there is an uncomfortable withdrawal effect in a festival-less summer. TV coverage of festivals is continually improving but, let’s face it, it just isn’t the same as the physical, spiritual and emotional endurance required to ‘enjoy’ the full festival experience.

What do modern festivals now represent in the current day? Peace & Love? The hippie ‘ideal’ has long since been consigned into the history books and mythology has been replaced with rampant commercialism, corporate exploitation and, sadly, a degree of youth complacency resulting from over-familiarity of the type. Rebellion? Where is the counter-culture revolution that fuelled those early historic festival events? Sadly it seems to have been diluted by the middle class desire to be seen to be ‘cool’. Fashion? It is fashionable to wear fashion at festivals – always has been. Sorry to burst your bubble but massive flares are unlikely to come back into fashion any time soon! Right of passage? Not necessarily any more, as the almost insurmountable challenge of attendance has been eased by the Internet, on-site glamping, showers and other, frankly, ludicrous festival facilities, especially for the growing abhorrent VIP ‘set’ who wouldn’t dream of getting their designer high heels or pristine white trainers muddy. Despite the vile elite, modern festivals have, I believe something for everyone, which is healthy.

Although festivals continue to attract the young and adventurous, many stalwart veterans still need the visceral on-site experience of the fetid festival ‘fix’. The age profile has changed significantly over the intervening decades since, for instance, Woodstock, with the ‘family unit’ currently well catered for. Thankfully, access for disability has also improved, although remains far from ideal.

The future

What of the future? Probably more of the same littered with subtle diversification and specialisation; it will, however, become an increasing challenge to distinguish one weekend from another – a field is a field is a field after all. There is, though, plenty of room for improvement to inspire current and future generations.

Size does matter (no matter what wimmins say!) – Big is sometimes better, however, small and intimate fields (a.k.a. ‘bijou’ festivals) also have many benefits, as ‘less can be more’. I will almost guarantee that there is now a festival somewhere for pretty much every taste. One thing is for sure, money is king, and always has been. Money and commercial interests will drive the development and survival of the festival phenomenon, rather than ideological passion. How long before there is a Starbucks franchise at our festivals? Place your bets please.

A festival veteran’s personal reminiscences

My personal festival ‘career’ began 40 years ago in the balmy heat of the summer of 1976 in the UK. My first outing was Knebworth Fair in 21st August 1976 with Todd Rundgren, 10CC, Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Rolling Stones. The second was Reading Festival (no Leeds at that time) on 27th to 29th August 1976 with Gong, 801, Rory Gallagher, Camel, Van der Graaf Generator, Colosseum and Ted Nugent amongst others. The third was Hyde Park Free Festival on 18th September 1976 with Kiki Dee, Steve Hillage and headliners, Queen. Quite an introduction for a teenage ‘festival virgin’!

The fact that I simply cannot clearly remember very much about the adventures of the ‘Summer of ‘76’ probably means that it was probably pretty enjoyable, despite all the inherent drawbacks (having stuff lost/stolen, travel problems, etc.). That was it, hooked.

Glastonbury Festival has been my adult mainstay, along with occasional much smaller ‘boutique’ events to fulfil the need.

The mist of time, and perhaps some naughty narcotics, tends to elevate the hazy highs and diminish the dodgy deficiencies. Thank heaven that others documented these occasions for posterity. I can’t begin to count the number of artists I’ve seen over the last 4 decades. What a journey.

The evolution of outdoor music festivals from the late 1960s to the current day is interesting (at least to me). It will also be fascinating to observe what happens to them in the future. Hopefully, I can be at some of them to celebrate at the altar of live field music first-hand. See you in the inevitable quagmire. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Music Quote of the Month’: “Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Excess in all three, at least at the same time, is not recommended. Compliance, however, seems to be modern music’s one abiding law.”

© 2016 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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