One of the nation’s largest music festivals, the Austin City Limits Fest, returns to Zilker Park in a few months. This year they’ve got Mumford and Sons, Tame Impala, Guns N’ Roses, and Cardi B among the headliners. Big names, sure, but there’s not much synergy among them. For some seasoned festivalgoers, the thought of enduring the huge crowds, obstacle courses of folding chairs and overworked porta-potties is not appealing. You want to see Thom Yorke, but in bright daylight from hundreds of yards back, all while Billie Eilish reverberates nearby?
There’s no doubt the all-things-to-all-people model provides much excitement and fills a huge space for multiple weekends. Founded in 2002, and expanding to two weekends in 2012, ACL Fest has shown no signs of slowing down. But moments of unity like Paul McCartney’s adored sets last year are rare. You need to focus and move around a lot to find your moments.
ACL Fest is staged by Austin’s C3, as is Lollapalooza in Chicago’s Grant Park (estimated annual attendance at 450,000 and 400,000 respectively). California’s Coachella is even larger (est. 600,000). But not every festival aspires to these numbers. As the mega-fests have proliferated, so have smaller niche events. Events of this kind have always been around. With a lack of headliner budgets, they’re targeted and developing artist-centric. And hand-to-mouth; some make it, some don’t.
Austinites have always had a lot of these choices – every few weeks there’s one popping up on the calendar. There’s the long-running Americana-themed Old Settlers, nearby camping-heavy alternatives like the Kerrville Folk Festival and Utopia Fest. And those that have come and gone – Aqua Fest, which in its early days featured speedboat races, and brought a lot of star acts to the shores of Lady Bird Lake. The alt-rock heavy Fun Fun Fun Fest took over the same site for its last few years, 2011-2015.
Music fans have options like this wherever they live, festivals that offer a sense of unity and purpose. Everyone is there because they like the same things – you can roam and enjoy without fear of culture shock, in a much more chill environment.
A communal experience I will never forget was attending Austin Psych Fest. Psych Fest was started by Austin’s Black Angels, and has since morphed into Levitation. Levitation holds not only an annual 4-day event in Austin clubs In November (this year will feature the Flaming Lips and John Cale among its headliners), but also stages a festival in France.
For their first couple of years, though, Psych Fest was shoestring. In 2011, they took a big leap, moving from the Mohawk into the then empty downtown Seaholm Power Plant, and greatly expanding the lineup of bands. The cavernous structure created an otherworldly environment. Wild lights and weird projections strobed everywhere, as each band tried to outdo the strangeness of the one that came before them. Everyone there had a “can you believe this?’ look on their face. It was as if we’d all been dropped on another planet.
Most music festivals work alike. One price to get in, watch what you want, stay as long as you want, leave. But when artist curation and unique settings work closely together, it can create a kind of magic. Take in point two festivals I attended this year.
The Big Ears Festival, which celebrated its ten-year anniversary in 2019, is held in sleepy Knoxville Tennessee’s clubs and theaters. I’d been meaning to go for years, but the event is held immediately after SXSW – not ideal in my book. This year’s event featured the likes of Nils Frahm, Nik Bartsch, Makaya McCraven, Meredith Monk, Thumbscrew, Harold Budd, David Torn and Sons Of Kemet. Haven’t heard of them? That’s kind of the point. But for curious fans of brave, experimental music, Big Ears is nirvana. If you’re lucky, live in the right place (or happen have a brave promoter like Austin’s Epistrophy Arts), you might catch a handful of these kinds of shows a year. Big Ears features four days of them, plus art exhibits, panels, and a smattering of better-known acts (Richard Thompson, Spiritualized, Bill Frisell and Carla Bley were also on the 2019 bill). There was also an overnight 13-hour drone concert. I expected a small throng of effete snobs wandering from one dive bar to another. Instead, the large, diverse crowds (est, 15,000 to 20,000 a year) spread over the revitalized city were electric with excitement. Where else can you find a line stretched around the block for the Art Ensemble Of Chicago?
If artist-curated playlists are your thing, there’s a festival for that, too. Put together by Wilco, Solid Sound takes place in early summer. From the start, the founders played it smart. Set in the picturesque small town of North Adams MA, the museum whose grounds host the festival, Mass MoCA, is worth going to see on its own. Housed in a sprawling, refurbished 19th century mill, it’s a premier modern art facility (Stunning exhibits from James Turrell and Laurie Anderson were up during the fest). Wilco keeps Solid Sound small and manageable, only a few outdoor stages and museum shows. (Attendance figures for 2019 haven’t been released, but estimates ranged as high as 10,000. North Adams’ population is only 17,000). The closest thing this year to another headliner was Courtney Barnett. The fervent church of Wilco fans is there en masse, enjoying Jeff Tweedy’s band and their eclectic side-project offspring. But they’re also checking out fringe acts like Lithics, Wand, Mdou Moctar and Lonnie Holley. Musicians intermingle: Barnett sat in with Wilco, the Minus 5 were joined by Pete Buck, Mike Mills and Steve Wynn, Jeff Tweedy sang with the Feelies. And because everyone there made some effort to get to an out-of-the-way festival that only happens every other year, it feels exclusive and joyous.
Themed gatherings like this exist virtually everywhere, for every kind of music. (In Europe, many are publically funded). While many are drawing large crowds, they’re still only a fraction of what the mega-fests need to survive. If you’re thinking you’re done with the outdoor music experience, take some time to shop around. The alternate universes these events create, if only for few days, can be intoxicating, and just the thing for festival burnout.