There's this thing that happens to me at music festivals sometimes, where I wind up in front of some stage and become so enthralled with the music pouring off it, I don't even realize when or how an exceptionally large crowd has gathered around me. All of the sudden, I look around and see these people - all shapes and sizes and colors - all grooving to the same thing, smiling, dancing. There's a certain peace in that moment, a reassurance that the world is not truly as crazy as the headlines would have us believe. In that moment, I'm reminded we're all just folks, doing our thing, stopping to smell the flowers when we can, or hear the music.
Notice I said that happens at music festivals sometimes.
That did not happen at Austin City Limits Festival last weekend. Instead, I spent the weekend battling stage-to-stage sound bleedover, wondering how a festival named after one of the most reliably music-centric entities in all of modern music (i.e. the Austin City Limits TV show, which, apparently, has nothing to do with the festival except for having inspired the idea) could be so blatantly not concerned about how the music sounds. This is not a festival for music fans so much as it is a festival for people who want to get trashed and sunburned. Between sets, the giant video screens showed football games. Sure, this is Texas, but come on.
Maybe I should come to terms with the fact that festivals like Austin City Limits are just not targeted at folks like me. By "folks like me," I mean those of us who go to concerts to hear music because we believe the people on stage have a certain talent or gift, and we want to be able to sit back and let it wash over us. Or we want it to pull us out of our chairs to dance. Or we want it to help us change our mind about something. Help us connect with the person next to us. Connect us to something. Remind us of our humanity. Renew our faith in beauty. Something.
What I'm saying is we look for music to do something to us. To snap our ears and eyes and minds away from the rigorous stresses of the outside world and transport us, for the length of a song or a whole album, to a parallel reality where women and men pick up dull, lifeless pieces of wood and turn them into magical tools which sing.
There are festivals for people like me. Pickathon. Folks Fest. Falcon Ridge. Telluride. Merlefest. LEAF. Festival cruises like Cayamo, where every show is performed in a listening room, or is treated as such (even when you're watching from the hot tub).
Then there are these other goings-on. Sometimes, like Sasquatch or Bumbershoot, you get the feeling the promoter wants to throw the best music-centric party they can imagine. They have this extraordinary venue, or this gargantuan field, and a love for music which sweeps across genres and transcends boundaries. They position you on the edge of a gorge and deliver some of the most sonically stirring experiences you could imagine. Whether it's Mad Rad at 11am dropping party rap, or the Decemberists on the mainstage at dusk, seemingly singing the color into the sunset.
Other times, the genre-less lineups start to feel like the aural equivalent of something we did during summer camp when I was a kid. Whatever was left on the table after lunch got tossed into the drink pitcher. Chocolate milk, tater tots, mashed potatoes, water, a stray condiment-drowned onion or slice of un-melted cheese from your burger. We smashed it all into the pitcher and then dared someone to drink. Nobody ever would, because that's disgusting. We were never serious with the dare, anyway.
But these music festivals - these behemoth cram-it-all-in happenings - seem to be for real. They seem to be more about how many tickets can be sold, how many bodies can be crammed between gates, how much beer can be consumed, and how much money the whole thing can rake in. It may as well be a tractor pull or a football game or anything-at-all, for all the care and attention that goes into making sure artists can be heard and audiences can connect with something real and beautiful.
Don't get me wrong. Some real music was actually happening in the midst of the insanity, though it was a chore to find it. Rufus Wainwright delivered an incredible set on Saturday afternoon, making real, arresting music, if you could tell. (As you heard whatever other stage was also going at the same time, echoing across the field, doing battle with Rufus' intensely emotional songwriting in tunes like "The Art Teacher", which always slays me.) Steve Earle brought a flat-out country band along and delivered a fiery, memorable set (even though the pop rhythms of Gotye and international flavor of Antibalas were asserting themselves loudly atop Earle's acoustic guitar). The Punch Brothers played their bluegrass instruments through whateverthehell it is they do, defying the competing bass boom with all their might. Patterson Hood unleashed incredible music on the BMI Stage Friday night. I could name other small moments where real music happened, but it was hard to find - and hard to hear.
In fact, the bleedover of sound from stage to stage was one of the most confusing and sonically overwhelming things I've ever witnessed at a festival. It was, simply, one of the worst experiences I've ever had with live sound. Forget for a moment the potty-mouthed rapper throwing down misogynist lines on a stage adjacent to the kids' area. (Not cool.) There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the programming in general.
I'm told the sound problem has always been there, and that it's one of the reasons festival organizers have decided to expand the festival into two weekends starting in 2013. This could be a good thing, as long as they consider their programming along with paring down on the number of stages. Certainly there's an audience for music that's there just to be as loud as possible. There's an audience for football between sets and artists who drop the words "pussy" and "fuck" and "faggot" gratuitously, with zero care in the world. Anyhow, fine. Cater to that crowd. But recognize that crowd is not necessarily interested in the nuance of a Punch Brothers banjo-and-fiddle back-and-forth, and vice versa.
(I don't have any problem with using those words in art. I simply have a problem with them bleeding over into art which is not coming from a place where those words are intended or even effective.)
I appreciate music of all genres and have thoroughly enjoyed plenty of grab-bag festivals. One of Austin's other major music happenings - South by Southwest - is a wonderful example. Yes, it's loud and crazy everywhere, but when you duck into a room to hear a band, you can hear them. It's a novel concept for a live music event which has been happening longer than a decade. But it goes to show - it's not necessary to sacrifice the music to make the money. You don't have to cut into the artistry to draw the crowds.
Better luck on two weekends next year? Time will tell.