It isn’t news anymore that festivals have become a major cornerstone in the music industry. It didn’t used to be like this: There weren’t dozens of festivals; they weren’t this big a factor in a band’s touring schedule or album promotion. Right now, at least, they’ve become an establishment. They are crucial to artists (both financially and in terms of exposure), and though this is not always accurate, you can get some sense of how fast an artist is rising by what kind of billing you notice them attaining at the big guns like Bonnaroo or Coachella. They’re one version of a mainstream, tangible reality: One artist might be buzzed about on all the blogs, but what’s their crowd like at a festival when you’ve got a bunch of more casual music fans going out and doing something for the weekend as much as they’re taking advantage of the grab-bag/buffet-table model of music festivals?
I went to a lot of festivals this year — 10 to be exact. I covered Primavera, Governors Ball, Bonnaroo, Eaux Claires, Flow, FYF, Life Is Beautiful, Voodoo, and Iceland Airwaves for Stereogum; I was at SXSW with a band I was driving on tour. (And technically I was also in Toronto during NXNE, so maybe 11 to be exact.) All of these festivals are in different places and, as it goes, usually have some degree of a distinct personality because of it, but you’re still dealing with a fairly narrow spectrum in terms of variety. Over the course of the year, I saw Florence + The Machine, Run The Jewels, Flying Lotus, Future Islands, Shamir, Strand Of Oaks, and The War On Drugs all around this country, and in others, too. Even when you’re off the beaten path in a festival in Helsinki, there are certain stalwarts you can expect in any given year — to the point that, as I’ve said before, you can start to feel like you’re following these people on tour. This is what happens when music festivals reach the big business corner of the industry: There’s a movement to the middle. There is still something idiosyncratic about Bonnaroo, but you know it’ll share a ton of artists with Lollapalooza or Outside Lands or whatever. Even something as truly special and unique as Iceland Airwaves is still going to anchor the attraction of all their impressive local talent with headliners like Father John Misty this year, or the War On Drugs and Flaming Lips last year.
Even with all those mainstream names you might recognize, there are smaller and weirder ones we don’t always get to; I’m still waiting for the chance to cover Levitation (FKA Austin Psych Fest). Things get lost in the shuffle, just like everything else these days. In the fray of major music festivals that a site like this one would cover, you’ll also have a host of wildly successful EDM-specific fests that wouldn’t be on our radar, or oddballs that do wind up on our radar, stuff born of an exacting personal vision, like Eaux Claires. But then when you get past that level of distinction, there are still a whole ton of festivals that are completely bizarre and that you may have never heard of amidst all the shiny noise of the tried-and-true names. As the year comes to a close and we’re in the (increasingly) brief window of quiet between the (increasingly) expansive festival season, we decided to take a look back at some of the weirdest music festivals and attractions that the industry had to offer in 2015.
Lipton’s Be More Tea Festival
10/24 (North Charleston, SC)
Festivals are, naturally, pretty corporate now. Any major fest will have banners or booths for some sponsor or another, specific drinks and food from others. Be More Tea was a step further, though, in that it was an explicitly branded festival that, for one day, brought some bands together to celebrate 125 years of Lipton Tea. As Billboard reported back in May, the festival was built around one stage (it had less than 10 acts total) and was seeking to create a “neighborhood block party-meets-carnival vibe,” which meant that you could sample a bunch of Lipton products (or cocktails mixed with Lipton products) while listening to St. Lucia or the Roots or Passion Pit. Considering it was a small but decent lineup, none of it seems like it would’ve been the worst way to spend a day, as far as (probably one-off?) corporate fests go.
Festival No. 6
9/3 – 9/6 (Portmeirion, Gwynedd, Wales)
Relative to some of the other festivals on this list, Festival No. 6 is something of a more typical fest, in that it hosts legit lineups. (Past years have included headliners James Blake, Spiritualized, My Bloody Valentine, Beck, and Pet Shop Boys.) But everything else about it is wild. It takes place in a village called Portmeirion, in North Wales, which was built by the architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis over the course of several decades in the 20th century. Portmeirion was created to look like an Italian village; you’re on the beach, but surrounded by forests. The Gwyllt Woods spread into 70 acres around the town, and that’s part of the setting: The site promises that as you wander around you’ll find “pop-up stages, secret raves, and acoustic troubadours.” There’s a whole hidden stage devoted to raves called Lost In The Woods. The festival’s site also mentions “surreal street theatre and impromptu interactive happenings.” You could go confess your sins to a cartoonist, who then created a cartoon based on your confession. In a preview post on Wales Online, Festival No. 6 was described as offering everything from a “floating dance floor to slacklining to the Ghost Garden, a clearing of spectral apparitions,” with a bonus of acrobats performing amongst the trees in the Gwyllt Woods. The whole thing seems like a culture festival in a broad sense, not just a music festival as we understand them. It’s not really about going to see this or that indie band. Immersive and bizarre, it sounds like some kind of fever dream. Compared to the comparative repetition of doing six or seven of the big American festivals in one year, Festival No. 6 sounds fascinating.
Louder Than Life
10/3 & 10/4 (Louisville, KY)
The tagline for Louder Than Life is literally “Music + Whiskey + Gourmet Man Food Festival.” Essentially, it sounds like a festival curated by Ron Swanson. There’s a section on the site explaining what “Gourmet Man Food” is and you should just read it in your head with Nick Offerman’s voice:
What is ‘Gourmet Man Food’? Let’s start with what it’s NOT:
-It’s not sitting in a lazy boy in your t-shirt eating Doritos and Velveeta cheese while watching football.
-It’s not small portions on sparse plates.
-It’s not pretentious.
-It’s not for the faint of heart.
-It’s not for the day you are counting calories.
-And, it’s not just for men…
They follow that up with the proclamation that the tradition of “GMF” goes back to the pioneers and “Cowboy menus” that lead to “food served in large portions with a powerful presentation.” A cursory look through their options, and there’s a wide selection of greasy meat. Most of it does look really good! Given that you’re in the home of bourbon, there’s a lot of that, too. So far, seems like a pretty great if inherently amusing combination for a Southern festival, right? The only thing that’s a drag about Louder Than Life is the lineup. Aside from ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd headlining, the lineup was dominated by nu-metal leftovers like Godsmack, Shinedown, Breaking Benjamin, 3 Doors Down, Seether, and Chevelle. Suddenly, the festival that first seems like it could be a fun/tongue-in-cheek play on a cartoonish sense of masculinity seems more like, well, some last bastion for a cartoonish sense of power-angst (or something) from 2002’s class of finest mall-rock. You know Ron Swanson wouldn’t put up with that nonsense.
5/29 – 5/31 (Napa Valley, CA)
BottleRock is more or less a traditional festival, but it’s had a hard first few years of life. After a decent lineup the first year, the money still didn’t work out right and the promoters filed for bankruptcy; they didn’t pay any of the vendors who had been there, either. The festival could’ve easily ended abruptly, but when the property went up for sale, some local investors tried to revive it in 2014, its second year. I went that year and, partially due to time constraints with booking once all the legal stuff was cleared up, the lineup was all over the place: a few indie festival standbys, a few big names, and then a legion of ’90s one-or-two-hit-wonders. I was subjected to Sublime With Rome; I heard the guy from Barenaked Ladies improvise a rap (over acoustic guitar) about watching a lady eat a chicken wrap in the festival’s food court. Some things you can’t un-hear, you know? Anyway, the premise of BottleRock, as it is with many of the newer and fancier festivals, is to mix good music with good food and drink, moving us further away from the old festival trademark of “All you have access to is a school cafeteria quality hot dog for $9.” And, fair enough, Napa Valley is a particularly good setting for this, given, you know, all the wineries and the fact that you’re close enough to San Francisco that a bunch of great food trucks drive up for the festival. (Seriously, I had probably the best festival food ever at BottleRock.) As the festival continues to get leveled out after its rocky beginnings, it looks like they’re not relying as heavily on, uh, Third Eye Blind to round out the lineup, but they are pushing the gourmet elements further, too. This year, that meant the “Williams-Sonoma Culinary Stage” which promised to feature collaborations(?) between musicians and celebrity chefs. It pretty much seems like this resulted in musicians functioning as if they were guests on a cooking show, but, hey, sure, why not have Snoop Dogg making sushi at a festival? It’s 2015 and rules don’t exist anymore.
8/28 – 8/30 (San Marcos, TX)
The entire conceit of Float Fest is: music + tubing. Two stages, a small bill, and the option to buy a pass that also allows you to spend the day tubing down the San Marcos River. These are separate activities; you’re not tubing around the stages or something. So the idea is, as the festival puts it, that you might want to tube early in the day and get back to the grounds for all the music. Now, in my experience, most people are not in any condition to do anything early in the day during a festival. And I can’t say I’ve often found myself thinking, “Well, it’s a hot summer day and there’s more music to see, but what this festival is really missing is tubing!” Usually, by the final day of a festival, it’s more likely that I’ll feel like I’ve been hit by a car and I’ll be asking questions like, “How few steps can I take to get food?” Or, “What is the latest possible moment I can leave this hotel without missing the first band I really, really want to see?” But, hey, a common facet of summer festivals is people partying in as few clothes as possible, so why not throw in tubing?
9/18 – 9/20 (Cancelled) (Camp Blue Ridge, GA)
The inaugural Campfest wound up not happening, but before that it had billing itself as “A three-day celebration that revives the excitement and nostalgia of childhood summer camp.” It promised to offer “a high-value experience by providing outdoor recreation and competitions alongside top-notch musical performances.” Yes, that would’ve included “color war.” While I’m sure a festival in the Blue Ridge Mountains would be very pretty, this sounds mostly awful to me otherwise. Setting aside the fact I was never the kind of person who was into the concept of “Let’s spend our fleeting childhood free time in the summer going to this thing where you have to do a bunch of group activities you don’t want to do,” the whole notion of extra physical exertion at a festival baffles me. These things are too exhausting as is! At least Float Fest had something right: If you’re going to expect people to actually get up and do something at a festival, it should probably be something relaxing like tubing. Accounting for some bias — not everyone’s going to as many festivals as me, so they don’t need to pace themselves week to week — Campfest still strikes me as a masochistic concept.
Kurt Cobain Days
7/17 & 7/18 (Aberdeen, WA)
Kurt Cobain Days was a new festival this year, held in Cobain’s hometown of Aberdeen, WA. The whole premise is straightforward enough: Get a handful of (mostly) Washington artists together to pay tribute to their state’s musical patron saint. The whole vibe sounds like it was small-town and local — more of a street fair than a festival, per se. Generally speaking, such things make me uneasy and/or suspicious. The over-exaltation of the artists who died too soon or the further reification of their myths and legacies is mostly a recipe for cloying repetitions of the same rock history documentary sound clips of how massively important these people were. (Like, the cycles that lead to people looking at you like you have something knocked loose in your head if you suggest that maybe, just maybe, Cobain’s legacy has been a bit overblown.) Maybe that’s a little cynical — we have days or festivals marking or honoring all sorts of people, and Kurt Cobain Days was probably a good show of local pride.
8/22 – 8/24 (Malibu, CA)
Did you ever dream of an egregiously expensive summer camp-esque experience in which Thirty Seconds To Mars lead you on a weekend of music, hiking, yoga, and cooking classes? Yeah, neither did I. How do we live in a world where the guy who sings in this band is also an Oscar winner?
8/27 – 8/31 (Prince George, British Columbia, Canada)
Woof Stock was a new festival this year, too, designed to shine a light on animal rights and donate proceeds to the local Prince George chapter of the SPCA, as well as the Humane Society. It was a just cause with an odd lineup (Twisted Sister headlining, a lot of local acts), that apparently didn’t go too well. Ticket sales were so low that the fest’s twitter account was offering $50 one-day tickets — and then $35 — amidst the final day of the fest weekend. A local newspaper ran an op-ed admonishing the community for not supporting the new attempt, but also detailed what sounded like a fairly disastrous (though not unheard of for first-time promoters) bit of organization. Maybe the festival will get another chance in the future. The SPCA is a better place to send your money than Thirty Seconds To Mars, at least.
One Tribe Festival
9/25 & 9/26 (Cancelled) (Lake Perris, CA)
One Tribe was going to be a festival that combined EDM, yoga, and the increasingly cavernous idea of “spirituality.” Here are some very moving examples of what that would’ve meant, via the festival’s site:
One Tribe is a place where we Celebrate Life. We celebrate the richness our differences offer each other and create a new world of possibilities for this beautiful moving painting we call life. Let’s come together to create transformational experiences that embrace the deepest truth of our interdependence. We will all benefit from complementary collaboration, learning, and sharing around the ethos of One Tribe.
We believe that a new possibility is emerging where the ultimate expression of the individual and the community may coincide to create a world where everybody and everything gets what everybody and everything needs, freeing us up to live in a new paradigm of radical health, cooperation, expression, connection, and joy.
On another page, they had a logo for the “Grateful Generation” under a bunch of silhouettes of people with their arms outstretched, presumably waiting for the drop.
All of which is to say: Good God, this pretty much sounds like the worst place on Earth.
EDM festivals and their whole notion of community are the pinnacle in craven contemporary festival marketing schemes. This is the most corporate shit and in the lamest way: rich bros acting like there’s some spiritual plane to be reached via energy drinks and a Steve Aoki set. And the company behind One Tribe, SFX, is the same one behind NYC’s Electric Zoo and a glut of like-minded fests. One Tribe would’ve taken place a little over an hour outside Los Angeles. Can you imagine what this would’ve looked like? White people with dreadlocks and all the worst, most vacuous SoCal stereotypes gathering together to the beat, talking in a bunch of garbled faux-spirituality nonsense about how this generation was the one with the power to change things, man.
Anyway: maybe there’s hope that these are not the End Times, since One Tribe didn’t sell enough tickets to actually happen.
8/7 (Los Angeles, CA)
Spearheaded by chef Nadia G (of the Cooking Channel’s Bitchin’ Kitchen), hosted by comedian Sara Schaefer, and headlined by Babes Of Toyland, Riot Grill was a one day, first-time event in LA’s Regent Theatre, built on the idea of an all woman-fronted festival that promised “punk music, hard-hitting comedy, and delectable grub in celebration of LGBT rights.” “Kinda like Lilith Fair, but with more leather and less patchouli…,” Nadia G described it. She also provided a custom menu based on recipes from her show. So, noble cause, but it also kinda sounds like a Portlandia sketch?
10/30 – 11/1 (Live Oak, Florida)
Jam band festivals are a breed all their own. This year’s edition of Suwanee Hulaween (held in the Spirit Of The Suwanee Music Park in Live Oak, Florida) featured seven(!) String Cheese Incident sets, one of which was a special Halloween set in conjunction with the festival’s costume theme this year: “Ghoul Train,” which they defined as “late ’70s early ’80s TV hit Soul Train x Monsters or The Addams Family.” Besides the music, Suwanee Hulaween also apparently offered six bath houses(!?), disc golf, and something called the “Observation Beehive.” More fun facts: New rules this year included “No totems past the soundboard” and “no fire spinning unless authorized by fire marshall.” You can drive a golf cart into the festival as long as you have proof of insurance and pay trail fees. Somehow, they got GZA involved in all this, playing the role of Don Cornelius for the String Cheese Incident’s “Ghoul Train” set. Also somehow, Chance The Rapper & The Social Experiment wound up on this bill amidst other highly relevant 2015 acts like Slightly Stoopid. These jam band fests are probably way better at creating the alternate reality all festivals like to claim they do, but what use is that if the alternate reality is worse than your actual one.
8/21 – 9/27 (Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, England)
Dismaland wasn’t a festival in the way that even the other weirdest ones on this list were. It was a project conceived by the conceptual/street artist Banksy, who called the whole thing “a family theme park unsuitable for young children.” Taking over an unused swimming pool area in the coastal resort town Weston-super-Mare, the whole thing was some skewed, sardonic vision of an amusement park, full of warped imagery and social/cultural commentary through projects commissioned from dozens of artsts. In the midst of all that, Banksy also got some musicians to play. Spread out across the duration of the project, there were shows featuring Run The Jewels, Sleaford Mods, Pussy Riot, and Savages — all pretty fitting candidates to soundtrack a dystopian vision of Disneyland. Massive Attack were scheduled to perform but had to pull out, which is a shame because they would have been really fitting candidates to soundtrack a dystopian vision of Disneyland. De La Soul filled in, with a surprise guest appearance from Damon Albarn and a run through “Feel Good, Inc.,” which I imagine would’ve been a great/resonant addition to the whole thing. Critics have debated the artistic merits of Banksy’s giant installation, including a New York Times article that found only void in Banksy’s sarcasm. Regardless of whether it was a failure or success, Dismaland sounds like it would’ve been an intriguing thing to witness, especially with “Feel Good, Inc.” or “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)” or “She Will” reverberating around its walls.
8/13 – 8/16 (Scranton, PA)
Festivals built around the identity of one artist are always an interesting animal. More often than not, you’re talking about jam bands — the kinds of artists where the culture that surrounds their music, in general, is built on traveling around going to shows instead of however else people actually spend their time. (I mean, I don’t get the jam band culture, but the answer to the latter half is blurry to me, too.) You’re dealing with situations in which a massive group of people are gathering to see this one artist, so of course there’s going to be a more legitimate community and like-minded feeling than any other given festival that’s trying to sell you on that. I experienced that firsthand at My Morning Jacket’s inaugural One Big Holiday last year in Mexico. And that took the form that a lot of these take: multiple sets from the host band, plus a handful of their friends or bands they like. The Peach, though, was founded by the Allman Brothers in 2012 and sort of ballooned: The bills have grown extensively, mixing the band’s contemporaries with bands explicitly influenced by them. This is continuing, even with the Allman Brothers Band not headlining for the first time; Greg Allman took their place solo this year. Anyway, as a sidenote to all of that, your price of admission to the festival also gets you access to a water park, because, why not?
But really, though, the thing that makes the Peach the weirdest is that it takes place in my hometown. The Office might take place in Scranton, but other than that — it’s not exactly the kind of place that has a lot of big exclusive events, let alone a music festival, you know? Of course, it’s only years after moving away that now I’d have a chance to see the Australian Pink Floyd at a festival 20 minutes from my house.