Liberty Jones won’t forget the best outdoor rock festival she ever experienced. It was the 2008 Virgin Mobile Festival in Baltimore, where she not only got to see a bunch of favorite artists, including Bloc Party, but she became a fan of a group she never expected to like.
“I was never really a fan of Foo Fighters, but they rocked that day,” says the Washington, DC-based public relations manager. “That was one of the best performances I have ever seen.”
But Jones, who has attended dozens of rock festivals in her 32 years, also can’t shake the memory of her worst festival ever. It was England’s Glastonbury Festival in 2002 when she endured four hours of traffic and several days of rain. She also missed seeing her favorite band, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and was mortified by the shoddy conditions of the outdoor rest room facilities. “They were beyond the worst thing I ever experienced,” she recalls.
Such are the ups and downs of rock festivals. Go to a good one and you can catch your favorite artists and get surprised by unfamiliar acts. Stumble into a bad one and you might be stuck in an uncomfortable situation for a long, long while.
Yet when it comes to the outdoor music experience, the highs must outweigh the lows, since more and more festivals seem to crop up every year. The past few years have brought us the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago, the Mile High Music Festival in Colorado and the forthcoming Epicenter ’09 in California.
The tradition of modern day festivals stretches back to 1954, when the first Newport Jazz Festival brought together music legends Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald. The Newport Folk Festival began a few years later and helped launch the careers of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, among others.
The first major rock festival was the Monterey International Pop Music Festival in 1967, and it was there Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Otis Redding all established their reputations. Soon after came Woodstock, Watkins Glen, Knebworth — and, eventually, festivals like Lollapalooza, H.O.R.D.E, Coachella, Bumbershoot and Telluride Bluegrass became institutions.
Diversity and unity
Like Jones, several other festival goers say the chance to hear bands they might otherwise have missed draws them to the experience. “You have to go out to seek a band at a club,” explains Michael Dion, 33, of Massachusetts. “At a festival it’s basically you’re paying for the diversity you’re exposed to as a fan.”
That’s what Virginia search marketing consultant Myron Rosmarin found when he went to this year’s All Good Festival. His intent was to check out Ben Harper and Ratdog, but he came home a fan of a group he’d never even heard of, the electronic instrumental jam band STS9. “They were playing just before Ben Harper came on, and so we walked up midway into their set,” recalls Rosmarin, age 47. “And I’m thinking ‘Who is that? I really, really dig that!’”
Colorado festival veteran and Peak to Peak Music Festival founder Cynthia Davis, 36, sees festivals as a great way for less hyped acts to get their music to the public. “You get to see more grassroots music at festivals than you would at concerts,” she says. “So you really experience the culture of America.”
You also get the feeling that everyone at festivals is a music fan and not just a poser, says blues musician Davy Knowles.
“I guess you can compare it to playing in the tiniest little packed club, where everyone is buzzing — it’s the same feeling,” says the 22-year-old, who leads the group Back Door Slam. “Everyone is there just to hear music. You know — there are no other distractions. People are just really excitable and just really up for hearing what you’re doing.”
That feeling of togetherness is what has kept Colorado resident Roger Jiminez returning to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival — for 28 years standing.
“It’s about the people as well as the music,” explains Jimenez, 54. “Last year, for example, my brother came for the first time in 15 years and so did my daughter. This year, a friend of mine came from Norway and that was very special. She’d been wanting to come for seven years.”
Unfortunately, one bad apple can ruin a whole bunch of camaraderie, notes Dion, who also gets to observe crowds as a performer with the bluegrass quartet Hot Day at the Zoo. “Depending on what festival you’re at, you may have kids that are screwed up on drugs or alcohol,” he explains. “That can be a bummer. Not only do you have to deal with medical things, but it can often send a bad vibe throughout the festival.”
Speaking of “medical things,” if you plan on being in a crowd of people with loud music, be sure to be prepared, says Dr. Val Jones, CEO of Get Better Health. Jones recommends bringing earplugs since “long or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss.” She also recommends “moist, anti-bacterial towelettes” in case restroom facilities are out of soap or toilet paper — and bringing lots of bottled water to avoid dehydration.
One way to assure a good festival experience, Dion says, is to “do your homework and check out the online message boards” to see how other music fans like a particular festival.
Liberty Jones notes that if you’re going to a festival that attracts a younger crowd, you’ll need to have some patience for “the proverbial punk kids elbowing you in the face when they’re trying to crowd surf. It goes with the territory.”
Jimenez says one reason he’s returned to Telluride again and again is the consistently top-notch quality of the experience: “I go to festivals every year and nobody runs them like that. They really run a clean festival and there are never any security issues.”
Tony Sclafani is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com.