A&E Columns

This must be the place: ‘The people came and listened, some of them came and played’

Jason Isbell performed at the Bear Shadow Music Festival in Highlands. Jason Isbell performed at the Bear Shadow Music Festival in Highlands. Garret K. Woodward photo

Hello from Room 5218 in the Falls Cottage King Suite at the Old Edwards Inn in downtown Highlands. It’s late Sunday morning with a slight drizzle and cool mountain air after two days of sunshine and mild temperatures.  

No matter, put on your boots and make your way to the last day of the Bear Shadow Music Festival up here on the plateau. By the time my girlfriend and I pulled onto the Winfield Farm property, a warm sun broke through the once dark clouds amid a stiff breeze across the mountain ridges cradling the melodic gathering. 

The intimate festival was impressive on several levels. Ticket sales capped at just a couple thousand. Barely any lines and waiting for complimentary adult beverages. Ample room to move and groove. Clean bathrooms. Oh, and some of the finest live music on the planet — Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, Neal Francis, Amythyst Kiah, Spoon, The Head & The Heart and more. 

Standing there, I realized how much of a far cry this physical and emotional setting was compared to my first festival, way back in 2001 on Canadian Border, and also that of countless others throughout the decades of being a music freak in search of the sound, the way. 

Back then, I was 16 years old in Upstate New York and had recently acquired my driver’s license. At the end of that summer heading into my junior year of high school, I bought a rusted out 1989 Toyota Camry for $300, a good chunk of my savings from working breakfast grill at our local McDonald’s on Route 11. 

Hopping into the Camry, my best buddy Ben and I had the whole world laid out before our eyes. The open road. Total freedom. Well, at least regionally speaking, seeing as anything further on the map was pretty much out of the question as long as I was under my folks’ roof. 

The first order of business with the “new” car was for Ben and myself to get tickets to the upcoming PondStock music festival in a vast, empty field outside of the small rural town of Peru, New York. We knew a couple of the band names on the show poster, the rest were unknown. Who cares? Pack up the car and head for the rock show. Jump right in. 

Camping gear. Cooler. Snacks. A six-pack of lukewarm Coors Light cans snatched from my grandfather’s garage fridge. Throw $10 of gas into the tank (at $0.89 a gallon at that time). Onward down Interstate 87 from Rouses Point to Peru. The unknown adventures and mischief of teenage boys wandering into PondStock dancing across the dashboard. 

Several hours later, Ben and I were sitting on a muddy couch in the field, facing the brightly-lit stage, rockin’ out to some band playin’ some song. I don’t remember who was onstage. And it didn’t really matter, even at that juncture. At that moment, I felt such an attachment to the whirlwind scene enveloping myself and any within earshot. 

During another raucous guitar solo offered by that anonymous band, I leaned over to Ben and mumbled, “Dude, we need to catch every festival we can from here on out to graduation.” He nodded in agreement, a trademark Cheshire Cat grin rolling across his face. 

The mud. The chaos. The throngs of humanity all crammed together for a weekend of loud music and fellowship? Sold. I was positioned on the verge of endless possibility with a driver’s license, car and a slew of festivals dotting the impending weekends on the calendar on the desk in my childhood bedroom. 

Looking back now, at age 38, my festival attendance is now in the triple digits. Averaging about 10-15 a year, with over 25 in 2019 alone, there are hundreds of gatherings amid a great sea of humanity all flung together in the name of rock-n-roll. And, as per usual, there’s the mud and chaos, and also the continued loud music and fellowship. But, nowadays, like most millennials, I find that I’m drifting towards pursuit of the finer things in life — space to move and groove, easy access to drinks, clean bathrooms, etc. 

And I find it funny how things have shifted — tastes, standards, expectations. My generation was raised on the modern idea of festivals and explosion of events at seemingly every turn in the road of life. Sure, Monterey Pop in 1967 kicked off the invention of the rock festival. But, this modern chapter and largescale implementation of festivals is due to the creation of Bonnaroo in 2002. 

That said, as I turned to my girlfriend at Bear Shadow, I smiled with a slight chuckle. Reminiscing, I told her all about that first festival of mine, PondStock. I mentioned all the hazy memories of mud and chaos, of cheap beer and shoddy camping gear. Cold nights in shabby sleeping bags. And I wouldn’t trade any of those experiences, not one. 

But, I’ll be damned if the creature comforts and mere convenience of these boutique events isn’t worth every penny. Are we spoiled in our 21st century music freak ways and means? Perhaps. And yet, I think it’s just that my peers and I remember those old-school festivals, and now we want to immerse ourselves in something of a more specialized, tailored experience. 

“These new festivals are to our generation what fine dining was to our parents’ generation,” my girlfriend noted, to which I agreed wholeheartedly. Us millennial music freaks don’t care to join a country club or buy some fancy sports car or gigantic house on a hill (most of us can’t do that, anyhow, due to financial strains). 

Nope, we want to (happily) spend our disposable income on moments of adventure and memories made in the here and now, with boutique festivals right near the top of the wish list of our lives, up there alongside overseas excursions and road trips across America in conversion vans. Onward. See you at the rock show. 

Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.

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