At the risk of bringing up the ghosts of the Grateful Dead—a band currently beating a rotting horse under the money grubbing banner of Dead & Company—what a long strange trip it’s been for the phenomenon known as the music festival.
One minute, you’re eating barley cake and dried eel while grooving to the exotic sounds of the aulos and kithara and singing a hymn to Apollo at the Pythian Games at Delphi in ancient Greece. The next, you’re dining on roasted rib-eye with Bordelaise sauce and horseradish salsa verde while the Killers power through “All the Things I’ve Done” at the SKOOKUM festival in Vancouver’s gorgeous Stanley Park.
It seems like only yesterday that your grandparents were rolling around in the mud like pigs at Woodstock.
What’s crazy is the way that music festivals have evolved in a short time.
While the Pythian Games were indeed first off the mark, the modern-day outdoor extravaganzas we’ve come to know started in the ’60s, when peace, love, acid, and bushels of marijuana got people realizing that it was better to be trippin’ balls together than curled up in a fetal ball in bed.
Popular opinion is that California’s Monterey Pop Festival was the first time someone got the idea of setting up a bunch of generators and portable stages, and then convincing people that nothing is cooler than taking a Day 2 dump in an overflowing Porta Potty.
It makes sense that the three-day Monterey blowout gets credit for paving the way for Woodstock, Glastonbury, Lollapalooza, Coachella, and too many others to list here. It was at the Monterey County Fairgrounds that the Who ended its set with Keith Moon kicking the shit out of his drums while Pete Townshend attempted to turn the stage into firewood with his Stratocaster. And that, determined to upstage the Who, Jimi Hendrix turned his Stratocaster into a campfire after fucking the living daylights out of his Marshall during “Wild Thing”.
Given such landmark performances, it’s no wonder that the Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival, which took place one week before Monterey, seldom gets the glory for being the true rock-fest prototype. Blame Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, the Byrds, and Canned Heat for not giving the audience something epic to remember—namely, dodging flying guitar parts, bass drums, and empty cans of lighter fluid.
But, as fun as it is to watch Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin get punched out by Hells Angels in old Altamont Speedway Free Festival footage, let’s bring things into the present.
Assuming that you know the Weeknd is Abel Makkonen Tesfaye’s stage name and not a typo, chances are you’ve heard of Surrey’s now well-established FVDED in the Park.
This weekend sees the launch of the Lower Mainland’s second major multiday music fest: SKOOKUM. SKOOKUM is interesting because, like FVDED, it represents something of a sea change in the festivalgoing experience. For lack of a better and more gracious way of putting things, it might be the first time that a multiday West Coast music festival has succeeded in making things classy. Think long-table dinners, on-site craft breweries and craft distillers, and pop-ups by top-flight restaurateurs.
Forget queuing up for a Mr. Tube Steak and warm Molson Canadian in a dust-swept field at the recent and unceremoniously departed Pemberton Music Festival—SKOOKUM will see the likes of the Main Street Brewing Co., Liberty Distillery, Vij’s, and Hawksworth Restaurant set up on the Brockton Oval grass in Stanley Park. Yes, you read that correctly—Hawksworth Restaurant and Stanley Park.
With a lineup like that, one might be forgiven for forgetting that SKOOKUM (running Friday to Sunday [September 7 to 9] in Vancouver’s most fabled green space—is actually about the music: the Killers, Florence + the Machine, Arkells, Father John Misty, Metric, the War on Drugs, and a few dozen more, including St. Vincent, whose motherfucking “New York” is easily the greatest motherfucking song you’ll hear this motherfucking year.
What also sets SKOOKUM apart from recent local festivals—not to mention Woodstock, Glastonbury, Lollapalooza, and Coachella—is its decidedly uban location. Somewhere along the line, after the high-profile Pemberton Music Festival and Squamish Valley Music Festival crashed and burned, it became clear that high-wattage destination events were increasingly difficult to pull off.
Having to pay top American dollar for imported talent like Eminem, Muse, Kendrick Lamar, and Violent Femmes (featuring two original members!!) became harder after the loonie started to plummet following gains in 2008. Worse for the bottom line was having to move the army of folks needed for festivals far removed from Vancouver. Jay-Z and deadmau5 were the folks you saw on-stage. Working behind the scenes were stage techs, site managers, security, cleanup crews, caterers, and shuttle-bus drivers. They numbered in the hundreds, making—because no one wants to sleep in a car between Hickory Stix meals—for a logistical nightmare.
And speaking of nightmares, ask anyone who ever camped at Pemberton, Squamish, or for that matter Woodstock what it was like to sacrifice the comforts of one’s bed for the convenience of not driving an hour (or three) to a destination site each day. There are only so many hours you can yo-yo a fudgesicle before you have to give up and take care of business in a portable crapper. Knowing that, if there’s even a drop of splash-back as you stand on the seat, you’re going to have to kill yourself to erase the horror of the memory.
What FVDED locked onto is the fact that—unless you enjoy listening to other people fuck in a tent three feet away—there’s nothing better than being able to head home for the night after Future or the Chainsmokers have left you wanting more.
Here’s a question: after Florence + the Machine has finished enchanting SKOOKUM with “Queen of Peace”, would you rather kick back in your condo with a Château Cheval Blanc 1947 nightcap? Or crawl into a sleeping bag knowing full well that you’ll end up having to take a leak sometime around 4 a.m.?
Man, you don’t have to be a Deadhead to realize that we’ve come a long way.