Playing festivals is weird. You don’t feel like you’re playing for people, really. Staring out onto a sea of faces, you’re aware there’s a crowd, an energy and vibe, but for me, standing at rear stage right, in-ear monitors in and hurried stage mix dialed, the audience feels a mile away. A few weeks ago, I played the Bottle Rock Festival in Napa Valley with Allen Stone. I’ve been told it was an amazing set, the “talk of the festival.” But I don’t remember it that way. Honestly, I don’t remember it much at all. What I do recall is hanging in the VIP area post-show, surrounded by the one percent and their hangers-on, feeling depressed and lonely. With summer-festival season approaching, I desperately needed a fresh perspective. So I left my guitar at home and went to a weekend festival as a fan.
Press pass in hand and several Bud Light Lime Strawberitas down the hatch, I enter the Gorge Amphitheatre for the Sasquatch! Music Festival. The first music I see is Michael Kiwanuka and his band, who are deep in a groove when suddenly the bassist’s amp goes out. As a musician, I’ve been there, and I feel awful for the guy—something like this can derail a show if you’re not careful. But, looking around the crowd, I notice precisely no one gives a rat’s ass about the technical difficulties. Couples are snuggling, soaking up the emerging sun, and sneaking kisses. A father and son are laughing. A guy in a banana suit is tripping balls.
What’s easily lost in the kooky fishbowl of in-ear monitors, lackluster catering, and bus call times is that as musicians, our job is to enhance our fans’ experience, not be the experience. Sasquatch really solidified this for me. I trashed a dressing room in South Africa last year because my pedal board wasn’t working. Seriously. I mean, it’s good to care about your craft and all, but had I taken a moment to remove my head from my ass, I would’ve noticed 20,000 people dancing in front of me, having the time of their lives. Watching Kiwanuka, surrounded by so much laughter and joy, I cringe recalling my South African meltdown. I’m ashamed I lost perspective so easily.
I’m tent-crashing with friends from Minnesota. I’ve never camped at a festival, and I imagine it being a hedonistic hippy shit-show, but I’m struck by the genuine sense of community cultivated among the campers. Each morning, someone from our group trades Xanax for weed with one of our neighbors, a transaction frowned upon in conventional society that doesn’t raise an eyebrow here. A neighbor overhears we’ve run out of mixers, and before we know it, a liter of ginger ale materializes. I mention I’ve brought only one pair of socks, and I’m tossed a fresh pair. Morning beer in hand, I make a point to wander the campsite, striking up conversations. I meet a middle-aged woman who’s here on her own. She says her late husband loved Elvis Costello, who is playing the festival later. Being here makes her feel closer to him. She buys me pizza. I make a mental note to recall this conversation next time my stage mix isn’t quite right.
I’ve been taking actual notes as well, scribbling them whenever someone says something that strikes me as poignant or odd.
“Anyone got any Adderall? Gotta write my thesis when I get back.”
“When my dad got back from Vietnam, he bummed a ride to Wyoming and opened up a head shop-slash-water bed store.”
“Who wants to take a hit from my Flabongo?”
On Sunday morning, I awake to a woman’s voice outside my tent. “Don’t you want to lie on this mattress?” There’s a brief silence. A rhythmic rustling follows as she coos “Oh baby, oh baby,” which is sweet. Then I realize she’s not saying “Oh baby” at all, but rather “No babies, no babies”—and is in fact yelling it now, my head separated from the inevitable climax by about six inches and a millimeter of nylon. “No babies! No babies!” Then silence again. Basking in some post-coital hallucinated funkytown, the dude asks where she’s from. “I’m a gypsy queen,” she answers.
I’m thinking I should be pretty disgusted by this, but I’m not. I’m actually thinking, well, why not? Trade heads of lettuce for Mali? Why not? Dress up in a chicken costume and hippy-dance to Edward Sharpe? Why not? All these things would mystify the octogenarian partner at your law firm, but a music festival like this is four days of genuinely decent folks saying “Why not?” and embracing whatever makes them happy. And we, the musicians, are simply the soundtrack. Why not?
Soon it’s Sunday evening, my final night at the festival, and a friend and I are sitting on top of the hill watching Mumford and Sons play on the big stage. She’s tired and dozes off wrapped in a blanket next to me. I sat in pretty much this exact spot as a young kid for Lollapalooza in 1996. Back then, Metallica was headlining. That gig started me down the path I’m on today, for better or worse. And now I’m a fan again, with no agenda other than to enjoy my time in this beautiful place.
My friend is snoring now, gently but audibly, and a couple next to me is spooning under their blanket, singing along to “Little Lion Man.” I confess to tearing up a bit. Caught up in the industry rat race, I’ve gotten a little lost along the way. I know this now. But I can change.
Trevor Larkin is the guitarist for Allen Stone. His band will play the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn., on June 13.