Does Size Really Matter? A Festival Report (Relix Revisited)
In conjunction with the launch of our new festival site, we look back nine years to this feature.
It’s important to own land. Imagine what it must have been like, then, to me Sam McAllister, to wake up one fine Tennessee morning to a phone call from some yahoos down in the Delta in New Orleans saying they wanted to bring rock and roll to your 530 tidy acres of hayfields. Why, you’d had rock and roll before. They called it “Itchycoo Park.” Styx came. So did Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees. And 30,000 people. Or maybe it was 5,000. Nobody had been quite convincing in their estimates. But these fellas—calling themselves “Superfly,” whatever that meant—said they’d have, well, at least 50,000 people. Maybe more. They were convincing, too.
And you’d look out over your land, and try to imagine hat that looked like. Fifty thousand people is the size of a small city. What would they all be doing? These people were different. The Superfly folks were plainspoken about that. They would fly flags and sell grilled cheeses by the tub-full and babble in strange sub-dialects. But they’d camp and dance and smoke grass all the same, just as kids have been doing for decades. It was going to be called “Bonnaroo.” Itchycoo? Bonnaroo? Whatever. As long as they came. Yes, it’s important to own land, you’d again be sure of that.
Tent City prospered in 2001. All across the country, each summer, the roving metropolis had been established in fields, as kids fluttered like moths around the massive towers of light and sound and energy. In the east, it found form in the Gathering of the Vibes and Berkfest, in the Midwest at Hookahville, in the west at High Sierra and Mountain Aire. Ken Hays, the entrepreneurial Dead-head founder of Terrapin Tapes, who—beginning with 1996’s Deadhead Heaven—boot-strapped himself into a successful gig as a festival promoter, had seen 15,000bodies at his Gathering of the Vibes, had practically willed them out of the ether to dance. It was amazing, no doubt, but the boys at Superfly Presents thought there could be something more. “Those other events are really cool, small, more regional type things,” says co-founder Rick Farman, swiftly sweeping the once seemingly monumental crowds into a smaller box. “None of those events really brought the critical mass of talent together of all the bands that were either in, or somewhat related to, this scene. We wanted to make a big, national thing.”
That scene—call ‘em jamband kids, call ‘em Phishheads, call ‘em whatever—had been passing through New Orleans with regularity since 1996, when Phish played Jazzfest and initiated a hippie insurrection in the Crescent City. By the beginning of the next year, four college buddies—Farman, Jonathan Mayers, Kerry Black and Richard Goodstone—had begun booking shows under the moniker Superfly Presents, often centered around local favorites Galactic. By late 1998, they were promoting “Super-jams”—fresh configurations of funk and improve players. In 2000, they created Oysterhead, an all-star outfit consisting of Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, Primus bassist Les Claypool and former Police drummer Stewart Copeland.
In between, they worked with a startlingly diverse roster of talent, ranging from indie darlings Modest Mouse to jazz legend McCoy Tyner to metal-rappers Insane Clown Posse. With contacts in place—finding a partner in the Nashville-based A.C. Entertainment, and whizbang financing from Dave Matthews Band manager and MusicToday.com mogul Coran Capshaw—the quartet announced Bonnaroo.
And, sure enough, in June 2002, some 70,000 kids roadtripped from all corners of the country to erect the grandest, sprawlingest, most fantabulous Tent City since the Phish festivals of yore. Lo, Bonnaroo was deemed a healthy babe. By autumn, souvenir live albums and DVDs had been pumped out and Superfly’s planning was well under way for the summer of 2003. There were others planning festivals, too. Ken Hays, for one. An unlucky man named Jeffery Hobgood, for another.
The summer of 2003 blossomed promisingly. Ne national festivals were announced (notably 10,000 Lakes in Michigan and Hobstock in Mississippi), and old promoters attempted to up their own ante (Hayes announced four Terrapin Presents events, including one, Summit on the Sound, which would unveil the pairing of Dead bassist Phil Lesh with fusion guitarist John Scofield and saxophonist Branford Marsalis). Superfly, meanwhile would creep northwards, with Bonnaroo NE, to be held in Riverhead, New York, near the tip of Long Island, with Dave Matthews, Bob Dylan and dozens of others.
Field Day, a mammoth camping event to be co-headlined by Beck and Radiohead, set for early June, and held at the same site as Bonnaroo NE, derailed first, when promoters were denied key permits they thought they had secured. Fingers were pointed at corporate concert giant Clear Channel, who many alleged used its hulking leverage to prevent the upstarts from cutting in on their business at Wantagh’s Jones Beach Amphitheatre.
“I think there was a political situation up there that just got stirred up by these festivals,” Farman sighs. “It made the environment in which to do one of these things really negative. From our perspective, we just felt like if we weren’t 100% sure that we could pull it off successfully and with the cooperation of the community, then we don’t want to put ourselves, the bands and the patrons into a situation that was potentially going to be difficult. Barely returned from Bonnaroo II, which had drawn 10,000 more than the previous year, the plug was pulled on Bonnaroo NE.
Beth Hart shares the opening track from her latest album, Bang Bang Boom Boom, live at Relix.
Jamie Lidell sets up in the Relix boiler room and delivers a tune from his 2005 album Multiply
Duane Trucks is happy to announce his new project, King Lincoln. Watch them perform “Coffee” live and acoustic at Relix’s Online-Video Coordinator’s loft in Williamsburg.
Here’s another song from Crystal Bowersox’s new record All That For This, live at Relix.
WYATT share a song in the famed Relix boiler room.
Goodnight, Texas share a song from their latest studio album, A Long Life of Living, live at Relix.
Warren Haynes performs a solo, acoustic version of “Railroad Boy” and explains how he adapted the traditional Celtic song for Gov’t Mule, backstage at the Hangout Music Festival.
Australia’s Alpine recently made their NYC debut at the Relix office with this song from their new album A is for Alpine.
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
Dame shares a song from her new EP Preventions of Heartbreak.
- Daft Punk: Random Access Memories
- Visions of Bonnaroo Thursday (ALO, Jack Johnson, Polyphonic Spree, Allen Stone…)
- Deer Tick Share "The Rock"
- Win a pair of passes to The NINES Festival
- Robert Hunter Will Return to the Stage for Eight Shows
- Mumford & Sons’ Ted Dwane Shares Photo, Update
- Jack Johnson: Bonnaroo Song, Mumford Cover, "Mudfootball" with Preservation Hall Jazz Band
- The Making of Pretty Lights’ A Color Map of the Sun
- Interlocken Confirms Daily Lineups, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Punch Brothers, Keller & The Keels and More Added
- Mumford and Sons Cancel Bonnaroo Show, Summer Tour
- Ed Helms: Bonnaroo, Banjos and a Bit of Phish
- Robert Hunter Will Return to the Stage for Eight Shows
- Tedeschi Trucks Band Share New Song
- Warren Haynes to Play Jerry Garcia’s Wolf on Symphony Tour
- Jack Is Back: Jack Johnson Talks Bonnaroo, ALO and New Album
- Patty Griffin in Boston
- Doctor’s Orders: So what should we call the Super Ball IX Newspaper?
- John Kadlecik Posts Statement on Bob Weir’s Collapse
- "I Wanne Be In moe.": The Latest Volunteers
- Bob Weir Escorted Off Stage During Furthur Show
- Furthur Cancels BottleRock Show as Bob Weir Is Out Of Commision
- Vote for Your Favorite "I Wanne Be In moe." Contestant
- Doctor’s Orders: What’s Your Favorite Furthur Song? (Win Copy of Relix Signed by Phil and Bobby)
- On The Verge Poll