Last month was my sixth consecutive 10,000 Lakes Festival at the beautiful Soo Pass Ranch in Detroit Lakes, MN. I’ve covered everyone of them there since the first in 2003. (Photo: Flaming Lips)
I tend, for the most part, to experience the festival through 1960s eyes, looking to experience with the jammers and musicians the deep musical grooves and the child-like fun of the event. I also tend to camp quite apart from the rest of the festivalgoers in VIP, and even then in a spot that is sheltered from a lot of partying campers. I come for the music and the feeling of being a part of something communal.
In my six experiences at 10KLF, only twice have I felt that the festival culture had been somehow compromised. Once was in the second year and then again this past July. Both times, the flavor of the crowd was different. In fact, one of the festival Peace Patrol who has marveled about the appearance of innocence among the festivalgoers, once saying, “They’re like happy children,” was disappointed. She asked me about my feelings, and I said that the music was good, but something was off. She looked out over the concert bowl, frowning, and said, “The crowd’s different.” And, it was.
That second year and this year, festival numbers were down. I talked to security at the festival, and they felt that lower numbers were due to high gas prices and people having to limit the number of festivals they attended. One security veteran said, “They’re telling me that they’re only going to four festivals instead of ten this summer.” That would limit numbers but wouldn’t change the demographics of the event.
I looked carefully at the crowd and began to see a pattern. Only about half of the attendees were tie-dyed-in-the-wool jammers of every age who come out in their colorful clothes, blow bubbles, dance till they drop, and generally lap up the music, hanging on every note. The other half were clean-cut college people who spent more time doing other things and talking about those other things than listening to music or talking about it. I also made note of the stages where the large crowds were and who was listening to what bands. There I think is why the crowd was different and why the festival feel was off even in that second year.
That 2004 festival mixed jam staples like String Cheese Incident, Medeski Martin & Wood, Jazz Mandolin Project, New Monsoon, Paricle, and Rob Wassserman with 311, Maroon 5, Donavon Frankenreiter, Soulive, DJ Logic, and John Mayer. Once again the college party crowd made up half of the festivalgoers and who flocked to the Main Stage, leaving many of the jam-oriented bands with small crowds during the day.
This year, the Main Stage events Thursday through Saturday were packed, and the other stages didn’t see significant crowds until late afternoon. There were a few exceptions. Dub Trio, a hardcore/hip-hop threesome of white guys from Brooklyn did their thing to a packed Barn Stage at 2 in the afternoon, the first full day of the festival. This group was clearly a mis-fit for a jam festival and the crowd reflected that. Young college men either stood still in front of the stage staring at the band or sat unmoving or reclined on the hillside. One young woman with a huge hulahoop stood off to the side with an odd expression on her face. I asked her about what she was feeling, and she said, “It’s just Thursday and look at all of them [meaning the fans]. I came here to enjoy the festival experience and you can’t do that when you’re really not there.” Then, she commented on the music, “Anger isn’t a one-sided emotion, and it isn’t lasting.” These fans were certainly drawn by something other than intricate instrumental grooves, danceable beats, or messages about peace or the environment.
This de-construction of music was echoed with the band The Hue that also mixes hardcore into their instrumental sets. They do, however, change it up with rock and jazz so there is another element there. A local group Sovereign Sect also does hip-hop and they played on Saturday. But it was three of the headliners on Thursday and Friday that I’m sure drew the most fans from non-jam sources. Michael Franti and Spearhead, combining hip-hop, reggae, and rock, has been doing a lot of festivals lately. That choice with the jammers was probably right on since Franti’s message is unity and peace. However, the choice of Slightly Stoopid and The Flaming Lips was surprising. Of the two, Slightly Stoopid was closer to jam because of their mix of genres–reggae, rock with horns, some wall of sound rock, and even some hip-hop.
But bringing in The Flaming Lips to 10KLF for their final US performance (Their last show was in British Columbia the next night) was a surprise. Yes, Flaming Lips did Bonnaroo and Monolith last year among all of their US and European gigs. This year, they hit Summer Camp, Wakarusa, and 10KLF, but the band only played seven gigs, a clear sign that this pop/rock band was packing it in after twenty-five years.
Bonnaroo has become a monster music festival that showcases just about every kind of music out there. But there always is a danger in that because each music genre produces its own culture and set of unique behaviors. That is why those attempts in the 90s to revive Woodstock ended in disaster, not investment-wise, but in human cost and damage to personal property. The promoters of those events tried to put on a festival that reflected the current music that was popular at the time, across all genres. It was frankly too much difference with few common ground rules, coupled with soaring heat and lack of adequate facilities. Woodstock attendees just didn’t know the rules of each other’s culture and often blindly crossed them, sometimes ending in fists or knives or rapes.
Viable festivals were those that were genre specific where fans behaved according to an unwritten code. Some restricted alcohol; others didn’t. Jam festivals were producing a kind vibe where people got along, and soon bigger festivals began to reflect that.
Phil Lesh’s long-term oral history project, which asks questions about the 60s’ values of people of his generation and young people today, also delved into the festival phenomenon. For him, the jam festival was a reflection of something larger. “In a way, it’s combining the needs that we have today with some of the values of the 60s, some of the ideals that grew out of that,” he said in 2006. “I can only view it as an extremely positive development.”
Lesh sees hope in the music and in the jam culture. “This is our version of the camp meeting where people put their lives aside, and they come together as a community,” he says “to pursue a higher journey where they’re living on a more spiritual plane. They’re there to participate in an artistic endeavor.” They aren’t voyeurs, watchers of art being made. “Audiences engaging with it is what drives the whole creative process. It’s almost as if everyone agreed to put their lives aside and focus on art and more inward experiences, but in a collective way, so that they’re not as detached from one another as they would be in their normal lives.”
So, for those of us who follow jam, the festival is the ultimate community as people come together to share music and create their own experience through dance, drum circles, midnight acoustic jams, or tossing beach balls in the air in front of the main stage and seeing how long a group of strangers can keep the balls in the air. All of it is a collective participation in jam.
For Lesh, those early Dead years touring the country all summer and seeing a caravan of familiar faces at each event was the beginning of that community. “There are still people who follow us on tour,” Lesh admits. “It was like we were running away from home and finding yourself as part of it. That was and still is a magical experience.”
Despite my feeling of offness about this year’s 10KLF, there were some magical moments, and the one for me was indeed Phil Lesh’s set on the last night of the festival. Jazz guitarist John Scofield joined him on stage, and Phil and Friends sent us all home feeling like we had been part of something more than revelers as a wild party. Their renditions of signature Dead tunes like “Shakedown Street,” “On Down the Line,” and “Ball and Chain,” combined with the Beatles, “Don’t Let Me Down.” They reminded me of the great music I did manage to see all weekend.
Mickey Hart with George Porter Jr (the Meters), Steve Kimmock (The Other Ones), Kyle Hollingsworth (Sting Cheese Incident), and Jen Durkin (Deep Banana Blackout) also pumped out Dead tunes on Thursday night, including “Sugaree” and “Fire on the Mountain.” Their version of “Eyes of the World” lingered with me for days. Even Dark Star Orchestra and Deep Banana Blackout keep that Dead vibe alive long into the night.
I remembered the Afro-Cuban drum-driven set of the Minneapolis band, New Primitives, that brought us all together in community on Wednesday night. Then, later I was up dancing to the Afro-pop of Extra Golden, a band with two members from DC and three from Kenya, doing Benga music. And then, there was Papa Mali and his swamp rock sound and the crying guitar of blueswoman Kelly Richey that I’m sure made even Hendrix shed a grateful tear. The horns of New Orleans trombone-heavy (four of them with a sousaphone player) Bonerama shook my world and made me eager for more Gulf Coast music when I travel down there next month. Rock guitarist Tim Reynolds was spot on, and George Clinton & Paliament Funkadelic got the funk going and did a rant on the Bush Administration, on behalf of the people of New Orleans. Leftover Salmon’s return to 10KLF was also much welcomed, especially when they brought not only bluegrass but Cajun fiddle and jazz banjo ala Alison Brown. And, Medeski Martin & Wood
There was a slew of earnest regional bands that kept giving it up at the Saloon Stage. Bands like the blues rock band Rhinestone Diplomats, the eclectic Enchanted Ape, the reggae of Dred I Dred and John Petty, the jazz of Teddy Presberg, the White Iron Band’s version of “Whiskey River,” and the Bobby McFarrin/The Nylons/hip hop of Heatbox.
Finally, there were the song-rich bands that spoke to my soul: the bluegrass intensity of Pert’ Near Sandstone, the bluegrass social commentary of Cornmeal, the lyrical acoustic 4-piece The Waybacks, Southern blues rocker JJ Grey and MOFRO, and the roots duo The Wood Brothers.
The Illumination Fire Troupe did fire dancing in the dark. Stiltwalkers, jugglers, and hulahoopers from Mystical Toys brought a circus happiness to us. People in gorilla suits, sequined Santa Claus outfits, and fairy wings made us all smile. Bubble machines still burbled out bubbles, flower-painted faces were still in evidence, and graceful dancers (and downright clumsy ones) let their bodies move to the rhythms of the bands.
This, yes, Phil Lesh, was magical. This represented the best of festival culture and the most soul-expanding of festival music. This is the scene I want to preserve. And it can only be done by building a lineup that attracts jammers who respect the culture, who respect the music, who respect the environment where the festival is held, and who respect each other.
Words by Janie Franz
Photos By: Scott & Janie Franz
Photo: The Waybacks