Favorite festival experiences
In honor of SXSW (and our many staffers returning from the all-you-can-watch bacchanal of music, movies, and people-watching), here’s a bonus edition of our weekly staff-and-readers question: What was your best experience with an entertainment festival?
Easily my best festival experience was the Tribeca Film Festival in New York in 2012. I’ve been to smaller film fests, but never anything on this scale, incorporating two weeks of premières—a huge percentage of which were foreign films and indies with no distributor, thus films that might not ever make it to the rest of America. The week I spent there was maddening, as I tried to work full-time while also seeing every film I could and doing long-form interviews with the directors of the most promising features. It’s gratifying that so many of my favorite Tribeca premières have since made it to theaters, or at least DVD—there’s been a wave of them over the past few months, including War Witch, Graceland, Consuming Spirits, and Resolution. But what I really loved about Tribeca was the all-consuming excitement in every packed theater every night, where strangers would gather and chatter and compare notes about what they’d seen so far, what they recommended, and what they were determined not to miss before the festival ended. Watching so many movies that hadn’t yet screened anywhere else, there was a constant sense of energy and anything-can-happen expectation. In the same spirit, but closer to home, I had a fantastic time at Chicago’s Stages Festival in 2005, a weeklong workshopping of new musicals, presented as staged readings. Among the offerings: A Fiddler On The Roof sequel set in America, the story of wife-killer Doctor Hawley Crippin, a children’s musical about the Frog Prince, and a retelling of “The Devil And Daniel Webster,” featuring a man who sells his soul to a movie producer. The idea of trying to pack nine stage musicals into three days is more than a little insane, which is probably why I haven’t been back to the festival yet, though I plan to every year. There’s so much excitement in seeing something ephemeral and in progress, a show that may never be repeated.
This one’s easy for me, though it may sound odd at first: True/False, a documentary festival in Columbia, Missouri. I’ve attended this fest for the last four years, and it focuses on showing the kinds of documentaries Scott Tobias wrote about a few weeks ago—ones that work first as movies, requiring no special pleading on grounds of social or political importance. It’s worth flying out just to see work that won’t make it to New York City for months or years, films I still wouldn’t know about if and when they arrived (in some cases, movies that have yet to get much recognition in the States: Michal Marczak’s hilarious macho-gone-wild-in-Siberia At The Edge Of Russia, Victor Kossakovsky’s The Belovs). The day is for carefully curated movies, and the night is for manic socializing, loosely but excellently enabled by the fest, which takes place in delightfully low-key college-town surroundings. It’s a very particular kind of fun that’s tailor-made for me and may not be for everyone—rigorous art-house filmmaking followed by casual boozy hanging out with smart colleagues, no hacks allowed—but I’ve made a lot of friends there, seen stellar work consistently, and had my fair share of long nights to parse for highlights later.
My answer is a no-brainer: Lollapalooza ’95 in Atlanta. Through a confluence of cancellations and lineup adjustments—adding to an already-great core headlined by Sonic Youth—the day was so loaded with great bands that I was forced to pass on seeing Beck pre-Odelay. The side stage alone was packed with once and future favorites, including Portastatic, the great pop-punk trio Versus, my first-ever exposure to the transcendent Built To Spill (pre-major label), and the second (and more raucous) performance of the day by Pavement, who filled in for the regrettably absent Mike Watt on the side stage after doing a set on the main stage. Another cancellation allowed my beloved Superchunk to get a spot on the main stage, too, where they did their best to shake some life into the Hole fans milling around the aisles. Really, the only downside of the entire day was witnessing Courtney Love do her provocative shtick through a thin-sounding set, but all that was forgotten when Sonic Youth took the stage and crushed the amphitheater like a wailing Godzilla over Tokyo. I often confess that my musical tastes are confined mostly to early-to-mid ’90s indie rock, and that Lollapalooza show remains a glorious apotheosis.
This won’t surprise anyone who read my A.V. Club dispatches from Sundance, but I’d put seeing the world première of Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color near the top. I don’t have much use for music festivals, at least the kind that involve standing in a field for hours on end with large numbers of sweaty people, but attending a film festival is more like slipping into a sensory deprivation tank. Though they’re a great place to meet up with colleagues I only see a few times a year, film festivals are (at least for me) mostly defined by the movies, and the unforgiving schedule I set to catch as many of them as possible. The mediocre movies blur together, but the great ones—defined, in one sense, as those that cut through the torpor that sets in when you’re watching your 20th movie in four days—rise to the top. I’m eager to see Upstream Color again, since it’s not a movie you can fully comprehend the first time through, but I know nothing will equal that maiden viewing, whose sensations are as fresh now as they were two months ago.
Although I’d grown up three hours away from it, I’d never been to South By Southwest until 2006. It was the year Neko Case’s Anti- debut, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, was released, and she was having a private concert in a small field house on a hill in an out-of-the-way park nowhere near the chaos of Sixth Street. I remember watching Case soundcheck to “Star Witness” while sipping a beer and looking out from this hill that overlooked downtown and thinking it was pretty much the greatest thing ever. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay for the whole thing… because the Beastie Boys were playing a secret show, and I was on a list that meant I could evade the insane line to get in. They were rusty, but awesome, and it turned out to be the only chance I’d ever get to see them. Everyone at Case’s party got a silkscreened poster (a different version of this one), which I have framed in my apartment not only because it’s a cool poster, but also because it’s a souvenir from one of the best days of my concert-going life.
I have had a fuck-ton of amazing experiences at festivals throughout the years. I am, after all, a three-time visitor to The Gathering Of The Juggalos, Insane Clown Posse’s festival of arts and culture in rural Illinois. So when I think of transcendent festival experiences, a lot of stuff springs to mind: watching Phish from the side of the stage at Super Ball IX, watching Bobcat Goldthwait absolutely destroy during a 2 a.m. set at The Gathering that was less a conventional stand-up set than an extended howl of rage at a cruel and indifferent world, and a whole lot more. But I would have to say that my all-time best festival experience was watching my friend Rob Siegel’s directorial debut Big Fan rivet a packed audience at Sundance during its festival première. It was a film Rob had been working toward since leaving The Onion, and I couldn’t have been prouder of him, more impressed with the movie, especially Patton Oswalt’s performance in it. Afterward, we went to a party where some kind soul kept putting fresh bottles of Grey Goose in front of me that I felt obligated to consume. Though I don’t remember a whole lot more about the rest of the night, my colleague Noel Murray, who was unfortunate to be among a cadre of film critics cursed to share lodging with me that night, assures me I strolled out of the bathroom naked at five in the morning, belched majestically, then proceeded to immediately fall back asleep. So, yeah, that one’s going to be hard to top.
I was lucky enough to be at Lollapalooza in 2007 when Daft Punk headlined Friday night. The French duo rarely comes over to the States, and hasn’t released new music for a long while (though it looks like that’s changing this year), so catching them was a treat. On top of that, it was the best dance party I’ve ever attended, with an incredible light show. Tens of thousands of people swarmed together in Grant Park to move around to mash-ups of all of their best songs. I hate to use “blown away” to describe a concert, but they really did smack me in the face with awesomeness.
I keep forgetting that when Noah mentions going to Lollapalooza, he’s talking about the multi-day festival in Chicago. I keep thinking of the original incarnation, in which Perry Farrell had the juice to get the biggest alternative and hip-hop bands in the world to get together and tour America with freak shows, local artists, artisans, and people who were advocating for different, alt-rock-endorsed causes. I’ve been to one and only one Lollapalooza—the first one in 1991, which featured Nine Inch Nails, Ice-T with Body Count, Living Colour, Butthole Surfers, and Rollins Band (Siouxsie And The Banshees weren’t at the show I was at, at New Jersey’s Waterloo Village… at least that’s how I remember it). This was before the festival got huge, right before Nirvana took off and alt-rock was still bubbling to the mainstream surface. There was only one stage, a few tents with sideshows and other attractions, and not a lot to distract you from the stage. But for a guy who was used to arena and stadium shows, it was still a festive, chaotic atmosphere, one where people had gotten drunk, high, or both in the parking lot before they even entered the hot, open concert area. Twenty-two years later, my memories are a little sketchy, but here’s what sticks with me: hearing “Cop Killer” for the first time while in line for the Porta Potty, being in the mosh pit for NIN (and being happy when I got out of it), hearing Vernon Reid’s hypnotic guitar solos during the Living Colour set, and Farrell teasing the crowd with the beginning refrains of “Jane Says” but never playing it. Oh, and I remember almost getting crushed getting on to the buses to the lower parking lot. I think I still have the T-shirt somewhere, though it’s been a long time since I’ve actually worn it.
Like Joel, my best festival experience also happened at the first year of Lollapalooza. I saw it in Denver, which was near the end of the tour, so Nine Inch Nails had already dropped off the lineup, but Siouxsie And The Banshees were there, as well as the Violent Femmes. It was not just my first-ever festival, but also my first-ever “real” concert, meaning not one of my friends’ bands playing at someone’s barbecue or house party. My personal highlights include thinking my head might melt during the Butthole Surfers set, finally seeing Siouxsie And The Banshees live, and what seemed like the entire place singing along to every word of the Violent Femmes set, which wisely focused on the first album. Then Jane’s Addiction put a perfect capper on the night with their set, which ended with a crazy, awesome drum-circle jam version of “Trip Away.” All in all, it was a pretty unforgettable way to get introduced to live music on a large scale, and totally worth the wicked sunburn I ended up with due to my being too distracted to put on any sunscreen.
Much as I love film and theater festivals, as a simply pleasurable life experience, I have to go with Jazzfest (or the New Orleans Jazz And Heritage Festival, if you work for the tourism board). I planned my spring around it for a dozen years and always found it to be a much better advertisement for the city’s reputation as a hedonist’s paradise than Mardi Gras, especially if you prefer the feel of green grass to the smell of urine-soaked streets and the sound of live music to some drunk yelling, “Show me your tits!” The first year I went was 1988, when James Brown phoned in a memorable but not particularly well-received set that made a lot more sense when he was arrested four months later, in a state that made it clear that he had not actually visited our planet in some time. But historical interest aside, if I could pick one Jazzfest day to live over again, it would be the Sunday in 1993 when Sonny Rollins and I hit the WWOZ tent at the same time—him because he had a gig, me because I was trying to stay one step ahead of sunstroke, and got lucky.
I’ve been to a lot of film festivals over the years, and as a consistently excellent overall festival experience, nothing beats the Toronto International Film Festival, which is never disappointing, even when the movies aren’t outstanding. I also used to have a lot of fun in the ’90s at what was then called The Virginia Festival Of American Film in Charlottesville, which showed a mix of upcoming art films, avant-garde shorts, and classic Hollywood cinema, usually grouped by an annual theme like “Film Noir” or “The U.S. And Them.” (Since I had my first weekend getaway with my future wife at the noir edition of the VFAF, that one’ll always be special to me.) But for a one-time-only, unforgettable festival week, my favorite will probably always be the 2001 SXSW Film Festival. Judging by the reports of long lines and unexceptional movies that I hear from SXSW these days, I have no desire to return to Austin for the festival, but in 2001 the fest was still manageable, with plenty of time to squeeze in long Tex-Mex breakfasts and barbecue dinners with my friends between screenings. And the movies that year? How about Amores Perros, Ginger Snaps, Memento, Scratch, Super Troopers, Together, and a secret première screening of Waking Life? And that’s not even counting some of the very good here-and-gone documentaries that were there, like Go Tigers!, A Constant Forge, and The Sweetest Sound. If I could freeze a few days of my life to return to for eternity, I might well pick that festival. (But I’d want my wife to come with me this time.)
Hands down, the greatest festival experience I ever had was the Iceland Airwaves festival, and I barely remember any of the bands that played. But it all took place in the coolest city I’ve ever visited, Reykjavik. I was brought over with a bunch of other American music writers to cover the fledgling fest, and it took place at great little venues all around the city. After the showcases (I definitely saw We Are Scientists… and a bunch of Icelandic bands), the writers would all gather in a tiny room above the office of a local newspaper and bang out quick stories on what we saw. Then we would head out again, into the beautiful night, filled with beautiful Icelandic people who seriously barely get their night started by 3 a.m. It was a welcome culture shock, and I met a ton of great people and saw an incredible country. And some bands.
This is not the first (nor will it be the last) time I’ve referenced my 1992 college-graduation-present trip to the UK in an AVQA, but that’s only because those two weeks featured several of the greatest music-related experiences of my life. Among them: an event called In the Park ’92, which took place in London’s Finsbury Park on June 6 of—you guessed it—1992. That entire UK expedition was one that I undertook completely on my own, and although I’ve certainly managed to share music-festival experiences with my friends and had a ball doing so, there’s a special kind of bliss that comes with knowing that you can go see performances by any damned artist you please without someone else saying, “Yeah, y’know, I kind of wanted to go see [INSERT ARTIST HERE] on the other stage instead…” Sure, I had those monologues internally, and some very hard choices had to be made, but when I headed back to the tube late that evening, it was with the knowledge that I’d seen partial or full live performances by—let me take a deep breath —Redd Kross, A House, L7, Therapy?, Nitzer Ebb, Scorpio Rising, Jah Wobble, The Frank And Walters, Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy, Miracle Legion, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Pulp, Pearl Jam, and The Cult. Best of all, though, I was able to see Mega City Four, who I’d loved for years and who, as a result of the untimely passing of the band’s lead singer, I would never be able to see again.