We’re entering the annual period when it is hot and sticky every day, the possibility of a soaking thunderstorm always present. Must be time for the Nelsonville Music Festival. Oh, wait . . .
For a lot of people, the music festival circuit – circuits, really, there being several, each of its own genre – is a summer way of life. They pack up the tent or camper or motorhome and take to the road, traveling from festival to festival. It’s a nomadic existence, a genteel version of the kind of life made popular by fans of the Grateful Dead a generation ago.
The economics of music festivals are a lot more complicated than first glance would lead us to suppose. I remember an unhappy conversation with Pete Hart some years ago. He said that the Hart Brothers would no longer be producing the Poston Lake Bluegrass Festival, as they had for years.
The reason was as simple as it was non-obvious: the price of gasoline was nearing $4 per gallon, and that meant that many who would normally be in the caravan of bluegrass fans were staying home. The bands still needed to be paid and there were lots of other expenses. The financial loss would be substantial, just because of an increase in the price of gas. (Others took over the festival, and the price of gasoline came down, so the festival ultimately survived.)
You don’t need me to tell you that it’s not the price of fuel that’s canceling music festivals this year. (Indeed, were it solely a matter of the cost at the pump there would be enormous crowds at every music festival, roadside attraction, and other vacation spots this summer. An international version of the old price wars has driven the cost of gas to lows not seen for close to 20 years.)
Though I haven’t been to the Nelsonville Music Festival since 2018, I’m sad that it’s not taking place this year. I feel for Tim Peacock and his crew, who work like crazy yet make it seem easy. I wonder what the security people, who have an hours-long round trip daily ride from out of state each day, are doing, now that event security is no longer a hot commodity. Its absence will affect a lot of vendors of all sorts.
There’s something more, found to some extent at all music festivals but especially at Nelsonville. While you are there, the rest of the world might as well not exist. There are three or four performances going on at any one time. It is hot and sticky and sometimes muddy. People sit on porches and in shady grass, hoping they’ve found the one spot that will capture a cool breeze, should one decide to blow through.
The photographic community gathers at the press cabin, where it is alleged (though my knowledge it has never been confirmed) that there is a wifi signal. Many of us wouldn’t have seen each other since the last Nelsonville Music Festival, but it’s always surprising how the intervening year gets telescoped such that last year’s festival seems more like last week’s festival.
It’s a frantic time – the photographers are often the busiest people in the place. We’d discuss which bands are worth covering; there’s no way to get them all. The WOUB contingent worked out who would cover what, holding interviews on one porch while photographing and making videos of other acts.
There’s grumbling over restrictions that have been suddenly imposed, such as the time the band The Decemberists (remember them?) demanded they be given the right of approval for use of any picture any of the photographers took. (That’s why there were no pictures of The Decemberists in The Athens NEWS – that kind of thing is unethical for a newspaper, and the band should have known better, not that they would have cared.)
I could give you a litany of moments great and small. It was at Nelsonville that I first heard and met Angela Perley and the Howlin’ Moons, who are great. I’d run into friends there, from Meredith and Jamie over at the Henna Faerie tent, to Robin Barnes and Ashley Stottlemyer and Colleen Carow, to J.D. Hutchison, Michael Hurley, and dozens of others. I’d go through two or three cases of bottled water, drinking half of it myself and giving half of it away to people who seemed to need it. Thirst, as Jerome K. Jerome put it, is a dangerous thing.
George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic was loud, especially so to those of us in the photo pit. How loud? My hearing protection did little good, and when I got home after the show I found that my eyes were literally bleeding. (They got better over the next couple of days, and my hearing returned.)
Good times, as they say. But not this year.
What about next year? The live music industry in general has been shut down. We don’t know when or if it will be back. It’s said that it can’t really come back until there’s a vaccine, and therein lies a problem: science has never produced a vaccine for any coronavirus. You’ve heard the old jokes about finding a cure for the common cold. Well, the common cold results from a coronavirus. (Then again, there’s never been a world-wide effort to make a vaccine against the common cold. Could be that if we come up with a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, we’ll be able to make one for the cold, too.)
Maybe music festivals were something to tell the grandkids about. I hope not.
Because Nelsonville Music Festival has been one of the brightest and most special things our area has to offer.
Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Thursday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at email@example.com.