Curtis Cartier runs down the history of music festivals, from Woodstock to San Francisco's upcoming Outside Lands.
By Curtis Cartier
When 200,000 flower children descended on Bethel, N.Y., in 1969 for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, the social epiphany that followed was a glorious accident--a once-in-a-lifetime union of music, art, politics and progress that has never been re-created.
But while Woodstock, as a youth phenomenon, may never come again, today's modern concert festival has become every bit as potent from a musical perspective as those "three days of peace and music." And with Outside Lands, the Bay Area's premier music gala--and one of the nearly 200 American music festivals held across the country each year--hitting San Francisco Aug. 22-24, it seems the spirit of Woodstock, or at least the music of Woodstock, has lived on.
When the last attempt to remake Woodstock in 1999 ended in a trash-burning, trailer-looting riot, it sounded what many thought was a death knell for the modern megashow. Pepsi sponsorships, $6 water bottles and 60-minute bathroom lines seemed at odds with massive crowds of would-be-hipsters and aggro bro-rockers. After all, you can only rip so many people off before they begin to turn. But while Wood-Jock was busy desecrating the memory of its grandpappy, other festivals were carving out their own names.
Lollapalooza, Perry Farrell's touring rock smorgasbord, began in 1991 and can lay claim to fathering the modern music festival. The show combined music from rap to metal, art from modern to classic, green technology and protest culture into a one-stop shop for the Gen-X rebellion. Instead of trying to resurrect a dead movement, it embodied a live one.
Lollapalooza carried the festival torch for most of the '90s, with a few scattered offshoots springing up along the way. In 1999 the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival changed everything.
Taking place at the Empire Polo Fields in Indio, Calif., the site was originally picked as a alternative site to protest Ticketmaster's monopoly on other Southern California venues. Gone were overpriced bottles of water and MTV cameras, and while the first Coachella didn't make a single dime and was canceled in 2000 (and cut short in 2001), by the time Björk and Oasis headlined in front of 50,000 screaming fans in 2002, people knew something special was happening.
Meanwhile, other events like Bonaroo and Ozzfest gained steam. Usually centered around a broad music genre, the festivals of the 21st century capitalized on bringing multiple big-name acts, propped up by a hierarchy of supporting groups who wallowed in the exposure of the übershow's colossal crowds.
By 2005 festivals were springing up all over the country and soon a music fan couldn't swing a cat without hitting two or three such events. Austin City Limits, Burning Man, Rock the Bells and Vegoose all brought fans by the tens of thousands to sweaty fields the nation over. Internationally, Glastonbury became the ultimate English bacchanal and North by Northeast unified Canadian indie-kids.
In about a week, when Radiohead and Beck, along with about 100 other bands, ignite the first day of Outside Lands in Golden Gate Park, fans at the event will have chosen it out of the hundreds of other festivals around the country. And while the three generation-defining days of Woodstock may never come again, the party behind the politics is alive and quite well.
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