The New Woodshock
By Marc Savlov
JULY 13, 1998: Oh, summer. The time of year when 180-plus decibels of music thud their way across the landscape, pummeling senseless the mostly white, mostly male, mostly middle-class denizens of suburbia as they huddle prostrate before the Rock, genuflecting in skank before the altar of the God of Three Chords (and One Lengthy Rider). Alright, that was last summer. Lollapallooza, Perry Farrell's traveling circus of diminishing returns has, after eight seasons, called it a day, and the Eagles, thank God for small favors, won't be picking up the slack. Granted, last year's estrogen overload Lilith Festival is back again thanks to its overwhelming success with the 18-35 female set (and a very healthy dose of exceedingly well-behaved males), but otherwise, the grand alterna-fest circuit has taken the low road this season of sweat, with OzzFest leading the bombast race alongside the Family Values and Warped tours. And let's not even mention the H.O.R.D.E. tour until at least that first bong hit.
The sad fact for promoters and bookers alike is that the once-mighty festival circuit is winding down. Honestly, there's only so many years you can spend a full 18 hours in the Texas sun, sweatily rubbing up against some colorful behemoth named Scag before you get sick of the $5 Michelobs being sloshed on you and the acres of 'shrooming corner-pukers. Feh.
A new kind of festival is creeping over the horizon, though: grassroots, not-for-profit (not much, anyway), and a bit below everyone's radar. Loosely based on the U.K.'s early-Nineties Spiral Tribe fests that traveled around the British midlands, and adding a dash of the long-running Rainbow Gatherings and a touch of Nevada's desert-spectacle Burning Man (which enjoyed its Austin microburst last June), "electronica" festivals such as the Furthur festival in Wisconsin and this weekend's Second Annual Texas Electronica Festival, happening at the oft-used, pagan-and-freakazoid-friendly Recreation Plantation just outside of Austin proper in Dripping Springs, may just be the logical extension of Lollapalooza.
Organized by local DJ/Promoter Keith Jones, this year's Texas Electronica Festival boasts over 60 DJs, 20 sound systems, lots of free water and camping space, and features a musical lineup with everything from house to techstep, jungle, and happy hardcore. The catch? It's Texas artists only.
The lanky Jones, who spends his downtime DJing at Bob Popular, is an ex-Houstonite who moved to Austin in 1992 and cut his teeth first at the late, lamented Ohms and then ran the upstairs at Proteus. Grassroots from the get-go, Jones is quick to point out that his electronica festival is not a "rave" ("raves are dead," he notes), but instead a weekend-long campout with 1,000-plus scenesters from all over the Lone Star State - as well as a chance to network, communicate, and dance for 48 hours straight if you're so inclined.
"In '92, I had a real good experience at Lollapalloza - the one with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ministry, and Ice Cube," says Jones. "Perry Farrell did a really good job with Lollapallooza in general, I think. There were some really fun tours, but it just got too big and became too much of a hassle. Some of these festivals you pay $30 for a ticket, $4 for a beer, $3 for Cokes all day, and it really adds up.
"I think we're kind of at this crossroads with these big festivals right now. Pace Concerts and the other large festival and concert machines that do large promotions aren't seeing as much money as they once were. There's also a big liability issue involved in putting these things on. Summer festivals are really hot, sweaty, unwieldy things. There's a whole different crowd that goes to Lollopallooza compared to something like this. With those bigger festivals, there's a lot of head-banging going on, lots of tension, lots of that 'let's get drunk and fight' attitude.
"With the Electronica festival, I really wanted to bring some grassroots flavor to it, bring it down a little bit, but with different things. There's going to be swimming, and so on - people won't encounter those sorts of problems with us. It's a very vibey event."
He's right: The Texas Electronica Festival is different; admission to the campgrounds is only $10 (this covers the cost of the camp-site and cleanup), no alcohol will be available (although attendees are allowed to bring in that traditional summer brew as long as it's not in a glass container and is not consumed publicly, i.e. put it in a plastic cup), and peace, love, and mad beats are the order of the day.
Last year's festival pulled in an intimate crowd of close to 500 paying attendees along with a host of friends and well-behaved gate-scalers. This year Jones expects to double that at the very least, and in true grassroots, by-the-seat-of-his-pants fashion, with little or no traditional publicity.
"Mixmag did a bit of a write-up this time out," points out Jones, "but by and large we rely on word of mouth. It's been posted all over the rave/electronica-oriented Web sites as well, and that's where a lot of people first hear about the festival. Basically, what people do is print [the schedule] off of the Internet or get it off their e-mail. I've posted the information to 23 different electronica-based e-mail servers across the country, so it goes out to all the servers across the country, which takes it to hundreds of people per bounce. We sent information to MTV News and AMP, too. It's highly, highly word of mouth, a veritable yearly exercise in the power of word of mouth. And I realize it's arguable how far word of mouth can go, but when you get every major party promoter and DJ and band in the entire state notified, it spreads pretty quickly."
Longtime Austin residents will recall a similar tradition having been birthed in the early-to-mid Eighties, the infamous Woodshock Fests, which catered to the likes of the Butthole Surfers, Hickoids, Offenders, and the Big Boys. While not quite the pure punk manifesto of those halcyon daze, Jones and company have put together one of the most impressive lineups of electronic and DJ acts to ever play Texas. Certainly the largest.
Dallas, Houston, Beaumont, and even Paris, Texas DJs are well represented, with almost the entire Austin scene on hand as well. In a scene that occasionally seems like a battle of wills between promoters and competing DJs (and I emphasize the word "sometimes," because by all accounts, Austin's electronica community remains one of the healthiest in the country, if not the largest), it's a weekend of unity, community, and sloppy, sun drenched beats. Jones:
"The whole thing came about from the contacts I made from Dreamscope in Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. With the help of these contacts, I decided to pull together the resources and use them to somehow re-create that feeling of unity I had experienced at the very first 'raves' I attended. I knew that a dusty old warehouse would not do for a venue, and I also knew that we had to have more than one day for the collective. We provide an open door for any and all 'electronica' DJs or live bands that want to play.
"There's no differentiation between the DJs and sound systems we're bringing in. The way we have the stages set up, it's pretty much an 'all for one' kind of thing. If you break that up and have various camps, or stages, for each type of music, you're going to end up with all the junglists over in one tent saying, 'We hate happy hardcore,' and all the happy hardcore people over in another saying, 'We hate jungle.' That's not what we want to do here.
"I'm trying to get everybody on the same stage at the same time - over the same weekend - and get everybody huddled up all together, talking and mingling and learning."
Although "bands" per se are in short supply this year, one of the festival's highlights - the one that most directly hearkens back to Woodshock - would be Saturday's 1:30am slotting of the Jackofficers vs. Drain on the main stage (there are two). Pitting Butthole against Butthole, it's almost sure to be a celebrity deathmatch to put anything either band has done in years to shame. That's the hope, anyway.
Staffed entirely by volunteers, this year's event will have regular festival amenities such as showers, free water, on-site EMS (always a good idea when 1,000 music lovers come together), and the ever-popular Rope Swing Above a Large Body of Water. That last "amenity" looks like more and more of a necessity as Central Texas' hellsummer drags on.
Jones' crew will also send the event over the FM airwaves, albeit in a micro-sized pirate form that he says is well within the FCC's stringent guidelines for such activities. "It probably couldn't be heard over a mile, but it gives people a chance to bring their jamboxes and tape the sets."
Likewise, consenting DJs are letting TrinityWorks from Dallas do some on-site DAT recording of the event, two DATs per stage, resulting in tape that Jones then hopes to release as a series of local CDs designed to promote the festival. Money generated by the Texas Electronica Festival is funneled directly into next year's festival fund.
As for the future of the still-young festival, Jones is looking toward similar European events as his model, and maybe even sponsorship.
"One of the things that I had been seeing and hearing and reading about," he says, "is the big festivals in Europe. Other than the Zen Festival in Florida and things like the Zulu during Mardi Gras in New Orleans, this type of thing hasn't really caught on in the U.S. Seeing those big festivals in Europe, where there's 20,000 people there and it's all sponsored by Camel and Marlboro and Bacardi with banners and sponsor-tents, is really weird.
"Things in electronica haven't gotten that big here yet, but over there it's this huge market. I think that's the natural course of things [in the U.S.], too. Who knows? You may be seeing Vans of Airwalk sponsoring us sometime in the future."
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