Monday, March 17, 2008

Survivor: Music festival

Hey, I've been to quite a few music festivals over the past few years, in Tasmania, mainland Australia, and some in the U.S. And, way before that, actually. I volunteered at some of the early Old Songs Festival in Altamont, NY, going back 30 years. Bluegrass, Folk, Womyn's, Jazz, and Old Timey American. Anyway, enough about me.

A friend called me recently to ask about what to bring, being she was a first timer to the National Folk Festival in Canberra, Australia. This got me to thinking, I should write about how I cope at music festivals. What with all the traveling that I've been doing, I've learned a thing or two. Wait, now, don't expect me to endorse any particular products here or to talk about the idiosyncrasies of a particular festival. I'm just going to spell out some generic ways to spend more time enjoying the festival and less energy dealing with 'stuff'.

I should note that my last few years have been traveling without a car or RV, so I don't have a lot of creature comforts on hand. These tips will not be so relevant if you're able to carry everything you need with you. But, you might be interested in some of the short cuts or strategies that are helpful to decrease festival stress. On the other hand, I don't have to worry about dead batteries or flat tires or canvas being eaten by mice these days, do I?

- Buyer beware. Study the website or brochures. Ask around. Look at the venue if and when you have a chance. If you don't radiate to Shape Note Singing, you might better spend your festival dollars on a festival that is more your genre. Not to talk trash about Shape Note Singing... just picking an example out of the air. I love old timey music. Why should I go to a festival that is obviously geared towards the evolution of dance in the former Czechoslovakia? Well, you know what you like. I'll stop pulling examples out of the air. Same thing for ill-defined workshops, venues with poor sound, food stalls with macaroni salad in the sun, or child care that your not comfortable with. Keep a skeptical eye out for things that will not be fun, or interesting, or worth your hard earned dollar.

- Save or reduce the price of admission. I never pay full price for admission. Volunteering has so many and varied opportunities to get to really know people and get a behind-the-scenes view of how the festival runs. Would you rather wash dishes with some up-and-coming artist or sit through a concert hearing someone that you've already heard before? When ever it's possible for me, I go early and stay late. This gives more bang to the buck, if you will, and allows for more jamming, always on my agenda. It also means a better chance at a good camping spot. And, more chance to scope out an unfamiliar venue before the crowds make it more nerve wracking. First crack at the festival tee shirts and doo-dads, too.

- Travel light
       Bring old or almost used up products. That way you can dispose of parts of your burdens before you return. A few doses of toothpaste left in the tube, 3 days worth of deodorant, the bottom of the shampoo or lotion bottle. I save up the odd bits of soap in a little baggie. They're good for a shower or 2. By the time you've used up your odds and ends, you'll have room for a new festival tee shirt or souvenier.
       Those chamois-type camp towels that absorb a lot of water are very handy. They dry quick and don't take up much room. I've used them at the end of a trip to bundle up fragile things, or wrap up something wet, grimey shoes, or other potentially gunky messes.
But, take good care of your feet. Seriously. Leave those girly shoes at home, or don't be complaining to me about your blisters. I like hiking boots or sturdy sneakers. I tuck in a pair of flip-flops for a quick dash out of the tent first thing in the morning. Or, in case the showers are just too icky to stand in.
       If you don't bring enough clothes, oh well. Wear dirty clothes towards the end of the festival. Most everyone else will.
       I like travel clothes that are light. For example, a pair of denim jeans are heavy, and a drag to dry out after a rain or washing. The newer types of hiking pants, preferably the kind that have zip off legs, are light, easy to wash and dry, and can tolerate some rain without feeling awful. They're easy to layer up, too, with some thermals underneath.  Same for those techy shirts.  They're great under or over a layer, and light enough to stick an extra on in a day pack in case the temps drop.
       Tip of the hat to My old work mate let me in on that tip before I started my globe trotting. Chock full of really good resources and advice.

- But, don't forget
       Medications - I make a point of carrying my blood pressure meds in my pack at all times. I don't want them ripped off or sweltering in a tent while I'm away from the campsite.
       Important telephone numbers and travel details like flight numbers or bus schedules and the like. I sometimes summarize the key info on one little business card sized piece of paper. My iPod is handy that way, also. The calendar from my Mac is on the iPod as is my address book. The address book is also in my mobile phone. But, I still keep the essential info on a piece of old fashioned paper... it doesn't have batteries that might run down.
       Recording equipment, both high tech and low tech like a little notebook and pen.
       Electric chargers and batteries - Ugh, I wish I could drop that weight, but I can't. I need my mobile phone, camera, and recorder, all with their respective charging apparati. Pain in the butt, but what can I do? Gotta have them. Being that the industry has done a crappy job of standardization, you might be lucky enough to have a few devices that all use AA rechargeables, decreasing the need to bring multiple separate chargers. Now where to plug them all in is another story. I've used places like festival kitchens, airports, or campsites with power. It'd be a nice thing if places with instrument lockups could include a few power bars so that folks could check in their electronics for charging. And, I hear there's a new gizmo out there that is the solar powered equivalent of AA batteries. I might check that out more one of these days.

- Handy things
        A hankerchief or 4. These can be so multipurpose. I give one a soak of water and tie it around my neck when the festival is really hot. Sometimes, I'll whop a wet rag on my head if it's really sweltering. Dry, they make a portable hand towel or a type of bag to tie something together. Lay one out on the ground or a cruddy picnic table as a mini-table cloth. Occasionally, I might wipe some rosin off my fiddle, too. :-)
       A little length of light cord or string, a clothspin or 2, a small lock, a head torch (the newer ones are extra light), those skiing hot packs that heat up when exposed to air. These are a few of my favorite things.
       Portable silverware and mug. Besides the obvious greenity, there are occasions where you can join in some communal meal, made more easy if you have your own place setting. A pair of chopsticks from some takeout restaurant are handy. Double purpose when a couple of sticks are needed - just use your imagination, a la MacGyver from the old TV show. Frisbees make good paper plate holders, I've found.

- Protect yourself from the elements. You know... all the things a mother would tell you.  Bring a water bottle and carry it with you. That'd be an empty bottle, if you're flying. Bring a lightweight rain coat. Sun screen. Hat. A light sleeping bag liner can increase the warmth. Fleece tops can also be rolled up to use like a pillow, saving you the space or weight of any other sort of pillow. At an outdoor venue where the temperature is going to drop after sundown, it's handy to have a tarp or poncho to keep the dew off you.

- Eat smart I love the festivals that feed the volunteers on the cheap. Most kitchens are set up to provide good basic food, adequate and plentiful. Makes it easier to save money and not fill up on fried dough and corn dogs. Not having a cooler (Esky in Australian slang), I tend to take snacks that don't need ice like trail mix, pepperoni, little cereal boxes with little boxes of long life milk, crackers, and fresh fruit.

- Sleep smart. Ear plugs that work. Really. I like the waxy sort. They keep more noise out. Why would you ever go to a music festival with out them? Or, any sort of dorm sleeping. Or, any sort of camping ever? Difficult to sleep if you're not warm and dry. Tent? RV? Air mattress? Air pad? On the ground? Heck NO! Many cell phones have an alarm function. A well timed power nap can be just the thing to help you through the day.  Yes, you might miss something while you're sleeping.  But, really, trying to get through a long weekend with 3 hours of sleep per night is just nuts.

- Buddy up -or- not. I like to see my friends at festivals. But the herd mentality might be more trouble than it's worth. I make some time early in the festival to go through the program and look around the festival office. Is there anything that has changed since the last time I checked? Additions, changes, cancellations? Then, I highlight things that I might want to do. What is going on that I just can't miss? To try to include other folks in this process makes it all the more cumbersome. My partner goes her way and I go mine. Sometimes, we end up at the same event, sometimes not. In any case, it makes for more and better conversations later on. But, going our own separate ways means that we spend no time on the 'where-will-we-meet?', 'what time are you going?', 'shall we eat early or late?', 'I thought you were going to meet me near the tree by the lane', and you get my drift. End of codependency counseling session.

Well, but maybe I have some more mental health advice to share. I start out each festival with a nirvana mindset... "Oh, isn't it so wonderful to be around so many like-minded people who love music and are so evolved and will be so nice to be around. And, by the end of the festival, I'm often irritated at the hairline of the guy in front of me or PO'd at the woman who cuts in front of me in the porta-potty line. Somewhere in between there is the real festival experience. But, I do know that paying attention to some of the small details can lessen the let down or the fatigue towards the end.

Up next, Canberra, ACT.  We'll be in the tent city.  They set up tents in a row, including cots and a light.

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