FloydFest 12: Rain or shine
It took FloydFest 12 years to finally surpass the sell-out mark, but Mother Nature quickly reminded that bigger isn’t always better as it handed the beloved Blue Ridge music festival its first real public-relations crisis to accompany it.
Rain that started in the wee hours Saturday morning and continued through most of the day hammered the southern Virginia highlands, putting an ironic damper to its 2013 theme “Rise and Shine.” More disconcertingly, the weather turned the absurdly congested camping areas and heavily trodden footpaths into a chocolate milkshake slurry that incited exits en masse come daylight. But those looking for an early withdrawal likely aggravated what was a miscarriage of logistics.
With almost all parking done off-site, shuttles that should have been bringing in the last round of festivalgoers were burdened with taking hundreds of them out and as a result, some waited for hours on both sides. While the late entries missed out on the immaculate weather of the first two days — which had practically become the norm at Floyd- Fest since 2009 — the absconders, however, were received by a nearly inescapable sludge in the soft-top lots and local resources that were accused of gouging for their towing services.
Parking was moved to various hard lots further away from the festival, which lengthened shuttle rides, but communicating those changes was hindered by the information creed issue: FloydFest relied on a lot of social media to disseminate parking updates, but cell service and especially internet access are notoriously difficult to come by there. For a festival that had accumulated a Fort Knox-sized trove of goodwill over the years, its cache seemed to be depleting by the minute on the fringes.
The mud overload no doubt contributed to those frustrations, as it would eventually come to cover almost the entire grounds and by extension, the people and their belongings. Though the camping situation was suffocating in spots thanks to record attendance, the actual musical experience itself remained mostly undiminished. FloydFest is uniquely situated on an oval cresting ridgetop that provides a wide-angle perspective from its main stage, and the pre-sundown sub-headlining acts are the ones who reap the greatest benefits from the stunning ambiance.
Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hutz, in a rare moment of respite in an otherwise tenacious 90-minute set by the Russian gypsy-punk detail, took note of the crowd surfers set against glow of sundown on Thursday evening. Though everything that comes out of Hutz in the course of normal speech is a guttural bark, it was an ideal segue into the subdued, ballad-heavy encore that drew on the heavy Spanish influences of the band’s new album Pura Vida Conspiracy, a grower that may not be instantly received by fans of their uncompromising spin on Balkan music, but is a vital complement to their increasingly kaleidoscopic catalog.
Gogol Bordello themselves highlighted a trend on the curatorial side of the festival that became evident last year; as behemoth, mainstream festivals have made a quick shift toward all-encompassing appeal, FloydFest is maintaining the same route up a slow, almost imperceptible curve. Last year, Skerik’s salacious punk jazz trio the Dead Kenny Gs may have been out of place in a previous year where rock, country and bluegrass were de rigueur, and even though gypsy punk has been explored on those grounds by DeVotchKa in previous years, Gogol Bordello stretched existing boundaries through their core catalog of hyperaggressive, if good natured, pure punk like “Immigraniada (We Comin’ Rougher),” though the selections from Pura Vida Conspiracy did show a band that’s inching back toward the center.
FloydFest’s experimentation with EDM moved away from the livetronica that bands like Conspirator have brought in the past to the purely decks-and-knobs variety via the Flower of Life space, an art installation consisting of stretched canopies and polychromatic lights, powered late at night primarily by the Silent Disco model that Bonnaroo engineered half a dozen years ago. There are risks inherent to opening that Pandora’s Box, however, and they’re mostly related to the general resentment that a decent cross-section of Floyd and Patrick County locals harbor toward the festival. EDM, for all its popularity, is a magnet for elements that could be found unpleasant, and growing that aspect carries the potential to incite the anti-FloydFest crowd even further.
Not that it could get much worse than the accusations of greed as posted by Doug Thompson on blueridgemuse.com. He quoted a retired state trooper who previously assisted the festival with its charitable fundraising efforts, but expressed anger at organizers over what he viewed as a cash grab after the success of those fundraising efforts. He echoes the general sentiment of many of the diatribes posted amidst glowing responses on the festival’s Facebook page — of which a severe generation gap should be noted. FloydFest seemed to have gained more fans than it lost this year, if only because attrition was counterbalanced by an influx of new, heartier festivalgoers, but losing the faithful in favor of courting a bigger audience is a dangerous gambit in an age where there are arguably more music festivals and more choices than ever before.