A Day at Aftershock- Musings on a Hard Rock Festival
By Chris Loeffler |
Music festivals are likely the apex of participation of music as entertainment and contributing to cultural moments. Whether wrapping up a genre (Aftershock), an ethos (Warped), or a broader movement (Coachella), music festivals create an opportunity to immerse oneself into something larger than any single concert. Whether looking for an excuse to drop out of normal life for a couple of days, discover new music, or just check a few favorites off your list, the reasons that bring a person to these events are less important than how they participate (or don’t) in the event.
I recently had the opportunity to attend Aftershock Festival in Northern California, an annual metal/hard rock show that drew over 97k attendees this year and features headliners Tool, Slipknot, Rob Zombie, Blink 182, Korn, Chevelle, and dozens of other major label bands, and was asked to share some of my observations of the state of hard rock festivals in 2019.
Like any list, what follows is highly reductive of my experience, limited to snapshots of emotional responses I had, from surprise to disappointment. That I don’t comment on the feeling of being in a hyped crowd at the first live Tool performance after their latest album’s release, or being surrounded by happy teens whose enthusiasm and excitement at seeing their idols remained as sharp at the end of day three as it was when the gates opened the first day isn’t meant to diminish the highs of the experience.
Environmental Hazards Abound
I don’t want to turn too negative, and I’d like to point out one of the worst sides of many festival events; people trash the place. As the last show of the festival ended and people listed towards the exits, a sea of plastic cups, cigarette butts, and crushed aluminum cans revealed itself as covering more of the ground than visible grass or dirt. I lamented that part of the show didn’t include a message to the crowd to grand a handful of trash on their way out, but also am resigned that people shouldn’t need to be reminded of this.
Advertisers Want to be Part of the Magic
Going into the festival, I expected an irresponsible amount of advertising from the two legal tent poles of partying, energy drinks and booze. Every stage is named after a sponsor, and umbrellas, signage, and merch all seemed to have been sold to the highest bidder. Everything at the show was dedicated to helping you mellow out while maintaining your energy at prices that hopefully encouraged responsibility (if for no reason other than economic prudence). The line between advertising and entertainment has always been blurred, and in live venues the differentiation between an enthusiastic patron performing for a crowd or a well-placed interactive product performance is almost non-existent (here’s looking at you, stilt-walking devil girl who alternated seamlessly between blowing fireballs and pouring Fireball whiskey into the mouths of the crowd). There were times I experienced the meta-authenticity I referred to as “post-authentic”.
Your Favorite Artist May Not Play What You Want
Festival set lists can be tricky affairs. Unlike a dedicate show, bands are faces with a diverse mix of hardcore fans, casual listeners who may know a hit or two, and people who have never heard their music. The result is seldom weighted towards deep cuts and insider nods. Instead, count on hearing the hits, a couple of songs from the newest album, and less meaningful crowd interactions. Some bands find a way to please all (Tool managed to cover every album without sounding like a mix tape), but many get bogged down in covers or treat their biggest hit as the closer people will wait for. I wish more bands had the faith in their own material to knock out the crowd-pleasers first to draw the crowd with the knowledge the strength of their catalog would keep people around. Covers were also on strong display, which I took as proof many bands don’t have the confidence to own a crowd.
You Will Discover New Music
Obviously. Walking from stage to stage, you will be exposed to new music. That’s awesome. Some bands made their names through their live performances, and the one hit of theirs you might have heard could be totally off-base from the rest of their catalog. Some bands with great studio recording can’t pull it off live, and visa-versa. The spaces between the sets you’ve circled in the event calendar are likely where some of the most gratifying moments will come from. Walking into a show with zero expectation is a great way to discover new music.
Drug Laws are Changing
Despite California’s new legal status of marijuana, city, state, and federal regulation don’t quite allow the “Amsterdam-style café scene” some imagine, BUT the consistent rolling clouds certainly reflected a new attitude towards drugs. The acceptance of pot smoke seemed especially less judgmental than cigarettes, and the palpable energy around the newness of not running afoul of the law seemed overly permissive in some ways. I noticed this had an impact on the family-friendliness (or not) of the show. I’m not going to argue the appropriateness of bringing children to a metal festival, but I was surprised how poorly equipped the festival was to provide safe spaces for families, let alone the little regard many of the attendees displayed when passing children. While tobacco use on concert premises has long been regulated, weed smokers (who were legion) seemed immune to limitations.
Live Sound is Getting Great
One of the great assurances of music festivals I’ve attended the last two decades has brought me is the sound will be patchy, and most bands (other than a headliner) are going to struggle through the first song or two. That wasn’t the case at all at Aftershock. Great sound, minimal setup time, no perceivable soundchecks… to a T nearly every band I saw had perfect sound out of the gate. There were a couple of instances where I wondered how much sonic trickery was happening at the board and how much might have been a backing track (I refuse to believe the single switch on the microphone was toggling between overdrive screaming, chorused/autotuned melodies, and mid-punching rap parts for a headliner I will be classy enough to not call out), but all in, the mixes, mic placement, and EQ were spot on. This was true whether at the front (near the stage monitors) or at the speaker arrays mounted halfway down the crowd.
What are some of your best (or worst) festival experiences? -HC-
Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer.