The music festival

Tony Sarabia, WBEZ's Jason Marck, the Chicago Tribune's Monica Eng and Seth Fein of the Pygmalion Festival share their favorite music festival moments on Morning Shift

September 26, 2012

This week’s Thursday foray into music focuses on the Music Festival. One of the season’s final festivals in Illinois is The Pygmalion Music Fest in Champaign/Urbana.  

History tells us the first festival to include music: The Pythian Games in Delphi. The event was founded in the 6th Century BCE and it was a forerunner to the Olympics. Too bad archeologists were never able to dig up a program; it would have been interesting to get a sense of the acts.

The oldest annual music festival is the Pinkpop Festival in the Netherlands. Some of the more recent acts: Groove Armada, KT Tunstall and Bruce Springsteen.

Music Festivals today dwarf those of the past. The first "festival" I attended was 1978’s Loop’s Day in the Park. This was an all-day affair held at Comiskey Park. This one followed what was then the standard model: one stage with multiple acts and featured Thin Lizzy, Molly Hatchet, Eddie Money, Santana and the headliner Journey. We left right as Journey hit the stage, and good thing, because moments later there was a downpour.

Of course these days, those five acts would be a fraction of one day at say Coachella or Chicago’s Lollapalooza. But there was something special about the one stage model; you really felt part of a community because everyone was watching the same bands and focusing on the music instead of art installations, hanging out in the beer tent or sampling cigarettes. 

I’m not convinced that bigger is better; I would have preferred Monterrey over Woodstock, Coachella instead of Lollapalooza. But that’s just me. And yes, though Coachella is attracting bigger crowds now, it doesn't seem as cramped as the scene at Lollapalooza.

There are so many music festivals of the past that I wish I had been able to attend like the aforementioned Monterrey Pop Festival, or Wattstax, the 1970 edition of the Isle of Wight and Festival Express. Those four have become iconic moments in music fest history just like Dylan plugging in at Newport Folk Fest. I guess I’m still waiting for that sort of twinking to take place at one of today’s music festivals. In the meantime, here are my picks from some of those fests.

The concert movie Festival Express was a late comer to the genre given it took place in 1970 in Canada. What a great idea, not so much for audiences but the performers. This was a Trans Canada fest that had the artists traveling on a private 14 car train making stops in various cities to perform. It’s almost as if performing was a side note to the musical camaraderie, and partying among the artists while aboard the Festival Express.

But they didn’t give the audience short shift when they did hit those stages and one of the exceptional performers was Janis Joplin who would die just two to three months after the Festival Express rolled back into the station. Here she takes on the soul number "Tell Mama", made famous by Etta James in 1968.

Wattstax was held in 1972 at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to mark the seventh anniversary of the Watts Riots and is often referred to as the “Afro American answer to Woodstock." The festival was curated by Stax Records, so most (if not all) of the performers were on the Stax label. Tickets were cheap - one dollar - and patrons certainly got their money’s worth. Chicago’s Staple Singers appeared as did Isaac Hayes.

Singer and comedian Rufus Thomas was also there in his trademark polyester cape and matching shorts. In this clip from the Golden Globe award winning documentary, Rufus shows us how to do a dance called the "Breakdown"; one that I remember doing as a nine year old. The highlight of this scene is the dancers specifically one woman in a very short mini dress-they could teach the kids at Pitchfork a thing or two about groovin’.

2005 was my first year at Coachella and along with the Gang of Four, the Bauhaus set was up there. You know you’re going to get a good show when singer Peter Murphy enters the stage from above, hanging upside down like a bat as the opening notes of "Bela Lugosi’s Dead" plays.

Seth Fein, founder and producer of Pygmalion Music Festival, has some favorite picks as well:

Farm Aid, 1985, Champaign-Urbana: "I was four. I just remember that it was rainy...Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Randy Newman all played. I love Newman’s 'Political Science.'"

Luscious Jackson, 1994, Lollapalooza: "I got stuck with friends seeing the side stage, and when I was there, I knew about LJ, and knew about their music because they were signed to Beastie Boys label, and I took that show away as being my fave of the day. They were playing on a side stage, up against the Beasties, Breeders, Pumpkins. I had more fun at the side stage than i did at the main stage.

Looking back at that the way they process their customer’s needs, Farm Aid had a huge mainstage, but now there is no way there’d just be a main stage. Almost every fest you go to has a headliner, and an undercard on a side stage. When I go to Lolla now, I almost never watch the bands on the mainstage. It’s a much more intimate experience, and I don't feel as small when I see them."

HUM, 1995, Planetfest: "It was a small, 1-day fest that WPGU used to put on back then. That's when Champaign’s music scene was blowing up in a big way."