A Backwoods Learning Experience

Or, Where did it all go wrong?

I am admittedly biased. I will be completely upfront about that from the very start. I am just not really a big fan of Electronic Dance Music.

Don’t get me wrong, I have and can still enjoy some EDM, given a certain context and a certain frame of mind. I can appreciate it for what it is (I mean, I can’t do it, so there is a certain amount of respect that I have to give EDM artists). Even your, and my, favorite band, Umphrey’s McGee, delves into the realm of Techno, although usually more the style of 70s Disco and using live instruments and synthesizers rather than a Macbook and some mixing software. But, generally speaking, it really isn’t my bag. Too many thumps and too many wubs and just too much high pitched “screeeeeeeeeep-beep-beep-beep-beep”.

This is the opinion that I have held of EDM for a long time. That has changed after this weekend. To a certain extent, anyway. Of course, I have always known that there are many different sub-genres of this widely popular style of auditory entertainment. But, in my mind, they were still all very much the same, just some had more drumbeats and others had more synth. Some were a little darker and others were a little lighter and merrier. But they all had the same basis. “Uhn tiss uhn tiss uhn tiss uhn tiss uhn tiss…”

girl using hula hoops in crowd
Hooper girl at backwoods | Photo by Stormie Ann

I still feel that way, but now I see it a little differently. I recently spent a weekend on the dusty plains of Oklahoma, at a place called Tatanka Ranch, the site of this year’s Backwoods Music Festival. This is the first year that this festival was held at this location, in anticipation of a much larger crowd than the producers had seen in previous years. But I will get to that in a bit.

I’ll take this opportunity to point out that not every performer that was on the BBackwoods set scheduleackwoods lineup was an EDM artist. I would have to do the actual math to be accurate, but I will say that, after my current impression of the festival this weekend, around 20-25% of the performers were of other genres. Which leaves a vast majority of them to be EDM. Again, nothing wrong with that, just not really what I enjoy. Yet, this weekend has opened my eyes a little more to the nuances of various EDM artists. More on that later.

Backwoods was slated for September 4-6, with production beginning weeks in advance to construct and organize the ranch into an EDM fan’s Molly fueled dream. The main stage, known as “Motherland”, was said to be the largest ever constructed in the state of Oklahoma. The shady area afforded by the trees around the side of the small lake opposite Motherland, dubbed “Nirvana Woodlands” held two more stages, called Globe Theatre and Kumbaya. The woods themselves were filled with artwork, from painted sculptures emerging out of the ground to a Cheshire’s eyes and smile peering down from the trees, and even a fluorescent string art bridge made vibrant under blacklight. “Hammockville” was also found in the Nirvana Woodlands, with dozens of Eno hammocks strung about for tired festivalgoers to lounge in and even nap if they desired. The Woodlands also included a water filling station provided by Libation, a purified water producer that was one of the sponsors of the event.

Around the corner from that shady oasis was a very unique “stage” known as the Diskoportal. This was a one-of-a-kind sight to behold. A giant disco ball spins on a platform in the center of the dance area, which periodically opens up “lotus-style”, exposing a flamethrower that shoots giant fireballs into the night sky. There are several horn-like structures circling the lotus disco ball, with their curved peaks pointing towards the center, which also shoot fire out of their tips. All to the thumps and wubs of Electronic Dance Music.

Head in the opposite direction from Nirvana Woodlands and you will find the VIP area, which held amenities reserved for those patrons who wanted to spend the extra money for flushable toilets, hot showers, and a pool to take a dip in. Swimming was available for every attendee in the more natural setting of the lake, but the clear, chlorinated water of the swimming pool was only available to VIP and members of production, artists and crew (and anybody else who could gain access by less-than-credentialed means). The VIP area was situated near the food court and yet another music area called “Elevate”. This stage was indoors, kept dark and air-conditioned, and had a perpetual light show going on, which was a delight for those individuals who decided to imbibe in those substances that make things look pretty and sound weird.

Head away from the lake and past the peasant’s vendor area and you find yourself in the Meadow, which had a “Treehouse Stage”, complete with a wooden bridge where you often found girls dancing in a somewhat provocative manner, God bless ‘em. The stage here was found at the bottom of a softly sloping field and was the closest to the gate, which led from the camping area to the music venue itself. VIP had a separate entrance that afforded those elite campers a much shorter walk.

music stage in a tree house
Treehouse Stage

GA Camping had a few different options. There was woods camping, which could be accessed by parking your vehicle and carrying your gear in. You could also camp right next to your vehicle in a separate area, which was obviously much more convenient than carting all of your belongings, but didn’t offer any shade and had you camping even further from the venue gates. There was even a Sober and Family Campground for those campers who chose to remain clear-minded or simply wanted to avoid the circus that would inevitably ensue in regular camping, especially in the wooded areas (obviously very few of those people existed in this crowd, but it was nice that it was offered).

Literally, everywhere you looked in Tatanka Ranch that weekend, your earbuds and eyebuds were stimulated, even for someone who is not a huge fan of EDM, like myself. There was a ferris wheel, helicopter rides, vendor tents with free swag, giant inflatable toys in the lake, and beautiful people everywhere, with wide smiles and wider eyes (or maybe just widened pupils). Plenty to do for any festivalgoer. With all of this available, it is no wonder that Backwoods producers decided that 1000 acres was necessary to hold the festival this year.

Sounds pretty great, right?

So… Why was Backwoods such a bust, then?

Walking around the venue after gates opened, you saw virtually nobody. Motherland, which was supposed to be the biggest draw, stayed empty all day long. You might see five or six people out there listening to the bands that were slated for the daytime, and usually they were friends or family of those bands that had come to support them. It’s hard to make a name for yourself as a musician when you can’t get anybody to come and see you perform, especially at an event that was supposed to be the biggest that Oklahoma had ever seen.

Empty stage at backwoods
desolate main stage during an artist performance

The lack of attention at most stages during the day could be attributed to the weather. It was hot. I mean hot. Balls sticking to your leg, don’t want to move, hate the world and everyone in it hot. We knew the forecast called for 90o+ weather for the weekend, but I don’t think anyone was expecting the heat index to reach triple digits (Saturday was around 107o F). Elevate was the most popular stage during these times, being the only music area that was located inside and air-conditioned, but it could only hold so many people. The lake was also pretty popular during the day, but even then there were only a few dozen people down there. Same for the pool. It was just too freakin’ hot. Most people were hiding in their campsites, seeking whatever shade there was available and drinking water that almost immediately got sweated out.

people in hammocks
DYING to get some shade in the hammocks

It’s a shame, too, because there were several talented performers brave enough to get on stage despite the heat and perform like it didn’t bother them. To empty fields. One band, called Groovement, had a fantastic funk sound accompanied by vocalist Alex Carr, who has the melodies of Curtis Mayfield mixed with the soul and energy of Bobby Byrd. It was high-spirited, easy-to-dance-to funk, with powerful vocals that, even though Carr claimed to be affected by the Oklahoma dust, sounded flawless to me. And nobody was there to discover them. I am positive that, in a different venue and under different circumstances, this group would have found a few hundred more fans that day. Sadly, few people if anybody noticed them, other than myself. And, to be perfectly honest, I would not have even heard them if I hadn’t met a guy named Matt, the brother of Groovement drummer Bryan Burkhart. Matt’s own band had performed early on Friday, and after chatting with him for a bit, he found out that I am a big fan of Old-Skool Funk, among other styles, and insisted that I come over to check out his brother’s band. I am glad that I did, and saddened that hardly anybody else did. If anybody from Groovement is reading this right now, you have another fan, and I will tell my friends about your sound and style. Also, fuck Tom Smith.

Tom Smith from groovement
Fuck Tom Smith | Photo by Stormie Ann

But, can we blame everything on the heat? Sure, a majority of the cause of empty fields and bored vendors was the triple digit weather during the day, but as the sun began to set, you could finally see Backwoods attendees coming out of their makeshift caves to finally have some fun. Even as the heat still remained in the mid 80s and higher, nobody spent money on a ticket to sit in their tents all day and night hiding from it. And yet, even as they began to finally come out to enjoy the music and surroundings, it was obvious that there just weren’t that many people there.

I don’t have access to final numbers, and can only guess. But, the rumor mill always spins, and often those rumors are founded in truth, if only slightly. I have it on good confidence that the early estimate of Backwoods attendees was forecasted to be between 10-15K. I can assure you, it was not even half of 15K. It was a third if they were lucky. Someone said that they needed to sell at least 6,000 tickets just to break even, and it looked like they didn’t even sell 5,000. That’s a huge hit to the producers. And, considering the fact that many people, if not most, that plan on going to an event like this purchase their tickets well in advance, I don’t think that poor ticket sales can be attributed to the weather forecast.

Which brings up another point – how badly must it have sucked for those other, non-EDM performers, many travelling from far and wide, to play at a festival where hardly anybody was interested in what they were playing? Take Meridian Lights, for example, a group from Brooklyn, NY, who drove straight through in order to make it to Backwoods. Looking at them, with their tropical shirts and dreadlocks, one might expect some roots rock reggae, but instead, they were actually a delightfully surprising mix of R&B Soul meets Indie Rock. The songwriting duo comprised of vocalist Bradley Valentin and guitarist Yohimbe Sampson, supported by bassist Jean Shephard and drummer Drew McClean, formed the performing incarnation of Meridian Lights, and, despite the decidedly lackluster attendance at the Kumbaya stage for their set, they still put their heart into their art. But, why were there so few people (actually, virtually nobody) at the Kumbaya stage for their performance? The sun was retreating, the air was cooling slightly, and Kumbaya was located in the shade amongst the trees on the edge of the lake. It was quite pleasant, actually.

Well, I suppose that the only thing that I can attribute the miniscule audience for Meridian Lights to is the fact that Backwoods is predominantly EDM. And the people who bought tickets were predominantly EDM fans. Meridian Lights just wasn’t what they wanted to hear. They were battling against Fractal Sky, who was playing Motherland at exactly the same time. Perhaps other performers might have benefitted from a little more exposure if the set times were staggered a little? Almost every stage had something starting within 15 minutes of each other, and often at the exact same time. Or, maybe if there was a little more variety in genre, so that the attendees weren’t predominantly EDM fans? I have nothing against EDM fans, don’t misunderstand. I am simply trying to figure out why, with the exception of a very few bigger names, there were virtually no audiences for anything but the EDM performers.

Yohimbe Sampson of Merdian Lights
Yohimbe Sampson from Meridan Lights | Photo By Stormie Ann

There were slightly few more people in attendance for another gem of a band that placed their feet on the same stage as Meridian Lights. A group of young men known as the Way Down Wanderers found a couple more fans, myself included, as they belted out a few bluegrassy, bluesy tunes from Kumbaya. We were on a mission and could only stop by to hear their set for a few songs, but it was enough. Having performed at Summer Camp for the past two years without my knowledge, and if they return to Chillicothe, IL, for Scamp 2016, I will be certain to catch their performance. What upset me most about their set was, as we were pulling away in the cart, I could hear them breaking into a bluegrass cover of The Jackson 5’s “Give Me One More Chance”. DAMMIT, guys. Could you have started that just two minutes earlier?

Collin Krause playing a mandolin
Collin Krause – The Way Down Wanderers | Photo by Stormie Ann

Yes, the exceptions. There was a pretty decent crowd for Tea Leaf Green. I was personally very excited to see them, as I had never been able to before. And, as luck would have it, there was also another man who was exceedingly thrilled to see them, so much so that he stripped completely nude and tried to jump up on stage. Security got to him before he could make it to the stage, but the audience was now paying more attention to that than to Tea Leaf’s opener, which it took the entirety of for security to remove nature boy. While I enjoyed seeing Tea Leaf Green for the first time, it was not quite what I had expected. It wasn’t as tight as I would have thought by listening to earlier, older recordings. Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was the lack of audience members, maybe Trevor was drunk or just taking too much “artistic liberty”. It wasn’t bad, not bad at all. I just expected more. Trying to sing along to “Reservoir” was a struggle for me, because the timing was all off.

Reed Mathis of Tea Leaf Green playing Bass
Reed Mathis of Tea Leaf Green | Photo by Stormie Ann

Speaking of security, it seemed to me, and to several others, that perhaps eight guys on top of this gentleman might have been a little excessive. Yes, he kept struggling, but perhaps he was struggling to breathe? Yes, he seemed agitated, but perhaps you would be too if eight dudes were on top of you? Yes, security’s job is to keep people, including the band members and the audience members, safe.Backwoods News Article 2 But, unless he had it hidden in his ass, I am pretty sure this guy had no weapons on him. And a professional security team should be able to handle one guy with no problem. It shouldn’t take eight guys and an entire song to defuse the situation. After he was handcuffed, he stopped breathing, was driven to the hospital in nearby Stroud, and was pronounced dead. Seeing the unprofessional way that this was handled, it is not hard to imagine that the security staff might have been a little too heavy handed in their dealing with the situation. I wasn’t there to witness the aftermath, and toxicology reports may say something different, but seeing what I saw, it doesn’t seem like a far stretch.

Oh, did I forget to mention that same security company’s employees stabbBackwoods news articleed a performer’s tour manager as well? During an apparently escalated altercation between a performer’s tour crew and security, one of the security staff members sliced the arm or hand of the tour manager, which required stitches. The artist promptly cancelled his set that was scheduled for the next day, understandably. I don’t know the name of the security company that Backwoods hired, but I do know that they were immediately fired. Which is probably best. It seems that they would have been better-suited working security at a state penitentiary.

Moving on…

Another exception to the overall EDM theme was Keller Williams. I have seen Keller on numerous occasions, since he originates not far from where I grew up in Southeast Virginia. And he has yet to disappoint me. He knows how to get a crowd going. And it is always impressive to see him circle the stage barefoot, playing a variety of instruments, looping them back over themselves, and orchestrating a multi-layered song before your very eyes. Opening with “Breathe” got the mood going, and I wasn’t mad when he played “Scarlet Begonias”. Even the guy who showed his appreciation for Keller by holding up a Keller Williams Realty sign (no relation) that he had stolen from the front lawn of a house that was for sale didn’t get too mad when Keller (the good one) sang his request that he put the sign down so that the people behind him could see. (Apparently, the Keller Williams Realty Company has even contacted Keller Williams the musician and asked him to tell his fans to stop stealing their signs. Guess that was easier than changing the sign.) Afterwards, he got really funky and psychedelic, with deep bass throbs and lots of drums beats, as a ropedancer named Brittany gave us a little visual stimulation. Even the EDM fans could get into it. Crowd favorite “Celebrate Your Youth” came out of it, and the audience was all smiles. And, of course, everyone loves “Freeker By The Speaker”. Thanks, K Dub.

Keller Williams smiling on stage
Keller Williams |Photo by Stormie Ann

The next day, Saturday, held the most excitement for me. Not only was this the day that I was introduced to the aforementioned funk band Groovement, but Saturday also had The Motet, Lettuce and Papadosio slated for back-to-back-to-back sets on the Motherland stage. Having seen The Motet and Lettuce before, I knew that I was in for a couple hours of some of the funkiest there is to witness, but I had never seen Papadosio, and I was anxious. I had heard some of their live performances, and everything that I heard about them was good, so I was looking forward to it.

The Motet took the stage just as the sun was finally starting to go down and the heat was subsiding a little (emphasis on little). I was as close to the front as I could get while still leaving myself room to “Shake My Booty”, which they happened to close their set with. As singer Jans Ingber called out to the crowd that had finally started to converge on the Motherland grounds to come closer, stating “Yeah it’s hot, but we are known for having steamy dance parties” (or something like that), I looked around and was pleased to see that there was more than ten people there. And people were dancing. Of course, can’t help but move to the funk groove of bassist Garrett Sayers, one of the most talented bass players in the funk/jazz circuit today. But let us not be confused, the Motet sound is not complete without the “wahs” of guitarist Ryan Jalbert, the funky Moogtronic and Vox Box of keys maestro Joey Porter, and the tight but flowing beats provided by bandleader and drummer Dave Watts. Top it all off with the percussive and melodic hoots from horn players Matt Pitts (sax) and Gabriel Mervine (trumpet) and the energetic stage presence and contagious dance moves of Ingber, and a funky, sexy, sweaty dance party is what you will have, no matter where you find The Motet playing.

The Motet on stage
The Motet | Photo by Stormie Ann

Lettuce followed The Motet. I had seen Lettuce only once before, and was hardly in a state of mental capacity that I should remember it. But I certainly did remember it, and remembered how much fun they were to watch and hear. This time, I was in a much more clear frame of mind, and had no less fun than I did before, and, honestly, probably more. Someone in the middle of the crowd went Rocky Horror Picture Show, throwing a handful of green leaf lettuce up into the air as the veggie’s namesake started into their first funk-fueled jam of the set. The members of Lettuce have been making names for themselves all throughout the live funk music circuit for years, ever since meeting at Berklee College of Music in Boston, along with their brother band Soulive and several other projects, working with the likes of John Scofield, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, and Rustic Overtones. Erick “Jesus” Coomes is arguably the driving force of Lettuce, in my humble opinion. I don’t want to downplay the talent or necessity of the rest of the band, especially the dual guitars presented by Eric Krasno and Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff and the horn section provided by Ryan Zoidis, Eric “Benny” Bloom and, sometimes, Rashawn Ross, who shares his time as a full-time member of the Dave Matthews Band. The whole band makes the crowd groove, and each part is just as important and integral to the whole feeling as the next part. However, for me, it is the flowing, feel-it-in-your-chest bass lines from Coomes that drives the funk out of Lettuce. Before it was all over, soul singer Nigel Hall, who often shares the stage with them, came out for the last couple of songs, driving the crowd into a complete frenzy and bringing the Lettuce set to an epic close.

Lettuce with Nigel Hall on stage
Lettuce on stage with Nigel Hall | Photo by Stormie Ann

Then came Papadosio. Ah, fuckin ‘ell, m8. I was smitten from the very start. The way that they edged around from melodic, almost emo vocals into trippy, danceable grooves, then into a full-on metal assault, it was one of the most impressive sets I witnessed all weekend. I would love to lie and say that I have been seeing Dosio from the very beginning, but, alas, I cannot. I can guarantee, however, that any time they find themselves within an hour or so drive from Southwest Michigan, I will be there, front and center, to experience their stage presence again. They had enough electronica mixed into their sound to keep the EDM fanatics appeased, and enough gritty guitar for me to not walk away from the Motherland stage. Actual drums instead of just a mixer and some pads? Actual guitars and bass? Actual vocals, without too much modulation? And a constant groove that kept me moving.

Papadosio on stage
Papadosio | by Stormie Ann

And those were the highlights. For me, at least…

But, I was an anomaly at Backwoods. I like to have a curve on the brim of my hat, and when I say “Bruh”, I am sarcastic. Not to say that everyone there was the typical frat boy, or the standard spinner kid. Just to say that there was a plethora of them there. And, yes, El Guapo, I know what a plethora is.

SO, as I mentioned earlier, the weekend at Tatanka Ranch changed my view of EDM a little. Still not my bag, but I found out some things. There is a whole lot of difference in EDM performers and their individual sounds. The biggest draws of the Backwoods Festival was, without a doubt, Porter Robinson, Odesza, and The Floozies, the three Motherland headliners that were scheduled to close out the Sunday night culmination of this party. I stuck around, I wanted to see what the hype was all about.

I didn’t stay long.

Look. I understand. The kids today, with their hair and their clothes, they like different things. But, there were people crying at Porter Robinson’s set, as he used old Pokemon and Anime imagery to add visual stimulation to his hour of 8-bit music mixing. I don’t hold it against him or his fans. If that’s what gets you off, then by all means, enjoy. But there is just something that makes the whole scene too simplistic and bastardizing when you have a guy who could be Conor Oberst on X simply pressing buttons and waving his hand in the air to tell the crowd they should get ready to cheer (nothing against Conor, I have the utmost admiration for him as a musician and lyricist. It just seems to me that Porter wants to be the Bright Eyes of EDM).

BUT! Before Porter, I had the pleasure of catching the last half of Boombox, and I was quite pleasantly surprised. Boombox is only two guys, Russ Randolph and Zion Rock Godchaux (yeah, that’s Keith and Donna’s kid). How had I never heard of this before? Zion on guitar and vocals, with Russ on tables and other electronics, Boombox has a sexy, funky, melodic groove that made me hopeful for the rest of the evening.

I was let down. Sorry, guys, but Porter just isn’t that great. He knows the notes and melodies that will touch the heartstrings, he has an idea of the mathematics involved, and he can keep a rhythm. But, I didn’t have a face full of moon rocks and, by his third song, I was done. I can understand his draw for those younger than me, and I can only hope that those same people will one day figure out that true talent lies in creating those sounds with instruments rather than programs.

See, for me (and this is only my personal opinion), if one guy is on stage commanding the sound with just a couple of electronics and a few computer programs, it isn’t so much a musical talent as it is a simple ability to make a computer do what you want it to. I have seen, in full witness, a band of several members make an equal (if not superior) electro-centric groove, with little to no pre-programmed sounds. Letting that groove wash over them and finding their place in it, expanding that space until it fills everything around them, and then, at the drop of a hat, switching time, tempo, feel. And carrying the crowd with them at every turn. I can understand how difficult it might be for one guy to make a symphony with only two hands and a Macbook. It is even more difficult for four guys to do the same thing and stay in tune and time and groove with each other. It gets exponentially harder when there is five, six, seven guys (or ladies, I don’t want to be sexist) all playing back and forth from each other, and depending on every person on stage to be in synchronicity so that the train doesn’t get derailed by somebody’s ill-timed chord change.

I appreciate Backwoods for what it is. It is an EDM festival. If it wants to grow into more than that, they should promote it as such. If they want to avoid empty stages, they should widen the fan base a little. If they want to be a strictly EDM festival, then that’s what they should do. I don’t pretend to have any idea how hard it might be to put together a yearly music extravaganza. It is obviously quite the undertaking, and I have all of the respect in the world for Backwoods producers. However, from a fan standpoint, I think that they may have been able to make up the lack of ticket sales by expanding their genre selection and making a little more effort on the set scheduling. I feel bad for them that the weather was not more cooperative. But, I can’t honestly say that the rest of it was not their own damn fault.

Let us take this as a learning experience. This was the first year that Backwoods tried to go big. In previous years, they had mostly featured local talent, with few big names to draw some more-than-moderate crowds. It seems that, by getting bigger performers, like Porter, The Floozies, Papadosio, the Motet, Lettuce, Keller Williams, et al, they hoped to fill Tatanka. Come on, guys. You are professionals in marketing and promotion. You know how it works. Do you think Summer Camp got that big in just one year’s planning? All Good has changed venues like, what, four times now? High Sierra has been going on for 25 years? These things take time, guys.

I like your vision. I like the concept. I like the artistry. But, these things take time. Time and planning. Careful planning. With thought and consideration for all.

To see a full album of images from Stormie Ann from the event visit: http://on.fb.me/1KxklDH

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