On the Scene: Famously Hot festival’s lukewarn reception

otaylor@thestate.comAugust 31, 2012 

FAMOUSLY COLD: Weather wise, last weekend was exquisite. For a city that markets itself as Famously Hot, the temperatures were pleasantly warm.

It was perfect weather then for a three-day music festival. And when it became apparent that the pesky afternoon storms weren’t going to try and crash the party, I thought the Famously Hot Music Festival was going to have a jubilant entry onto the local event calendar.

Instead music fans gave the festival, held Aug. 24-Sunday in Finlay Park, a cold shoulder. A shivering shoulder used by hockey enforcers. The festival featuring 15 performers wasn’t a dud, but the attendance was.

The inaugural festival was separated into three days of genre-specific music: EDM (electronic dance music) Aug. 24, rock Aug. 25 and country Sunday. Dave Stewart, who organized the festival through his company SS Productions, said his target for the festival was in the “five to 10,000” range. Estimates on Sunday put the three-day total at around 4,000, with most of the attendees showing up for the rock lineup.

The people who made it to the park seemed like they were having a good time. On Friday, it was tank tops, sandals and curious dance moves; on Saturday it was sunglasses, dark T-shirts and hands in the air; and on Sunday, it was cowboy boots, cowboy hats, short shorts and cute sundresses.

Many of the folks who came on Sunday afternoon were smart — and not just because they went to the festival and prefer country music. I’m talking about the people who thought ahead and brought blankets and towels to put underneath them as they lounged on the ground. Napping outdoors in August never looked so comfortable.

With the ample shade and seasonably cool temperatures, the park was like one big VIP area with the following amenities.

The sets started on time, a novelty for Columbia regardless of venue.

There was no need to stand at the front of the stage to get a prime viewing slot for the performer you were there to see. You could wait until the music started to walk up to the front.

One could easily see the stage from pretty much anywhere on the festival’s grounds, so really there wasn’t a need to stand near the front. Many opted to stay on their blankets and towels.

The sound was exemplary, and the stage, which was extended from the park’s existing platform, played really well.

There was no beer line to speak of. Enough said.

There was no wait for the portable bathrooms. It was so great to be at a festival where I didn’t have to time bathroom breaks.

If you were hungry, you could walk over to a food vendor, buy a snack and be back before the song being played was done.

You could walk around barefoot without fear of getting your toes trampled on by twirling dancers.

You could toss a football or Frisbee with friends and still be close enough to watch the concert.

I could go on. Free or ticketed, there isn’t another live-music event in a park in town where you will ever have more room to stretch out and play. And that was the problem. The festival, while fun, felt empty.

Some Monday-morning prognosticators have pointed to the lineup as the obstacle. EDM during the day? Good point, but Eliot Lipp ripped his late-afternoon set. I didn’t want him to stop mixing. Rock bands a decade past their prime? I can’t argue with that, but the lineup also drew the most people, almost 3,000. I’m still baffled as to how country didn’t get at least 1,000 people through the gate.

The $35 per-day ticket price, I’m sure, rebuffed some.

Building a festival is difficult, something Columbia music fans witnessed last decade as the 3 Rivers Music Festival struggled. And that festival booked contemporary, high-dollar performers. It should be noted that 3 Rivers never charged more than $35 for a three-day ticket.

While revisiting 3 Rivers for a story that ran last Friday, Virginia Bedford, 3 Rivers’ former president, told me that Columbia is a concert town; not a festival town. If anyone would know, it’s her. She also reminded me that the DJ stage at the festival in 2004 was a disaster.

While I wouldn’t use disaster to describe the EDM lineup at the FHMF, it could apply to the response to the day — and the festival as a whole.

Since 3 Rivers closed in 2006 after years of losing money, I’ve been wondering aloud if Columbia could sustain a three-day music festival. I probably won’t ever be ready to hear no.

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