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The Biz Behind the Buzz

Putting on a music festival in Varmont takes more than good tunes and good vibes


Published August 4, 2004 at 6:12 p.m.

Thirty-four bands. Forty-five Portalets. Fifty-seven vendors and exhibitors. One bio-diesel generator. Sound like a fun camping trip? Organizers of the Vermont Alternative Energy Festival and the Northeast Kingdom Music Festival are banking on it. The acts are in place, the spaces cleared for the two August music extravaganzas in Vermont that don't involve Phish. All you have to do is gas up the car, rally the buds, and show up -- it's all good, right?

Well, behind the scenes it's not so simple. A lot of time, energy and planning goes into making a festival; with hundreds of practical considerations, it's akin to harnessing chaos. In order to even get up and running, the location needs to be secured and prepped, local townsfolk and the neighboring burgs need to be sweet-talked, bands have to be booked with contracts in place, and vendors, exhibitors and security hired. Never mind coordinating parking, camping, marketing and creating the official websites.

But the best-laid plans are, of course, at the mercy of Mother Nature. At the recent Al Green concert at Shelburne Museum, concertgoers witnessed firsthand what an "imminent threat" of inclement weather can do. The walk-up ticket sales were dismal -- and even the Reverend's heavenly connections couldn't hold off the showers.

No, controlling the elements is not an option -- though some have tried. Ed Dufresne, the Northeast Kingdom fest's chief organizer, promoter and booking whiz, tells about a Paul McCartney show in St. Petersburg, where a nervous promoter reportedly spent $55,000 for three jets to lace the clouds with dry ice. He managed to keep 50,000 Russians blissfully content, but free vodka would have been cheaper. Asked if his show this weekend in Albany, Vermont, has any such contingency plans, Dufresne chuckles. "They might be doing that up at the Phish show, though," he says.

Concert impresario Alex Crothers of Higher Ground Presents comes to the 6-year-old Alternative Energy Festival in Randolph for the first time as booking agent, organizer and PR guy. Other experiences putting on outdoor entertainment -- including the series at Shelburne Museum -- have taught him to be philosophical. When faced with challenges of the meteorological kind, "You roll with it," he suggests, Zen-like.

The websites for both concerts strongly advise bringing not only sleeping gear but clothing for warm, cold and foul weather. Barring a truly nasty storm, however, the shows will go on. And when all is said and done, it's the music everyone will be talking about, not their soggy sandals.

Without the entertainment locked down, of course, there isn't a show at all. Booking a killer lineup is "the first thing I do," says Crothers. With an ear for the consummate bill but an eye on the bottom line, he begins his search for touring talent several weeks before the announcement of the festival. Assistance in the process comes from Bob Kennedy, a promotion partner for this event and also Reid Genauer's manager. The number of acts on the VAEF bill reflects both economic factors and the overall spirit of the show.

Crothers aims for a festival that is "intimate and manageable" as well as affordable. Both he and Dufresne worked to line up popular national acts, yet both also want their events to have "homegrown" appeal. Some of that is achieved by hiring familiar acts. Kennedy and Crothers set their sights on groups that had performed well at Higher Ground, and some of the local acts are returning faves from previous years.

Dufresne bills the Northeast Kingdom event as a "roots and rhythm" showcase. Now in its second year, the NEKMF is "an intimate festival of epic proportions," he says. The 22-band lineup reads like a who's who of eclectic and danceable groups, with an emphasis on roots.

But if their grooves are intact, performers' demands are not always tactful. With good-natured humor, Dufresne notes that the contract for the 13-member Israel Vibration had provisions for a separate hotel room for each member of the sprawling unit. Even in Burlington this might pose a logistical challenge. In tiny Albany, Vermont, it's comical.

"I found them 13 single motel rooms in St. Johnsbury, 45 minutes south of the venue but on their way back to New York City, so it worked for them," says Duresne. "Best thing about it is, they gave me a corporate rate of $53 a room, as they never get this kind of request in St. J."

Most bands get motel rooms, but few need singles -- in fact, some stay right on-site. "A number of acts I've convinced to take VIP camping," says the promoter. He's motivated by a desire to create a festival in which "everyone will know each other by the end of the weekend." Spinal Tap-esque incidents aside, Dufresne appears undaunted by any difficulty.

Keeping a thousand-plus attendees entertained involves more than music, though. If an audience gets stir-crazy, it threatens the communal good vibe. While there's always hacky-sack and stick-spinning to fall back on, Dufresne and Crothers have lined up some non-musical attractions to keep the revelers occupied.

At the Vermont Alternative Energy Festival -- formerly known as Pondapalooza -- the core focus is showcasing renewable-energy sources. This mission is as important to the festival as the music. "Alternative energy is something that's very near and dear to my heart," says Crothers. "In this election year, it's something that's very important to get out there." Accordingly, the event will host more than 30 like-minded exhibitors of technologies whose time is now, if not yesterday. Presentations include bio-diesel and vegetable-oil engines, and demonstrations of wind, solar, hydro and fuel-cell power.

This dedication is not just lip service: The festival's energy demands will be completely met by a 30,000-watt bio-diesel generator -- that's reportedly enough spark to power a small village. And an exciting new technology will debut at VAEF in the form of stage lighting: gel-free LED lights that use as little as one-sixth of the power of conventional lighting sources.

These are indeed some "bright" presenters. And as added incentive to a clean-burning lifestyle, the drivers of any "alternative-energy vehicle or efficient hybrid" will get in free. Last year 25 such vehicles arrived, according to festival co-founder and alt-energy specialist Shane Clarke. This year even more are expected.

Of course, both events have food vendors, many of them offering organic and/or healthy chow. The NEKMF is also catering to parents: For the little kids, puppeteers and jugglers. Older kids as well as grown-ups will find plenty of reasons to stray from the main stage, including a "pickin' workshop," a poetry slam and even speeches on such provocative topics as education, taxes, marijuana and the drinking age -- these courtesy of Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Hardy Machia.

After two days of such gonzo action, it might be tempting to set up permanent camp. Alas, you can't -- after you leave, the crew still has to clean up your mess. Crothers has his strategy down: "Come in, have low impact, and immediately disappear" following the festivities. This vanishing act is not without its traces, however. According to Dufresne, who does much of the cleanup himself, last year's NEKMF generated approximately $675 in bottle returns, which were donated to a local charity. A small dump truck was filled with partygoers' refuse. "If we hit 2000 people, I imagine we'll have three or so dump-truck loads of trash," he speculates.

Being a concert promoter may be one of the most thankless jobs on Earth, suggests Crothers. It's the promoter who shoulders the blame when the bands, the weather or even the audience cause problems. And a pissed-off audience can mean piss-poor revenue for future enterprises. If the show comes off without an apparent hitch, on the other hand, the promoters rarely hear praise.

So why do they do it? "The social part of the experience is a big part about what a gathering like this is all about," Dufresne says, claiming that some people have even met their soul mates at his festival. Crothers has a passion for turning people on to both music and alternative energy. At the end of the day -- or two days -- it isn't any one thing that makes a festival hit the high notes. It's everything.

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