There are music festivals and then there are music festivals. I’ve been to only two in my life, years apart. I’ll remember the first one forever.
The Isle of Wight Festival was held in 1969 at its namesake off the Southern Coast of England. (We did not see the naked people covered in frothy soapsuds shown on the above link.) Three of us — my future husband and a female friend — went for the music: Bob Dylan, The Who, The Band, Richie Havens, the Moody Blues.
We were not alone. The expected audience of 100,000 for the two day-one night event reached 700,000. The size of the crowd turned it into a two-night event, because the ferry to Southampton didn’t run after midnight and no one could get off the island when the music ended.
We spent the previous night in a youth hostel. The Moody Blues’ “Knights in White Satin” wafted through the hostel windows building our anticipation for the next day’s lineup.
The festival venue — a dusty pasture — made the youth hostel look grand by comparison. The only unoccupied spot we found to sit on was a few kilometers from the stage. This is just a guess since we didn’t have binoculars and could hardly see anything but silhouettes in the distance. We read later that Bob Dylan and others were there, but the music that had mesmerized us after dark from our youth hostel beds didn’t reach our patch of dirt at the festival site with the same clarity. We would be stretching the truth to say we saw — or heard –Dylan or any of the other well-known groups, except Richie Havens.
I read later that Ringo Starr, John Lennon and George Harrison were in the audience. I bet they had better seats. They certainly weren’t sitting in our section.
We brought a snack with us, which didn’t last long. There was little food to buy. However, that was the least of our concerns. We were completely grossed out by the bathroom facilities. The women’s consisted of large and full barrels positioned side-by-side in a tent. And we spent the night after the festival lying on a ferry dock while it drizzled, saved from freezing only by the crowd of thousands. We were on the first boat out the next morning.
Moving on to festivals 2014: ”Wintergrass,” called a bluegrass festival, but so much more, couldn’t have provided a greater contrast. It was held in a nice hotel with food, drink and real bathrooms. There were dozens of acts to choose from and these were presented in large rooms with good acoustics and enough noise buffering that sounds from a performance in one room didn’t spill into another. All seats were close enough to the stages to see the performers. The music was outstanding, the playing superb and it was easy for us to walk home at night. I haven’t been to enough music festivals to say that all are like this and that ones like that early Isle of Wight Festival are part of the distant past. For all I know, some haven’t changed at all. What I do know is that we left Wintergrass wishing for more.
As aging festival goers, even if festivals haven’t all changed, we have.