Thursday, June 12, 2008

What Makes A Festival Festive?

Although I'm paid three times a year or so to write reviews about jazz festivals, it's seldom the festival itself I review. Whether I'm reporting from New York, Vancouver, Cleveland or Montreal, I try to keep the focus on the music, unless there's something extraordinary about the setting or the crowd that warrants notice. That approach can create confusion. Once, when a festival organizer complained about the bad review I gave his festival, I replied: "It wasn't the 'festival' I was reviewing. I didn't see you onstage playing a saxophone."

Yeah, that was overly glib and facetious, but you get my point.

After helping to run a festival for a few years in the 1980s and attending at least three events a year since 1991, I've developed a few thoughts on what – music aside – separates great festivals from the also-rans. Bear in mind that the Number 1 thing that makes the difference is artistic vision, but let's pretend that all things are equal on that front for the sake of argument. What makes the ideal festival?

As in real estate, location plays a major role. I like urban settings and the ocean, so I'm partial to events in San Francisco, Vancouver and Halifax, but putting that bias aside, festivals that provide the equivalent of a palette-cleansing course at a restaurant are appreciated. In San Francisco, I love the opportunity to walk across the street to the Museum of Modern Art after catching a show at the Yerba Buena Gardens or check out the collection at the Legion of Honor, the great venue that SFJAZZ sometimes uses out by the Golden Gate Bridge. In Vancouver, I dig sitting at an outdoor cafe on Robson Street – people watching in the West End – between shows. Sometimes, this is a question of timing, too. I know only a few people who really enjoy festivals that cram musical acts up against each other; it's nice to have time to process what you just heard.

Food also plays a key role. One of the best festival sites I've been to is in San Jose, California, where, during the festival, Cesar Chavez Square is lined with vendors dispensing a variety of ethnic cuisines. One of my least-favourite festival sites is Victoriaville, where the lack of time between shows combines with the paucity of good restaurants to put me in a bad mood every time. (During the early years of the Guelph Jazz Festival – when critics were still discovering its terrific programming and great setting – my Toronto colleague Mark Miller uttered the immortal line, "This is like Victoriaville, but with better food.") In Ottawa this summer, I'm looking forward to the fact that a local, organic, micro-brewery has won the beverage contract over the big breweries. Later in the summer, I'm making my first trip to the Vitoria festival in Spain, and I'm looking forward to the Basque cuisine almost as much as catching Maria Schneider and Wayne Shorter... almost.

Overall, though, it's that intangible "vibe" that wins me over. It can be sitting in a park – doesn't matter which city – under a beautiful sky, or in a funky old hall with terrific sound; if the vibe is right, everything sounds better.

What about your favorite festivals? Which ones are you partial to? What makes it work for you? Send your picks for where people should head this year as we enter festival season.

1 comment:

Lee said...

Great post James. Loved reading your observations - mostly because your views are similar to my own. ;)

What you are speaking of is a great passion of mine - experience design. Looking at all the individual 'touch points' or experiences that determine the overall experience your guests have is the key to developing a successful, sustainable event.

So often details such as food, parking, clean washrooms, availability of ATM machines, environmental impact, and even as you mentioned, the pace of the show, are overlooked when a group organizes an event or festival.

Focusing too much on the main event at the expense of other details can ruin the festival experience for your guests.

Often you will hear friends speak of a shortage of clean washrooms, long lines for food, or poor selection of food rather than the main event itself. And this can play a large role in whether or not they will attend the event again - and even worse - whether all the people they speak to about their bad experience will attend the event.

Great points made by you, hope many festival directors come across your post.