Summer music festivals can be things of beauty and discovery for open-minded concert-goers. All you need is internal fortitude and a high tolerance for crowds and vicious elements. Over the years, I’ve spent more than my share of time on both sides of the barricade, and I’ve learned a few things about life, rock and human waste in the process.
1. The Europeans are better at summer festivals. Sure, the U.S. has gained a bit of cred over the last few years, but it’s because they’ve taken notes from the veteran, well-run mega-festivals across the water. The camping is better, the lineups are incredible and, most critically, the casual rock, metal and alternative music fan on the other side of the pond has broader interests than his or her counterparts in the States. This is why festivals like Rock am Ring in Germany, Spain’s Azkena and even England’s Glastonbury can showcase more varied acts, and fetch massive crowds in the process. The European festivals are trusted draws themselves – not that our Coachella and Sasquatch! don’t have strong brands – and are less dependent on whether they get the perfect major acts to draw crowds.
2. Unfortunately, Europeans have turned throwing bottles of piss into a sport. Look, we have all been there. You squeeze and squirm and finally get yourself as close as you can to the front. But then . . . you gotta pee. Here in America, we have yet to learn the cute colloquialism of, say, the Midlands in England. Pissing in a bottle and tossing it at the band has become a sport, kind of like curling or snookers. Veteran artists know to keep their eyes keenly peeled toward the horizon for flying objects. Shoe-gazer bands become less shoe-gazey at these gigs – a lot less shoe-gazey.
3. No matter the continent, there‘s a big-armed guy fueling every show. When you’re onstage you can’t miss that guy in the very front of the crowd against the barrier. Every festival seems to have at least one. He’s usually bald. He usually has a bad sunburn. And he always has one arm bent as if to say: “Yes, I am rocking out, and I am a bad motherfucker!” I always love to play for this guy. He is every band’s ally in these hard-fought rock battles.
4. Crack and summer fests don‘t mix. Performers: don’t smoke crack before a show. Most bands play in the light and heat of these long summer days. Crack and sun and high temperatures don’t mix well . . . I’m pretty sure.
5. A cab is not a getaway vehicle. This is another one for my fellow performers: Don’t take a cab to a local Walgreens, rob their pharmacy of Oxys, and take the same cab back to the venue. I’m pretty sure the cops will be able to find you.
6. Schedule Bilbao, Spain into your summer vacation. Year in and year out, Azkena Bilbao books one of the season’s best festivals. I saw John Cale, the New York Dolls, the Sex Pistols and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion all play on the same stage one afternoon back-to-back. That is kick-ass!
7. Don‘t skip the side stages. All of the aforementioned festivals have historically had strong bookers, and as a result the smaller tents and side stages are reliable spots to catch bands on the rise. The U.K.’s Download Festival is doing a cool thing this year with an acoustic tent. Some of the bigger bands, and many of the smaller artists at that festival, will also be doing short acoustic sets.
8. Parents, going to a festival with your teenager doesn‘t make you their pal. It has come to my attention that there is nothing less cool than going to a festival with a parent. Not that this could ever happen to a cool dad like me . . .
9. Don‘t miss Rock Summer festival! Not to be mistaken with the similarly-named fest in Milwaukee, Estonia’s Rock Summer fest is a continued example of what a broad net bookers in Europe cast. This fest, for example, features Bryan Adams and John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd. There’s a pair you’d never see twinned in the U.S.
10. Don‘t miss Summerfest! Milwaukee gets it. Every band that I’ve ever known just loves to play this festival, which runs June 26th through July 7th along Lake Michigan. The people up there love music, and especially their hard rock and indie. This year’s lineup includes Tom Petty, Fun. and . . . New Kids on the Block! Hey, I guess some U.S. bookers do have a sense of humor.
Have a great season, everyone.
As told to Chris Kornelis
Duff McKagan is a co-founder of Guns N‘ Roses and the author of the bestselling memoir It’s So Easy: And Other Lies (Touchstone).