TURF, Summer Festivals and Having the Most Fun Possible

I’m much better at going to festivals than I used to be. There were dark days of mis-prioritizing, under hydrating and even a few fainting incidents. With this past weekend’s TURF (Toronto Urban Roots Festival) fest at Fort York / Garrison Common, I couldn’t help but feel like I nailed it in terms of maximizing my outdoor festival fun times.

Outdoor festivals are, in my humble opinion, far from the best way to enjoy live music. I have never seen a club show and thought to myself “this would be SO MUCH BETTER at an outdoor festival”. The opposite sentiment, however, passes my mind frequently. Gary Clark Junior’s set at TURF is a perfect example of this feeling. His set was rich and bluesy and would have been absolutely incredible at any one of Toronto’s many venues. Instead, his show was alright. Festival sets are shorter and earlier, the sound is often mediocre and there are about a billion sun-stroked idiots dressed in neon tank tops each claiming that this is “their jam”.

Festivals have their up-sides, too, though. Allow me to dole out some unsolicited advice on how to make the most of them. We all know the obvious tips – drink lots of water, wear comfortable shoes, blah blah blah – let’s actually think about ways to maintain a sunny disposition about the whole experience.

1. Focus on bucket list bands.

One of the biggest up-sides of festivals is that they present the rare opportunity to see a slew of acts in the span of a weekend and often host bands whose tickets are tricky to get our hands on.  Seeing Beirut was something I have been trying to do for the better part of a decade. I finally saw them Friday night and it was hugely satisfying! There are few better feelings than seeing one of your favourite bands live. I sang along to every word and every trumpet solo proudly and was able to forget about the less-than-ideal setting. Their set was beautiful in so many ways.

Neutral Milk Hotel was similar. They rarely play and, when they do, their tickets are gone moments after they go on sale. I can’t help but recall the great reunion tour ticket letdown of 2013. Knowing this might be my last chance for a while (or, dare I say, ever), I wanted to be sure I didn’t miss this one. Hearing Jeff Magnum sing “Two Headed Boy” and “Oh Comely” solo, followed by amazing instrumental breakdowns, was really special, which leads me to pro tip #2.

2. Take it all in.

Outdoor festivals often come with some pretty awesome ambiance. I recommend getting a good spot, which doesn’t have to mean way up at the front. Find a spot that gives you your optimal view, sound and standing space. I witnessed a group of friends sharing a legitimate ‘moment’ during Neutral Milk Hotel’s performance of “In an Aeroplane Over the Sea” that really enhanced my own good time. If you think of the show as being more than what happens on stage, things get a little bit more magical.

3. Listen to recommendations.

I caught Man Man play the south stage this weekend. Introduced this year, this stage hosted smaller acts that didn’t require the vast space of the main stages. There was enough room in front of the stage to host a decently-sized dance party but also plenty of room to sit on the hill and enjoy more casually. I was completely blown away by Man Man. They were the most interesting band the festival had to offer by a landslide! Their songs were cleverly written and every member rocked out to their fullest capacity. They have a King Khan vibe, with a little more brass and crashing cluster chords. I owe the friends who recommended them to me a thousand thank-yous!

4. Give a chance to the unknown.

Man Man wasn’t the only discovery I made this weekend. On my walk to see Deer Tick’s set, which was great and totally fit the urban roots bill, I passed by Local Natives, a band I had written off as not being my style. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed their sound! Their four-part harmonies were spot-on and there was no question in my mind why a massive swarm of people was stomping along to their songs. They were way more my style than I had given them credit for. Lesson learned.

5. Don’t over-do it.

A lot of festival lineups are jam-packed with so many acts that you couldn’t possibly see everything. I recommend letting go of the pressure to see it all and just see what you can reasonably handle. Seems obvious? Tell that to five-years-ago me.

I would strike most local bands from your list right away. Figure out who you can see all the time who might be harder to find. As much as it would have been nice to see Hollerado, Hey Rosetta!, Born Ruffians or The Strumbellas, there was far less urgency than, say, The Violent Femmes. Over-doing it can lead to a sour grapes mood and that would have spoiled everything!

I had a fabulous weekend of some truly amazing live music! Take my advice and I’m convinced your next festival experience will be just as good.

For photos of TURF check out Front of House Photography here.

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Hilary Johnston
Hilary Johnston is a writer, event manager and musician from Toronto.
Hilary Johnston