June 16, 2016 – MAD COOL FESTIVAL – Madrid, Spain
Yet another festival. To those not familiar, music festivals happen all over Europe and the UK during summer months. It’s quite a big business, with maybe close to 100 shows one might catch. In summer, people are more free to travel and weather is generally kind, so promoters grab a date and fill it with bands. Many shows have a theme or style, like metal or electronica. With fans of each genre coming in from all over the world, it makes financial sense for a promoter to grab bands big and small to fill their lineups. There may be 5 or 6 stages, each with another artist on every 90 minutes – that’s a lotta bands getting employment. It’s become a boon to smaller bands of surf music, gothic metal, trance, all over the world – as local fans (who wouldn’t normally buy a ticket to see band X or Y in their local club) can make a day of it, ride some rides, camp out, and watch some bands they may know. These little bands from all over the world get booked and paid to come over; it’s not very profitable, but a retro ’60s American group could easily book a dozen shows in Europe. Everyone gets a paid vacation – and maybe a new audience, as one of the great things about festivals is discovering music you haven’t heard about.
This one is different in some good ways. Called the “Mad Cool Festival” (it’s so easy on us when people name things in English.) One of the biggest general festival issues is… mud. (Glastonbury is famous for it – when we played there it was like walking through 10 inches of chocolate pudding.) What a surprise that they’ve covered the grounds here with a zillion miles of AstroTurf, so the sporadic rain will not cause mud! The clever organizers put the two main stages on the same general standing area at 90-degrees to each other; this solves several problems. The audience doesn’t have to go far to see another band, one band can set up while the other stage is going and not get blasted by the sound, and then food and service areas are close at hand to both stages. In addition, they have an art gallery, several smaller stages indoors, and beautiful artfully-lit grounds. Our only complain was the catering – it was almost a mile from where we worked – and not good food. Many of us had lunch and skipped dinner due to these issues. They had Cirque-style entertainment between bands, too, like people suspended far above the crowd in a giant wheel, giant walking art-pieces, fire breathers, a woman in a giant hourglass, and a few dozen insane people in white outfits hanging from beams suspended on a crane!
Right before us was a Spanish trio, and after us (on the other stage) was Garbage. Both were rock bands, with guitars and basic songs. And both relied on playback music to make their show happen. The WHO pioneered music playback back when the “Who’s Next” LP toured, with “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled” again requiring complicated taped keyboard parts for the live show. The WHO made this work (most nights!) and we don’t pretend anyone is playing Pete’s unique organ/synth parts. However, today’s music is often playback-based; the bands would have no show if the tracks don’t work. It’s not cheating, as anything can be done (Berklee historian/futurist Tom Rhea points out the term “musician” today runs the gamut from a well-trained violinist to someone who pushes a “Start” button!) It’s quite easy to “push play” and have a concert, but the ups and downs we experience nightly – and make The WHO such a reliably stunning concert event, is solely dependent on musicianship and change, not consistency and sameness.
Though it was quite late, the band came on and it was still dusk – the Northern evening that lasts quite a while in summer. The audience was young and the really energized ones were down in front – another benefit of festivals. It was a sure thing to predict the band would feel great from this. As we say; “Festivals are no one’s best gig” – meaning you don’t quite get the good sound and lights as you do on your own concert, and our setlist is quite abbreviated to fit the time schedule. But the tradeoff is the wild energy, and pleasing tens of thousands of people who may never have caught this band live before.
Tom Kenny, lighting designer noted that it went from light in the sky to dark in what seemed like minutes, and the lighting, video and atmospheric cloudy strangeness all became a greater part of the show. The crowd loved every minute of it – except when the topic veered off slightly from the big hits. When 5:15 happened, only those down in front knew it well, and the response of the crowd dropped quite a bit, even though any WHO fan knows it’s as good as it gets. This is why festival shows are designed to please the masses – many of those thousands of faces are not big fans of your group, as happy as they are to be seeing you.
Pete really was enjoying himself, and Roger did especially well despite the unusual sound onstage – again no soundcheck. At the end of “Baba”, Pete did a brilliant scissor-kick in the air, and – excited by his own jumping prowess – headed right over to his microphone stand to jump it as well. In the olden days, this was common – Pete said he used to raise his stand higher and higher as a personal challenge each night, launching himself (or a leg) over the microphone. Tonight, ’twas not to be – despite his great leap only a moment before. The mic stand went crashing down (always too quickly to be muted by our soundman in front) and a nice BOOM came over the big PA system. While not quite the effect hoped for – it was a good bit of the early destructive days again.
Similarly, Pete had tried the old knee-slide a few times recently, with decent results. Tonight, it appeared likely and he tried to make it work, but something caught the stage and he end-over-ended right onto his back. In full view of the audience on the high stage, Pete lept back to his feet – flipped the audience a finger – and laughingly finished off the song. A great rock ‘n’ roll ending to a nice festival day!
What a cool festival – the people were happy, good-looking, dressed casually (no silver outfits or crazy hair, and none of the extreme costumes as you’d see elsewhere), drinking just enough, no littering, respectful and music-oriented. A very pleasant bunch, smiling all the time, not pushing and shoving. It was a sharp contrast to festivals in the UK and USA, which are full of trash, some unruly drunks, strange facilities, etc. One more show in Spain – then we can break for a while!