The Messy Undeniable Magic of Festivals for a Musician
Erika Goldring/Getty Images | Lady Gaga crowd surfs at the BMI stage as Semi-Precious Weapons perform during the 2010 Lollapalooza Festival in Grant Park on August 6, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois.

The Messy, Undeniable Joy of Festivals for a Musician

Festival-seasoned artists Jack Harlow, Duckwrth, and Sam Hunt share their best and worst times as attendees, and as performers.
KC
Queens, US
September 13, 2021, 11:00am

This is part of a special series, Indulgence, which explores extravagant living in a time of restraint. It’s also in the September 2021 VICE magazine issue. Subscribe here

Every year, music lovers brace themselves for the unsteady terrain of festival season. At any given moment, you’re liable to be dodging the elements: the puddles of puke you wish you hadn’t stepped in, the couple doing the unthinkable behind a Porta Potty, and don’t even get me started on how the sun has never felt hotter than it does when you’re waiting hours for an artist to hit the stage.

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Still, we press on. We buy tickets year after year, even though we said we’d never do that again. We offer ourselves as tribute to the chaos of festival season and complain every minute along the way—until this past year, when we couldn’t attend a single one.

While the future of festivals is still up in the air, the memories are ours to keep. No one forgets their first festival, not even artists who have experienced it as a fan and have also graced the stage themselves. Take Jack Harlow, for instance. He told VICE he will never forget seeing OutKast headline Louisville’s Forecastle Festival as an impressionable 16-year-old. “It was a lot of waiting and sweating—something I’d be okay with never doing again—but it was an unforgettable show.”

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Timothy Hiatt/WireImage/Getty Images | Harlow performs at Lollapalooza in July of this year.

These days, the “What’s Poppin’” rapper isn’t the one doing the waiting and sweating, but it’s safe to say that seeing that performance made him want to raise the stakes on his own set, even if it didn’t always work. “I once made a half-assed attempt at a stage dive and ended up hurting this girl in the front row,” he said. “Haven’t given it a shot since.” As attendees, artists are just like us, spending days trying to figure out the perfect outfit—which for Sam Hunt includes boots, shorts, and a bucket hat (plus sunscreen!)—one that should be both durable and functional. Even though none of those can protect you from a stage dive gone wrong, you believe that it can. That is the magic of festivals.

Here, two very different artists—rapper Duckwrth and country music singer Sam Hunt—fill VICE in on what they love about festivals, their most memorable times performing, and how music is the great unifier.

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Timothy Hiatt/WireImage/Getty Images | Duckwrth performs at Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2019.

Duckwrth

One of the main parts that completes the pie of musical careers is touring, and, of course, festivals. Not having that part of it takes away from people being able to experience an album. A lot of people dropped singles and albums last year, including myself. I didn’t get to tour. I didn’t get to have that moment or have my fans experience that moment. I know a lot of times I went to shows, I was going through something and the show was the way for me to release it. I needed that social gathering, the adrenaline and the joy.

Black people have stories that we speak with conviction. Our stories are very real and true. That’s what happens when you oppress a people. Back then, rock ’n’ roll was about Black people coming out of slavery and migrating to the North—that whole struggle. There’s still a struggle, and we put that into hip-hop. Now we are the new rock stars.

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[One of the first festivals I went to as a fan was when] I went to AfroPunk. Bad Brains, one of my favorite punk bands, was performing, and I think I went from pit to pit because Suicidal Tendencies was also playing. I kept running from one pit to the other and just kind of going a bit insane. Oh, and then Suicidal Tendencies brought me up onstage and stuff. So I got to go a little wild.

[As a performer] I forget my lines a whole lot. You just have to master the art of mumbling sound and try to make it look good. Or what you do is, you do a little dance move and shit. Where it’s like, of course, you forgot to add a line there because you’re doing a double spin. But in actuality, I probably forgot. What I like to do now if I forget my line, I just say, “Can you start over again?” Unless it’s deep in the song. But if we’re early in it and I forget my line, I will even talk to my DJ and be like, “Bruh, what’s the line again?” and just kind of poke fun at it rather than like being the awkward dude that just stands onstage and looks stupid.

I was doing a European tour in Sweden—this was [in 2019] when A$AP Rocky was actually locked up—and I sprained my ankle doing some type of dance move. I just literally landed on it really awkwardly. It could have been either: I sprained my ankle and I fall to my knees, or I just make it look like I purposely did it. You know when you sprain your ankle, your knees or your legs kind of do this weird noodle? It was a noodle. I tried to turn the noodle into like a dance move. My DJ knew what happened so he was laughing. He was in the back just dying, but nobody else knew. I just kind of turned into a G and just kept going.

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Erika Goldring/WireImage/Getty Images | Hunt at the 2017 CMA Music Festival.

Sam Hunt

There’s something about the way country music brings all of those individuals together in a way that not much else can. You feel like you know the people that you are participating in this experience with. If you’re there, it says a lot about who you are and what you’re about. The likelihood of having something in common with these folks is high because you’re there to celebrate country music and to listen to the music.

A friend of mine got some tickets to check out the CMA Fest and invited myself and a few other guys to join him on this trip to Nashville. But I got to really experience Nashville—the live music, bars, and Nissan Stadium—for the first time. That’s really why I decided to move to Nashville. I was finishing up college in Birmingham [Alabama] and I didn’t really want to go back home, so Nashville was the obvious choice, especially after making that trip.

I do remember early on in our touring days, I have two songs that are kind of similar in that they both start with me talking: “Break Up in a Small Town” and “Take Your Time.” That night, we swapped up the set. We were gonna start the set off with the song “Break Up in a Small Town,” so the music started and we had this little dramatic intro. I start walking out to sing the song and sing the whole first verse of “Take Your Time,” which is a completely different song. I didn’t realize it until I was halfway through, so I had to decide whether or not I could finish “Take Your Time” over the music of “Break Up in a Small Town,” or just start over. I decided my only option was to start over. I turn around and have a little conversation with my drummer who kicks the songs out for us and just acted like it never happened, walked offstage, and started fresh. It’s funny how when something like that goes wrong, you get this sort of cool-headed focus that comes over you and you’re able to assess the situation, come up with an alternate solution or a few solutions, and then make a decision and go with it.

There’s something special that happens when you go to hear music live. There’s a difference between riding down the road and listening to a song, or having your ear pods in and listening to a song, and going to experience the performance live. As humans, we need that social interaction, we need to get together and celebrate things and each other’s company.

We’ve played four or five shows now since things have started to head back towards normal, and I haven’t seen any disagreements, any fights—nothing but smiles. Nobody is shy, everybody’s just overwhelmed and excited to be back out and listening to music. I think, for as long as we’re around, we’re gonna appreciate the opportunity to be a part of these festivals in a way that we just wouldn’t have without this pandemic.

Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.