Take 5000 festival goers add a mountaintop resort, an abundance of talented performers and amazing art installations then you will usually get a fantastic first year festival experience. But if you take this sum and divide by local sheriffs, three different county police departments, 40 plus undercover narcotics officers, as well as rumors of federal DEA involvement and you've got a math equation no one ever wanted to solve.
The Festival of Gnarnia held atop the scenic Beech Mountain Resort in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina was something to behold. The music was phenomenal, the people fantastic, the art exquisite and the setting was absolutely beautiful. Upon arriving at a first year festival conceived under such promising circumstances the thought never even crossed my mind that anything terrible would happen. What could possibly go wrong?
Photo by Morgan Mullin and Alan Harvey
Apparently a lot can go wrong. Even though Gnarnia was conceived and executed with the utmost care and best intentions, a significant segment of the festival going public ended up having a negative experience. As with any first year music festival the hiccups are bound to be more prominent and noticeable. However, with the presence of undercover and uniformed police increasing each day, by Friday night Gnarnia’s tone changed from sublime to sour almost instantly. As rumors spread that festival goers, artists, and even security guards were being arrested in the midst of what seemed to be a sting operation like that of a Hollywood screenplay, the attitude began to shift from fun loving to scary and dangerous overnight. It quickly became apparent that the campgrounds were filled with undercover officers worried more about illicit drugs and alcohol than concerns of health and safety. The streets were patrolled by dozens of officers pulling over anyone and everyone going to and from the festival seemingly without just cause or provocation. Worst of all, the festival itself was filled with narcs soliciting drugs from patrons with a ferocious intensity that bordered on entrapment. Then as icing on the cake, uncontrollable weather conditions arose that drenched and surprised everyone. Between Mother Nature’s unpredictable behavior and an absolutely Orwellian police presence, many patrons were left searching for the exit door.
As with any festival, it’s easy to notice what goes wrong. With expectations of the next festival being better than the last, the problems are the first thing anyone sees. Regardless of the negative aspects surrounding Gnarnia the festival, there was an abundance of redeeming qualities as well.
The music itself was beyond phenomenal with a line up that would be considered ridiculous even for a festival that has been around for many years, let alone for this first year of Gnarnia. I was particularly impressed by the "livetronica" acts Zoogma and Papadosio. These two prominent East coast bands set the bar high as they seamlessly mashed EDM culture and the jam-band scene together with impressive production (check the Zoogma performance and the Papadosio set), insane improvisations and catchy samples. Beats Antique never disappoints with their blend of experimental world fusion and electronica that after headlining the first night left people wondering if there was any room for the solo producers to steal the show. But with everything from deep rooted bass to what I would like to call "glitched-out lounge-step" from producers like 12th Planet, Paper Diamond, ESKMO, Emancipator, Gramatik, and Elliot Lipp there was never a question in my mind that there was room for everyone to make a splash in this wading pool. With five stages going off throughout the day there was plenty to do and something for everyone. The audio visual stimulation produced from artists like Tipper, Dieselboy and Phadroid catered to the trippers in attendance while bands like 7 Walkers and Easy Star All Stars played to much chiller crowds. Hip-hop heads were treated to the unmistakable swagger of Gift of Gab and Afroman who was rumored to have done a make up set later in the festival after missing his first performance (presumably because he got high). As a special treat many bands that could be considered headliners at lesser festivals such as Break Science, Minnesota, and NastyNasty played extremely intimate sets to a handful of fans at the indoor "Queen Loopy's Stage" (which I would estimate holds 150-200 people). Regardless of where you were throughout the festival (as long as it wasn’t jail) you were left with emphatic feelings of privilege and joy.
To add to the magical atmosphere there were dozens of performance artists constantly roaming the land of Gnarnia. Aztec dancers decked out in full headdress and loincloths put on organized dances all around the festival. Stilt walkers resembling trees and costumed lions and bears dancing around them felt like a perfect representation of what Gnarnia was meant to be. The bike jousting really brought up the audience participation level by allowing attendees to sign up and participate in what seemed like absolute medievil mayhem. There were b-boys, fire dancers, and what I’m sure was actually a goddess posing as an aerial dancer all of whom played their part in giving the audience something to see or do at all times.
Personally, I had an amazing time on Beech Mountain. The people were nothing but warm hearts and smiles, welcoming any and all new friends to participate in the collective effort of having a great weekend away from normalcy. I met more like-minded individuals in the short weekend there then in all of my previous summer festivals combined. I had no knowledge of the lingering dangers until the final day of the event, and even then, I was able to find plenty of wonderful people to make the hazards irrelevant.
The problems plaguing this festival seemed out of the control of the promoters themselves. The officials of the Festival of Gnarnia did everything in their power to make this an event people will never forget. Now it seems that no one could possibly forget the events that transpired whether it be for the right or wrong reasons. Despite everyone’s efforts to make the Festival of Gnarnia a place where festivalgoers could escape year after year, the delicate nation of Gnarnia, impressionable in its first year, was infected with a barrage of negativity from law enforcement and dozens of dejected members of the festival family.
While there was a decent amount of resentment being passed around at the end of the weekend, there were still plenty of people who let their natural and undeniable ability to party like professionals radiate through the festival crowds. The potential for Gnarnia is all there; amazing music, beautiful people, support from the local population, and thousands of fans eager to attend. That being said, I wish the best for the Festival of Gnarnia, as I would love to see the promoters solve the complex equation of how to pacify the police while throwing a festival in this wondrous locale.
Words by: Gilad Egar & Matthew Braun (Co-Founder, Chief Executive Officer at CrowdsEye)