Last June I researched a piece for the Independent about the Snake Pit Music and Motorcycle Rally that was held out at Rock Creek. The organizers of the Snake Pit event have, or had, depending on whether or not it becomes an annual event, big plans to turn their festival into the premier independent music event in the Northwest. They had some good ideas, and seemed to spare no expense in setting up stages, making plans for recording, the works. It really didn’t pan out too well, as the crowds were sparse, and I think most of the bands came away fairly disgruntled. There are plenty of reasons for all this; prices were definitely too high ($60+ or something for a full pass, and there weren’t single day options available), the target demographic – high end motorcycle enthusiasts, not the gritty outlaws associated with biker culture – don’t really care about independent music, and, finally, I think a bit of a lack of organization when it all came together caused some problems (example: don’t put the main stage half-a-football-field’s stagger to the closest beer source). Worthy goals, for sure, I just think the organizers tried to do too much with the inaugural event.
Besides, Missoula already hosts the premier independent music festival in the Northwest. I’m talking, or course, about Total Fest, which just saw its 7th incarnation go off as a resounding success this past weekend.
I confess that Saturday night was my first Total Fest experience. I know I wasn’t even in Missoula for the first couple-three incarnations, and I know I was out of town for at least two of them. Nonetheless, I made a point to make it out on Saturday. I mainly wanted to see Miss Lana Rebel play (review I wrote of her new record for the Indie is HERE), and I especially wanted to see Pierced Arrows (again, record review I wrote HERE) play. That, and hang out with all the music and arts friends I have that I knew would be there.
Wow. Allow me to express my utmost congratulations to point man Josh Vanek, he of Wäntage Records glory, and all the people he has working with him to pull this thing off. This is a huge event to wrangle; lots of bands from all over (all of whom needed places to stay, things to eat, gear to protect, etc.) to manage, three nights in a row of rock, and all the promotion and hustling to make it a success. From what I saw Saturday night, it all seemed to go off with less fuss and confusion than most single night shows I’ve had to suffer through with only 3 or 4 bands involved! Just a fantastic effort all around.
The venue couldn’t be better. Upon entering, immediately to the left was a large room full of tables where all the bands were selling their merch items – t-shirts, CDs, vinyl, stickers, everything you can imagine. It was also a great place to hang out and meet people, or reunite with friends unseen for ages. As much as anything, that is what this fest is about: not just music, but the excitement of sharing a passionate love for music and arts with like-minded people. A lot of these bands know each other, and often only see one another when paths cross by chance out on the road. Hell, my wife, Julia, knows the aforementioned Lana Rebel from when Lana’s previous band, the mighty Last of the Juanitas, would pass through Tucson. Unbeknownst to her, Lana’s current bass player is an old friend of Julia’s from Tucson who now resides in Portland, so they had some catching up to do. And that was just one room! Downstairs in The Palace there was a stage, and the main room in The Badlander was set up with two stages. I was amazed upon arrival that they were still on schedule time-wise, and that they maintained it all night. That never happens, believe me. There was another bar area between the merch room and the Badlander’s stage area where people could hang out as well. Best of all, the entire place was smokeless, so for those of us who loathe cigarette smoke it was perfect. People who smoke would gather outside, which only created yet another congregation point for people to interact. I found the social aspect of it all even better than the music. Finally, around 11:00 PM or so they set out a buffet in the merch room, full of just what liquored up revelers want late at night: greasy breakfast vittles. Genius.
Every crowd for every band brought a level of enthusiasm that was infectious. It made me totally jealous that I didn’t have one of my bands on the bill. Seeing the Barfeeders and Lopez again reminded me of the old days at Jay’s Upstairs. I got to see a band from Denver called Kingdom of Magic, and they were thick, heavy-groove stoner rockers. Lana Rebel played multiple sets between bands rocking the Palace stage, just at the top of the stairs in the merch room; her country twang was a welcome respite from some of the noisier bands. Finally, Pierced Arrows did not disappoint with their raucous garage rock. I was thrilled.
While I think the Snake Pit folks had the right idea, they could have learned something from Total Fest. This is an event that has grown each year; they didn’t try and swing for the fences from the get-go. There is also a significant difference in attitude. It seems to me the bands and artists involved with Total Fest view “independent music” different from the Snake Pit folks. The impression I got of the Snake Pit attitude is that “independent” is merely an interim step between going on to the big time; getting a record deal with a major label and getting rich and famous. I think many, if not most, of the bands who played there have a similar idea that that is where they are headed, or at least what the ultimate goal is. For the Total Fest people, “independent” isn’t an adjective, it’s a lifestyle. Most of these bands are content to do their thing, put out their records on their own small labels, go on tour, argue the merits of obscure bands that most mainstream fans will never hear of, and have fun. Sure, they all want to make a little money doing it, but most I think would be perfectly content if they could just make enough to get to the next town, have something to eat, a decent place to sleep (that isn’t some stranger’s cat piss-soaked carpet) and hopefully have enough to pay the rent or mortgage when they get home. A reliable vehicle would probably be on that list too. You know, just like anybody else out pursuing any chosen path to get through life.
This is exciting to see happen in Missoula. It made me appreciate anew all of the great, community-driven events we have here that other cities our size can only dream about. It also made me mark my calendar for March, as I know that is when they will probably start taking submissions for Total Fest VIII. I have a band or two I know would love to play. . . .