As We Remember 1997: Festival Season

Timothy Grisham / February 12, 2013
Poster for Yoyo A Go Go Festival

Since the late 1990s, and more intensely the early 2000s, the music festival has come to help define what music reaches the masses, who become cultural zeitgeists – and who simply play on the sidelines. In 1997, festivals didn’t have a “season” per se, but felt like a gathering of pockets of fans who relished in their collective expression of cultural resistance.

Lollapalooza was showing signs of aging in 1997. By then the still-touring festival launched only six years earlier had lost its luster. With an electronic heavy mainstage featuring Orbital, The Orb, Tricky and the Prodigy, as well as the emerging nu-metal contingent represented by Korn, the lumbering dinosaur of the alternative era didn’t speak to a generation of concertgoers who had once been enamored by the “alternative music” festival. It should be no surprise that 1997 was also the final year of Lollapalooza before taking a five-year hiatus only to stagger back in its current form.

Lollapalooza’s lack of ambition reflected their line up, leading Spin Magazine to say, “Lollapalooza is as comatose as alternative rock right now.” It should be noted that many people felt the same about Spin in 1997, for similar reasons. 1997 was a transitional year for what people would have called alternative music, and what people now call indie; 1997 was the year when many of the still “underground stars” began to see a new groundswell that would define the next decades image of independent music.

Unlike the summer bummer that was Lollapalooza, the landscape also had the second act of the Yoyo A Go Go festival. The summer of 1997 saw Yoyo A Go Go run during Olympia, Wash.’s annual Lake Fair for a five-day festival. Like the first edition, and its ancestral predecessor the International Pop Underground Convention, “Yoyo” exhibited a “who’s who” of the indie world – at a time when “indie” still meant something. Performers that for one reason or another still resonate in 2013 like Dead Moon, Sleater Kinney, Dub Narcotic Sound System, The Mountain Goats, Mirah, Modest Mouse, The Need, Karp, Built to Spill and Elliott Smith all performed to completely packed crowds at the 900 seat Capitol Theater in Olympia.

The festival was originally envisioned by Patrick Maley (owner of the Yoyo a Go Go label) and Michelle Noel, with help from Pat Castaldo (owner of and Portland’s Land gallery). The festival’s place in rock history may have been solidified in 1994 when Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl played together for the first time since Kurt Cobain’s death, but 1997 was historic in that it featured a slew of bands that would become the standard bearers of “indie” music over the next decade. Modest Mouse, Sleater Kinney and Elliot Smith all performed near perfect sets during the small festival.

Elliott Smith’s sets at Yoyo 1997 and 1999 are legendary among his fans. Although the release was aborted at the midnight hour, the 1999 show was to be released as a DVD as recently as the mid-00s. The intimacy of the 1997 set exhibited Smith at his most powerful, and in many ways his most vulnerable. 1997 was a watershed year for Smith, in February he released his third album, Either/Or, to wide critical acclaim. Two of the album cuts, “Angeles” and “Say Yes”, would join the Roman Candle cut “No Name #3” and the unreleased “Miss Misery” on the soundtrack for the film “Good Will Hunting”, catapulting Smith into mainstream stardom and an eventual Oscar nomination.

Most importantly Yoyo A Go Go, as a festival, was a joyous party, not the kind of drug-fueled, alcohol-binged parties that occupy today’s festival circuit, although there were plenty of drugs and alcohol to go around at many after parties. It was a celebration of “us” in opposition to dominant, corporate culture. In tandem with the festival were numerous house shows and “secret shows”, that were no secret to anyone involved, which helped foster a community atmosphere. If grunge and the alternative boom helped bring alternative culture to the mainstream, then 1997 (and by proxy, Yoyo) helped establish that there was still a true underground music culture brewing in America.

It is important to remember that Yoyo A Go Go was not booked by large promoters, it was booked by avid music fans who put decades of experience and connections at work to network together a truly fantastic experience. Yoyo A Go Go also had no corporate backing like the year’s big radio festivals, as exhibited the Seattle region by KNDD’s “Deck the Halls Ball”, which could pay for “big bands” but yielding boring line ups; the 1997 Deck the Hall Ball featured Green Apple Quick Step, Everclear, Sneaker Pimps and the Cure… Honestly would you sit through that line up only to watch the Cure? Or Would you see a ton of emerging talent that would shape the next several years of music culture, style and discourse?

If Yoyo A Go Go was a west coast celebration of all that was great and happening in the independent music scene, than the inaugural Terrastock was the east coast counterpart. The festival was envisioned by Patrick McMullen (publisher of Ptolemaic Terrascope) and Robert Jaz (of the Providence, RI based band V. Majestic) as a benefit for the psyche-focused zine Ptolemaic Terrascope. Soon a gathering of some of the best psyche and indie bands gathered; a heavy Elephant 6 presence was apparent.

Held in Providence, Rhode Island on April 25-27, bands like Silver Apples, Windy & Carl, Flying Saucer Attack, Cul De Sac, Barbara Manning, Deviants, Supreme Dicks, Neutral Milk Hotel, Bevis Frond, Damon & Naomi and The Olivia Tremor Control, set the tone for the festival, which has to date had seven iterations. What separated Terrastock from any other festival at the time was how tightly and on-point the curation was; this was, of course, three years before the inaugural All Tomorrow’s Parties. Like Yoyo, everyone I ever encountered that attended the 1997 Terrastock felt that it was special. The festival helped set the pattern for the event, drawing a diverse array of bands that linked past and present psychedelic traditions.

What stands out when looking back at the Yoyo and Terrastock festivals in 1997 is how entirely different they felt than today’s festival culture. There were no mud-bathed-mustached hipsters, no half naked students blasted on E and alcohol, no campground parties, no sense of overt commercialism (atms, corporate sponsors, swag booths, vip passes); in 1997 the best festivals felt like a community in a very parochial sense. There was very little in the way of large, counter-culture festivals – which was a good thing because with the rise of festival culture in the US, we also saw a rise in an established (read acceptable) indie culture take root in a way that neutered their true independent nature.

It wouldn’t be too long before festival season would pick up in America. ATP, launched in 2000, began their US series in 2002, while Coachella launched in 1999; both helping pave way for the standardization of hipster-festival culture. Now with other festivals like Lollapolooza’s two day festival (2004), Pitchfork Music Festival (2005), Bonnaroo (2002) and Sasquatch! Music Festival (2002) big name acts, and corporate sponsors have helped define the discussion on contemporary pop-culture through their tribal gatherings creating a very veiled (and maybe legitimately unintentional) system of cool-making that greatly influences the modern music landscape.

While static, location driven festivals are again en vogue, it is important to note that touring festivals still-very much planted the seeds for our current festival climate. Launched as a two day festival in 1996 by Sharon Osbourne after her husband was snubbed by Lollapalooza, Ozzfest entered 1997 as a touring festival for the first time. Featuring a reformed Black Sabbath, Marilyn Manson and Pantera the festival, which was operated on a very grass roots level initially, captured the attention of legions of metal fans and the press alike. Before too long, Ozzfest would slide into the moving-chaotic-corporate juggernaut that dominated the 2000s before limping in to the 2010s. Touring festivals like Ozzfest and Warped Tour helped spread the current festival culture that is polka-dotted with binge-drinking, blacked out 20 somethings; a far cry from the more intimate experiences by the concert goers of Yoyo and Terrastock. Despite this, it is still important to remember that even Ozzfest was a response to dominate culture at the time.

Sixteen years on the underground nature of some of the countries most impactful festivals relied heavily on a “us v. them,” vibe. Whether that feeling still exists in some of our mega-festivals could be open to debate, but what is certainly not debatable is that the corporate sponsored megafests are an animal entirely different than what we had in 1997. The modern festival circuit has had such a massive impact that it has radically redefined even the touring habits of most bands, we live in an entirely different reality.

1 thought on “As We Remember 1997: Festival Season

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *