All Better - The annual All Good Festival comes full circle with a new venue

by Lee Abraham

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Or somethin’ like that. I went to my first music and camping festival a few years ago, not too long after Garcia died. Sure, I had been to plenty of one day music marathons and multiple day runs with the Dead, but a three day festival with a variety of bands and thousands of people camping together in a short lived tent city, was something I hadn’t yet crossed paths with.

The revelation couldn’t have come at a better time. Even today, the pain of Garcia’s passing will not fade away, (I still can’t read a eulogy for Jerry without getting misty), but at the time of my first All Good Festival, it was a heavier load. Even before the Dead stopped touring, their shows had lost quite a bit of the magic. It was the scene surrounding the music, rather than the music itself, that was becoming the main attraction. That’s not say the Dead couldn’t rip open the vortex to enlightenment on any given night, they could, but by the time the long strange trip hit the ‘90s, the scene was propelled more by momentum than creative exploration.

Didn’t matter that much to me. As far Dead shows were concerned, I was just happy to be there. I remember back in high school in the late ‘70s, the Dead played a huge outdoor show at Englishtown, New Jersey. Although I was somewhat familiar with the Dead, and sort of liked their music, the thought of traveling to another state to see them (I was living out in Stonybrook, on Long Island), didn’t really cross my mind. But the following week, when lots of kids at school were wearing tie-dyes and talking excitedly about the great time they had, I decided that I would not miss the Dead the next time they were within a few hours drive.

Shortly after Englishtown, a viscous rumor that Garcia had suddenly died gripped my high school. Insulated from the media and relying on the best information available, I bought into the rumor, just like everybody else. Actually felt some pain then. Although I had never seen the band, I was really floored. Part of it was feeling sorry for myself. I’d never get to see Garcia. I’d never get to run wild at a Dead show and experience the communal bliss that I had only heard about. The fact that I missed their recent show at Englishtown made things even worse. The whole thing sucked. I was pissed and deeply upset.

Then came the news. It was a hoax. Jerry was still alive! Wow, talk about mental ping pong! Aside from the elation of knowing that I still had a shot to see Garcia, my thoughts were focused: not only would I go see the Dead whenever possible, I would try to experience each show as if it would be the last. And I meant it. So flash forward to the ‘90s. Really didn’t matter to me too much if the Dead were inconsistent, and at times mediocre. My deal was simply to appreciate the moment. Take the good and leave the rest, that sort of thing. But in the absence of the Dead, warts and all, it was the lack of a viable alternative that was primary downer as I headed into the All Good fest. Up to that point, I hadn’t found another circle of creative energy to match the community surrounding the Dead.

Then came my first -All Good- experience. And it -was- all good. Can’t tell ya how that weekend sparked me. What hit me most was the sense of community among the people gathered for the festival, as well as the quality of the bands, many of which I was hearing for the first time. Just the grassroots level of the festival, a few thousand people, a small fraction of a latter-day Dead show, was refreshing. Compared to the commercialized tours of the Dead and even Phish, the All Good festival was like a family picnic. There’s something about getting off on great music with lots of like minded folks, but when the experience extends to eating, sleeping and more pointedly, waking up together, the relationship advances from social activity to communal experience.

Since the first All Good, I’ve been to several other festivals, and for the most part, they all went well. Some were better than others, but overall, I’ll take a weekend music festival over any other type of live music setting. From bar gigs to stadium shows and all the social halls, theaters, and arenas in between, nothing matches the weekend festival. Tim Walther is a mover and shaker on the festival scene. His company, Walther Productions, promotes the All Good Festival, as well as other festivals and concerts in the Southeast. A self-made businessman with an ear for good music and a knack for promotion, Walther’s events are consistently among the best - well run with an ‘always interesting’ assortment of bands.

Last summer’s All Good was an exception. Not the bands mind you, they rocked. Part of the problem was the venue, Wilmer’s Park. The death of the park’s founder, Mr. Wilmer, and subsequent management changes resulted in an increased police presence. Complaints that the venue was not properly maintained were also on the rise. And then the lights came crashing down. This year’s All Good Festival is being held at a new venue, Buffalo Gap in West Virginia. "We’re excited about starting at a clean site and putting together the trash and recycling measures to keep it a clean site," says Walther. "We have a lot of room to grow here, we feel like we can camp 10,000 to 15,000 people out here. We're excited about the new site which offers a well managed mountainous environment, a swimming lake, a beach, pavilions, cabins, showers, and lots of trees. We’re excited about having a place where we can grow. We basically outgrew Wilmers Park, there was just too many people in a small space, which also leads to security issues. There’s going to be plenty of breathing room and elbow room for people to have a lot of space to do their thing."

In addition to a better setting, there will be a few other changes to insure that the festival runs smoothly. "Gates are going to open on Thursday at 4 pm," says Walther. "We want to ease the flow into the event. What we’ve found in the past is that we get a bottle neck mid afternoon on Friday, because everybody’s trying to come in at the same time. We’re opening earlier and closing later, so basically it’s a 72 hour event as opposed to a 48 hour event. We’re going to open the festival on Thursday night, with a very spiritual drum set as well as a few surprises. We’ll also have Friday morning workshops, yoga clinics, and all sorts of activities, as well as acoustic sets before and after the festival."

Although she doesn’t get a lot of recognition, Junipa of Walther Productions does a lot of the work behind the scenes and is instrumental to the overall operation. Conceptualizing and planning the festival’s various activities is one of the areas she feels most strongly about. "What we’re trying to offer, is to have the audience more interactive with the event," says Junipa. "Ways that can enrich them, so when they leave, they’re not just leaving with a T-shirt and some souvenirs, but with a tangible sense of being a part of the show, that’s why the workshops are there. That’s why the kid’s activities are going to be better, more organized and structured."

And yes, there’s going to be plenty of music too. One of the great things about these festivals is being able to check out so many new bands and different styles of music. All Good 2000 is no exception. "The thing I really like about it, is that five of the six bands that we have on Friday are all of the ‘new grass’ nature and they all have their own flavor," says Walther. "We’re going to put Lake Trout in there too, they’re gonna really break things up in a very interesting way! Saturday will be more rock and jazz. We're offering a wide range of music and what we anticipate to be some rather interesting transitions, such as Wise Monkey into Dr. Didg into Blueground and Soulive into the All Mighty Senators. We’re really excited about pairing the Disco Biscuits and moe. together to close out the music. We think the bands go along great and their fan bases are similar, yet different, but there’s some crossover there."

Sounds like a good mix. Not only musically, but overall. "We’re trying to make a place for people to come, to gather, and really feel like they’re sharing the same mind with other people, which is the love of music, the love of congregating, and having a good weekend," says Junipa. "We can sit around the fire and talk, or do drum circles, or take a walk, or congregate with other people, make new friends in different states and stuff. I think that’s really the spirit of the festival, it’s not entirely just seeing the bands play, it’s an interaction with others."