I could be wrong about everything you are about to read. If I am, this blog doesn’t get any better.
Normally, I hate music festivals and even took the trivial time to write an opinion piece about how much I hate them. But with a lineup consisting of some great punk bands, new and old, Riot Fest, Denver sounded like a great, nostalgic time. With the festival expanding to Colorado and Toronto this year, these sounded like better locations then, let’s say, Palm Springs is for a festival. It even seemed worth it to fly out to Colorado from San Francisco just for the weekend. Then, late September happened. Colorado has been no stranger to severe weather this past week. From severe thunderstorms and flooding, it makes someone like me happy to live in a state like California. Rain or shine, the Riot Fest was scheduled to continue. To sum up how the weather affected the festival (and since this is not a narrative about my weekend,) if you have been paying attention to the flooding, the festival was postponed Sunday for over two hours because of a severe thunderstorm. Bands eventually performed with shortened set lists. It was during this whole fiasco that I realized how unprepared the organizers of Riot Fest: Denver, were for weather problems and arranging a festival all together. I camped the weekend, so this is from the perspective of just some silly camper.
The festival was held on a giant stretch of land known as May Farms, owned by Gary May, and it is located in the small town of Byers, which by the way, has some of the nicest people you can hope to meet. One of the liquor store clerks I met mentioned that holding this festival in their small town, according to May, was supposed to put their small town on the map. It sounded logical. Nothing like bringing in a few drunken idiots to put some revenue into your small town. And that’s where some of the problems started. In my opinion, Mr. May did not realize what he was getting himself into. You have punk music, you have drunk people and you’re charging over $130 to camp and park; you’re going to piss people off. Not to mention a last minute booze itinerary list change of what campers can bring in caused some confusion. Refusing to purchase beers at $7 a pop, my girlfriend and I would drive to local liquor stores to buy our own case of beer. According to the liquor store owner I met, (whom I’m leaving her name and store name out of) it was not well communicated between liquor store owners and the festival organizers about what type of booze is allowed to be brought in and as a result, you have glass bottles and wine coolers being dumped at the campground check-in grounds. Also, liquor store owners couldn’t warn booze purchasers that no glass bottles, liquor or wine wasn’t allowed in because they found out from the attendees the day of. This was not well communicated to the festival attendants either until about a few days before the festival, so for all we know, our booze was being stored in May’s private farm barn. However, if you worked the festival, it was no problem to bring in glass bottles of tequila.
The results? A bunch of pissed off, drunken campers. Aside from the people working the small general store, the staff did jack to provide assistance. They were virtually ghosts unless it involved dumping booze in a trash can. You don’t really expect much when you’re camping, but you can tell that the festival was rushed into formation and the staff didn’t know how to handle a festival crowd. I have snuck in festivals before, but this was way too easy. I don’t know if the staff was too focused on enforcing the “no outside food or drink policy” but myself, and people who clearly didn’t purchase the tickets, were hopping fences to get in. That’s how I got my outside beer in.
I don’t want to rip on the staff too much; they were enforcing a set of unclear rules from an oblivious person. My girlfriend and I drove around the town of Byers in between bands and had the privilege of meeting the great people of the town, but also learning how some of the townsfolk were up in arms about the festival. Oh, the reason we drove around was out of boredom. Aside from overly expensive carnival games, people were lying around out of boredom because the festival provided nothing to do. If I’m dishing out cash for the festival itself, I don’t want to pay extra money to ride a ferris wheel. Take notes from Coachella. But one thing we learned from the townsfolk is that their local firefighters had to also work the festival, as volunteers, and unpaid. They were not well equipped with a medical staff, so they were borrowing from the town without bothering to pay them. Keep in mind, this is just what I heard from local liquor store owners and farmers. I don’t know how accurate it is. Being unpaid was the theme for this festival. I got two free beers from the beer vendors because I tipped three bucks. What the bartender said is that the festival is NOT paying them hourly and they are solely paid from tips. Which sucks, because with how expensive beers were, it was not likely you were going to tip. They were getting screwed. Speaking of beer vendors, work on what you have to offer for beer Mr. May. Every festival I’ve been to has some decent choices. An IPA and a Pabst should both not be $7. But hey, your land virtually was destroyed by this festival, so what do I care. Here is a pretty good list about what did and did not work at Riot Fest, Denver if you want to check it out.
Then, alas, came day two. It was pretty sunny until about 5 pm, when Public Enemy performed.
After their set, the rain started coming down hard. The rain and shine festival soon turned into an emergency evacuation. Over loud speakers we heard that the weather was going to be severe and to seek shelter. We packed up our tent and bolted to our car. It was unclear what we were supposed to do at this point so everyone in the parking lot just honked their horns, and were being loud, making the best out of a seemingly dangerous situation.
This too, was another point in the weekend that made the festival appear unprepared. In an article published by The Denver Post, Lt. Chris George of the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Department was quoted saying “We had an emergency plan prepared, and put that plan in place in cooperation with Riot Fest.” I’m not sure what this emergency plan was because it did not appear there really was one.
87 were taken by bus to Byers High School for shelter. Which is great, but this sounds like a Titanic-type of situation. There were thousands of attendees and campers and only 87 were evacuated. Great emergency plan. Look, my opinion on this whole situation, for all I know, is misguided and completely false. I don’t want to take a shit on the Sheriff’s Department or anyone else (too much at least.) I’m just thinking out loud.
The real emergency plan appeared to be every man for themselves and go hide in your car, which for the record, is a pretty safe place to hide during thunder and lightning storms. So I guess their plan was great. Besides close lightning strikes and loud thunder, the storm never got much worst. If it did, I’m really curious how they would have handled it. That’s a lot of people to evacuate and there was no staff or medical presence before or after the storm. If their plan was to have the crowds of people drive away from May Farms before the severe part of the storm hit, that is a dangerous idea. Aside from the fact traffic in and out of that place is a nightmare and the main highway is only two lanes, everyone has been drinking. The people we were hiding out next to and ourselves were discussing how dangerous this night could get if it was decided to have everyone leave on their own. They would have been sending out drunk drivers in a storm. It almost sounds like an ethics question really: “Would you send out a drunk driver to drive away from a hurricane if it meant that was their only option to be safe?”
We never received an “ok” to return to the festival 2 hours after and it was obvious, we were all on our own. We were left out of the loop with information about the storm and festival; most of us just followed weather patterns on our phones to put it all together. We all sort of guessed when it was safe to return to the festival. To justify charging us full price, we saw the remaining bands for the day play for about 20 minutes instead of the scheduled hour. It is better than nothing I supposed and to give credit where credit is due, many of the bands were fantastic live. Against Me! primarily.
We slept in our car that night and planned on leaving early Monday morning. It rained all night and the patch that was once a dirt parking lot, turned into an ocean of mud. Anyone who attempted to drive that did not have a truck or jeep, were stuck. Words can’t explain how much of a shit show this mud grave of cars looked like. It looked like a scene after a huge weather disaster. People were stuck left and right and it was every man for themselves. Once word got out that no one was getting out, the festival organizers quickly arranged for help to come. Just kidding, they weren’t around and when the one staff member I saw drive by, they turned the other cheek. Maybe we should have given them a bottle of wine to dump out first.
Everyone called their own tow trucks, but with the serious flooding and how many distress calls of being at the mercy of mud AAA was receiving, no one was coming for at least 2 hours minimum. We were on our own. Strangers soon became our best friends. We helped one couple push their car all the way to stronger ground and the favor was reversed. Two hours later, we made it out of the mud. Driving out of the exit, it was desolate with the exception of other cars being stuck. Staff remained a ghost and it as corny as it sounds, it was a sad and lonely scene. All these cars trapped with people getting dirtied up in the cold rain trying to push them all the way to the exit. No help came nor was given, except the assistance between festival attendants. I feel lucky that my girlfriend and I met this guy, Nick whom we helped. Otherwise, I’d be writing this blog from Denver International. No help came nor was given, except the assistance between festival attendants.
I learned from AAA that they were working with the actual county to send in help for everyone that was stranded. If this was a result of festival organizers assisting to help, then the only thing they really had to work on was relaying information better. I’m probably just a whiner about this whole scenario, but when you hear from other townsfolk about how unprepared their town was for this festival, it makes sense. They were a bunch of chickens with their heads cut off when it came to handling a large group of people. If the storm got worst, I’m really curious how that would have turned out.
On a positive note, the bands kicked ass and I hope Riot Fest continues expanding to various locations. Their lineups are awesome and I’d even go to the Byers location again. If they learn from the mistakes of this past year, it has potential to be something great in years to come.