Pro Tips from the Road: Musicians Share Summer Festival Experiences

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From Umphrey's McGee keyboardist Joel Cummins to reggae upstart Collie Buddz, our panel offers tips and stories about playing the summer music festival circuit.

There’s nothing quite like being at a festival in the summertime. The feel of the sun on your skin, the sound of music, the mud- and dirt-covered clothes, the inevitable portapotty misadventure, the drunks; all of these things combine into an intoxicating stew in your brain, and it is mostly wonderful.

In spite of the sheer awesomeness inherent with playing a summer gig, there’s always bound to be a few bumps in the road and a few lessons learned. So, what is a new kid to do? Where does one drink from the Font of Mythic Gigging Knowledge?

Who knows? In fact, I’m pretty sure the Font of Mythic Gigging Knowledge was seized by the DEA. Instead, for your consideration and education, here are four professionals and their experiences playing summer festivals.

Putting the “Umph” in Umphrey’s

Joel Cummins and Umphrey’s McGee

Anyone who has been within 100 yards of any jam band-friendly festival in the United States has probably heard of Umphrey’s McGee. This legendary “improg” outfit has been blowing audiences away for almost 20 years. The band’s co-founder and keyboardist, Joel Cummins, also had some tips for aspiring musicians…sort of…

If I gave away the tips, we might lose gigs so I’ve got to keep those to myself.

Seriously though, he did actually have some useful advice:

The best thing you can do to get invited to a festival is selling out shows so the promoter of the event sees that your fans actually exist and will come out to a show if they book you. If you’re able to get the gig via a friend or connection, you better make sure you actually have fans that will show up or it may make you look worse in the end.

Taking a moment to reminisce, Joel remembered the first time he hit the summer festival circuit.

Our first festival we played was High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy, California. We routed a six week West coast tour around that event and camped out for four nights at High Sierra. It was mind-blowing and I witnessed a couple incredible performances, including Bela Fleck & the Flecktones.

He also had some advice about how to raise the odds of getting invited back.

For your first festival performance you want to play your strongest material. Most importantly, practice as a group together. Musically, you have to make a statement. Also, make sure you show up on time and that you get your gear off stage quickly, and always introduce yourselves to the house crew and thank them afterward. They may not remember if you were nice to them down the road, but they will remember if you were a jerk.

So what, pray, would this multi-decade veteran have to say is the craziest thing that happened to him during a summer show?

I can’t possibly share the craziest thing that has happened during summer touring, there are some things for which you have to say that ‘you had to be there.’

...Come on, Joel. You’re leaving us hanging!

Never Say McNevan

Trevor McNevan and Thousand Foot Krutch

Trevor McNevan, frontman for the rock band Thousand Foot Krutch is no stranger to playing summer gigs. TFK has been marching towards stardom with their records, OXYGEN:INHALE, The End Is Where We Begin and Metamorphosiz II The End Remixes Vol. 1 & 2, and several of their songs being used at major sporting events, in commercials, and on video games. Trevor has found playing to a bigger audience goes hand in hand with having more fun.

[Large festivals] are unique in the sense that it gives everyone a chance to connect with a new audience, while also getting to connect with longtime friends [and] fans. Plus, it’s a great way to catch up with other ‘rock ’n’ roll family’—and who can beat live music outdoors in the summer?!!

Connecting with his audience is a big part of playing a Thousand Foot Krutch show. Trevor talked about locking in with festival goers.

[Playing] summer fests are different in the sense that everyone there is there to see a handful of specific bands, has a lot of options, and has to be either intentional about choosing to see your set, or might just be walking by to another show and stopped to check it out. Whether it’s on or off stage, we love connecting with everyone, and strive to not let the stage separate us. We’re all there to share music/passion and connect with one another.

Having cut his teeth with summer gigs, Trevor shared one of his happiest realizations on the road.

When I was 16 years old, I remember having to forfeit going to the only big rock festival in our area, to work shifts at McDonald’s to help pay for my album. I recently had a ‘wow moment’—here I am years later, standing side stage watching those same great bands I grew up on, sharing the stage together. So thankful and blessed!

Seven Little Birds

Arleigh Kincheloe of Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds

The smoky, soulful singing of Arleigh Kincheloe has helped her put her band, Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds (Photo: Aviva Klein), on the map. A stirring blend of blues, soul, and funk has earned a strong fan base, and with a new album release around the corner, Arleigh is preparing for another summer festival season. She talked about playing an outdoor festivals versus indoor shows.

I love keeping the balance between club shows and festivals gigs. But in the summertime, it's hard not to want to spend most of our time outside. Festivals are just so positive and fun all around, and getting to spend the summer days and nights outside in that setting is absolutely incredible.

When she’s not wowing crowds on stage, she revealed that she loves being a part of the audience as much as she loves entertaining.

My favorite way to connect with fans at a festival is to become one. It's one of the best parts of getting to play festivals—that we get to watch a lot of the music. I like telling the fans from the stage that I'll be joining them in the pit after the show. At the end of the day I'm a huge music fan and I feel lucky to get to experience shows as well as perform them.

Festivals aren’t always only peace and light though. She recalled how the summer sun proved too much for one overzealous concert goer.

Once a crazed fan bum-rushed the stage and started bear-hugging my brother during one of his solos. He shook her off and kept playing. It was amazing. And a little scary.

Fresh Buddz

Collie Buddz

With a reggae-soaked hip-hop vibe, Collie Buddz is a hit both on the road and in the clubs. A self-made success, Buddz uses the sounds of Bermudianreggae as a foundation for his work. We asked if he had any tips for other young musicians who want to play the summer festival circuit. Drawing on his own experiences, he was realistic.

[There is] no sure shot way of doing any of this but I would say it is important to play local spots, and generate a strong following in the area that the festival happens in.

Once a band has built that following and gotten into a festival, Buddz offered another piece of critical and pragmatic advice.

First and foremost, prepare and practice your set so you are ready come game day. Also, make sure that you properly advance the show so you know exactly what to expect logistically and equipment wise.

Got some advice or experience playing or attending summer festivals? Offer your nuggets of wisdom in the comments below!

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