BerkFest Notebook: a neo-hippie nirvana [an error occurred while processing this directive]
Scenes from a neo-hippie heaven (BerkFest, Aug. 9-11, 2002)

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., August 11, 2002) – Walking the grounds of the Berkshire Mountain Music Festival at Butternut Basin Ski Area was like stepping into a time machine and coming out in another time and place. You were no longer in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, or even New England. You were in neo-hippie heaven, where almost everyone looked the same and dressed the same.

About 8,000 people, mostly late-teens and twenty-somethings with long hair, multiple facial and body piercings, and ecstatic looks on their faces, wandered the grounds of Butternut over the past weekend, girls in halter tops and shorts, boys in T-shirts or no-shirts and short, baggy pants below the knees.

You could be forgiven for momentarily forgetting what year it was. With all the trappings of hippie culture in evidence, it could have been 1967 or 1972: frisbees sailed through the air, whirling dervishes twirled hula hoops around their midsections, soap bubbles floated above the crowd baking on the hillside in the summer sun.

A walk through the arts and crafts vendors’ midway was filled with signposts of leftover hippie culture. Items for sale included macrame, incense, burlap purses, silkscreen wall-hangings, custom-made hand drums, faux-African wooden carved figures (made in Indonesia), Buddhas, beaded necklaces and bracelets, available with or without happy faces or peace signs.

Shops had names like “Into the Mystik,” “Built Too Last: Beads, Hemp and Glass,” and “Go Ask Alice” – a bit of Lewis Carroll by way of the Jefferson Airplane. A well-worn copy of “Love Is in the Earth: A Kaleidoscope of Crystals,” a reference book “describing the metaphysical properties of the mineral kingdom” according to its jacket copy, sat abandoned on a lawn chair. Signs indicating the acceptance of Visa, Mastercard, Discover and Amex seemed oddly out of place in this bazaar of Sixties relics.

Eric Johnson is a veteran concert vendor, at age 50 old enough to be father to most of the concertgoers and probably most of his fellow vendors. In the business since the 1970s, he has a store in Harvard Square in Cambridge – Mi Casa: Your Home Away from Tour – but he is most at home on the road. He used to travel with the Grateful Dead, and then with the band Phish when the Dead broke up.

Johnson has seen it all and then some, but he thinks BerkFest does things right. It runs smoothly enough for him to have brought his two young children. He notes that festivals boost local economies like Great Barrington’s. “Every one of these vendors dropped between two- and five-hundred dollars on camping equipment and supplies before we even got to the site,” he said. He thinks the local Boy Scouts should make a point of gathering up the recyclables left behind – “There’s hundreds of dollars to be made,” he said.

When she was a teen-ager growing up in New York City, Ariel Hyatt had to be dragged kicking and screaming on weekends up to her family’s country home in the Berkshires. Now, the 31-year-old music publicist represents bands like Particle and the Aaron Katz Band, both of which played BerkFest, and she loves to play the role of native host to her friends and business associates behind the scenes in the artist’s hospitality tent at BerkFest.

“Now with BerkFest and Club Helsinki, there’s a reason for people like me to come up here to the Berkshires,” said Hyatt, who was actually born in Pittsfield. At her fourth jam-band festival this summer, Hyatt, whose parents now live in Stockbridge and whose grandparents owned Hyatt Hardware in Lee, said, “Now I don’t have to explain to people where Stockbridge is any more – I just say, ‘near BerkFest,’ and they know what I mean.”

A sound engineer with a boom mike had a hard time keeping up with Lenox native John Dovydenas, who was ubiquitous throughout the festival grounds over the course of the weekend, peering out from behind his hand-held movie camera. Now an independent filmmaker, the alumnus of Lenox High and the Art Institute of Chicago was shooting a cinema verite-style documentary at the behest of the promoters. Dovydenas didn’t have to do much more than point his camera at someone to get a reaction shot. His film won’t be a typical concert film, but instead it will focus on “the social aspects of the festival.” Coming soon to a theater near you: “BerkFest: The Movie.”

No, those were not the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on horseback. There were, however, over a dozen employees of Alpha Omega Security, security officers on horseback whose presence all over the festival grounds seemed in keeping with the laid-back, back-to-nature feel of the festival (as opposed to those intimidating men in blue with badges and holstered weapons hovering in pairs and larger groups).

From atop her steed, Laurie Loughan, 28, a native of Plattsburgh, N.Y., said BerkFest was just one of 20 festivals she was working this summer. BerkFest, she said, was “a typical orderly concert – festivals where we’re present seem to be the most orderly.” She was sure the horses like the music, too.

Scenes you definitely would not have seen in 1972 included people walking around carrying boomboxes playing music, concertgoers roaming the grounds trying to find a spot where their cellphones would work (and where it was quiet enough to hear the person on the other end), and digital cameras capturing images which would be instantly posted to websites around the world. Also, plenty of people were recording the music on portable digital recorders. By the time you read this, much of BerkFest will be available in the form of digital MP3s which can be downloaded from the Internet.

The jam-band scene was quite a stark leap from the sophisticated, European jazz cabarets where Elizabeth Conant was performing just last week. The Saratoga native, a jazz singer and radio host who now calls Chicago home, was at BerkFest with her husband, Fareed Haque, a tenured professor of music at Northern Illinois State University and a jazz guitarist who also happens to be a member of Garaj Mahal, a band of highly-pedigreed jazz musicians who are crossing over into the jam-band scene, and who performed on the Hillside Stage on Saturday afternoon.

“I remember skiiing here as a kid,” said Conant, 39. “This is my first festival. It’s a very different scene from what we’re used to.” She assured a concertgoer that her husband, looking determined onstage to play as many notes as possible in the shortest amount of time, was enjoying being there more than he might let on.

Benjamin Bruce, 25, was attending BerkFest in his capacity as an editorial assistant at Relix magazine, the house organ of the jam-band scene. The Greenwich, Conn., native had already been to four big jam-band festivals this summer, including the mother of them all, Bonaroo, in Manchester, Tenn., where for three days in late June the tiny town played host to 75,000 concertgoers.

The beaming face of the late Jerry Garcia -- the founding guitarist/vocalist of the Grateful Dead who hovers over the entire grassroots scene as the godfather of groove -- adorns the cover of the August-September issue of Relix, free copies of which Bruce was handing out at BerkFest. “Ninety-eight percent of the fans are listening to the Dead on the way here,” said Bruce, “and most bands pattern themselves after the Grateful Dead.”

In keeping with Sixties culture, there was some naïve politicking from the stage. In an otherwise enjoyable performance, Michael Franti introduced his song “Power to the Peaceful,” by mocking President Bush’s war against terrorism. “All bombing is terrorism,” said Franti, adding that “we shouldn’t be engaging in a war against terrorism, we should be engaging in a war against militarism.” He didn’t explain just how one would go about that.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 12, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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