Golden West Festival experiment a success

BISON Golden West Music Festival Edmonton GigCity

BISON plays the third and final Golden West Music Festival

Just when the Golden West Music Festival has become a viable “thing,” yet another music festival, but one to get away from all the other music festivals, organizers are pulling the plug.

The third and last annual event happens July 31-Aug. 2 near the hamlet of Ardmore, Alberta, on a farm owned by Kevin Bowman, friend of local journalist and artist Fish Griwkowsky. They’re both part of a team of Edmonton artists behind the event. Some are so enthusiastic they got “Golden West” tattoos on their arms.

Like a cross between Burning Man, where large wooden sculptures are set afire, and the North Country Fair, where cool bands play, Golden West draws some of the finest in indie music groups around. On stage this year will be an eclectic range from BISON (a heavy metal band) to the Wet Secrets (a new wave marching band), the rapper Mitchmatic, the funky BeBop Cortez, Saskatoon psychedelics Shooting Guns, and singer-songwriters like Jom Comyn, plus many more. From Friday at 9 om, bands play all day and night, into the wee hours. Everything is BYO – water, food, booze, camping gear, etc. Passes are $100, camping included. Here’s the map. Festival goes are encouraged to “party hard, but safe!”

And then that’s it. Three years and they’re done.

Turns out that was the plan all along.

Don't walk in the fire

Don’t walk in the fire

“The whole thing was an experiment,” says Griwkowsky, who’s covered area festivals for both daily newspapers for decades, and finally decided to see what it was like on the other side of the fence. “More than experiment. The whole thing was a party. We should’ve called it the Golden West Music Party. I don’t want to say the word festival has a stigma, but isn’t the point of a festival to live forever and get larger and larger every year? I would say from many years experience dealing with festivals, one of the things I’ve really disliked about them is that they’re way too big, gotten too complicated, have too many rules, too many fences, and people get kind of bored by them.”

So the question of “can we throw a party bigger than we’ve ever thrown before?” has been answered. Yes. Yes they can. Besides, each of the members of the We Are the Golden West art collective have careers, projects, jobs, other things to do. None of them are professional festival organizers, and when you consider that they broke even on the last two years – give or take a few cases of beer – they sure did better than other short-lived music festivals we don’t need to mention.

The learning curve was steep. One of the biggest lessons festival producers learn is how you have to care of festival-goers as if they were children. Because there’s almost always going to be that one guy who does something stupid – and then you have to make another rule. (Has anyone actually seen a fan at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival wearing a native headdress? Not anymore: They’re banned.)

Golden West Music Festival GigCity Edmonton

Into the wee hours

There was an “incident” at a previous Golden West, Griwkowsky reports: “A ghost told a guy to walk across the fire pit the next day after we had one of our big bonfires, and he kind of melted his feet.” He only went to the hospital after the festival was over. “We chastised him, but there was really nothing we could’ve done about it. So the next day, we put a small fence around the ashes.”

The more people come, the more stupid incidents happen, the more fences and rules there will be. That was part of the original complaint about festivals.

Also, running a festival, even one called a “party,” is a lot of work. The Golden Westers aren’t throwing the party just for themselves. “It’s for everybody,” says Griwkowsky, who has to remain more vigilant than usual during the event.

“I’m a notorious party animal,” he says, “but I have to remain straight and conscious like a hawk the whole time. But I dig that energy. I like it. It’s fun. I love setting up a party, setting up a world for people to explore, art in the woods. We just wanted to throw a huge awesome party the scale of which we’d never done before.”

So call this experiment a success – but more “study” may be needed.