Step On’s Dave & our great friend, in a lovely composed shot by the porta-potties. Note: Watchmen t-shirt. Eden Music Fest, July 1996
Step On’s Dave & our great friend, in a lovely composed shot by the porta-potties. Note: Watchmen t-shirt. Eden Music Fest, July 1996

As organizers of Bonnaroo (partnered with Republic Live) recently announced a multi-day camping music festival near Barrie, Ontario planned for summer 2015, it’s a good time to reflect on Eden Music Fest, Ontario’s first and only Alternative camping music festival back in 1996. The official Eden Fest story is one of massive marketing and financial failures, symbolized by a TV news clip of an unplanned bonfire.

A recent Aux.tv piece decided to revisit the largely forgotten Eden Fest’s after-the-fact microfiche news clippings and spin a story with a headline promising a “meltdown” that is a clickbait fantasy of “FBI raids, headliner no-shows (and) garbage fires” insisting that “there’s no other way to remember Eden Fest but as an abject failure” and “hopefully…an isolated case study about completely fucking up a music festival”.  If it was non-violent (and it was – 50,000 people for 4 days with minimal security controls and no serious incidents) it must be because the crowd was “mostly sedate” not, say, because they were happy and the site and program was impressively well-run.

Hey, fellow 35, 40, 50 year old music lovers. Here we sit. Writers like the author of the Aux.tv piece would have us accept that the 90’s optimism we knew is a silly faded dream in 2015, mired as they would like us to be in the Millennial – voiced muck of snark disguised as journalism. How to get out of it? It helps to have our own forum to state that there is more than one way to remember Eden Fest, thank you very much. Anyone purporting to dictate the only way a community may collectively or individually remember something, needs to sit down. Hard. On the festival ground. Preferably not one we’re at.

Just how keen were we? Ticket #352 of many thousands! Eden Music Fest ticket stub, 1996
Just how keen were we? Ticket #352 of many thousands! Eden Music Fest ticket stub, 1996

For our generation of young fans, Eden Fest was indeed idyllic: beautiful, successful and formative, with a stellar line up, the promise of a new era to come to our region, and lifetime memories that are both cherished and overwhelmingly positive. The major news clippings of the weekend agree and rebuke revisionist history. Step On’s two founders were there, at the start of a now 20-odd year relationship, along with 8 of our lifelong friends, and we formed many great memories that, while scarce photos exist from the nifty disposable panoramic camera we carried, are as cherished as those overpriced weddings in those dusty albums we’re told we need.

Eden Fest was the first of its kind and the earliest (by a lot) in North America. It was messy, innovative and cool. It was a lot of fun and non-violent. Contrast this peaceful “total failure” to the terrible, unfortunate Woodstock ’99 where there were shockingly,  at least two rapes reported in the crowd, in broad daylight. The Eden vision held the promise of iconic U.K festivals and its unlikely and yet perfect home was an old race track out in the country. Whatever its promoter’s later failings would prove to be, this idea was borne by a true visionary. This was a miracle. Like any real, memorable experience, like life itself, it was a flawed beauty.

True, as our de facto leaders at CFNY, led by  Alan Cross, hyped this huge event, and were the central source of news and rumour for daily listeners, the much hyped mystery headliner  was blown up for months. It should be stressed that while easy to pick at through the shitty lens of a smart phone-wielding critic today, our direct experience was that this was a minor point leading up to the event, and fairly unnecessary for its success. No one was going to make this camping trip just for that one band, no matter who it was. Not with the lineup that was already confirmed.

By Saturday, it was clear that the mystery was over. While a few, including on-stage MC’s, kept floating rumours such as a dressing room door with “Green Day” written on it, which had also been the main rumour floated on the radio, there was no mystery headliner. We didn’t care. As stated in the clipping attached we “wouldn’t mind if The Hip just played again!” There were other, far more minor glitches and inconveniences that resonated more:: ice cold pay showers that are remembered as horribly funny all these years later; ALL the bank machines ran out of money, food options were mediocre. We hadn’t even heard of shwarma in these parts yet, people! By Sunday, the promoters cut off alcohol sales, in responsible anticipation of unhappy crowd responses to their “secret headliner” blunder. This became an in-joke about over-reaching future festivals. Nothing more.

What there was, instead, was an amazing system of shuttle buses that would take festival goers to and from their cars in the nearby parking lot and the festival grounds, a very nice touch that allowed easy set up for camping as well as memorable tailgate parties at times such as 9:30 am on Friday for pre-gaming at its very best. The camping was a casual set up set around the hillside perimeter of the main stage grounds, and most could hear if not see the action on one of the two stages from there. Our group went to bed among a few other keeners all set up on Thursday night ahead of the fest, to awaken to the surprise of a field of tents that sprouted like mushrooms overnight. Friends found each other via a centrally located bulletin board, and it all worked out. No cell phones. No panic. No angry twittering @EdenFest about any and all grievances.

Friends at camp site, a.m., on the legendary folding chairs that made the TV news. Eden Music Fest, 1996
Friends at camp site, a.m., on the legendary folding chairs that made the TV news. Eden Music Fest, July 1996

Security was minimal. Freedom was possible. Adults were allowed to walk without installation of false barriers, at their own risk of sharing a cup of beer with an under-19 friend, or over-serving themselves. Or, worse, of spilling it down the hillside. In the case of my group, my boyfriend and our 18 year old friend (at what might have been his first ever real “concert”) in a fit of drunken bravado, heisted my most treasured item of the weekend, a smuggled one-liter Evian bottle full of boxed white wine, then made off with it to watch The Cure without me like the pirates they were, to resurface in our tent sheepishly, many hours later to a chilly reception. It must have been the first and last time the guys whetted their palate with Chardonnay, and no doubt Robert Smith would have seen it as a page out of his personal playbook. We laughed about it the next day, and still do.

When the Aux.tv piece did wade into  interpretation of the festival itself, it’s analysis was utterly confused. Was it a “mediocre” line up or a “perfect snapshot of 1996”? Or did this Oracle of a writer just dismiss an entire era of music with those few clicks, like the careless do, so carelessly,  today? Was he even sentient in 1996? Does he know what the fuck he’s talking about?

Eden Music Fest Official Festival Guide - note who's FIRST on the picture!
Eden Music Fest Official Festival Guide – note who’s FIRST on the picture!

The lineup was, in fact,  an impressive mix of top U.S. acts of the day (Live, Goo Goo Dolls) Modern Rock icons at peak performance that still headline to great acclaim today (The Cure) who after more than 30 years in the game have just headlined 2014’s Toronto Riot Fest with one hand tied behind their back, and monsters of that moment, Bush. Along with the strong international bill were impressive Canadian stars who held their own: The Tragically Hip, The Watchmen, Sloan, and Spirit of the West to name a few highlights. There were alternative chart toppers from the late 80’s and mid-90’s with name recognition, and hits,  like Everclear, and some serious, untouchable cred: Love and Rockets and the forever under-appreciated, iconic, Catherine Wheel. All of these bands cited did killer shows. We got our money’s worth many, many times over.

Significantly, great Canadian artists on the bill were held up alongside the U.K. and U.S. ones in promotion, billing and support, as was right. The crowd size for The Cure, The Hip, Bush, The Watchmen and Porno for Pyros was the same and was true blue. Canada’s culture was moving out of its musical inferiority complex. If anyone who wasn’t there wants to know how special, diverse and unusual this lineup was, a review of the first 15 years of The Cure’s work, some time with trailblazers Catherine Wheel, and a revisit to the underrated Watchmen might be useful. Better yet, seek them out live if you can.

Miraculously, an attendee says that while food was expensive, some food vendors gave people breaks. Maybe it was Eden! Eden Music Fest, 1996
Eden Fest news clipping of July 13. 1996. Miraculously, an attendee says that while food was expensive, some food vendors gave people breaks. Maybe it was Eden! Another wouldn’t mind if the secret headliner was the Hip again. Eden Music Fest, July 1996

Perry Ferrell played with his then newly-formed Porno for Pyros on a break from Alternative Gods Jane’s Addiction, and so Eden Fest boasted the granddaddy of all modern North American music festivals on the bill. Just 5 years prior, Ferrell had created Lollapalooza, no doubt in resistance to blank banker stares and furious banging of calculator keys. He wanted alternative acrobats, tattoos on demand, and great food offered at a special place where fans would “take off the whole day” in the middle of the work week. For the single-day Lollapalooza ’95, he would return to a race track venue similar to Eden Fest, north of Toronto. Ferrell built all this with vision and an unsinkable spirit evident in the success of North American festivals today.

Eden Fest was culturally significant. It occurred at a pivotal time in Canadian music just before the digital era would bring sea change and stresses on the healthy industry enjoyed by so many artists, media outlets, and fans in large Canadian cities, as well as those more remote outposts. We had national pride in our own formidable musical talents that was strong and well-supported.

In that pre-tweet era, people didn’t stop long enough to complain, to snark, or to document. Yes, it was rosy. Deal with it, Millennial writers. It was better then. We experienced the moment, in a way rarely possible today without both dedication and a cell tower or Wi-Fi dead zone. The very climate of shared experiences, reporting and moods in ‘96 was something that grew organically and legitimately. Events of the pre-digital era could just happen without cynical scrutiny or the rigor of constant, too often unconsidered, inconsiderate feedback. Can you picture that?

Oh, and, The weather was perfect, something totally beyond the control of organizers but an aspect that can be make or break for campers & festival experiences in general. Especially 20 year olds who’ve taken 4 days off their crappy low-paying jobs and are spending most of their net worth on a trip like this.

As in the ‘90’s, and with effort, at great festivals even now, hype becomes noise and quality finds its own level free of barriers. Out in the country, fires are pretty normal and usually legal ways to dispose of garbage. Garbage fires are hardly the headline this effort deserved then, or now. As expected, the little snippet of mainstream TV news that survived that weekend missed the story. That reporting didn’t earn the right to know, or get off the couch and participate.

We left mid-afternoon on the Sunday for the drive back, arriving home to see the brief TV coverage of our Eden. There went my Dad’s two Canadian Tire folding lawn chairs, thrown by some kids onto a bonfire. I covered up this transgression for years, the only casualties of an otherwise shimmering memory. The positive story would only change when finances were analyzed later, and Eden Fest did not become the first of many. Are we all accountants now? Are we Victorians, easily shocked and fingers wagging as people are dragged off to debtor’s prison? Or are we fans, artists, reporters, photographers, vendors and Modern Music lovers?

Even those of us who were there and have experienced the same joy at many other festivals have changed. It’s an effort to dial it back, and it’s important to try. It’s important to mute the naysayers, especially the loudest nays of all from those who call themselves journalists, but who have no fire for music in their belly, who contribute nothing to the crowd and the reporting, and who really, really should just stay home, losing any strength they might have once had in their spines from reclining in detached malaise, and who are much happier playing Candy Crush on their phones with all the energy their thumb can muster.

20 years on, we kids are still waiting for Eden to return to Ontario. Big promoters have come and some have gone, proving that no amount of money or infrastructure can guarantee a smooth ride around the necessary bylaws, regulations, border issues, and pockets of residents less than friendly to the process. The business acumen, vision and artistry required to pull groundbreaking new festivals off is nothing less than alchemy. Anyone brave enough to try deserves the full force of the Canadian media’s support and for the fans to break our new habits.

To reframe this story in big picture terms, the group behind this new initiative is Republic Live Inc., who originated and run the Boots and Hearts Music Festival, the annual, multi-day Country Music camping festival now in its third year which has asserted its place in a few short years as a major player in delivering an impressive fan experience: a well-run and well-attended smash festival. They bring in serious headliners to a little spot north of Barrie, Ontario, a site that just happens to be the same one of their “Bonnaroo” (now rumoured to be called “Way Home Festival”). With roots in Ontario and Nashville, the Republic/Bonnaroo connection becomes clearer, as does the immense summertime, tourism, cultural and historic benefit being created for Toronto itself and the surrounding areas this summer.

Riot Fest, Virgin Music Festival, and Montreal’s Heavy MTL & Osheaga have, lately, moved us forward in leaps from 1996. As the devoted will tell you, their wallets and 2015 summer schedules are already being tested with so much they long to experience. This extends to Americans along the Border States who can and, impressively, will, make the trip north to us that is much easier to swing than Chicago or Indio, California, or Manchester, Tennessee, not to mention, more affordable and less full of the hype and celebrities that seem to threaten to overtake Coachella & Glasto (or are reported as such).

"I've had more trouble getting to church on Sunday morning" quoth Durham Police Sgt. on the good behaviour of this crowd.
“I’ve had more trouble getting to church on Sunday morning” quote Durham Police Sgt. on the good behaviour of this crowd.

Eden Fest fans have watched all of these changes & developments with interest and hope. Those who attended in ‘96 are older, have more money, maturity, goodwill and enthusiasm enough to embrace this again. This generation has the calculator now, along with the passion formed in the idealistic ‘90’s. The chance to fulfill the promise of Eden ought to be embraced wholly and with some 90’s style optimism. It takes a little digging for those that don’t remember.

Fans cherish Eden Fest’s lost promise because it was believed then to be the first in a long tradition. The astounding news that something akin to the mighty Bonnaroo is coming here means, essentially, that this thwarted promise can be realized and has real potential to be EPIC. It’s finally time to dig out the old authentic rock t-shirts, for those who have them. For those that long for that authenticity, something so rare and challenged by certain media and social network voices that want to hate, snark, and deflate, go ahead and get those 90’s rock shirts on Ebay. Someone else loved them and wore them in, outgrew or forgot their meaning, and they can be yours. Fans of any age will innovate, go analog, skip a shower, and hope for lost cell service because as Eden Fest-goers know, there’s another and better way for friends to find each other.

We're not unhappy, just unshowered. The guys and Step On's Jackie at Eden Music Fest, July 1996.
We’re not unhappy, just unshowered and hungover. The guys and Step On’s Jackie at Eden Music Fest, July 1996. Taken with disposable camera set to “Panoramic” oh yes. (It was also a banner time for the Leafs, note the t-shirt).

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Our Bonnaroo (by any name) rumoured to be called “Way Home Festival” is scheduled July 24-26, 2015, at Burl’s Creek Event Grounds.

Step On Magazine will be following the story and related news as part of our scope of coverage of major festivals in Toronto/Ontario, Montreal and Internationally.

Indie 88 is the source of note for all the major news (and exclusives) to date re: “Way Home Festival” so they are the key source for that information. Thank you,  Indie 88 for hoisting the flag and for leading the way!

Indie 88 coverage on the Bonnaroo-affiliated summer music festival: here and here.

By Jacqueline Howell

2 COMMENTS

  1. I went to Eden and enjoyed ever minute of it. It is the only camping concert I’ve been to, actually. Still have the Tshirt. Thanks for the great article!

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