People go to music festivals to people-watch. They go to be watched. They go to be out of town. They go to take drugs and be nuts and have sex with strangers, and they go to tell people afterward that they were there, being watched and taking drugs and being nuts and having sex with strangers.
People do not go to music festivals, as a rule, to be introduced to musical acts they’ve never heard of.
Fortunately for open-minded fans, WMNF’s Tropical Heatwave has been breaking that particular rule for more than 30 years.
“It’s got a tradition of turning people on to new bands,” says ’MNF Program Director Randy Wynne. “The idea is to keep it fresh, with a lot of new bands that people will be discovering. That’s sort of the expectation for Heatwave, that it doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of the bands — you’re going to discover something you like by the end.”
The freaky-lefty community radio station’s big annual benefit has grown steadily since its modest early days as a showcase for largely homegrown talent, and is now a bona fide institution — one that’s still vibrant and developing, as opposed to frozen in a form long past its sell-by date. But by ignoring the dogma of festivals that need to attract tens of thousands of patrons just to survive, WMNF and Heatwave have created something that neatly fills a comparably vacant niche: that of the music festival for fans looking and listening for stuff they haven’t heard before.
“It’s become a destination event,” says WMNF Music Director Lee “Flee” Courtney. “People come in from out of town for the weekend.”
One of the main reasons for expanding Heatwave this year is its emerging status as a magnet for fans of blues, roots, alt-country, folk, world music and more who are willing to travel to get their eclectic aural fixes. For its 32nd year, the fest has boiled over its previous Saturday-only schedule to include Friday evening as well.
It’s an experiment ’MNF attempted before. In the early ’90s, Heatwave tried two full days’ worth of music for a couple of years. Wynne remembers those events as a bit of a stretch for both staffers and attendees; this time around, the station’s powers-that-be opted for more of a soft-launch approach, with fewer bands on fewer stages Friday night to ease everyone into the weekend.
“I think we did two nights in ’93 and ’94,” he says. “Full-scale both Friday and Saturday, separate prices, and we found out fewer people came on Friday. I’ve always thought we could work it more strategically.
“This time, [Friday} is 10 or so bands on a couple of stages, just to get things going. It’s not as huge an investment, but it’s with the idea that we’re moving toward a full-weekend kind of deal.”
Wynne says he’s been motivated to expand Heatwave for a while, and that WMNF’s new-ish Station Manager Sydney White, who joined the station last summer, “has got a bigger vision for things — he saw that it made sense.”
But Wynne is also quick to reaffirm that, no matter how much bigger Heatwave gets, it won’t outgrow those unique elements that make it such a thrill for festival-goers who remain adamantly all about the music — indeed, those elements that have made it a success so far.
“It’s kind of a make-your-own festival,” he says. “It’s always going to be lots of different kinds of music that represent the diversity of the station. So if you’re a blues fan, you can have a blues festival. If you’re into alternative, you can make it an alternative festival. Everybody has a different approach.”
Click here for recommendations of must-sees at this week's fest.