We sit on a grassy knoll and take in the scene spread out before us. A towering art installation shaped like a pyramid stands in the distance, its three sides painted with whimsical cartoon characters in various states of musical thrall. Stagehands scurry like ants on the huge bandstand a couple hundred yards away — setting up, plugging in, tuning and tweaking and testing, one two, one two. A steady trickle of people pass by: a dude in a giant banana suit sweating profusely and grinning like a fool, a group of shirtless jock types passing a Frisbee as they make their way to wherever, an earthy girl with a patchwork purse slung over her shoulder, her dready escort trailing behind and murmuring a sing-song sales chant, "Nuggets, mushrooms ... nuggets, mushrooms."
The sun shines pleasantly from a cloud-tufted sky, and a cool spring breeze lifts the hair off our necks and carries the wail of a guitar solo from a far stage.
It's this memory, this perfect moment — less than an hour into my first Langerado Music Festival, flush with excitement over the orgy of music that lay ahead, sets by Umphrey's McGee, The Flaming Lips, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and others — that keeps me coming back for more.
I've attended my fair share of festivals, big and small, and Langerado definitely ranks near the top. I missed the first three installments and all their attendant growing pains, but by the time I sojourned to Langerado, the fourth one in 2006, it was pretty darn close to a perfect experience.
Last year's fifth annual event proved just as satisfying. Langerado has the advantage over other fests for a range of reasons. Setting is one. Florida is a beautiful place that's far too often taken for granted by its inhabitants. A multi-day outdoor festival gives us a chance to not only gorge on a smorgasbord of music but to revel in those precious few weeks of pristine weather that come after the cold fronts have tapered off but before the heavy humidity and hurricane season roll in.
No rain means no mud, that dreaded mix of elements that turns a good pair of shoes into a ruined brown mess and makes going from stage to stage a despairing and taxing endeavor. At Langerado, barefoot is an option for everyone, not just for the adventurous.
Held in early March, Langerado heralds a return of big outdoor music festivals after a four-month wintertime dry spell.
For music enthusiasts living in less temperate locales, it provides an excuse for a much-needed respite from the cold. For college kids looking to get in some beach and music time, it's the ultimate spring break destination.
And even though it's large enough to be called the "mini-me Bonnaroo" by a snarky Rolling Stone reporter, Langerado is more appealing because it's intimate by comparison and easier to navigate than the sweaty, overcrowded festival monstrosity that happens in rural Tennessee in June. Plus, it still manages to offer an eclectic lineup of music.
Langerado didn't start out big and varied like Bonnaroo. When it debuted in '03 at the Ft. Lauderdale Stadium Festival Fair Grounds, Langerado was a single-day, jam-band-oriented event that attracted 3,500 people and featured NYC prog-jammers moe. in the headlining slot, with support provided by such jam-scene stalwarts as Medeski, Martin & Wood, G. Love & Special Sauce and the Charlie Hunter Trio.
Langerado started branching out musically by year two, influenced by the organizers' diverse musical tastes and the burgeoning success of Bonnaroo. "You don't want to see one style of band the whole day — you want to be entertained and see as many types of music as you can," Langerado co-organizer Ethan Schwartz said in a recent phone interview. Though the jam-band umbrella covers a wide swatch of styles, Schwartz and his partner, Marc Brown, didn't want to be limited to bands falling solely into that niche. "The heart of the fest is still the jam-band lineup, and we don't plan on taking that away," Schwartz said. "But we do want to put together the best lineup that's out there, and that includes indie acts, hip-hop and anything else we can come up with."
Langerado's boost in musical variety, and the sheer abundance of music, certainly spurred the fest's swelling attendance. By the time I went in 2006, the event had grown into its third venue, Markham Park in Sunrise; it offered camping, art installations and colorful creative design by popular Miami artist David "LEBO" LeBatard as well as two days of music, a Friday night "soundcheck" and various offsite late-night shows at Ft. Lauderdale-area venues. More than 11,000 turned up to see performances by Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals, The Black Crowes, Wilco, Burning Spear, The Secret Machines, Brazilian Girls, Lyrics Born and 30-odd others.
In '07, the fifth annual fest expanded to three full days and reached its maximum capacity at Markham Park with 15,000 attendees. Schwartz says the city wouldn't budge on that number, and I agree — the place was not excessively crowded in '07, but the boost in attendance was noticeable, and several thousand extra bodies this year would have surely been too many.
This year, Langerado moves to Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, a 60-mile drive inland from Ft. Lauderdale. When the new venue was announced last November — along with a lineup that had nearly doubled in size — it generated a lively buzz. See, the (mostly) unspoiled wilderness of Big Cypress is considered to be a Mecca of sorts. It was there that 85,000 devoted Phish fans camped for three days and rang in the new Millennium with their favorite band, which performed a marathon seven-and-a-half-hour set from midnight New Year's Eve to sunrise New Year's Day. By all accounts, it was an unbelievable experience. The novelty of Langerado taking place there is sure to attract all manner of Phish nostalgia-seekers, as well as the sad saps who didn't attend the legendary concert but want to approximate the experience with Phix, a Phish tribute band that plays an expanded late-night show on Friday.
Schwartz expects 25,000 people to attend Langerado this year. "Going from 15,000 to 25,000 is a big jump," he concedes, "but the size of the event field and festival grounds allows for it."
Schwartz doesn't seem worried that the festival will lose its sense of intimacy: "The fest grounds are pretty expansive, and there will never be everybody at one place at one time."
Schwartz has learned much over the years, most importantly that the event should be tailored to the fans. "If they're not coming out again and again, year after year, you're not doing things right," he says. His goal is to make the experience special enough for attendees so that "when they're leaving Sunday night, the first thing they're thinking about is coming back next year."
As far as I'm concerned, he's already met his goal. Langerado has everything you could ever want from a good festival, and it only seems to be improving with age.