Saturday Night Blight - Catawba Fest '12

The truth is, I was having a horrible week. Everything that could go wrong did, and I was looking for a serious pick-me-up. It seemed I had found it. Catawba Fest, a weekend festival put on by Half Acre Promotions, would be hosting one of my favorites, Papadosio. The festival was only a stone’s throw away, and admission was reasonable. I only planned to attend Saturday, when Papadosio was scheduled to close out the main stage.

The event took place over the weekend of Aug. 31 to Sept. 2. It was held at the Catawba Sustainability Center in Catawba, Va., property owned by Virginia Tech. The goal of the center is to educate on sustainability, which the festival also focused on. Several booths were set up showcasing earth friendly projects and vendors. The festival was held there in an attempt to raise awareness and funding for the Sustainability Center, as well as to provide musical entertainment.

So, on the night of Sept. 1, I arrived at Catawba Fest with unmeasurable excitement. Something was finally going to go right, and Papadosio would make all my stress and tension float away on syncopated rhythms. I think many others felt the same.

The land was beautiful. An open field with mountains in view, capped by an expansive sky (often cloudy) and happy faces. It was intimate, something I’ve always loved in festivals. I recognized many, and the number only grew as that much awaited time approached. We were there for the same reason.

The day was rainy. At one point I found myself drenched, hiding inside a tent dripping with puddles. The music had stopped; the downpour and winds were simply too much. I didn’t bring a tent, since I hadn’t planned to stay the night, so when the rain let up, I moved to a car for protection. When I finally ventured out again, the band’s set time was nearing but there were still showers.

Because of the rain delay, things were off schedule, and the Shane Pruitt Band, on stage right before Papadosio, played later than expected. The band closed out its set with remarkable energy and began to pack up. At this point, rain was still falling lightly, but I’d realized that a small area right in front of the stage was also covered by the tent, and was staying dry.

The crowd gathered in wait. Papadosio began to set up. The anticipation was palpable. Like-minded souls expecting a release. 

Papadosio performs at Electric Forest '12
The group was small. Many attendees had gotten rained out and gone home, or had children they needed to put to bed. The last few survivors waited for their reward. But suddenly, the atmosphere changed. Cords were wound instead of unwound. Equipment was packed up instead of set up. Lights were broken down; instruments were put away. Confusion spread through the crowd as people wondered, “What’s going on? Are they going to play?” There was a stalemate on stage. The band members were clearly ready to put on a show, but something was stopping them.

And then it all became clear. No, they weren’t going to play. We all reeled in disbelief. This couldn’t be right.

Eric Langston of Half Acre Promotions walked onto the stage and took the mic. He announced that Papadosio would not play that night due to weather issues and a noise ordinance. He stated that the decision was out of his hands and that due to safety protocols the band would not be allowed to perform.

Mind you, at this point, the rain had stopped. The band was itching to play and the audience was itching to listen. No one understood what was happening. There was some booing and some chanting; maybe we thought we could change things if we just made enough noise. No one left the stage. No one was willing to give up on what would have been a magical, intimate moment. How could we? We didn’t even know what to do next. The night had ended without even a hint of the gratification we were looking for.
The organizers offered the attendees who had purchased tickets only for Saturday free admission on Sunday, but that wasn’t enough. I had paid $35 to see Papadosio, and wasn’t satisfied with a free pass that I probably wouldn’t even use. I wanted my money back. I wanted to storm the gate and get all of our money back. The expectation turned to anger, and the crowd began to boil. The energy was going bad.

At that point, the band stepped forward. The mob grew silent. Guitarist and vocalist Anthony Thogmartin offered apologies and let us know that if the band could play, it would. I was touched by the genuine regret at not being allowed to perform. He even offered those still waiting patiently free admission to another show on the tour, passing around a paper and pen to take names. It was beautiful really – their sadness, mixed with the loss of the crowd, settled the raging energies, although still unfulfilled.

Several people offered to let Papadosio play in their homes, but the amount of equipment that would require was beyond anything those in the crowd could piece together. It seemed hopeless. The bandmates stuck around for a while, signing autographs and taking pictures. I struggled with the decision, but the options had run out. I began to head home. While I talked with friends in the parking lot, two cop cars approached and the officers went in to the grounds. I assumed they had been brought in to calm disgruntled attendees and officially break up the gathering. I drove away feeling empty, inconsolable. My liberation was lost.

I awoke the next morning to learn that the band had indeed found somewhere to play. Well, Thogmartin at least. He had set up his DJ equipment at a nearby home and given those lucky enough to be in attendance a taste of his solo project, EarthCry. The other members mingled and everyone had an enjoyable, uplifting night.

As you can imagine, I was very disappointed to learn of this. I thought, maybe if I’d just stayed a bit longer I would have known. But, instead of moping, I resolved to turn my disappointment – which I knew was not just my own – into something greater. I resolved to find out what really happened that night.

I spoke with Langston, sent an email to the band – to which Thogmartin responded thoroughly – and even briefly messaged Corey Fulp, who had been so kind as to offer his home for the assembly that night. Most of my questions were answered, but a few other things that I was unaware of came to light.

I was informed by Langston that due to Virginia Tech’s ownership of the property, the organizers were required to follow Tech’s emergency management procedures. These require monitoring of the weather up to an hour out, and erring on the side of caution. Although the rain had stopped, there were reports of lightning in the area that dictated the shutdown of the event. And that was not the only instance. The festival had to be put on hold several times over the weekend, and even ended early on Sunday. About half-a-dozen bands were cancelled, not just Papadosio. Half Acre’s choice of land necessitated a partnership with Virginia Tech, and thus the decision was, in a sense, handed down.

This all seems straightforward enough, but I learned some other interesting details through my correspondence with Thogmartin. The band had signed a contract with Half Acre before the event that afforded it a hotel room, a meal, and a $4000 performance fee. This fee covers several things – production, gas, expenses, etc. A deposit of $2000 had been received before the Saturday night set time.

Once the set was cancelled, the band’s manager, Andrew Koontz, attempted to collect the rest of the band’s pay from Langston. According to Thogmartin, Langston said the band would not be paid $4000 for just showing up, and offered only $500 more. Koontz was not satisfied with this and continued to try and collect the rest of the band’s agreed upon pay. At this point, Langston called the police (that is the real reason they were on the scene). By Langston’s account, he was justified in doing this. “Their manager was out of control. He stole a golf cart, he stole the key to the golf cart, almost hit me with the golf cart in front of lots of witnesses. Basically (he was) just acting way out of control.” Langston claims Koontz tried to incite the crowd and would not leave the premises on his own accord, and so he had no choice. The production crew apologized for his behavior, but by then it was too late. Thogmartin disagrees. “He was being persistent and that’s his job. (Langston) was avoiding him and not being reasonable. And to get my manager to leave him alone, (he) called the cops. If our manager was being aggressive the cops would have taken him away.” He says the proof lies in the fact that Koontz was allowed, by the police, to return to the property and help the band reload its gear.

I was not present for these events, so I cannot confirm one way or the other. But I do know this, as of today the band has not received full compensation for the event. In spite of that, free admission to another show has still been offered by the band to the over 100 people in attendance that night. Thogmartin had this to say: “We throw a festival in Ohio every year called Rootwire, we operated at a loss this year financially; it happens. But one rule you never break when throwing any event is that you don't ever try to make the money to pay the talent out of ticket sales, you always want to have the money in hand before the show so this situation is avoided.” He believes that low festival attendance may have been a factor in the band not being allowed to play and then not being paid in full. According to Langston, there were about 1,000 attendees over the weekend, including musicians staff, and volunteers. Over 40 bands were slated to perform.

Aside from the weather issues and cancellations, Catawba Fest appears to have been a success. The majority of comments on the Facebook event and group pages have been positive. “Everyone from officials in Roanoke city and Roanoke County to officials from Virginia Tech, thought the event was a great success, aside from the fact that we got crushed by weather,” Langston said. “So I think the most important thing … is that the community was really happy that we did this, the university was happy, Roanoke city, Roanoke County was happy, and so I’d say in general … it was a big success. No one can control the weather, it’s just unfortunate.”

Half Acre plans to hold Catawba Fest again on the same property. However, Langston did say that the weather should be studied and the festival possibly moved to another, drier weekend.
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