Telluride Bluegrass Festival 101: The Tarp
It's finally time for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Since this week will be just my 5th TBF (the 2011 version is #38 - there are some who remember the first one and a lot of folks with 10, 15 or 20 under their belt), I'm not qualified to teach the higher level courses. I'm stuck here in TBF 101 with you folks who don't know nothing 'bout attending no bluegrass festival. So here goes lesson number one: The All-Important Tarp.
All the TBF acts appear on one stage in Telluride's Town Park, so once you get there and get situated, you're fixed for the day. Let me say that again. There is no Other Tent or That Tent or Which Tent or any of that Manchester happy crappy (ever since reading The Stand I've wanted to use "happy crappy" in a sentence). Unlike the Hangout Festival, you don't have to walk a half mile down the beach to get from one stage to another. This is Telluride, where all the acts listed in the lineup play on the Town Park Stage in a beautiful box canyon just east of town. As a bonus, you can pretty much set your watch by when each set begins. [Note: There are other performances during TBF. There's a free First Grass show up in Mountain Village the night before the festival begins, there are separately ticketed Night Grass shows at other venues each night of the festival and there are free workshops at Elks Park in town. All that said, the ticketed Telluride Bluegrass Festival has one stage.]
Since you don't have to decide which show you should see or go wandering from stage to stage, angling for position, the tarp becomes very important. It is your homebase, your little bit of Colorado real estate, if only for a day. The "tarp" can be as small as a beach towel if you're by yourself or as large as you can carry (one group of festivarians has a tarp so large they call it The Mother Ship). Town Park is large, and there are many different theories on the "best" place for your tarp. As you'll see in the video below, some want to get down front, but some do not. Some go left of the sound booth, some go to the right. Our group, for example, is generally situated a bit back from the front, just to the right of the sound booth. Some folks prefer to be further back, where they can use high back chairs (they're not allowed from the sound booth forward).
As they say, the three most imporant factors in real estate are location, location and location. In order to get your tarp where you want it to be, you have to have a number each morning of the festival. You get the number by sitting in a line for a few hours or overnight, depending on how ambitious you are. A large group of people spend the night in the line, which is a self-governed four-nights-a-year community. Details on all that are provided in TBF 301 (or in the TBF guidelines), but for here we'll just say that if you want to be a part of that world bring some warm clothes and/or a sleeping bag. The highs all week are in the low 70's (85 in sunshine), but the lows are in the 40's (25 if you're sunburned sleeping in the line). If you're old like me, it's better to share a tarp with some younger folks who like hanging out in the line all night. Most festivarians skip the overnight gig and show up really early each morning with their chairs, tarp and supplies to get in line. The line grows and snakes back and forth through the town so that by 6:30 or so people are lined up several blocks away from the entrance.
At some point early each morning, numbers are handed out to the people in line. Here's my son Matt, sporting a very good number, tarp under arm, a year ago:
So at 10 this Thursday and Sunday and at 9 on Friday and Saturday, the TBF staff will usher the runners into the gate where they're lined up in a chute. They play the bagpipes, and the spectacle begins. Here's a video that shows a tarp run from last year's TBF:
In the mad rush depicted on the video, you may not have noticed that most of the folks had a specific technique for securing their spot. The main thing about the tarp run is this: Run like hell! Second main thing: Don't overrun your spot. If you run too far and don't have room, it is really hard to go back. So you stop just shy of where the folks ahead of you are putting down tarps (or to some point you chose in advance) and throw your tarp. You then have to run and pull the corners out to secure your space. This has to be done rather quickly, as the folks behind you will start showing up immediately. No pressure, but all your friends asleep back in the tent or the condo are counting on you here. Don't mess it up.
The following photographs of my good friend Gaston show one technique for throwing the tarp (note that this is a simulated throw, during morning practice, the real throw is never this good):
Note Gaston's "ready position." Also, note his athletic form and bulging muscles. He worked out all that year to get this buff, and it paid off for us with a prime spot. We're hoping he's in shape again this year.
If this had been the real tarp run, Gaston wouldn't be standing there showing off, as he is here after his near perfect overhead throw (an advanced technique I don't recommend for beginners). No, if this had been the real deal, he'd be running to spread the tarp and secure the corners.
You can't really see it in this photo, but the corners furthest away from Gaston are weighted slightly with a secret combination of Louisiana red beans and Iowa popping corn, making the throw easier to accomplish. The yellow tape you can see shows that we "added on" to our place at some point because our crew got too large for the tarp we had in the beginning. Boy, if this tarp could talk!
The tarps make Telluride one of the more civilized festival experiences you're going to encounter, once you get past the tarp run. Your tarp, once placed, is sacred for the entire day, or at least until the sun goes down. When it's full dark and the last show starts, all bets are off, at least up front, as people tend to crowd in at that point. During the day, however, you can leave your tarp and wander off to the New Belgium beer stand without any worries about losing your place. If someone happens by and your tarp is empty, they are free to sit on it until you return, unless of course you invite them to stay, which is certainly encouraged.
What if you don't have a tarp or arrive too late to do the run? There are almost always empty spaces or empty tarps, but you usually won't have a prime location. Planet Bluegrass also sets up Town Park so there are places to stand at the front, on either side of the stage. (They do this in part, I think, for the Bonnaroo people who just can't get used to the convenience of being able to sit down.) Don't worry too much, you'll find a place one way or another. And there's always tomorrow morning's tarp run.
All right, class dismissed. Let's go out there and use what we learned for good festivation.
Mando Lines will be at TBF this year, blogging and tweeting about the experience. Look for blog posts here and follow the tweets at @mando_lines.