Beyond the threat of watered-down bourbon, came a louder call to harbor life

Safety outweighed insanity when organizers pulled the plug on Bourbon & Beyond, Louder Than Life due to flooding

Beyond the threat of watered-down bourbon, came a louder call to harbor life
Fans drenched but not drained at the Bourbon & Beyond Festival on Sept. 22, 2018 in Louisville before flooding canceled the event. (Source: Alisha Eli)

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Mud and music festivals go together like Valentine chocolates and makeup sex; cohesion cannot function without both sugar and disaster.

But the nostalgia of 1969 Woodstock rain dances and 1994 Woodstock mud baths aside, sometimes things get too nasty for even rock ’n roll.

Rocker John Mayer headlines night one of the Bourbon & Beyond Festival on Sept. 22, 2018 in Louisville's Champions Park.
Rocker John Mayer headlines night one of the Bourbon & Beyond Festival on Sept. 22, 2018 in Louisville's Champions Park. (Source: Alisha Eli)

Glistening in the rain, day one of Bourbon & Beyond was dangerous and delicious. It ended as a one-night stand not allowed to finish, with Champions Park in total failure.

Day two was called off. So was Louder than Life the following week. Hopes for electrified amps ringing the ears of music lovers went from wedding bells to “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

As disappointing as it was to see an outdoor festival canceled over weather, it’s even more tragic to see what happens when they’re not.

Ask the people who call themselves survivors. During a September 2006 monsoon that killed eight across the bluegrass, some 200 people had to be rescued from Terrapin Hill Harvest Festival in Mercer County by boat, a situation that one emergency worker referred to as “Katrina-like.”

Five years later, August 2011, we couldn’t ask the people who didn’t survive. Five people died when high wind from a line of severe storms collapsed a concert stage for a Sugarland concert at the Indiana State Fair. Dozens more were badly hurt, filing suit, receiving tens of millions of dollars in settlements, as the heartbroken country openly asked questions of why and scrambling teams of accountants hastily gathered in closed-door meetings to rewrite future festival insurance policies.

Still, many festivals hit by storms dodge disaster thanks to good planning. Forecastle got rocked by more than music in 2015 and safely and efficiently evacuated in minutes.

From firsthand experience, I can also recall arriving at the campground for Bonnaroo in 2009, during one of the tornado warnings issued that day, as the National Weather Service reported heavy wind damage only a few miles away as bands played under open-air metal tents. Before deadly tragedy struck in Indiana, an outdoor concert promising rain or shine might as well have said Hell or high water.

The way weather security is handled for outdoor events changed, and it did so without doubt for the better.

Despite that, festival organizers have still sometimes made the wrong moves since. Take the Hudson Project in New York in 2014 and Georgia’s edition of TomorrowWorld the following year. Campers stranded, walking miles through a complete mess, abandoning belongings in a sea of mud, threatening an avalanche of lawsuits.

Others may have pulled out too early. First-year festival promoters at Bellwether Festival in southwestern Ohio, just in August, left fans in a muddy mess with no direction and volunteers without orders. An hour of steady rain dampened but did not damage the park but it did silence a headlining act. The Bellwether team stood behind the call and vowed to make good to jilted fans. When it comes to weighing the safety of tens of thousands of people versus tempering their desires, there is no easy call. Still, we’ve learned in recent years there is a correct call.

Sheryl Crow performs on Saturday Sept. 22, 2018 at the Bourbon & Beyond Festival in Louisville, Ky.
Sheryl Crow performs on Saturday Sept. 22, 2018 at the Bourbon & Beyond Festival in Louisville, Ky. (Source: Alisha Eli)

A shortened Bourbon & Beyond, a canceled Louder than Life, total bummers that were no-brainers. In an ever-competitive music-festival landscape with increasing options for fans, turning off the lights may be risky business. But trying to patchwork back together a park freshly tilled by foot traffic into its natural muddy-river state might have been even more dicey, or outright deadly.

Instead of a disaster, Louisville’s story this week in terms of its empty music stages, is merely a diversion. All is promised to be back, and bigger, the two existing fests being turned into three.

Hometown Rising, the long-promised, cross-genre, cross-demo, country-fried third jewel of what Danny Wimmer‘s been presenting in Louisville, is still set to debut in 2019. Add bourbon. Get louder. Let’s watch our hometown rise above the river once again, as it’s done since at least 1937.

For the sake of the fans, the stagehands, the promoters, the performers and the city that hosts them, let’s hope next September stays as dry as it historically does. Then we can lovingly drop some Valentine chocolates in one another’s mouths and kiss and make up. Cohesion cannot function without both rainfall and the ability to dance around it.

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