The Next Fest Thing
A year after the Wakarusa festival split town, the much smaller Festy Fest fills the summer outdoor music void
Since the Wakarusa Festival left Lawrence last year, something called “Festy Fest” is likely the largest remaining multiday musical gathering left in town.
What started as the graduation party for Lawrencian Justin Falleaf three years ago has grown into an annual bluegrass and camping extravaganza that has drawn a few hundred people from Iowa, Colorado and all over Kansas.
Although he expects it to be bigger this year, Falleaf says it’s still essentially a backyard gathering of music lovers.
“I don’t want this to be compared to Wakarusa. This is not Wakarusa. That’s not what we’re doing,” Falleaf says.
“I’ve had all these sponsorship people get ahold of me,” he laughs while walking the Festy Fest grounds. “I just don’t want this all tagged up with signs and ads. I just want a stage over there and right over there out in the woods with just some sound, and a generator out back that you hardly even notice. And everybody just enjoying themselves.”
That said, this Festy Fest promises to be significantly bigger than before. In the past, the event was solely promoted by word of mouth, but this year Falleaf and a few volunteers made it more “official” by selling tickets through The Bottleneck and advertising.
They’ve also booked three dozen bands — including big draws such as Split Lip Rayfield — rented two stages, two sound systems and a tent that will shelter some 600 people.
One thing they don’t have quite yet, though, is a permit.
After working with the Leavenworth County sheriff off-and-on for weeks to make sure their festival ducks were in a row, the organizers asked the county commissioners Monday for a temporary use permit for the festival from Friday to Sunday.
“We want these kinds of things in the county,” Commissioner J.C. Tollefson told them. “But you kind of sound like four guys putting on a festival.”
The commissioners decided they’d consider the application today provided the organizers met a checklist of 13 requirements — such as directing any lighting away from neighbors and ending the amplified music at midnight Friday and Saturday and 8 p.m. on Sunday.
“The main thing they wanted was for me to hire a (bonded) security company,” says Falleaf, who had planned to employ some acquaintances who work as bouncers in Lawrence bars.
“They also wanted me to have insurance — which I already had — and fix a couple issues with the driveway … put up reflective fencing,” among other smaller things, he says. “We’re still piddling around with it, but I don’t think it’s going to be too big of a problem.”
If for some reason he’s denied the permit, Falleaf’s got a backup plan.
“The beauty of this is, most of the bands can play acoustically,” he says. “No matter what, people can show up.”
If you mow it, they will come
Falleaf has spent just about every day since March out at the Festy Fest site — a beautiful 60 acres on Linwood Road, a half-mile west of 250th Street.
Half the land is a field on the side of a hill. Down the hill is a small pond and several acres of trees, then a smaller field, more trees, and between that and Linwood Road is the home of the property’s owner, Pat Murphy.
Murphy and Falleaf have been busy cleaning up about 20 acres for music and camping — mowing, clearing out woodlands, killing poison ivy, putting down tick and mosquito repellent, installing extra water spigots, a shower, a dozen portable toilets … In short, making the place ready for potentially hundreds of campers.
They have no way of knowing just how many people will end up coming — tickets are capped at 1,200 total for the weekend, but less than a couple hundred have sold so far — but they’re preparing for the top end.
Especially when it comes to the neighbors, says Cole Smith, who lives in one of the four houses on the land.
“We let them know that there will be some noise for a couple days and they’re kinda ready for those couple days. We had it at this location last year, and we had no problems or complaints from any neighbors,” Smith says.
“These people enjoy country living and it’s pretty quiet out here, so we got permission from them before we asked anyone else’s permission.”
A Fest for the Rest of us
Hank Osterhout’s band, Deadman Flats, was one of a handful of bands that played the first Festy Fest.
“It’s been really interesting to watch it develop over these four years,” he says. “In a lot of respects, it’s kinda like my own band. We started off just talking (expletive) and playing music, and before you knew it, it became something people really enjoyed.”
Deadman Flats now tours the country, regularly playing several small festivals like Festy Fest. There’s Sproutstock in central Oklahoma, Tickfest in Cameron, Mo., Alkalai Flats in Grand Junction, Colo., and several others.
Osterhout says these kinds of gatherings are the lifeblood of grass-roots music and culture, and it’s little wonder Lawrence has one of its own, given how many quality bluegrass bands are in the area.
“Some folks don’t have the $200 or the time to go two states away to a major festival to see huge bands,” he says. “But they still wanna let loose and get out and enjoy one another. This is a celebration of the summer.”
“Festy Fest will be what we, as Lawrencians, make it,” Osterhout says. “Wakarusa was such a grand opportunity — here we have an opportunity to have a yearly thing. It just depends on how the people involved embrace it.”
For his part, Falleaf will consider it a success if more people around town are turned on to what he says are truly great bluegrass bands. He gets visibly excited when talking about any given one of the three dozen that will be playing this weekend.
“National festivals like Wakarusa or Bonnaroo — their success is measured in tens of thousands of people. For Festy Fest, it might be 800 people,” he says.
“It’s still at such a young stage, that if enough of the community were to go and put their energy into it, it could be the best thing that ever happened.”