As soon as it was announced in April, the two-day Landmark Music Festival had something to prove. It had Drake. It had the Strokes. What it didn’t have was the support of many who said its ticket prices ($105 to $175) were all wrong for the park often called America’s front lawn. Organizers were confident the first-time event could draw millennials into the cause of restoring the Mall. By fencing off a section of West Potomac Park, they argued, a music festival could be an annual moneymaker.
There was a lot at stake. It should have come off like clockwork. It didn’t always.
On Saturday, at every string of beer tents, the lines for tallboys of Coors Light (and, notably, water and other beverages) looked like the Soviet bread lines — thick, snaking human traffic jams of desperation. Some people reported that bars eventually started giving away beers, telling concertgoers it was a measure to keep the lines moving, but this was its own problem.
Even worse, festival-goers who paid to get in had to watch outside the gates as staff members simply handed out wristbands to passersby at no cost.
And even worse, toilet paper grew scarce only hours into the shindig.
By Sunday morning, the act had been somewhat cleaned up. Alcohol access was improved by additional cash registers and volunteers, making bathroom access even more of a necessity — luckily, attendees said, it seemed more portable toilets had also appeared overnight. Volunteers circled to pick up beer cans and other detritus.
The upgrade was welcome. So tightly booked are festivals now that headliners overlap; get in line for anything, whether beer or falafel, and you risked missing not one, but three bands. Cell service in the park was strained, and then completely drained, by the presence of thousands of Snapchatting 20-somethings. VIP areas, a supposedly high-ticket experience with “premium sightlines” of the main stages, were far away enough that those who’d paid for the privilege would be justified in demanding their money back.
Gusts of wind blew over the crowd both days, and bleak clouds hung overhead without ever drenching the crowd, making the 10-hour days a little more bearable. So too did the picturesque riverside setting: The festival took you somewhere that didn’t feel like the Mall until you looked left to see the Washington Monument or right to see the occasional plane slicing across the sky from Reagan National Airport.
When the crowds weren’t crammed in for the Saturday evening headliner Drake and the Strokes on Sunday, they sprawled out on blankets to listen to Chvrches, Ben Howard, Houndmouth and Dr. John. Although local rap star Wale promised he’d someday host his own “Walepalooza,” the first day of this festival belonged to R&B singer Miguel, who rocked and writhed shirtless through a set themed around a profane question: “What the [expletive] is normal, anyway?”
It was anything but normal for the District: a park divvied up between paying customers and those who came to enjoy its monuments and memorials for free. The event was put on by C3 Presents, a concert promoter whose other events include the Austin City Limits Music Festival and Chicago’s Lollapalooza festival, which draws 300,000 people.
Landmark was no Lolla. The crowds were considerably smaller and more relaxed. Organizers expected as many as 30,000 people each day. Standard look-at-me festival fashionistas — their jean shorts slashed so high they could be underwear, the flower crowns — mingled with those dressed to withstand the gusty wind and parents who toted headphone-wearing babies as accessories.
Did they know what they were coming out to support? Baby boomers said they had read about the controversial decision to use public land for the concerts but were happy to shell out for the chance to put a blue streak in their hair and play groupie for the day so close to home. One 17-year-old said she didn’t realize her ticket was funding anything until the lead singer of the Mowgli’s thanked the crowd for coming out for a good cause.
Soon after, she was sporting a gold #MakeYourMark temporary tattoo, provided at a tent highlighting the history of the Mall. Organizers acknowledged the high price of big-name artists meant they wouldn’t be making much money off the inaugural festival but could raise awareness, especially among young people, about the preservation of the park. So for free hats and beer koozies, concertgoers could answer trivia questions about the monuments and post drawings of their favorite national parks on Instagram.
It was one more activity to cram into a NASCAR race of more than 40 bands and numerous trendy local restaurant stands. Saturday’s bill was a mash-up of rap and singer-songwriter types, while Sunday rocked harder with a slew of bands that could turn up on the same alt-rock station. The first day’s big draw was Drake, whose fitful performance was spared the fat, cold drops of rain that fell earlier in the day. Instead, it was the former “Degrassi” star who pummeled concertgoers with lame backing tracks and canned banter (How many times can you say “What’s up, D.C.?”) The crowd didn’t seem to mind being expected to sing most of the lyrics themselves.
Drake’s lackluster effort didn’t mean the entire weekend lacked energy. Fans danced in their ponchos through a mellow set by the War On Drugs, swayed to old favorites from Dr. John and were drawn under a tent by an unrecognized name when Maryland’s Ace Cosgrove rapped his way onto their next playlist.
By Sunday, between sips of kale- infused lemonade and belting along to Chvrches, attendees wondered whether this scene on the Mall would play out again next year. If it does, they’d be wise to bring their own toilet paper.