But there we were. So we decided to chance it.
Fast-forward an hour. Our clothes were drenched to the point that obscenity charges could be levied. The place was nearly empty, and yet the grass had already transformed to mud, well before the National took the stage. A miserable-looking dad marched his rain-weary toddler through the downpour toward the exit. . . .
Uhh, what? A small child at a rock show? Yeah, because that’s another absurdity of our supposedly beloved summer tradition of enjoying live music in the great outdoors. Fans suddenly throw all concertgoing norms out the window, just because they’re listening to a band while standing on grass.
Outdoor concerts are garbage, and not only because they smell like it. Don’t take my word for it. “I don’t even understand them in theory,” Lexington, Ky.-based freelance journalist Sarah Baird, 31, said, calling them “antithetical to enjoying music.”
The very nature of what makes an outdoor concert special — specifically, inviting nature into a concert — is what turns off so many. “It’s like going camping with 20,000 drunk strangers, in a place that smells like beer, B.O., vomit and urine. It’s a hassle to get there, and it’s expensive,” said Carol Blymire, a 50-year-old consultant who lives in the District.
Most outdoor concert venues sit well outside a city center, given that their supposed appeal rests upon seeing a band from a green space. Jim Murray, a 42-year-old Boston radio host, recalls spending more than three hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic when an outdoor Radiohead gig coincided with a Patriots preseason game.
When you finally get to the remote outpost of an outdoor venue, you have to battle its natural inhabitants: insects, namely mosquitoes. But if the cavalcade of winged bloodsuckers doesn’t turn your stomach, you’ve still got to deal with the climate. Let’s just skip over the obvious issues of sunburn and heat exhaustion. The more insidious one might involve all the cold beer fans are downing.
“With the heat comes more people drinking. You’re dealing with a lot of bros who have been drinking and tailgating for hours on end. . . . They’re looking for trouble, or they’re just sloppy,” Murray said.
What’s probably occurring, according to Joseph Palamar, an associate professor with New York University’s Department of Population Health who studies drug and alcohol misuse and addiction, is that “a lot of people seem to forget to drink water while they’re at these concerts.”
“Exhaustion and dehydration are much more likely to occur when people are drinking alcohol or using drugs at outdoor shows, particularly when it’s hot out,” he said. Multiday music festivals, during which some fans simply choose not to sleep, exacerbate these conditions.
Risks can include injury or death. Or, more typically, the general unpleasantness of putting up with obnoxious drunks. Who may well be the friends you came with. Just ask Murray.
The year: 1994. The show: a disappointing Roger Waters-less Pink Floyd lineup at Foxboro Stadium, where Murray and his buddies sat in the nosebleeds. The crime: One of his (“really big”) friends drank multiple (“like five”) 40-ounce beers (“enough to kill an elephant”) and began urinating on the fans in front of him. “He just didn’t know what the hell was happening,” Murray said. “He wasn’t trying to be malicious about it. He was just in outer space.”
Stephanie Farfan has come around to the thinking that she might just as well sit at home and blast her stereo as make the trek out to some amphitheater.
“I have dwarfism, so I’m only about four feet tall,” said the 26-year-old D.C. graduate student. “Any time I am invited to something outdoors, especially outdoors concerts, I can’t see anything. So I don’t see the point of them. But second of all, the amount of drunk people there are at outdoor concerts is ridiculous, and I’m always afraid someone is going to fall on top of me — because it’s happened before.”
She added that outdoor concerts often don’t have any seating, at least not any from a higher vantage point, which is critical to helping her safely enjoy the show.
“I hate them, mostly because I feel excluded from enjoying them,” she said.
Then there’s the actual concert itself, which often features atrociously muddled sound.
“I don’t think people go to outdoor concerts because they’re actually interested in enjoying music. There’s a quality issue,” Baird said. And because the audio is so wretched, Blymire noted, “people feel more comfortable talking loudly about what doctors’ appointment they had and whose husband they hate.”
Dave Swallow, a U.K.-based sound engineer who has worked with artists such as Amy Winehouse, Billy Ocean and Basement Jaxx, said sound mixing is far more challenging outdoors.
“Going from a stage, which is normally quite tall and wide, you’ve got to cover all the audience down the front and all the way back,” a distance that can vary dramatically from venue to venue. Weather patterns can get in the way, he said. “When you start getting the wind blowing across the arena floor, the sound becomes wavy, the vocals might come in and out or the guitar might be loud and then quiet,” he said.
The audio can project one way by day, a completely different way by night. Temperature plays a role, as well. “The hotter the air, the slower the sound moves. But when it’s colder, the molecules are closer together, so the sound moves through the air faster.” That means sound engineers such as Swallow must constantly adjust the mix. That becomes even more difficult if the show is in a stadium, which can be half-shaded.
Plus, they must do all this without sound checks and while generally adhering to noise restrictions, since sound travels so much farther when it’s not trapped by the ceiling and walls of a rock club.
But at least it’s easier on your ears, listening to tunes outside. Right? Right? Wrong!
“Once sounds get above 85 decibels, you have to start worrying about how long you’re exposed to it,” said Jonathon Whitton, director of drug discovery for Decibel Therapeutics, a biotechnology company focused on developing treatments for hearing loss. Concerts — yes, even outdoor shows — tend to be around 110 decibels, at which point, “you’re getting down into ranges where your recommended exposure time is down around 15 minutes.”
Yet people often think they’re safer while outdoors and forgo earplugs. And the longer one is exposed to loud sounds, the more it begins to feel normal. And some outdoor shows go on for days.
Rising above the din of these supposedly fun things we never want to do again? “There’s always someone yelling ‘Freebird,’ ” Blymire said. “And only at outdoor concerts!”