Saugerties’ Hudson Project Music Festival had at least one thing in common with the Woodstock ’94 festival that preceded it on the same site: plenty of rain and mud. Unfortunately for Hudson Project attendees, that rain came at the tail-end of the festival, not the middle, and carried with it lightning severe enough for the county to pull the plug, leaving thousands of wet, frustrated — and in some cases very inebriated — young fans stuck in the mud.
Damning appraisals of “The Hudson Disaster” and “The Mudson Project” were furiously tapped out on smartphones overnight and into the next day, especially by those who travelled considerable distance with Sunday-only passes only to be denied before hearing a note of music. A late-Monday announcement on the festival’s Twitter feed promising full and partial refunds would be issued did much to quell the rage.
Friday and Saturday, on the other hand, were by all accounts fantastic nights of music, dancing, good food and good vibes. Official attendance figures haven’t been released, but Town Supervisor Greg Helsmoortel said at its height on Saturday night there were around 16,000 paying festival-goers, short of the expected 20,000-plus. As a result, the lines weren’t bad for food or portapotties, and getting a good spot front-row, center was no problem.
The crowd was very young; it was rare to see someone over 30, most looked under 25. Nor was it counterculture; most were well groomed, svelte and deodorized. They came to dance and dance they did, to a bill that was mostly composed of electronic music with a human element (a guitarist or saxophonist next to the keyboard rack generating most of the sound was a typical setup). A few indy rockers and hip hop acts were sprinkled throughout, and though they were the minority, their presence distinguished the festival from others this summer; the noodling jam bands that used to dominate multi-day festivals have been supplanted by guys on laptops playing. You can almost set a clock to this: after a music festival, searches on google for digital piano reviews go way up!
While most reports of the first two days were positive, some festival veterans thought the security was a buzzkill. Saugerties Police Chief Joseph Sinagra reported 151 arrests, resulting in 58 felony and 159 misdemeanor charges, and 61 violations. All were drug-related. Typical grumblings included the words “police state” and assertions that Hudson Project was no replacement for Camp Bisco, an annual festival in the Capital Region which was cancelled this year due to pressure over numerous drug-related deaths.
No word yet if there will be a festival next year. From the town’s point of view, it was a success. The only significant change the town would ask for would be no parking in any area that would become muddy in the event of another rain storm.
Locals who attended reveled in the convenience of the location.
“This was my first music festival, but it definitely won’t be my last,” said KellyRose Yaeger, 18, of Saugerties.
“I thought Friday and Saturday were fantastic,” said Van Bolle, co-owner of Dig Boutique. “As a business owner you always want to have as much business being generated as possible, but as someone who lives in town, to have something like this in my backyard was great.”
What it was like to be there
The announcement of the festival lineup was met with a collective head-scratch by most locals. Hudson Project was not a Bonnaroo-style cross-generation something-for-everyone affair, where 20-year-old saucer-eyed ravers mingle with Budweiser-and-boxed-wine swilling Baby Boomers. The latter crowd could have been spotted the previous weekend at the Crosby, Stills and Nash concert at Bethel Woods, site of the original Woodstock. Hudson Project was all about the youth.
Although there was a “register to vote” booth, for the most part, the festival was a gathering without any pretensions to a higher purpose. The Woodstock generation thought it was on the crest of a high and beautiful wave that would change the world. Their music reflected this idealism. If music at Hudson Project had an ethos, it could be summed up in one word: dance. Festival sound and lights have improved significantly in the last ten years, and are light years ahead of what they were 45 years ago. Hypnotic lasers suspended in the air and spleen-rattling bass, music that’s perfected a cycle of rising tension, false climax, release, rise, another climax — drums from quarter, to eighth, to sixteenth, sixth-fourth and 128th notes — into a triumphant combination of every theme introduced so far. It’s music engineered by mad scientists, in collaboration with robots, to be irresistible for dancing. Even guys who usually stand in concrete shoes nodding their heads end up jumping up and down, pumping their fists in time with the music; the girls who would dance at any show nearly lose their minds. All in good fun.
All imaginable amenities are provided. Compare to a ramshackle ’60s festival or the kind of massive local party in the woods rarely seen these days: They’d be cheap, maybe free, the sound would be bad, sanitation and security non-existent, no one to stop the fights or aid those who are in need of medical help. Every so often, someone would take a tumble off the top of the old quarry into the water and die. At a festival like Hudson Project, there are no such concerns. Security is everywhere. There’s a medical tent. The food is delicious. Beer and water are plentiful. Portapotties are on-site and pumped out every night. The sound is amazing. It’s expensive, but worth it.
In a way, these changes mirror others in our society. Today we have technological comforts previous generations couldn’t imagine, better cars, medical care, and less crime. But we’re less optimistic and less free to do whatever we want. We’re more closely monitored. It occurred to me that this connection might be a bit half-baked, until I recalled spotting the remote-control drone sailing over the festival grounds each night, surely routed to a truck somewhere full of uniformed security personnel monitoring the party.
For most attendees, security was not an issue. But many festival veterans said the number of checkpoints and presence of police around the festival grounds was much greater than other festivals they’d attended. One said it promoted “a threatening atmosphere” that was out of place with the good vibes of the event. “Why can’t anyone throw a lawless banger like Camp Bisco anymore?” asked another.
The answer is, of course, while many attendees may love a freewheeling party, communities are not anxious to host them. As the Times-Union noted last year, over the years at Camp Bisco, “one patron has died, dozens have been hospitalized.” Concerns over safety led the cancellation of this year’s festival.
Police Chief Joseph Sinagra said this was on the minds of the town and promoter MCP Presents in planning the Hudson Project.
“The promoters really wanted to have zero tolerance for drugs,” said Sinagra. “The last thing they wanted to do was to have people come into Saugerties and have people die.”
“A lot of festivals, you read how many were taken to the hospital, almost died, even some deaths,” he said. “We didn’t want that, period. It was an effort by the security to prevent it. And there [were] amnesty boxes (for people with drugs to drop them off before entering the concert area). Police weren’t busting kids to make a bust.”
Sinagra said the local police worked with state troopers and the county Sheriff’s Department. State troopers were in control, and no distinctions were made between departments — troopers took order from Saugerties sergeants, and Saugerties patrolmen took orders from ranking officers of the other agencies. “I’ve never seen an operation run so smoothly in 27 years,” said Sinagra, who attributed the lack of any arrests for violent crime or theft to the police presence. “If it wasn’t for the drugs, it would have been a perfect concert.”
But aren’t drugs a part of the music festival scene? Might word about stringent enforcement get out and cause attendees to avoid future festivals? Sinagra says no.
“I don’t want to ever say there’s a particular component of our society that’s more prone to drug use than any other,” he said. “I don’t believe that for a second.”
Sinagra said drug use happens at all concerts, not just festivals. He said he was recently attending a Meatloaf concert when a man in front of him lit a joint, prompting the off-duty chief to tap him on the shoulder and ask him to put it out. (Note to anyone planning on partaking at an area concert: Keep your eyes peeled for Joe Sinagra.)
Contrary to reports of some attendees, Sinagra said police were not present on the concert grounds. However, they did watch the proceedings from offsite on a video feed, and radioed in to the private security if they saw something of concern, like an entrance gate where searches weren’t happening. He said security was cooperative, as were those arrested, whom he described as polite and apologetic.
Also on security detail, local contractor and horseman Ray Mayone, a recognizable face for anyone who’s taken a ride on the Holiday in the Village horse-drawn wagons. At Hudson Project, he was one of 11 mounted security, who did not carry weapons, instead relying on the intimidation of the horse to lend gravitas to their commands. At Hudson Project, as at most festivals he’s worked, Mayone said he didn’t have any problems. He mostly just interacts with the crowd, tossing a Frisbee or football from the saddle, letting equine-lovers in the crowd admire the horse, keeping fire lanes open, taking up key positions during periods of high foot traffic, surveying the crowd for problems and serving as a visible sign that someone’s in control.
Mayone spent close to 40 hours on his horse over the three days. “I do a lot of concerts throughout the country, and I have to say, [the crowd was] very, very well behaved, very polite,” he said. “When things did turn a little bad (when the cancellation was announced Sunday night), the crowd was still manageable; they were never out of control.”
He said the Centerville Fire Company and chief Randy Ricks deserved credit for monitoring the fire lanes as well.
The decision to cancel the third night of the festival was made by county Health Department Commissioner Carole Smith together with the promoters, according to Sinagra, who said he was part of the communications going back and forth as the storm moved in Sunday night.
Some attendees grumbled that the cancellation was too hasty, and they’d never seen a festival cancelled due to weather. Mayone, too, said he’d worked festivals where it “rained for days,” but the difference here was lightning. He was told there were between 2,000 and 3,000 ground lightning strikes within a six-mile radius of the festival grounds, and no event would continue in those conditions.
Concert organizers asked attendees to return to their cars and wait out the night if they weren’t sober enough to drive. The Red Cross set up a shelter at the Kiwanis Ice Arena, which served meals, snacks and water to around 60 people. When the sun came up Monday, around 1,000 cars were still stuck in the mud. By 5 p.m. all cars that were still attended were out.
In between, some complained that AAA tow trucks were not being allowed on-site. Instead, only the towing company the promoters contracted with was allowed. Some also complained about drivers asking for bribes for jumps and tows.
Local tractor owners also participated, including Mayone, who went home, unloaded his horse, got a few hours sleep, loaded up his tractor and returned. He said he didn’t see anyone asking for bribes, although he did get a few tips. He said he pulled out around 50 cars over the course of the day.
Helsmoortel said if another festival is held at the location, the town would ask that no vehicles be parked in areas that would turn muddy if it rained again. That could mean site work on the parking areas or parking all vehicles offsite.
The traffic that wasn’t
While local diners, hotels and convenience stores did well, the general consensus among business owners was the weekend was a bust.
“If anyone had done business from this it should have been me, and I would say we had one of our worst weekends in 15-20 years,” said Peggy Schwartz, owner of Town & Country Liquors and co-chair of the Saugerties Chamber of Commerce. “So not only did we not see business from this, we lost business. I believe the regulars were intimidated. I think people were afraid of the traffic. There was no traffic.”
Thanks to an ambitious traffic plan that directed festival-goers to exits 21 and 19, and on to routes 32 and 212, few ended up passing through the village. Business owners said they didn’t expect huge numbers of young festival-goers to go on shopping sprees; the main issue was people avoiding town because they feared the traffic. In the weeks leading up to the concert, town officials repeatedly stated attendance would be the same or less than the Garlic Festival. But, perhaps due to the more extensive traffic planning, which suggested a bigger crowd, or lingering memories from Woodstock ’94, many people didn’t believe it.
“There was a lot of feelings about Woodstock ’94; the memories were so vivid in their mind, I think people panicked in a way,” said Marjorie Block, village historian and tourism consultant.
In general, special events don’t help local businesses. Even small events that close the village streets for an afternoon result in diminished sales for nearby businesses. The upside is such events bring new people to the area, and if they like it, they may return. Helsmoortel said he spoke with a local jeweler who reported the slowest weekend in over a decade, but said he’d trade that for the reputation as a town that welcomes the arts and music, which will continue to draw people here in the future. “It makes Saugerties more of a destination,” said Helsmoortel. “It’s a happening town.”
“It’s great that Saugerties has a reputation for being an arts, festival and music community,” agreed Schwartz.
All suggested next year, if another festival is held, the town should try to have a more visible presence, with an information booth. Others noted that many festival-goers weren’t aware of the local shuttles to the village. Also, those who feared the festival would be larger than advertised and cleared out of town may be less likely to do so next year, so local businesses will likely have a better weekend.
On the plus side, the town has already received between $50,000 and $60,000 from the festival from its take on ticket sales, and is expecting a few thousand dollars more. That money will go to the town’s general fund, said Helsmoortel.
Weighing the good with the bad, the Hudson Project was a success and should be welcomed back should promoters decide to stage another one. The main problems could be easily remedied by allowing parking only on surfaces that will not turn to mud in the event of another rain storm, and by having a greater local presence on site. Just having an information booth with some Saugertiesians would have been very helpful for the attendees looking for local info. Businesses in town will never have a good weekend when a large event is going on, but a better advertised local shuttle would be a big improvement. And it’s true what the supervisor and tourism consultant said: events that bring people to the area should be viewed as an investment in future tourism, not judged solely on that weekend’s sales.
Saugerties missed its chance to host the original Woodstock. And though Woodstock ’94 was an ordeal for many, it’s now remembered as the “good” Woodstock of the ’90s and it’s a point of pride for the community that Saugerties hosted it. It’s often said, with some truth, that small towns don’t offer much for young people to do. Or maybe it’s just that young people can’t or don’t want to do what their parents did; they’re not getting married in their early-20s, working at IBM, joining local community organizations that provide a full social calendar. In any case, for those locals who attended, there were surely moments of incredulity — I’m in my hometown, at the biggest party in the tri-state area, having an awesome time. Not every town has a location like Winston Farm, but would every town that did host such a festival? Probably not. It is to Saugerties’ credit that it is up for this sort of thing. The early settlers of Saugerties were Dutch, and the Dutch are a tolerant people. We should note any problems with holding a large festival (giving allowance for this being the first at the site in 20 years) and address them next time around during the permitting process, if there is a next time. But we should strive to be a community where all are welcome; locals, people who moved up from the city, rich, poor tea partiers, liberals, hippies, straights, veterans, pacifists, environmentalists, developers, and so on. Isn’t it a lot more interesting this way?