The Echo Project, The South's Newest Music Festival

Tuesday, October 23, 2007 - by Fil Manley

Welcome to the South’s newest music festival which took place last week in South Fulton near Atlanta. The three-day festival, called The Echo Project, was set on a beautiful, rolling, 350-acre farm, adjacent the Chattahoochee River. It was billed as the country's most environmentally friendly music festival.

It seemed that there were some hiccups in the process. I almost didn’t go because the press requests I mailed a month ago were lost until the day before the show. As luck would have it, I was able to get away on short notice. I was looking forward to contrasting the vastness of Bonnaroo with a smaller venue to see what the differences would be.

According to the festival's publicist, they expected attendance to be between 15,000 and 20,000, and wound up selling 15,000 tickets. Looking at the lineup, it was easy to see that this was a lineup worthy of a big crowd. The headliners included Cypress Hill, Flaming Lips, Disco Biscuits, Clap Your Hands say Yeah, The Killers, Perpetual Groove, Moe, Phil Lesh & Friends, Michael Franti and Spearhead, to name a few. In total there were 60 bands on four stages.

Echo project had it over Bonnaroo in a lot of ways. The smaller crowd and mild weather were the main differences. Even with 10,000 people in attendance, the area in the front of the main stage looked less than half full. It was easy to move around, to get in and out of places and to meet artists.

I heard a rumor that the promoters had booked Radiohead for Echo, but that Radiohead had to cancel. It seemed the festival was under-promoted, but after talking with some of the people who produced it, I was told that Echo happened in a very short period of time. The owners of the property approached them wanting to put on a show. Months were required to secure the proper permits. After that, there wasn’t a lot of time left for promotion.

Echo was like Bonnaroo in a lot of ways. The security was tight, the stages were well put together, sound was excellent and VIP accommodations were nice, with VIPs mingling with the artists backstage. Two of the main sponsors for the event were Jack Daniels and Sweetwater Brewing. Because of this, all of the VIP and artist accommodations were awash in Tennessee whiskey and Atlanta beer, as well as every trendy eco-drink you’ve never heard of.

As for the “Eco”-friendly aspect of the festival, it didn’t seem that much different from Bonnaroo. The solar stage was in evidence, hybrid cars were on display, the Sequatchie Valley Institute was there demonstrating their sustainable building techniques. Many other vendors were also there, and the main response I got from them when I asked how they were doing is “slow.”

Aside from the clean energy vendors and non-profits who were there, the main feature of the ecological push seemed to be a cleanup of the Chattahoochee River in the three weeks leading up to the show, done by volunteers working in exchange for tickets.

All of the music I took in was excellent. I met a new band called “The Egg”, an English band who I’m looking forward to checking out. I missed Cypress Hill for the third time, much to my displeasure. Perpetual Groove put on one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from them and were the only band in attendance who allowed photographers to shoot their entire show. Toubab Krewe, Thievery Corporation and Michael Franti and Spearhead all put on excellent performances.

I left early enough to catch the Flaming Lips, but wound up spending over an hour standing around at the ticket office waiting on passes. By the time I parked my truck and walked to the stage, they played the last 30 seconds of their last song, of their encore, yelled out “Thank you, goodnight” and the lights came on.

This turned into irony because I had spent hours and 15 emails the day before trying to line up an interview with Wayne Coyne of the Lips. The answer I got was maybe, maybe, maybe, then a definite no. Standing there with my press pass just having missed the whole show was disappointing to say the least.

One thing I’ve learned about covering festivals is that if you’re going to cover music, festivals and artists, you go where people will let you. When you meet resistance, you turn around and go somewhere else.

Standing there watching the crowd walk away, I decided to see if I could track down Wayne. I pulled out my cell phone, stared intently at it as if I were typing a text message, put my head down and walked resolutely backstage. No one stopped me. Then, I was walking beside this long line of VIPs who were coming from the riser beside the stage. I stepped into the middle of that bunch and walked right into the Flaming Lips dressing room. I took off my backpack, sat down and looked around.

Steven Drozd, who they call the “musical brains behind the band”, sat across from me. I told him that I was a journalist and that I had been trying to get an interview. He rolled his eyes, and handed me a jar of moonshine with a whole peach in it. Ten seconds later, Wayne Coyne walked in and I wound up talking to both of them for a few minutes. I’m still not sure if that was worth missing the show, because it seems like every time I’m at a venue where they’re playing, I wind up missing most of it.

This little episode was fairly representative of lots of strange encounters, meetings and weird things I saw and overheard throughout the weekend. I spent half an hour listening to a member of band called Louis XIV talk about his band, to a guy sitting beside me, after I mistook him for a member of the Killers, another band I had never listened to. He seemed a little tweaked that I had never heard of his band and went into great detail about all of the talk shows they’ve been on (The Tonight Show, Conan, Carson Daily) the new album, how long it took, etc. So much so, that I’m actually going to give them a listen because I feel like I interviewed the guy.

I almost didn’t listen to the Killers after hearing one dyed-in-the-wool deadhead talking about how “mainstream” they are and the fact that they’re “on MTV” with a look on his face which implied he smelled something foul. I decided to see what the fuss was about and gave them a listen and thought they had a unique and interesting sound. I recognized some of their music from the radio and their lightshow was fantastic.

All things considered, I will be keenly looking forward to next year's Echo Project. The milder weather is the main attraction for me, but the number of people in attendance, even if it makes it up to their hoped-for number of 40,000, will make it much easier to navigate and much more fun.

The daytime temperatures were around 87, and nighttime temps were 45, which is a bit cold when you’re sleeping in a tent. I went prepared, but I would recommend that anyone who’s going next year take that into consideration. Also, the moisture which comes in off of the river in the evening soaks the tall grass of the pastures. Be sure to bring changes of pants, socks and shoes, because whatever you wear in the evening is going to get soaked, and remember, we’re talking mid-40s here.

The Echo Project was friendlier and less corporate than Bonnaroo. I hung out with musicians I know. Michael Franti did yoga with the yoga people and lots of other artists mingled with the crowd. Lots of open space and the cool mist rolling in from the river in the evening made for a spectacular venue.

All in all, for something which was put together in a very short period of time and which was promoted for a very short period of time, I would have to give the Echo project high marks for putting on a professionally run show, but still leaving room for people to explore, have fun and meet people.

If I had to choose between going to Bonnaroo and going to Echo, it would be a hard choice.

Fil Manley

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