As the many music festivalgoers of Gen X have entered middle age, some festivals have tuned their experience specifically to those still looking for the joy and rush of a weekend of live music—but with a decidedly more comfortable and upscale experience. The ever expanding VIP experiences of most larger festivals are now the primary offering of some smaller boutique festivals that have popped up around the country, like last weekend’s Bear Shadow just outside of mountain-chic Highlands, N.C.
Featuring headliners Band of Horses, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, and Trampled By Turtles, the second-year fest delivered a weekend one might call intentionally grownup. Featuring a single stage with three daily performances, each a full-length 90-minute set, fans were welcome to set up camp chairs and post up for the day. For music lovers who want to rock (but also go to bed at a reasonable hour), the fest finished at 10:30 on Friday and Saturday nights. And for those needing to get back to places like Atlanta and Nashville and Charlotte and get a good night’s sleep before starting their work week, the music was done by 5:30 pm on Sunday.
More notably, Bear Shadow’s general admission ticket level comes with unlimited beer, wine and non-alcoholic beverages, eliminating long lines and the everyday friction of making purchase decisions. Festival Director Casey Reid says, “We try to think of every touchpoint, really thinking about the five senses—you need to think about every angle and how it all works together.” Reid’s experience leading the renowned Highlands Food & Wine festival informed the creation of a music festival that matches the “elevated” description used in the Highlands Food & Wine marketing. The attention to detail throughout the grounds, like up-lights in the trees and rustic wood posts supporting the larger tents, all contribute to an environment that was definitely more refined that our normal notion of “music festival.”
To further their vision, Bear Shadow offered daily pre-show satellite events like two “Hike & Mic” outings featuring an up-close live performance from a festival artist after a guided nature hike, and “Wine, Women & Song,” an offsite songwriters-in-the-round performance with wine tasting as well as Saturday and Sunday morning yoga and guitar clinics. Like some other boutique festivals that have launched in recent years, like Wildwood Revival outside Athens, Ga., Bear Shadow occupies a private farm, which has the added benefit of lots of grass rather than dust, dirt and pavement.
Ben Bridwell—lead singer of headliners Band of Horses who would only two days later play the larger, more traditional Shaky Knees Festival in Atlanta—says of Bear Shadow, “It’s not trying to be Glastonbury or Shaky Knees or Bonnaroo—they have a realistic grasp of how many people should be in here and how to cater to that crowd correctly. There’s no doubt this thing will grow.” Talking about the comforts provided, added, “You’re allowed to be yourself. You’re allowed to be exactly your age—your comfort level is allowed. That’s nice, that’s really nice.”
Fortunately, this type of experience isn’t an either/or. The energy of a big festival is irreplaceable. Knowing options like Bear Shadow exist, however, creates opportunities for more live music experiences, especially for fans who get exhausted just thinking about those heady days at the big fests. A weekend at Bear Shadow is full of delights and virtually none of the hassles. Here’s to seeing creative festivals like this thrive.