Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Whitaker Music Festival

Well, it's summer in St. Louis, which only means a deluge of many different things.

First off, there's the actual deluge of rain, which seems to appear once or twice every two weeks. Now I'm a man who loves rain, but unfortunately since I have become a homeowner rain has lost some of its charm and replaced it with uneasy woe. For instance, last summer our air conditioner was in jeopardy. Another for instance is that the original builders of our house made a slight shortcut when they built in 1958, which has resulted in a problem for us in 2009. You see, all the houses on our street were built almost identical. I say almost because certainly there are slight variations; some have two car garages while others (like our house) has what by today's standards could be considered half car garages. There are a few distinctly different rooflines, some have the floorplan that is a mirror image of ours (so that when you stand at the front door, looking in, the kitchen is on the right and the bedrooms on the left as opposed to ours, which is kitchen-left bedrooms-right), and some have the door in a slightly different spot or a square glass block front window into the entry way closet as opposed to our circular one (which is a square window on the inside but framed on the outside to be circular). But the one thing every house had in common was the stairs to the basement are in the garage.

Yes, that's right; to get to the basement of any house on my street, you have to first enter the garage, either from the garage door, the kitchen, or the doorway to the side yard. Of course, since 1958, a few of these houses have since been upgraded so that now there are stairs inside the actual house that go down in the basement, though most houses still only have the original staircase. The previous owners of our house did a slipshod remodel (and we'll leave it at that for now) that included a staircase from the living room down to the basement, which they had partially furnished into a media center/office/exercise room by putting up some drywall (which also created another pointless, unused room, a laundry room and a gross ventless 1/2 bath). But the previous owners' misguided attempts at remodelling aside, as I said the original owners made a mistake. That mistake was not putting stairs from the garage to the basement (although really guys?), but instead was in not backfilling gravel under the garage's foundation. When they then put the stairs in, they just cut a stairwell into the ground and poured cement. The upshot of this is that this summer, since we no longer have to be concerned about our air conditioning unit sliding down a hill, we can focus on the fact that water comes in along those stairs, since there is really nothing underneath them but hard clay soil.

But that's just one deluge the summer brings in St. Louis, and that is all I have to say about it now. Another deluge is the deluge of days of ninety-plus degree weather. We're nowhere near the equator or an ocean, yet our days in St. Louis are full of sweltering heat, near total humidity and heat indexes in the 110+ range. When it's 8:40 in the morning and you walk the nine yards from your front door to your car, in St. Louis it's perfectly reasonable to expect that all of that good clean feeling your cool shower gave you has been replaced by stinky, sweaty grossness. Which is a third deluge: the deluge of sweat you produce yourself simply by stepping out the door while the sun is up.

But the most promising and enjoyable deluge is the free concerts. The summer usually kicks off with the RFT Music Showcase, which isn't all free but mostly free (some places do make you pay a cover, but for the most part you're clear to enjoy some free local tunes). Then of course with Fair St. Louis (the 4th of July festival downtown) there are usually a fair number of acts that perform for free (The Oakridge Boys in 2005, perennial favorites include Cowboy Mouth of course). Several years ago, they expanded this idea into Live on the Levee, which this year includes Sonic Youth (on my wedding anniversary, no less). Last year, due to the first kind of deluge I talked about, the riverfront area was slightly less hospitable than normal (and slightly more flooded) so they moved it to Soldier's Memorial in front of City Hall and called it Live Off the Levee, but this year's looking a bit more promising.

And then, of course, there's the Whitaker Music Festival at the Missouri Botanical Gardens (see link below). This is a great opportunity to see the Botanical Gardens for free (usually a $5 entrance fee for residents of St. Louis City and County, $8 for out-of-towners unless you're a member) and hear some music.

Except that each time I attend the Whitaker Music Festival, I am reminded that the event is not so much about the music as it is about being in the garden and spending time with friends. All one has to do to seek confirmation is to check attendance records for the 2007 Whitaker Music Festival, which was held in the parking lot of MoBot as opposed to inside the actual garden due to construction and maintenance on the usual site. Attendance that year fell dramatically over previous years; sure, you were still free to roam the garden, but if you wanted to listen to the music you had to sit on the hot pavement. Not ideal when it already feels like your skin is boiling in the shade.

Of course, as I said above, the music isn't the reason people come to the Whitaker Festival (I am, of course, generalizing here; there are those, I am sure, who attend specifically to listen to great artists play, but as you get further from the stage the excitement level in relation to the music takes a dive). The year the festival took place in the parking lot, it made no sense to park yourself under a tree near the English Garden and consume massive amounts of wine, cheese, pita chips, hummus and grapes. If the music is happening in the parking lot, you just look like you're on a picnic and freeloading in the Garden's lush acreage. But now that it's back inside the garden, there is no reason not to put your blanket down on the ground a quarter mile away from the stage. There are speakers so you can still sort of hear the music, and you won't look silly because most of the people at the garden for the concert won't be able to see the stage.

So I have come to the conclusion that, for the average attendee, the Whitaker Music Festival isn't so much about Whitaker (full disclosure, the festival is supported by The Whitaker Foundation which was established to encourage the appreciation culture and heritage by putting art and music in parks) or even music, but about the Festival Atmosphere.

In all honesty, even after attending the July 8th performance, I had to double-check the website to know that it was the Tony Simmons Band that provided background music for my evening. But judging by appearances, most of the people who come view the music as just that; something as a background to their night out with friends. I, myself, made new friends, which is part of the festival's draw; you set your blanket (or, in my case, just your stuff as we forgot our blanket at home) down on the ground, and as strangers walk by somebody in your group recognizes a passing face or is recognized by a passing face, and suddenly your group of 3-4 has grown to 8-10. This is part of what makes Whitaker such a great event for the St. Louis summer days (not to mention its midweek placement makes it a great way to unwind and get ready for those last two days before the weekend).

The Whitaker Music Festival takes place Wednesday Nights at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, MO. This year's events began June 3 and will continue through August 5. Please consult website for schedule of artists, directions, parking and any other questions.

The Missouri Botanical Garden presents the Whitaker Music Festival


Molly said...

submit this to some newspaper!

You heard me!

bridget said...

We go to the whitaker music festival and sit near the ridgeway center and watch the pack mules come and go! It amazes me the stuff people bring...wagons full...coolers on wheels...strollers without kids in them, but blankets & picnic baskets instead. It's a great people-watching adventure...I highly recommend it.