10th Annual Sterling Stage Folkfest
On Thursday, May 22, 2014, an eclectic group of people of all ages began to descend upon the otherwise sleepy town of Sterling, NY to a several acre plot of land, owned by Tom Ryan, lovingly referred to as the Sterling Stage Kampitheater. This quiet area tucked in central New York, near Lake Ontario, plays host to three enormous festivals per year. These festivals are so fantastic, unique and sometimes life-altering, that people from the area and around the country gather here annually to behold the sights, activities and particularly…the sounds.
In 1995, an idea was born to host a party for those involved in what was then a ‘virgin’ jam-band scene. Only two years later the party evolved into festivals featuring national acts, and each season the dream only got bigger, as it became more easily attainable. “I was looking for a place to do a music festival and had mutual friends with Tom Ryan, so we basically drew up the partnership where I was going to put on the festival, and he would develop the venue.”-Eric McElveen
These are by no means your average festivals even for the jam-band scene. This particular venue, offered 33 bands providing the music and totally free camping, on the beautiful grounds with the purchase of a weekend pass. During an interview with Producer/Promoter Eric McElveen Friday afternoon near the main stage (one of two), we discussed the birth and life of the festival, the ideals behind it, and all the things one could expect to find now and in the near future at Sterling Stage.
When I asked Eric what inspired offering camping at these festivals, his answer was simple and logical, “Unlike bars where you go and get kicked out at two or whatever the time may be for the area, this is an area where people can enjoy the music and get intoxicated if they wanted to, and then go sleep in their tent or their camper or whatever. Also, the people that aren’t twenty-one could come in, which was another problem I was having with the developing bands, was that a lot of the venues- the bar venues and stuff- were limited in that regard; as to who could come enjoy the shows…and since all ages love music it made sense.”
One of the immediately striking things to note at these festivals is the startlingly vast array of different types of people. Some have been to this venue every season since the beginning, some many times and others stepped into this strange world for the first time this spring. I asked a 25-year-old gentlemen from Auburn, NY (originally PA) what he thought of Sterling Stage- and the Folkfest in particular- and his reply was, “The first thing I noticed was walking around Thursday evening in the sun, taking it all in, and I could just feel the good vibes everywhere. It was so different watching everyone do their thing down by the stage; whether it be sitting, dancing with everyone or just enjoying the moment. It was all new to me…” –Jason R. Schmidt
To make things fair I also asked a gentleman whom had been to these festivals several times a series of questions. His replies were somewhat similar to Jason Schmidt’s about the good vibes and the community atmosphere, but he added some advice for first-timers, “Don’t forget there are two stages- go to the Sinatra Lounge (second stage) at night…and be prepared. Bring multiple changes of clothing, and be aware you’re going to run into some really weird people, but they’re all cool.” Anthony M. DelloStritto, Auburn, NY.
This show is often seen as a community gathering place for those who love music, and as Eric McElveen so eloquently stated, the event is a ‘cultural cross-pollination time’ when people of all ages, shapes, and ideals can come together, in a peaceful gathering place, and share ideas… almost like a musical United Nations. When like-minded individuals convene, be they lifelong friends or new acquaintances, very similar or very different, the ambiance at Sterling is conducive to a learning environment. There is a way about the place that is inspiring, and allows people to express exciting and inspirational thoughts. When I commented to Eric McElveen about this observation he said, “That was one of the major ideas from the beginning and its one of the major ideas now.” They did not want to create simply another place to play music; this festival is about bringing people together, and sharing.
One way in which this is clearly noticeable, is in the musical lineup. There is no timeslot better than another, and local, regional, and national performers share two stages, sometimes with two acts playing at the same time. Sterling Stage Folkfest also boasts a lack of discernable headliners. That by no means denotes a lack of famed talent however, if one looks over the flyers for these shows, it’s likely you’ll see six bands you’ve never heard of before the national acts set to perform sometime after. There is a method to the ‘madness’ of the schedule though, it’s an opportunity to hear some great music you may not have been aware of.
Now that Sterling Stage Folkfest is practically a household name Eric explained to me, “Events become more predictable in their attendance and that allows for a more solid financial base. If we have a solid bottom line we’re able to have more options for the types and levels of entertainment I bring in. So, one of the things I’ve been trying to do is bring in national acts that fit the festival and fit the right vibe, but also are obviously attainable to us- that we can work with within the budget here. We don’t have major corporate sponsors or anything like that, so if something should not work out because of weather or whatever, it’s important to know we’re going to be fine anyway. Because, the audience is coming, no matter what.” “I have enough of a reputation amongst the music community here that even if they don’t know who the performers is they’re willing to trust me into checking them out. That means something, you know, that they’re going to give an open ear to it because it’s coming to Sterling Stage.”
Eric McElveen knows what the festivals mean to the performers, the artisans, and the community at large. Obviously an event like this would bring serious revenue to the area outside of the grounds on which it’s hosted, but the ‘music community’ attains a much greater benefit. Folkfest hearkens back to an era when music was less commercial and more about the vibes it created. While this feeling is the jam-band scene’s essence, there are few rare places actually capable of capturing this atmosphere, as it is practically out of place in time. An example of the magnitude of how different an experience this is for youths, would be the great Levon Helm and Dickey Betts (past performers/visitors and Rock-n-Roll Hall of Famer’s) having told Eric that the Sterling Stage Folkfest was “One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in my life, and certainly the coolest thing I’ve witnessed since the 1970’s.” That being said, Eric claimed that the reassurance or encouragement from them was paramount in his continued fervor for putting on this show. “It really shortens the gap between the consumers of music and those producing it.”
As for the grounds themselves, I stayed all weekend. There was a lot to see, hear, and do. There were tons of little ‘tent colonies’ with names like “GlowTown” and “Teach, Don’t Judge.” The area I stayed in was not named, but even so I found a group of people I’d never met, and we became friends. The area, while safe for children, was replete with drugs of every sort that were brought by patrons, and myself and others saw some of the most bizarre and hilarious people milling about. In the first day aloe I met an orange Dancing Bear (of Grateful Dead fame,) on day two I became acquainted with a man in a Leprechaun costume that was clearly on LSD, then on the third day I met a gentleman who referred to himself as “Jellyfish Boston.” –and these are only the most distinctive folk.
If you meandered to the main stage area you could find music naturally, but also food vendors, artisans of every ‘flavor’ (I bought a beaded glass necklace,) and painters (one of which gave me a print.) In the crowd there were hula-hooping females, people dancing, and a plethora of people you wouldn‘t expect having interesting, engaging conversation, which you were warmly invited to join if simply standing nearby.
My humble opinion is that if you ever get the chance to attend the Sterling Stage Folkfest…do it. It’s an experience to be remembered for a lifetime, and unlike most of those, this will be an incredible story.
– Tiffany Reynolds
The Fuze Magazine
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