Sunday, July 19, 2015

My First Pitchfork Festival in Review

My first time ever at the Pitchfork Music Festival threatened to go off the rails early. I'd come with a couple friends, and we'd just seen Bully tear through a fantastic set (more on them in a bit) to open the day. Following that, Ex Hex was next on the agenda, despite the first feelings of raindrops as we headed over to see Mary Timony and company. After a delay, they managed to get through four songs before the storm finally hit in earnest, and the dreaded closing announcement was heard. Thunder and lightning soon followed, way too close for comfort. We congregated with everyone heading for the exits, forming a bottleneck that must have taken a good five minutes (precious time in this situation) to get through. Finally we made it out, and went . . . well, nowhere. We were surrounded by residential areas whose locked doors offered no shelter from lightning, rain, or possible tornadoes. In retrospect, I doubt this particular storm ever got close enough to pose a serious threat to us, but it was a scary sequence of events. (Not that the people who hadn't heeded the evacuation were any safer, as festival tents are certainly not adequate protection for severe weather.)

I'll get to the music in a moment, but this was such a mismanaged situation, and it could have had serious consequences had weather conditions been just a tad different. So let's take a second to run through the screw-ups. 

1) Zero information about what to do in case of severe weather on the website, and no directions to nearby shelter.

You could perhaps argue that it's the responsibility of the individual to know where to go in these instances. Lord knows I regretted not checking out the nearby streets beforehand for possible weather refuges. But given how confusing Chicago can be to navigate under even ideal conditions (meaning times when you're not panicking about possibly being stuck outside in the middle of a nasty storm), as well as how many people are coming from outside the city to attend, it would seem to be a sensible step to include a map to the nearest place that can serve as a shelter. By which I mean a building (or buildings) able to house several thousand people temporarily. We don't need to be comfortable, just safe. So pack us in if you have to. But make sure the shelter is out there, and that everyone knows how to get to it.

In short, putting nothing under your "weather" section except the words "The Pitchfork Music Festival will take place rain or shine is inexcusable.

Now, I don't know the neighborhood, so it could be that safe shelters are a fair distance away. But that brings me to my second point . . .

2) Not enough warning.

Music festivals are loud. Fact. There is no way people are going to be able to fully register the first faint rumblings of thunder while listening to a band like Ex Hex, even if they're standing pretty far back. And even if they were able to hear it, many people are not going to take it seriously until it becomes louder, at which point finding shelter in time becomes virtually impossible.

Here's the good news: weather systems are pretty darn advanced nowadays. They can tell you when a severe storm is going to be in the area well before it happens. With that information, the decision can and should be made to close the festival temporarily even before those first faint rumblings and tell people to take shelter (which, if the solution to problem #1 has been implemented, they will know how to get to). A lot of folks will probably not be happy about this. So be it. Because what I saw on Saturday was a bunch of people frantically being ushered out of Union Park as the storm was already bearing down, then having no idea what to do next. And that's a recipe for disaster.