Festival Review: OTW's major acts great but 'safe'

In last week’s issue of the local daily’s “GO” section featuring the then-upcoming On the Waterfront (OTW) Festival, the headline implored readers to open the section and “Find where your favorite groups are playing.” Upon opening the section and looking at OTW’s list of performers, it occurred to me that the bands I really wanted to see were in Chicago, Milwaukee—virtually anywhere but here.

As a lifetime Rockford resident, OTW has been an important part of our local culture, at least since I was born. It has practical value, as it is a great way to spend a weekend out of doors, socializing with old friends and making new ones. It has intrinsic value, as it is symbolic of the changing seasons and makes our beautiful Rock River part of our lives, not just something we drive over the top of. For a long time, it also had a musical education value, as there were always enthusiastic, up-and-coming bands that maybe you had never heard of that were hoping to establish themselves in a new market.

For a long time, OTW was a place that you could go and see bands on small stages, before they were popular enough to warrant MetroCentre-size venues. Those days appear to be gone.

This year’s lineup featured almost exclusively what I like to call “safe” bands. A “safe” band is one that generally has two or three radio hits (not necessarily recent), that is unlikely to offend most people and that can keep a crowd’s attention for an hour to an hour and a half. All of the major acts this year fit that bill.

Now, don’t get me wrong—the bands that headlined this year—safe or not—were great. They put on solid live shows, and the primarily white, middle-aged audiences listening loved every note. But therein lies the problem. If I’m a 16-year-old kid, why should I care about Dennis DeYoung? If I like hip-hop, heavy metal, rap, punk or ska, who am I supposed to take an interest in? Lifehouse?

That is why OTW is in big trouble. The organizers fail to realize that Rockford audiences are just as diverse as larger cities like Chicago or Milwaukee. And when audiences are ignored, bad things happen.

First, consider the best-case scenario: A 17-year-old boy hears about this year’s OTW lineup from his parents. Upon seeing Mom and Dad’s excitement, the kid asks: “Who’s Alice Cooper? Is she hot?” Saddened by his parents’ response, the boy decides to simply stay home.

The other scenario isn’t as pleasant: The same kid, already feeling disenfranchised by the far-from-nurturing Rockford under-21 scene, decides to go ahead and cough up the 12 bucks for a button and drive downtown with a group of friends. The friends take some time to make fun of the bands their parents are watching—but that grows tiresome quickly. The group quickly spends the money they brought, content to eat elephant ears and snow cones simply to pass the time. Already knowing there are no musical acts of interest, the kids walk around in large circles before eventually succumbing to the urge to sit or stand around street corners or under bridges. Before too long, other groups of kids do the same thing—and this is where those “mobs” of teens many people complain about are created. Nobody likes these mobs—the kids included. Give them a choice between standing at the corner of State and Wyman or standing in front of a band they like, and there’s little doubt where they’ll be.

These large crowds of kids have unnerved many festival-goers over the years. Some will argue the best way to eliminate them is to refuse to cater to their demands…the idea that if we ignore them, maybe they’ll go away. But the reality is that 1) If you can occupy their attention, they’ll be far less likely to get in trouble; 2) If you command their attention, you’ll also command their pocket books. Teen-agers have more disposable income than ever before—if they spend it at OTW, the entire community benefits; 3) If festival organizers don’t take steps to include these kids now, later, when they are adults, they’ll be so disenchanted by the festival that they simply won’t show up. So the benefits are many, they are immediate, and they are worth the investment.

This year’s OTW lineup showed a lack of creativity and revealed that those booking these acts are long out of touch with the interests of their younger clientelé. Were this year’s bands good? Sure, if your musical interests are confined to ’70s pop. But sophisticated music fans like to be challenged, and they like to hear new things. Can every diverse musical genre be represented? Probably not. But one thing is for sure: Changes need to happen. If they don’t, without even knowing it, we may see the Great Lawn turned into the Great Yawn. And if that happens, the entire community loses.

Jonathan Hicks is a staff writer and Rockford resident.

From the Sept. 7-13, 2005, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!