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Column: Paradise Regained in Central Vermont

By default my wife and I had the recent pleasurable task of taking my 13-year-old granddaughter to a social gathering she and her parents described as a music festival. Honoring privacy, I’ll only identify the location as nestled in the hills of central Vermont.

“Music festival” is a phrase to be feared in its 21st century garb. As seems inevitable in the United States, the Woodstock phenomenon of 1969 morphed quickly into an endless series of branded, commercialized outdoor extravaganzas. The remarkable spontaneous spirit that arose in that farm field in upstate New York quickly became just another thing to “monetize.” Woodstock is certainly not alone.

In 1994, not long before Jerry Garcia sold his last souvenir, my wife and I went to a Grateful Dead show in Highgate, Vt. Our kids and my brother-in-law had, to various degrees, wasted some of their youth at Dead shows, so we thought we ought to grab the experience when it was so convenient. It was a tawdry disappointment.

My son worked security backstage and reported that the band members were cynical, pressing hard for more sales of everything. Many readers may recall that this event was further tarnished by thousands of thugs who crashed the party, collapsing a fence and injuring many of the security guards who tried to restrain the mob. My son was lucky and avoided that nightmare, but we didn’t know he was safe until many hours later.

The crowd was — sorry — mostly disgusting. The “charm” of counterculture life wears thin and smelly after a few decades. The most dedicated Deadheads were nearly comatose hours before the “show” began. The Grateful Dead stank (stunk?). Actually they stank and stunk.

But back to the nestling in central Vermont hills. This music festival is evidently a traditional two-day affair, gathering organized and disorganized groups of musicians to play for friends and families, starting on an afternoon, heating up into the wee hours, coughing back to life with a morning cup of coffee and ending the second afternoon. Many, if not most, of the folks in attendance pitched tents and spent the night.

My wife and I intended to stay just long enough to pass off the aforementioned granddaughter to the hands of her friend’s father and skedaddle ASAP. I’d like to claim that we drank deeply from the magic of the moment and cast our lot with the mostly younger folks who invited us to hang out for the night. We didn’t. But we couldn’t skedaddle, as the mood was pretty darned infectious. We stayed for a while.

A gracious porch served as makeshift stage. A few chairs were arranged for the sedentary, but most folks milled around or danced barefoot in the grass. Potluck food sat ready in the barn. Even a makeshift sink was under “construction” during our short visit. Women and girls, as is usually the case, danced together in that lovely, uninhibited way that characterized the free-flowing joy of the 1960s. Men and boys usually take a little longer, or a few beers, to be so innocently expressive. Some folks swam in a lovely pond on the property. The makings of a bonfire promised an idyllic night.

I suppose I am guilty of sentimentalizing, but this central Vermont “music festival” stirred up some mighty fine feelings.

The natural, unspoken feeling of brother- and sisterhood felt exactly like what we experienced in a brief pocket of time in the ’60s. The music, while far from polished and precise, was just what music should be: fresh, unexpected, eclectic, soulful and as much fun for the musicians as for the rest of us. It’s impossible not to have fun when the band is having so much damn fun.

I haven’t gone to a rock concert or festival in many years. That dismal Dead show was the only one in many decades. I have no desire to go to any rock concert or festival in the years ahead either. But I kind of hope, by default, that we have to drive our granddaughter to this “festival” again next summer. Maybe we’ll have the tent ready this time.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school.