One does not simply go to the Hinterland.
The organizers — or perhaps the gods — made this abundantly clear during the festival’s inaugural year when flooding demanded a last-minute shift away from the original location in the heart of Des Moines, to a space more worthy of the Teutonic title — “Hinterland.” In German, “the lands behind.”
The backup location was indeed behind Des Moines, on the outskirts of St. Charles, Iowa, roughly two miles away from the town square, which consisted of a few churches, a few more and homes and a Casey’s. The pink light that radiating from Des Moines cast a vague reminder to remain grateful to deluges past.
The festival provided camping sites, but the shift in location made them “first come, first serve,” which, for those who live in Iowa City, required rising from bed at some inhumane hour. My navigator and I managed to pull out of the driveway a little after 1 p.m.
I planned on taking I-80 to Des Moines, but I’m terrible with directions. My navigator, with an understandable hatred of the interstate, diverted us into Kalona and unlocked a Google Route that wound its way through the fecund stretches of prairie that still persist along deserted two-lane roads. The green hills shone in the sunlight as we dodged slow-moving vehicles around half-assed Midwestern curves. We passed barns in disrepair, new fences and fields of drought-resistant grain. We went through the kinds of small towns that seems to exist within a temporal bubble, nestled in the dreams of an Iowa you can only find on postcards.
Even after stopping for java at Smokey Row Coffee in Oskaloosa and a delicious beer at the Peace Tree Taphouse in Knoxville, we managed to make it to our lodgings by 3:45 p.m. TV on the Radio, a band I’d dreamed of seeing for the decade since Return to Cookie Mountain, was to play at 4 p.m. We dropped off our gear and drove up the interstate toward St. Charles when we were confronted with a mile long stretch of sojourners in vehicles who, like us, had undoubtedly hoped to make it to the festival earlier but had fallen prey to the irresistible temptations and unforeseeable delays that make journeys to music festivals epic — sometimes Odyssean — struggles.
At 3:57 p.m., wearied by our long wait and longer drive, we pulled out of line and ditched the car on the side of the road. Unloading the bicycles that we had brought along (“Just in case!”), we passed by the cars and anxious concert-goers steadily trickling toward the sounds of bass and drums that oriented us toward the venue. We biked to the main gate, walked through security, and found ourselves on a relatively steep incline that leveled out toward the main stage. TVOTR wasn’t on stage yet, so we found our other companions and sat in the shade, grateful that it was a cool day and grateful, too, for the presence of cold beer that wasn’t as overpriced as it might have been.
Later, we voyaged to the other side of the stage to watch Future Islands, dancing in the crowds that coalesced before the stage, but without the erratic genius or loud clothing possessed by the band’s frontman. The night truly bloomed for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes as the neon lights from the food vendors seemed to dance with the glowing hula hoops twirling in the crowd. The band shambled joyfully through its set as everyone in the crowd became a fan.
The next day arrived before we were ready. By noon it was already too hot. We ended up driving to the venue and biking from the parking lot to the front gates. I sat in the hot sun and listened to the warm sounds of Joe Pug and Justin Townes Earle, baking. A lady, who represented herself as having had fourteen Bloody Marys as of 1 p.m. that afternoon, asked me for a light and talked about what life was like in Kansas.
I left her as St. Paul and the Broken Bones appeared on stage. They unleashed a spectacle of solid, soul-stirring sound as Paul seemed to sweat his spirit through his suitcoat, singing without strain, voice soaring toward the sky and leading us toward the blazing sun with him. The combination of beer and sun had made me dehydrated before the show, and the dancing had wrested the remainder of vital fluids from me. I walked away after the set, looking for shade and water. Water, at least, was available for free.
My navigator was even more sensitive to the sun than I, so we lingered on the top of the hill during Lucius and Yonder Mountain String Band. We sipped on lemonade and PBR and watched the shadows start to slide down the mountain. Everyone was friendly: Phones were found before they were lost, and those who had intoxicants shared with those without. Smiles abounded, in spite of the sun and the interminable lines for pizza and burritos.
Brandi Carlile put on a spirited performance, her powerful voice cutting through and electrifying a crowd whose energies might otherwise have remained sapped from the heat and the night before. The cool of night touched the earth during her set, and her honest joy at being able to play with her heroes, who joined her on stage, became something the audience could taste.
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The weekend culminated with Old Crow Medicine Show, whose fiddles and harmonies seemed to summon the moon up from the trees that surrounded the amphitheater. It hung suspended over an embankment of clouds, a pale face peering from the heavens downward at the humans, all of whom were absorbing the vibration of voice and string. The frenetic fingers of the band, apparent on the album, were met with an appreciation for their dancing that propelled the songs forward into the night.
After the encores, which included more collaborative covers, and after the lights flashed on, and after people moved from the blankets and retrieved shoes and satchels and purses, and after seeing smiles, and even the next morning when I retrieved our bikes, what was most striking was the sense of togetherness that had permeated the whole. From families camping to couples kissing, folks were watching out for each other.
Perhaps that’s why the festival needed the actual Hinterland. Why people need music. Why life needs art. Why it’s worth making a proper trip out to “the lands behind”, even in the heat.