In the past decade, festivals have completely reshaped the way that many experience their favorite musical acts as well as discover new ones. A sense of community is created within these events and people typically flock towards them with open minds and a willingness to be exposed to sites and sounds that they would never ordinarily be able to see within one place. The very people who are responsible for bringing us Bonnaroo, which was a major catalyst in this festival boom, hope to do with food what they have done for music.
Googa Mooga (a phrase chosen from New Orleans music lexicon in a similar manner as Bonnaroo) is the new 2 day festival in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park which, this past weekend, brought together 75 of the best food vendors around New York City (as well as some amazing staples found elsewhere in the United States, scores of brewers and wine makers, and topped that off with over 20 live performances across 2 stages. And to top it off and help attract the masses, entry was free. When you combine all of these elements, along with two cloudless summery days, there should be very little to gripe about; right?
In an introductory press conference held on the festival grounds; Superfly Presents co-founder Jonathan Mayers spoke about the motivation for Googa Mooga as well as the evolution of the place of food at music festivals. The company’s roots promoting in the New Orleans music scene was rather clear throughout the weekend; and that city provides a great starting point for understanding the deep relation between music, food, and community. As Preservation Hall Jazz Band leader Ben Jaffe, who was sitting beside Mayers, put it: “Food feeds the body; while music nourishes the soul.” Events such as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, serve as great models for this kind of venture, due to the quality of the local delicacies and that feeling of satiation that is attained in conjunction with the top notch music acts all around you. Simply put, there is something for everyone regardless of age or tastes.
By placing this festival in the middle of Prospect Park, we are provided with a literal retreat from the hustle of Manhattan to some of the forgotten greenery of New York City. The simple pleasure of having grass under your feet is undeniable, yet too often neglected in many urban settings. And although there are still acres of green space at the Central Park as well, having giant skyscrapers hovering in the distance would not provide the same sense of retreat that is attainable in Brooklyn.
Fitz and the Tantrums’ MoneyGrabber
To help create a sense of wonder, Superfly turned to Rockwell Group for the design of the festival site. I had the opportunity to go on a walk-through with ceo David Rockwell and Jonathan Mayers early on Saturday as well which you can read more about here. To summarize, the grounds were laid out in a manner to promote interactions and put the food vendors in the spotlight. Each experience on the site was unique and borrowed from the diversity found in the streets of New York City. Whimsical structures were scattered throughout the site serving as both navigational landmarks and photo opportunities and helped produce a sense of spectacle that can be attained at Googa Mooga.
Everybody in Prospect Park had to have been pretty thrilled with the more than ideal forecast going into Saturday; and where better to spend a nice day? The gates opened at around 11 am and people slowly trickled in and plotted their plan of attack. With delicious treats such as lobster rolls, pork bell tacos, soft-shelled crab sandwiches, umami burgers, and flights of bacon; a plan was of the utmost importance. It also helped tremendously to have friends who are willing to share in order to cover as much ground as possible. Lines were still extremely tolerable in the wee hours of this festival. The first tastings were accompanied by extremely enjoyable music on the main stage from the likes of Naomi Shelton & The Gospel Queens and then the Pedrito Martinez Group. The ambiance was that of one great lawn party; allowing people to dance barefoot to latin rhythms should they desire, or huddle around tables asking their neighbors where they got what they were eating.
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band came on to the main stage around 3 pm. By this time the grounds had begun to swell with people and food and drink lines were growing by the minute. Fortunately, I was able to grab some Crawfish Monica and secure a great spot on the lawn prior to this performance. If any moment of the weekend evoked the New Orleans Jazz Fest the most it was without a doubt this. Spirits were high for this ensemble of talented musicians and the best way to describe this set would be fun. Towards the end of their set, they exited the stage while still playing all of their instruments and formed a second line that wove its way through the entire crowd with member audiences jumping in, marching and dancing right behind them.
By the time the impromptu jazz parade was over; the crowd had grown so much that it was difficult to even figure out what each line was for. Furthermore, there were some problems with the Extra Moula debit card system which was intended to use for the purchase of beer and wine, resulting in back ups for over an hour in some cases just for a beer. A lot of the popular food choices were also beginning to disappear. Combined with the intensifying heat, and difficult access to water, frustrations for some began to grow. Apparently there was a fist fight that broke out over fried chicken, as well as a few death threats (that amounted to nothing more than threats) aimed at people cutting lines. I feel bad for those who were unable to enjoy themselves, because some great music and great food was around them the whole time. So what if you couldn’t get a grilled lobster; there were several other top rated foods EVERYWHERE around you; make adjustments.
Over on the other side of the Nethermeads, was a stage and corresponding food stations that were called Hamageddon; which can best be described as a heavy metal tribute to pig. Pigs were roasting inside of a gigantic steel pig that breathed fire. Yea, pretty awesome. On the stage next to it; conveniently called the Hamageddon Stage, a slew of tribute bands, air guitar summits, and cooking/bbq sessions took place. This was perhaps one of the most fun areas of the entire festival as you saw people kicking back the entire time. Unchained, who describe their act as “the Mighty Van Halen Tribute,” simply couldn’t have been better on this warm Saturday afternoon. The selection of cover bands to belt out some tunes for the crowd to just rock out to was superb by seeing fake Van Halen performing “Jump” with an entire cast of air guitarist in viking outfits in front of them.
By the end of the first day, it seemed as if many of the foodies had given up on their hopes of sampling every vendor and much of the crowd was more focused on the main stage. The Roots performed a stellar set with Questlove’s rhythmic drumming bringing everyone to their feet. As the sun set on the first day of Googa Mooga, all different kinds of opinions were floating around. Most of the people who stayed to the end left with smiles on their faces even if they didn’t have as much food in their bellies as they had hoped. Twitter and elsewhere on the internet, negativity swirled (as it usually does) citing that many absurdly high expectations had not been met and this event was only for those who like to be suckered into waiting on lines. To each their own.
Perhaps it was because some expectations were lowered, or because better management with food quantities and drink ticketing had occurred, or simply because those naysayers chose not to return to Prospect Park; but Sunday was a completely different story in how efficiently run this festival was. In short, Superfly stepped up their game, listened to the criticisms and made many of the necessary adjustments that they had the power to.
In general, Sunday felt much more relaxed and people came in with an attitude that they just want to have a good time. Food vendors seemed much more prepared for the masses and the crowd knew that if they really wanted to try something; they’d have to do so early. Having received the final duck foie gras doughnut on that day was certainly a high point; and if this had happened on Saturday I may have had a murderous bunch behind me but communication between vendors and crowd seemed much improved as they were assisted by ‘line-talkers.’ These were Googa Mooga volunteers who held adjustable signs indicating the length of lines in time as well as other uplifting messages and helped manage expectations. While it seems like a silly approach to handle this situation it humanized the process much more and helped everybody just relax.
Music Sunday was all pretty uplifting to add to the mood. Fitz and the Tantrums were a special mid-day treat. It was hard to resist staying still during their set; and the 6 members on stage produced a verg big sound; fusing together soul, funk, and rock. The energy of tracks such as “Moneygrabber” and “L.O.V.” were perfect for a hot Sunday afternoon after throwing back a a Googa Doc Pomus (1940’s style American Lager brewed at the nearby Brooklyn Brewery for the festival). An especially funky cover of the Raconteurs “Steady As She Goes” left a great taste on everybody’s mouths and this band definitely had a few more fans after their performance.
Like the day before, a cover band was completely winning over a crowd at the Hamageddon Stage prior to the main act. Lez Zeppelin; an all female Led Zeppelin tribute band, were perhaps one of the most difficult acts to get close up to see the entire weekend. The crowd backed up all the way to a small hill that bounded the festival site; fortunately there was plenty of shaded area to stake out where you can still hear hits like “Whole Lotta Love” and “Stairway to Heaven.” As much of the Googa Moula system was abandoned in favor of cash, the central area was now a lot more free from lines and this was a popular spot for groups to comfortably sprawl out and take a breather with music from both stages (but no overlapping sets) still audible. This also became a popular area for young children and babies who were welcomed with open arms and seemed to be having as good a time as anybody. With tons of shade, snacks, and plenty of bright and shiny objects around; even hipster babies can have a good time.
With only Hall & Oates left to perform at the inaugural Googa Mooga; everybody flocked to the main stage. The level of excitement for this act was tremendous. They were by far the act that the most people came out exclusively for and it was impressive to see how far of a reach the had. People from all generations and backgrounds were dancing away compulsively to each song. The ‘rock and soul’ was the perfect choice to close the festival and leave a smile on everybody’s face. People simply did not want them to leave the stage; they were summoned back for not one but two encores as all of the hits were touched upon.
Most of the minor mishaps of the previous day were forgotten as people left Prospect Park. Googa Mooga has every intention of returning in 2013, and for a pretty ambitious first year festival, it did a damn good job of creating an ideal weekend getaway. There is no reason why food and drink can’t be as celebrated as music and this kind of model has the ability to exist and thrive in many different locations.There is a lot to look forward to at the next Great Googa Mooga and Superfly has the determination to continue to make this festival better.
Words and photos by Jesse Zryb