Little Feat, Dickey Betts, Dark Side Of The Mule Help Put Peach Music Fest Above The Glut

Peach Music Festival
Christopher Hoffman
– Peach Music Festival
Government Mule performs at Peach Music Festival July 22 in Scranton, Pa.
A steady rain fell over much of the 2018 Peach Music Festival’s weekend lineup, and with the setting at Montage Mountain in the Poconos, a damp chill filled the air for the late Saturday night sets. 
No matter. Jam band fans danced between the rain drops on the lawn and others squeezed under cover in the main stage’s reserved seats. As darkness fell, they enjoyed two full sets of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. The Grateful Dead cover band served as the appetizer before midnight’s main dish, a special two-hour show by Dark Side of the Mule, a tribute to Pink Floyd performed by Gov’t Mule
“It was midnight and we still had 13,000 people here and it’s raining,” said Bert Holman, manager of the Allman Brothers Band, co-partner of the July 19-22 Peach Fest with Live Nation.
Earlier in the day, Little Feat, in tandem with Moe. and “artists at large” the Turkuaz Horns, revisited Feat’s classic 1978 live album “Waiting for Columbus,” which drew a big thumbs-up from the crowd. The fest’s final day was a Sunday treat. Dickey Betts, a founding member of the Allman Brothers is touring for the first time in four years and made his Peach Fest debut. 
The Dickey Betts Band includes Duane Betts, his guitar playing son. At Montage Mountain, Devon Allman, son of Dickey’s late bandmate Gregg Allman, came on stage to sing “Midnight Rider” in honor of his father. 
It’s those must-see mixes and sit-ins among bands that makes Peach Fest stand out among the flood of music festivals these days, say artists, agents, band managers and tour producer Live Nation. Over the past five years, a multitude of new festivals have popped up, creating what some feel is a glut in the market, and as a result, there’s been some fallout. 
Since 2016, two dozen festivals worldwide have been canceled or gone on hiatus, as documented in Pollstar’s recent story, “Has the Festival Bubble Popped?”
“People don’t show up and that drives the market,” said Bill Payne, keyboardist for Little Feat, Doobie Brothers, and on occasion, Leftover Salmon. “That’s up for the fans to make that determination and it’s a healthy one.”
“There are a lot out there and it will make it harder for the individual festivals to thrive if too many exist,” said Warren Haynes, guitarist and vocalist for Gov’t Mule and a longtime member of the Allman Brothers. “But it’s a cool concept. Like anything else, the more fan-friendly you can keep it, the better. You have to keep re-inventing it, not just musically, but to make it easier on all the fans and the artists.” 
For those producing Peach Fest, it’s all about maintaining its niche as a boutique event celebrating the heritage of the Allman Brothers Band and keeping things fresh by scheduling unique collaborations such as Little Feat with moe. and helping artists such as The Marcus King Band and Pigeons Playing Ping Pong grow their careers by exposing them to bigger crowds. 
Fans at Peach Music Festival.
Christopher Hoffman
– Fans at Peach Music Festival.
Fans pose for a photo at Peach Music Festival in Scranton, Pa., July 20.
“That’s the challenge,” Holman said. “Geoff Gordon and Dave Niedbalski from Live Nation do a great job. We start talking (the week after the event) about who worked, who didn’t work, who do we want for next year. They watch the message boards from the fans and to see what people are doing at other festivals. Sometimes, you’ll find an act that will do a festival (such as Robert Plant) that you didn’t think would do those events.” 
Since its inception seven summers ago, Peach Fest officials have kept ticket prices reasonable. This year, they offered an advance $99 general admission ticket covering all four days of music.  More than 5,000 people, representing about one-third of daily attendees, typically purchase the early-bird discount, said Niedbalski, Live Nation’s vice president of marketing and the festival’s producer. 
All told, Peach Fest consistently draws between 14,000 and 17,000 per day, he said. For the festival’s second year in 2013, Live Nation added Thursday programming after officials saw campers start showing up on Wednesday of the first year’s event.
“I really like to be value conscious for the crowd,” Niedbalski said. “We’re not building on a field. We have real infrastructure. We have a waterpark with a lodge. We use the rental facility building for artist dressing rooms. We’re able to invest that (savings) into keeping ticket prices low and having the experience be special.”
For the most part, patrons can spend roughly $1,000 and get the full experience, Holman said, whether they’re camping and upgrading to VIP status for access to exclusive spaces to watch the shows and three catered meals a day, or reserving multiple hotel nights. Montage Mountain rents small RVs as a third option and has those vehicles delivered on site.
The focus remains on creative artist pairings and capping ticket sales at 20,000 per day. They’re not trying to be a national festival such as Bonnaroo and Coachella and draw 100,000 people, Holman said, because at that point, the logistics can become unwieldly and result in poor sightlines, ruining the experience for many patrons.
“The worst seat here is 80 percent better than the seats at Lock’n, Bonnaroo or Coachella,” he said. “Lock’n is a flat field. Here, we’ve got a nice hill; you’re up above looking down. It’s the same with Wanee. Bonnaroo kind of lost its focus. You’ve got to dance with the girl that brought you to the prom. They’re attempting to expand that festival in size and get other acts that want to play it because it’s a really big deal.”
At Peach Fest, the artists appreciate the event producers keeping those things in check to create a more intimate feel for them and the fans, as well as the opportunity to collaborate with their peers, said Chris Robinson, lead singer for
“To me, giants like Bonnaroo changed to something far different from where it started, but that was probably the seed to get everyone into that kind of culture,” Robinson said. “When the Black Crowes played here [in 2013], it was really good. I always think about how many friends I’m going to see, and that happens every time at Peach Fest, a lot more than other festivals.”
For members of Little Feat, which is closing in on 50 years as a touring entity, Peach Fest represents a fun departure from its typical gigs. Payne recalls doing Waiting for Columbus in its entirety once before at the Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C. It often becomes an experiment when tackling an album concept with a much larger group, Payne said. 
“We had 25 people on stage (at the Lisner) … Bela Fleck, Levon Helm and Jackson Browne,” he said. “We had to direct them a little bit. Once you’re up there, it’s like you dove in the water now, are you going to hit the rocks or come up breathing and do the dog paddle or the Australian crawl?”
They pulled it off with a flourish. By comparison, for the younger artists and their booking agents, Peach Fest helps boost their careers by exposing them to new audiences that may come see them later at a club show, and gives them a chance to mingle with headliners backstage that could potentially lead to a supporting role on a national tour.
That’s the case with WME booking agent C.J. Strock. He represented eight acts at this year’s fest, including relative newcomers ZZ Ward, Bishop Gunn and Blackberry Smoke, which created a lot of buzz with its Saturday afternoon performance at the main stage.
“We strive to get them in the right context,” Strock said. “You’re only as strong as your company. For a band that’s developing such as Bishop Gunn, for them to be on the same bill with Phil Lesh, that’s where we want to go with their career.”
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong played the main stage at Peach Fest this year, four years after first performing at the smallest of three stages at Montage Mountain. The initial exposure became a watershed moment for the 10-year-old Baltimore funk band. 
“Peach Fest has been really big for us ever since we first played it,” said Jeremy Schon, a guitarist with the group. “We go on the fall tour and wherever we are, so many people tell me they caught us first here. We’ve gained a lot of fans from doing this festival.”
Peach Fest is one of the best-produced events among the many festivals the Turkuaz Horns play every summer, “which can really make or break it from the artist’s standpoint,” said Josh Schwartz, the group’s baritone sax player.
“Usually, we don’t have full stage soundchecks, it’s a little bit on the fly,” Schwartz said. “If you have people that are on point [such as Peach Fest], it makes the experience for the artist better, which makes them play better and which makes it better for everybody.”
The festivals pay off for the up-and-comers, said Devon Allman, front man for the Devon Allman Project
“It’s where you can reach the most fans at once,” he said. “I know when we go play a festival and come back six months later to play a club date with a hard ticket, it’s like ‘Boom.’ As long as you do your job and kick ass.”
For Niedbalski, it’s all part of the joy of producing Peach Fest.
“We’re always going to tip the cap to the Allman Brothers,” he said. “We’re a jam band festival with a southern rock sensibility. My goal is to book as many bands as people are interested in and give them an opportunity to experience live music.”