Pop Rocks

Steven Uhles is a guest entertainment columnist

Pop Rocks: Westobou wheel yet unbalanced

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Since its inception, the driving ethos behind the Westobou Festival’s booking policy has been to present a festival that, over time, will instill into its audience a sense of trust.

A Ferris wheel lights the night sky during the Johnnyswim performance at the Old Academy of Richmond County on the second night of the Westobou Festival.   JON-MICHAEL SULLIVAN/STAFF
JON-MICHAEL SULLIVAN/STAFF
A Ferris wheel lights the night sky during the Johnnyswim performance at the Old Academy of Richmond County on the second night of the Westobou Festival.

The idea was that, during the first few festivals, acts might not always attract optimal audiences – although many did – but they would build strong word-of-mouth and, over time, allow Westobou to successfully bring in some little-known and perhaps commercially risky acts because that trust had been built.

It’s a reasonable brand strategy.

Last year about this time, I complimented the Westobou Festival for successfully booking five days’ worth of acts that, I felt, would go a long way toward establishing that trust. I stand by those words.

After this year’s festival however, I feel I should clarify. The 2012 event went a long way toward building that brand, but it did not complete the process.

I bring this up because some of the bookings at this year’s festival felt an awful lot like booking based entirely on perceived quality without adequate attention focused on whether there was sufficient audience appeal.

As popular as the Westobou brand and name has become in the local community, it has not yet reached the point where the whole exceeds the sum of its parts. That level of trust has not been established.

There were performances this year that will go a long way toward strengthening the Westobou brand, but I do not believe this year’s event can be considered an unmitigated success, or even as successful as last year’s event. The problem was a musical one.

Although audiences responded, in enthusiasm and numbers, to the Versailles ’73 and Passion of Joan of Arc events on Westobou’s opening day Wednesday, there was visibly less enthusiasm for the marquee events on Thursday (Johnnyswim) and Friday (T. Hardy Morris).

That’s a problem.

No multiday event can be considered successful when two days have to be even partially written off. Johnnyswim, although highly regarded by a large proportion of the relatively few who saw the act, just wasn’t enough of a name to make any kind of impression as a music headliner.

Likewise, T. Hardy Morris – a local boy making good – was always going to find it difficult to attract an audience to a free show.

Over the coming weeks and months, the good and bad of this year’s festival will be dissected and discussed by people with power to make real change – the festival’s board, staff and financial backers, for example – and those without any pull at all – I count myself among that number.

They will talk about the shows they loved and the shows that left them cold, the things that need to be changed and things that might remain the same.

Hopefully all involved will be able to view what is a very complicated event with enough perspective to identify the best route forward.

The Westobou Festival remains a civic treasure worthy of preserving.

Here, for those who might be interested, are a quartet of suggestions, both general and specific, that I believe will help the general health and welfare of the Westobou Festival.

1. The music/film presentations, such as this year’s Body/Head scoring of The Passion of Joan of Arc, remain popular. Make this an opening night mainstay, a foundational tradition that attracts people on opening night. It should be noted that this year’s completely improvised event might have been my favorite Westobou event of all time. That’s saying a lot.

2. Music must be marquee. As difficult as it can be – and it can be exceedingly difficult – it’s important to book acts that have some name recognition. It’s far too hard to sell the idea of “going to be big” to enough of an Augusta audience for significant success.

3. Dance is worth the money. Although dance performances, such as this year’s incredible Mark Morris show, routinely cost the festival a significant amount of money, they always seem to attract decent audiences and address the festival’s need for the highest degree of creative excellence. This year, I particularly enjoyed the bawdy pieces choreographed to the infectious Texas swing of Bob Wills.

4. Keep the Ferris wheel.


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