A few years ago, I wrote a column in the wake of the inaugural Major Rager concert comparing the now-annual Masters Week event to the more mature Rock Fore! Dough concert, held a few days prior. In the column, I stated that while Rock Fore! Dough was the picture pf preparedness, Friends With Benefits, the organization behind the Rager, put itself in a more reactive place, forced to respond to the event as it unfolded. I felt like rather than running the show, the show was running them.
A lot has changed.
I had not returned to the Rager since that evening until Masters Week this year. In my time away, the venue had changed – the original Rager was held at the Augusta Convention Center after rain forced it out of the Jessye Norman Amphitheatre. The acts had changed as well. The headliner back in 2014 was Umphrey’s McGee, a band that could now, after a few subsequent Augusta bookings, be described as a friend of the Friends.
This year, the headliner was The Flaming Lips, a theatrical psychedelic outfit with a very strong festival following. What remained the same was the organization, but it, seemingly, has changed as well.
It’s interesting because, like the original Rager, this year’s event was plagued by weather problems. Cooler-than-expected temperatures and, more significantly, high winds made staging difficult – particularly for a band like the Lips that leans heavily on lighting, LED rigs and prop-driven events such as balloon launches, confetti cannons and, at one point, an illuminated unicorn rolling through the audience. Seriously. But organizers did not blink. There was none of the frantic crisis control that had marked the early concert. The only evident chaos, in fact, was the manufactured variety the Lips specialize in.
Perhaps the most interesting component of this concert was the decision by Friends with Benefits to book outside its established comfort zone. Previously, with a few exceptions, the Friends booking criteria have felt very defined. The organization likes jam bands and makes no apologies. The longer the virtuoso guitar solo, the more likely an act is to appear on a Friends bill. And while that is not my personal favorite, I respect that sort of brand loyalty and understand that in the world of rock music, those bands have the most fervent following and probably make the most financial sense.
But the Flaming Lips don’t really fit that mold – or any for that matter. The songs start, peak and end relatively quickly. There’s a greater premium placed on oddity than musical prowess. The Lips may rock on occasion, but they rarely jam. And in truth, the Lips Rager set, be it affected by weather, a long tour or general apathy, felt a little affected and stale. It was spectacular to see, but musically felt a little lacking. This, it should be noted, is coming from a once-fervent fan who believes the band released a couple of authentically classic records.
It’s interesting, because instead of being attracted to twisted pop hooks and deconstructions of rock clichés that usually float my Lips boat, I found myself applauding more enthusiastically for a group that organized and executed a high wire act of a concert with aplomb and grace. My applause goes not to the bands that played – which ranged from quite entertaining to uninspired – but those behind the scenes.
It’s clear that in the few short years since the Rager began, Friends With Benefits has learned to operate, delegate and designate with the kind of grace, calculated risk and intelligence that marks the most successful of organizations. Four years ago, I inferred that with a little experience and maturity, Friends With Benefits could become an organization worth watching. It appears that has come to pass.