Pedaling out in front: Bike Music Festival 2011 shows us what it takes

"Real street theater": the Fossil Fool's view of bike-mounted opera exiting from the Wiggle during the BMF

Chilling in the middle of Saturday evening traffic in the Stanyan-Kezar intersection doesn't seem like a situation engineered to produce warm fuzzy feelings. But the aggressive honk cloud of surely confused, possibly perturbed automobiles behind me mattered little – I was digging too much on the tandems, trailers, and trees rolling past me on two (and three, holler back trikes!) wheels. 

In a way, that was all part one of the Bicycle Music Festival organizers, Paul “Fossil Fool” Freedman's plan. Freedman (who we profiled in our recent Bike To Work issue), co-founder Gabe Dominguez, the Rock the Bike crew, and a superhuman pack of volunteers, staged the fifth year of their outdoor festival on June 18. Once again, it was completely pedal-powered, from the stage to the smoothies.

The fest started out in Golden Gate Park, in a concave field near Stowe Lake. But it was no day in the park to implement, this plan. 

At the festival's peak, 12 in-shape attendees, pumping away on bikes hooked up to electrical generators, were needed to keep the tunes going. A flashing LED stick and a multi-colored tube holding a floating soda can were used to monitor the voltage being produced. 

When I hopped aboard for my turn to pump up the jams, I was surprised to find that the levels being generated by the bikers weren't always enough to keep the music moving. In fact, during the second-to-last set of the night (when temperatures were dropping rapidly and a tired crowd had begun to disperse), rapper Ashel Eldrige lost power momentarily.

Periodically, a core volunteer held up a handmade “PEDAL” sign. To, you know, make people pedal harder. 

This would cause a meltdown in many event organizers -- but then, Freedman's not your typical event organizer. “I think it's cool that it works that way,” he said in a phone interview with the Guardian.

“We're used to things being 'on.' I think it's a cool message that if you don't show up, we're not going to be able to have our festival.”

For Freedman, the Bicycle Music Festival is more about the journey. In fact, it was his favorite part of Saturday. After an already full day featuring female Latin rock vocalists, pedal-churned ice cream, mass instances of square-dancing, and a solid chunk of klezmer, it was time to pack it all up and head to the next location – Showplace Triangle, an intersection in Potrero Hill that has been converted into a temporary community plaza by urban sustainability group Rebar. There, the second half of the lineup would commence, including tunes from the California Honeydrops and an aerial acrobatist who'd cavort from a hoop attached to Freedman's infamous tree-on-a-bike, El Arbol.

Around six p.m., volunteers had racked up all stage equipment (including the Ginger Ninjas, a three piece band who re-stationed itself on the stage after it had been securely affixed to the back of a three wheeled trike), all the bike-powered smoothie machines, and lineup posters. The hundreds of biking music lovers at the fest had also boarded their bikes, and we all looked on in awe at the bike mechanic flaunting of the laws of physics that was being performed. 

I had volunteered to help out as a “turn marshall” on the ride so that my fellow partiers could cruise without fear of being crushed by an impatient commuter, so I was up at the front of the pack near the more complicated endeavors. 

“This isn't the first time that you're... doing this, right?” I asked Mark Sullivan, the brave soul who had been selected (while he was out of the room, he told me) to tote the live music across town. “Well, we've done it. Maybe not with all the equipment, but yeah...” I made a mental note not to ride in front of the band bike going down a hill. 

Off we went, the music playing, and random spurts of cheering erupting as they are wont to do in such mass bike rides. I detached on Stanyan street to cork traffic and watch the parade of bikes and music and festival. It was a welcome break in my day – and gave me those aforementioned warm fuzzies to be doing something for the fun. But for reports on the rest of the ride we'll have to turn to Freedman: 

“I was really praying for Mark when he was climbing the hill in East Mission. If he had stopped, the trailer would have fallen over. I had an amazing view because I was up high on the tree, but I couldn't help, so I was just watching him. Then I was praying the brakes would be sound going down the hill.”

Halfway through the ride, at Duboce Park, the second act took the stage: opera singers from the San Francisco Conservatory. 

“People were leaning out of windows, it was real street theater,” says Freedman. “Opera doesn't have a strong beat, but the audio was excellent, and the way [the sound] was echoing off of buildings – it didn't hurt the song. One singer would give the rock sign after each track ended and everyone would cheer.”

Looking back on the day, its organizer is proud, but convinced that it's just the beginning. “I don't think we nailed it like we could have. I'm very grateful for where we are right now, but it can only get better.”

Even more important that the audio quality, Freedman looks forward to growing the people portion of the Bike Music Festival – partially for selfish reasons (he'd like to be able to dance more next year). 

Christopher Drellow is Freedman's neighbor. Saturday was his first major role in one of the bike music productions – he rode a heavily loaded bike and trailer from his home in the Mission to both concert locations, and then home at the end of the day. He started out concerned about the heavy load he was toting, but as the day progressed, got sucked into the endless possibilities of bike cargo. 

“Because at that point it seemed clear that, well fuck it, it can clearly be done. I even invited passengers onto the load because suddenly [I] became interested in what can't be done on these things -- like, at what point will this fail? Or call it my hubris, that's fine too.”  

All told, he was bike-musicking from nine a.m. to three in the morning, which gave him ample time to reflect on what it meant to power over 15 musical acts for a daylong party.

“I guess primarily what I've been thinking about has been BMF indicating a kind of proof that transitioning off fossil fuel driven machines will not be easy. And that it will be totally doable.”

All the hustling, all the saddle sores – these are the real cost of powering a festival. Somewhat akin to Mark Zuckerberg's recent, much ballyhooed decision to eat only the animals that he killed personally, one has to wonder if people would party the same way if they knew what it cost in fossil fuel to bring the beat back (and back, and back).

Or maybe low-emission festivity would just mean a shift in what we think of as a celebration. “ People pitch in their different skills and talents and energy and love,” says Freedman. “We need positive examples of that to reaffirm our faith in living together in a city. There are advantages to living in a tight space, you can pull things off that you can't do in car culture suburbia.”

Says Drellow: “It's something of a time-honored tradition for people to cling to the assumption that something is impossible until someone else goes out and does it. Seeing the work done is something people kind of need. And okay, perhaps there are circumstances where bicycles are not the solution. But they seem to work pretty damn well beyond our common understanding of them. So I guess that's what Paul Freedman is doing.”


Rock the Bike is working on the first NYC bike-powered music festival this weekend. (Freedman told us it'll have the "most amazing" pedal-powered sound yet.) If you're East Coastin', check it out. The crew will be back in SF to perform at the July 10 Great Highway Sunday Streets and the July 31 SF Marathon.


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