Superfly founders Kerry Black, left, and Rick Farman named the Lost Lake Festival after the man-made lake at Steele Indian School Park. Photography by Jim David

Finding Pho’chella

Written by M.V. Moorhead Category: Lifestyle Issue: October 2017
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Phoenix finally has its own big-time, Coachella-style music festival. But is our live-music love deep enough to make Lost Lake a permanent fixture at Steele Indian School Park?

“Is it always so mellow in this park?”

There is, perhaps, the faintest hint of worry in Kerry Black’s voice. The green space in question is Steele Indian School Park in midtown Phoenix, and when Black says “mellow,” he’s being euphemistic – it’s a weekday afternoon in mid-July, and the place is so silent you can hear traffic three blocks away, and it sits nearly empty in the kiln-like heat.

Any anxiety Black might feel is understandable. He and his business partners – including Rick Farman, also visiting Phoenix from their offices in New York – have laid a rather heavy bet on this sleepy urban oasis. Specifically, they hope it will teem with thousands of happy revelers when the Lost Lake Festival debuts the weekend of October 20.

A multi-day, multi-stage, multi-medium festival in the mold of Coachella and Lollapalooza, Lost Lake is potentially a big step forward for the Valley’s profile as a live-music destination. And if anyone knows how to pull off a festival, it’s Black and Farman. Along with fellow founding partners Richard Goodstone and Jonathan Mayers, the duo runs Superfly, the event-production behemoth behind the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Tennessee, generally regarded as one of the top three annual music festivals in the U.S. in terms of programming, attendance and overall lavishness. They also produce the Outside Lands festival, held in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco every August.

Can lightly-trafficked Steele Indian School Park help Superfly make it a hat trick for Phoenix?

The PR and magazine folk who accompanied Black and Farman to the park on this sweltering summer day quickly reassure them that the hushed solitude of the park is just seasonal. In the cooler months, people do indeed come out of their homes, and Lost Lake – with a dozens-strong lineup that includes alt-rock superstars The Killers, Grammy-winning hip-hop impresario Chance the Rapper, electronic-music mainstay Odesza and beloved heritage acts like Huey Lewis and The Pixies, along with local art and food – is sure to lure quite a few of them.
 
But how many?

The record-setting 2017 Coachella festival reportedly packed about 125,000 fans daily onto the Empire Polo Club in Indio, Calif., this April, and Farman estimates that Bonnaroo topped off at around 80,000 in 2017. But those are two of the country’s largest, most established festivals – sleep-over events held in vast rural venues with plenty of room for camping. City-based, non-camping festivals like Outside Lands (60,000), Los Angeles’ FYF (40,000) and Lost Lake tend to be smaller. “We’re not totally sure, but probably the capacity is like 30,000 or 35,000,” Farman says. “We don’t think we’ll do that well. We hope we’re wrong, but we have modest expectations until we see what happens. Certainly, our goal is to become an annual thing that does 50,000 [to] 60,000. We believe it has that potential.”

To give props where props are due: Phoenix already has a pair of successful homegrown “annual things” in the McDowell Mountain Music Festival and Viva PHX, both staged in March. But Lost Lake looks to be a different kind of beast – the kind of all-star hootenanny that has flourished across the country in recent years, but oddly skipped Phoenix (and all of Arizona).

D-list cities like Dover, Del. (Firefly Music Festival), and Gulf Shores, Ala. (Hangout Music Fest), have added top-line indie music festivals in recent years. So why not bring one to the nation’s fifth-largest city? It was a question the Superfly brain trust asked themselves, too.

“We had a couple of friends who reached out to us and said we should look at this area,” Farman says. Those friends happened to be associates of Phoenix’s Walter Productions, which exhibits whimsical oversize vehicles at fests like Bonnaroo. About two years ago, the Superfly gang visited the Valley to drink in some nightlife and began to see the potential for an event here.

“We felt there was a really welcoming vibe,” Farman says. “Once we started coming here, it was really inspiring to see what a thriving arts and culinary scene there was.”

Black agrees. “All the murals around town, all the great art. Some great meals, great pizza,” he says. “If you want to win a New Yorker’s heart, give him great pizza.” Superfly’s Phoenix-area friends readily obliged, taking Black on an eating tour that included CIBO, Forno 301 and Pomo.

Of course, good pizza and cool murals do not a successful festival guarantee. After some lively times in Phoenix, “we did start to look at the data,” Farman says.

The results were promising: “Specifically for Phoenix, there were a couple of bright green lights. Just the size of the city, the amount of college students – I think ASU is one of the biggest total populations of college students in the country, isn’t it? [No. 5 nationally for undergrads in 2016, according to U.S. News and World Report.] And there’s been a lot of development in the Downtown [area], new hotels and bars, and the Roosevelt Arts District.”

The Valley’s prodigious summer heat had to be considered – good luck marketing an outdoor music festival in Phoenix in the dead of July, right? The solution: Schedule it in late October, after the heat has abated, and bands are still touring. (Austin City Limits in Austin, Texas, one of the country’s most popular festivals, is also staged in October.)

In the end, however, Farman says pulling the trigger on Lost Lake – which will likely cost upward of $4 million to produce – was a matter of gut instinct. “There’s not a math equation here,” Farman says. “It’s a subjective decision.”

Fair enough. But why “Lost Lake?”

The title refers to Steele Indian School Park’s placid man-made pond, concealed from street traffic. Located at Indian School Road and Central Avenue, Steele Indian School was the site of the federally operated Phoenix Indian School from 1890 until the school’s closure a century later. The City of Phoenix acquired the land in 1996, and it was reopened as a city park in 2001.

Farman and Black suspect the park – which spans 45 acres, roughly the same as the Coachella venue – may be an underappreciated asset. “The name is because there’s a lake here, and because in our travels around the Valley, we saw that people weren’t too aware of this park,” Farman says. “Location matters, and to us, aesthetics matter. This park, this specific location, is one of the nicest festival locations we’ve ever been to.”

One of the possible side-benefits of Lost Lake for Phoenix: spurring a renewed local love affair with the “mellow” midtown park. Insiders say there’s precedent. “One of the most important factors in having a successful festival is for it to be located at a great site where fans can have a good experience,” says Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert business journal Pollstar. “Superfly is highly experienced and can provide a well-run event and curate a stellar talent lineup.”

These sentiments are echoed by L.A.-based music booker Tom Windish. “Great festivals deliver a great experience to the intended audience. That means great sound, great sight lines, great lineup, great treatment by the staff, great food and drink helps, and a price that the crowd feels is fair,” he says. “A great lineup, to me, is a combination of familiar names that people want to see with some artists that are buzzy that people have never seen before.”

Windish is confident that Superfly can deliver on all of these fronts with Lost Lake. “Superfly has a great track record of building these types of experiences.”

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Major Lazer
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Chance the Rapper

To that end, there is an informal playbook of sorts for conceiving and launching a “national” festival of this magnitude. From the moment Superfly unveiled the festival with Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton in a press conference last winter, the company has worked skillfully to woo the Valley’s cultural cognoscenti. Black, who informally runs Superfly’s culinary and arts partnerships, spent much of the spring meeting with local artists, restaurateurs and thought-leaders – necessary diplomacy to help ensure a friendly reception for the festival.

Another integral part of modern festival formula: creating a carnival-like atmosphere that incorporates bits of the local cultural DNA. To that end, Phoenix food superstar Chris Bianco serves as the festival’s “culinary ambassador,” and prominent live music promoter Charlie Levy of Crescent Ballroom is a promotional partner. Numerous Valley breweries will have a presence at the fest, and the large, open grassy fields of Steele Indian School with be filled with large-scale art pieces, including Walter Productions’ The Lost Playground, a fanciful, Alice in Wonderland-worthy spin on the sort of gaming activities already popular on the Valley bar scene. Attractions here include a 56-foot-long pool table, croquet with wickets large enough for the players to pass through, “Mega Twister” with a giant spinner and oversize versions of bocce ball, Connect Four and Jenga.

For the bar-game crowd, there will be “Humongous Cornhole.”

“We’re taking a different twist on the bar-game thing, because we know that’s really a part of Phoenix culture,” Farman says. “The Walter Productions guys are very much a part of the Phoenix community, and they know how to take this element that’s already there in the community and take it to another level.”

With three-day general admission tickets running between $164 and $240 depending on time of purchase, Lost Lake sits at a slightly lower price point than top-shelf festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo – a fact that’s reflected in the product. Though packed with intriguing headliners, the lineup is not quite as illustrious as the U2/Red Hot Chili Peppers/Lorde playbill at Bonnaroo last June. But neither is it a precipitous step down: Chance the Rapper, techno gods Major Lazer and darkwave favorites Crystal Castles were all heavily billed at Bonnaroo, and will play at Lost Lake, too.

Farman compares their vision for Lost Lake to that of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. “That event is a great blueprint for how a community can represent itself to people from all over the country and all over the world, and at the same time create an amazing opportunity for local people to celebrate it,” he says.

This is where the Arizona-based artists and cuisine come into play.

“We want to integrate local creatives and purveyors,” Black says. “It’s really cool to engage with a community like that. It’s fun, man.”

 

Lost Lake Users’ Guide
Heading to Steele Indian School Park for some hipster-approved, mass-spectacle entertainment? Look for these highlights.

The Music
Major Lazer: Catapulted to stardom by its reggae-fusion ear-bug “Hold the Line,” this electronic music trio is a fixture on the festival circuit, delighting audiences with its stage energy and esprit de corps.

The Pixies: The seminal indie rockers (“Here Comes Your Man”) reunited in 2004 after a 12-year hiatus and have been steadily touring since – albeit minus original bassist Kim Deal.

Chance the Rapper: The 24-year-old’s jazzy, uplifting, gospel-kissed style earned him three Grammys in 2016 and made him Kanye West’s heir apparent as hip-hop’s new generational voice.

Food & Drink
Pizzeria Bianco:  With Valley pizza legend Chris Bianco being named official culinary ambassador of the festival, little surprise you’ll find his pizzas there.

Gadzooks: This midtown “enchiladas and soup” favorite will have a presence at the festival, along with Ocotillo, Clever Koi, Casa Añejo, Paletas Betty and many others.

Nectar of the Gods: In addition to local craft brewers like Dragoon, SanTan and Huss, there will be this tasting tent devoted to tequila and agave spirits in all their forms.

Games & Eye Candy
Valley-based Walter Productions – pictured below with its festival-friendly Kalliope light-stage – will construct a “Lost Playground” of oversize lawn sports and bar games for the festival, including these whimsical attractions.

Giant pool table: 56 feet long and played by rolling bowling balls into the pockets.

LED table tennis: Illuminated pingpong, in other words, with touch-sensitive LED lights.

Extra-large bocce: The genteel Italian lawn sport gets super-sized.