The music is blasting and the sun is shining; you’re swaying to the beat and you can feel the energy of the crowd around you. Day 1 of your first music festival has been everything you wanted it to be, but you’ve misplaced your friends and that sun is really starting to beat down!
Then there, out of the corner of your eye, you see it. A flash of orange – and you turn to see that you’re staring at…pants? You look up and lock eyes with the person who just showed up next to you…a stilt walker! With a sign that says “Smile!” in one hand, he reaches in his bag with the other and hands you festival gold – FREE WATER! You take a swig and before you know it you’re surrounded by more stilt walkers and performers in bright colors and safety vests! People are juggling, dancing, laughing, and with a new found second-wind from the water you decide to join right in!
I had never encountered such an experience at a show or festival until I ran into Chicago’s S.A.F.T. Crew. The S.A.F.T (Super Awesome Fun Times) or “Safety” Crew is a unique breed of performers making their way into the festival scene. I had the chance to meet and speak with this amazing group at North Coast Music Festival this year, find out what they’re all about and join them on their journey.
“Festivals have become about more than just the music on stage, and the S.A.F.T. Crew nearly perfectly embodies this idea. One of the founding crew members,” Dave Kowalski, explained:
“Music Festivals, at their heart, are truly about the crowd! We’re here to make sure that they are fully immersed in the experience, blurring the lines of performer, stage, and the audience and creating connections between them.”
This group definitely makes those connections. The type of connections that seem to ripple through space and time. Not only do they create an interactive theatrical experience with the crowd, but this group does something different and something much more important.
“The crew was born off the ideals of keepin’ it safe at festivals.” Kowalski added. “Everyone is here to have a good time and sometimes it takes a little help from others to do so.”
What he is referring to is how the S.A.F.T. Crew takes it upon themselves to provide hydration and nutrition to festival-goers, handing out free bottled water and fruit during the numerous parades they take through the festival and camping grounds. I personally witnessed them handing out 200 bottles of water in a matter of minutes, and the dozens of hugs that these performers received (even on stilts!) from flabbergasted festies.
“We are well aware of how some people treat the musical festival experience when they come here. While we do not condone what people do we are here to do whatever we can to ensure that they stay safe and healthy.”
Kowalski is eluding to the growing number of emergency health issues that have reared their head in the festival scene. As of August, 15 people had died at music festivals around the world. The majority of these deaths are being attributed dehydration and overheating, which have seen an increase along with the rise of the use of street drugs like molly and ecstasy.
“A number of festivals are doing everything they can to try and deter attendees from using substances, but the fact of the matter is that if someone wants to do them they are going to try and find a way. Banning water packs and Camelbaks (Like New York’s ‘Electric Zoo’ festival) are doing little to curb the issue, and are rather creating the opportunity for bigger problems.”
As I watched these performers head backstage I could see that they truly embody what they preach. Despite the best efforts of screened fences I could still make out the people on stilts towering above them, grabbing water from other members and handing a few bottles over the fence to the crowds surrounding the festivals water station. Some rather epic jumping high-fives to the stilt walkers ensued.
It is incredibly refreshing to see groups that are focusing on not only providing fun, interactive entertainment to festival crowds, but do so with a mentality of protecting those people and allowing them to enjoy their entire festival experience. I was lucky enough to run into the S.A.F.T. Crew a few more times that weekend and each time they brought a smile to my face as they breezed through, doing their good deeds. I’ll never forget the last thing a crew member told me:
“Sometimes all you need is a bottle of water and a great friend. Love you – Pass it on!”