Since the announcement of BayFest’s demise, civic officials, citizens and LoDa business owners have been scrambling to fill the resultant void. Each year the festival brought a three-day lineup of national touring acts to the streets of downtown Mobile, providing a valuable outlet for established as well as promising local musicians, and giving them a performance outlet to expose their music to Azalea City residents as well as thousands of out-of-towners.
BayFest’s focus on local talent was best witnessed at the Café Stage. Steve Varnes of Deluxe Trio has been performing on the Café Stage for 16 years, describing it as locals-only stage and “a festival within a festival.” According to Varnes, the stage had no corporate support. If anyone could be considered a sponsor of the Café Stage, it would be the local musicians who performed there. Local artists provided all production, and just last year it finally featured an actual stage for performers.
Varnes describes the Café Stage as an annual fellowship of local musicians as well as “a balance of the old guard and the newer arrivals on the local turf.” When he first heard of BayFest’s cancellation, Varnes said the timing of the announcement surprised him more than the actual news.
“I first thought: ‘Well, there it is. They’ve finally done it,’” Varnes said. “I actually had believed this would be the last BayFest. I didn’t think they would pull the plug this close to the event, however.”
Varnes thinks local artists are one of the primary victims of the festival’s cancellation. In a time where artists like Alabama Shakes, Jason Isbell and St. Paul & the Broken Bones are drawing heightened attention to the Alabama music scene, Varnes finds the cancellation is creating an obstacle for local artists seeking a wider audience. Despite his frustration, Varnes still feels a deep gratitude toward BayFest organizers for giving locals a spot in the festival, but he is also curious as to the exact events that led to the end of Alabama’s largest music festival.
“I would like to thank both Bobby and the organizers for carving out a little corner of the event for the locals,” Varnes said. “I would also like to thank them for largely ignoring us so that we could let it develop the way that it needed to. Lastly, I would like to know how this all went down, exactly how it all went down.”
Multiple Nappie Award winner Peek is one of Mobile’s beloved bands. The BayFest veterans performed on the Launching Pad stage, which is focused on regional up-and-comers. When the festival started featuring the band on a main stage, the band performed during early time slots drummer John Hamilton IV describes as a “sound check” for national acts that followed.
BayFest 2015 was to be Peek’s first time playing a prime time slot on a main stage. When the festival’s cancellation was announced, Hamilton said, the band was making preparations for an epic set. The group had recruited a keyboardist as well as Donna Hall and Josh Ewing on background vocals. They also planned to shoot Peek shirts into the crowd with a T-shirt cannon. The BayFest set was to be an opportunity for Peek to introduce new material to the band’s dedicated fans and new listeners. Hamilton’s reaction to BayFest’s cancellation seems only natural.
“My first thought was, ‘Not now! We finally got a good slot,’” he said. “We had all these big plans, and they all just went up in smoke.”
Hamilton is left in a state of confusion as to how the cancellation happened, citing the millions of dollars of revenue BayFest claimed to bring to the city. Hamilton said he feels the city of Mobile should have been willing to cover BayFest’s operational losses, if there were any, and that the best example can be found just southeast of downtown Mobile.
“The Hangout Music Fest must cost the city of Gulf Shores hundreds of thousands of dollars in wages, policemen and traffic, but it brings in millions,” Hamilton said. “The city of Gulf Shores opens their arms to Hangout Music Fest. I don’t believe the city of Mobile has really ever opened their arms to BayFest.”
It should be noted however, that contrary to the arrangement BayFest has with both the city of Mobile and Mobile County for taxpayers contributions, Hangout Fest actually pays the city of Gulf Shores a franchise fee, and uses no taxpayer resources for free.
Of all the local bands that would have benefited from BayFest 2015, Stereo Dogs are one to be considered. This group of talented and bright teenagers were planning their debut at BayFest to showcase a brand new, self-titled album of original material. According to bassist Jamie Newsome, BayFest would have been another step on the band’s musical journey.
“It meant that we’re not just playing for fun anymore, that there are people who actually enjoy seeing and listening to us play live, enough for us to be in a real festival,” Newsome said. “Not that we don’t have fun, of course.”
“We were looking forward to performing at Mobile’s largest music show,” guitarist Jordan Steele added. “It would have been a great opportunity for us to perform on a stage where extremely talented musicians/artists have performed in the past. BayFest would have provided us with the opportunity to watch and learn from the entertainers scheduled to perform this year. A larger audience would have been exposed to our music. We enjoy performing, and it would have been a great memory for our band.”
While the Stereo Dogs noted the obvious negative aspects of the cancellation, the optimism that comes with youth ultimately still shines throughout the band. Drummer Brian Ayers said the band was honored to be chosen to participate, and they are all very thankful. He said even though the band is disappointed they’re unable to play, they enjoyed preparing for BayFest and the experience on the whole has made them a better band.
While various Azalea City entities brainstorm a possible replacement, the public is left wondering if another event on par with the size and scale of BayFest will ever be created. Local musicians are left wondering if the hypothetical replacement for BayFest will cater to homegrown sounds. According to Varnes, the keys word in any discussion of another festival should be “when,” not “how.”
“We shouldn’t be wondering if we will ever do it again,” Varnes said. “We should be figuring out how to have more music festivals. With that said, we need to know what really happened. If it’s city leadership, then we change it. If it’s organizers, then let’s get better, more forward-thinking organizers. We have a great canvas here.”