Music News & Reviews

City of Trees a musical success, but a thirsty, logistical mess

Nick Fotinakes, guitarist for Night Riots, performs at the City of Trees concert on Saturday. The show was a musical success, but other problems marred the overall experience.
Nick Fotinakes, guitarist for Night Riots, performs at the City of Trees concert on Saturday. The show was a musical success, but other problems marred the overall experience. apayne@sacbee.com

If Napa has BottleRock, Sacramento’s City of Trees music festival might better be dubbed “BottleNeck.” And for City of Trees, that bottle couldn’t be refilled during a water shortage that struck Saturday afternoon, just as the weather flirted with triple-digit temperatures.

More than 9,000 concertgoers descended on Gibson Ranch on Saturday for City of Trees, a seven-hour outdoor festival of alternative rock sponsored by Radio 94.7 that included Cake and Of Monsters and Men as headliners. On paper, Gibson Ranch reads like a great venue for a large-scale music festival. This 300-plus-acre park boasts plenty of space and generous shade for those who need to duck out of Sacramento’s unforgiving summer sun.

Although City of Trees was filled with great tunes and performances, Gibson Ranch struggled to accommodate the crowd. The event was marred by some of the worst traffic flow for local concerts in recent memory, and many attendees trying to leave were stuck in its dusty, unlit parking lot for more than 90 minutes. Combined with the festival’s water refill station temporarily going dry, long lines for concessions, an experience with a portable toilet that’s best left undetailed here and overflowing garbage cans, City of Trees at times felt like Survival of the Fittest.

All of this should be read like a huge cautionary tale as the 2015 Aftershock Festival approaches. This heavy-metal festival is scheduled for Gibson Ranch on Oct. 24-25 and expected to draw up to 25,000 attendees each day – more than twice the crowd for City of Trees. If Saturday night’s City of Trees parking lot Armageddon is any indication, traveling to Aftershock by helicopter might be the best option.

One reason Gibson Ranch isn’t used more for large concerts might be its parking. There’s just one main entrance to the park from Elverta Road, and it simply can’t handle the crush of thousands of concertgoers trying to leave at the same time.

Traffic-flow issues Saturday were exacerbated by poor planning. There was no lighting or sign markers in the parking lot and a severe lack of attendants to direct traffic. The result felt like the Cake song “Long Line of Cars” come to life, or an extended refrain of the movie title “Dude, Where’s My Car?”

Aftershock organizers attended City of Trees, and hopefully they’re taking detailed notes on creating a better infrastructure for concerts at Gibson Ranch. For one, they need to make sure that water is plentiful.

City of Trees provided only one main station for free water, and festival patrons were not allowed to bring water into the show and were told by security to dump any outside water upon entering. By midafternoon, as temperatures ascended to 98 degrees, the line to refill water bottles at the station stretched more than 100 deep. And then the water ran out, prompting an outcry on social media.

The filling station was replenished within 30 minutes, and some bottles of water were handed out to people waiting in line. But not having more water available at a festival for thousands was a major drop-the-ball moment by organizers. Hand-washing stations near the portable toilets also went dry by late afternoon, which is simply unacceptable in the name of public health.

At least the music helped save the day. For all its organizational misfires, City of Trees featured some memorable music from a crowd thirsty to hear a lineup that culminated with a headlining slot by Cake, the Sacramento-born band that played Saturday for what was among its largest hometown crowds.

Keeping in the spirit of the festival’s name, the group continued its tradition of giving away a small tree at its concerts to a lucky fan. Cake’s set included such fan favorites as “The Distance” and “Sheep Go to Heaven.” Its eclectic mix of funky grooves, wry lyrics and trumpet a la Herb Alpert’s “The Lonely Bull” was the perfect way to get loose before the long exit toward home.

Sacramento needs more festivals like City of Trees. The city has tended to draw plenty of country and hard rock acts, while the pickings have been much slimmer for seeing alternative-rock bands and up-and-coming acts on a large festival stage.

The crowd, many of whom took to the shady trees on the sidelines of Gibson Ranch, gave a rapturous Sacramento welcome to the musicians, especially James Bay and Halsey. Elle King also was a hit with her dynamic, albeit fairly brief, set of blues-pop and rock. Of Monsters and Men’s “Mountain Sound,” with its refrain of “we sleep until the sun goes down,” was a perfect moment of festival synergy as the sun began to set on Gibson Ranch.

But a day that held so much promise could be summed up by the experience of one concertgoer in the parking lot after the show. He was searching for his car with a group of friends, with the only light coming from the headlights of cars that were idling hopelessly while trying to leave. He stepped into a pothole and fell flat on his face.

And that was the story of City of Trees: Free water might not always be available, but you can eat dust.

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